(Photo by J. Shearer/WireImage)
Artillery Row

Heaven Knows He’s Miserable Now

The never-ending rise and fall of Morrissey

To be known as ‘the Pope of Mope’ is a great backhanded compliment, but Manchester’s foremost miserabilist Steven Patrick Morrissey has relished such an appellation during his decades-long career. Yet ‘Moz’, as he likes being called, has found himself being given considerably harsher names of late. The labels of ‘racist’, ‘bigot’, ‘fascist’ and worse have all been thrown at him. However, with his thirteenth solo studio album due for release imminently, it is once more time for Morrissey to enter the fray, at this most auspicious of times. But why has he upset so many people, and what does he intend to do about it? 

His album’s name might provide a hint. I Am Not A Dog On A Chain, it declares, and on the title track, the now 60-year old Morrissey refutes the various accusations that have been levelled at him. ‘I see no point in being nice’, he spits, before declaring ‘I do not read newspapers, they are troublemakers/Listen for what’s not shown to you, for there you find the truth’. If this sounds indistinguishable from the more paranoid rantings of the alt-right, then it should be remembered that Morrissey, who was once associated with performing on Top of the Pops while wearing outsized hearing aids and waving gladioli, also attracted inordinate controversy by appearing on television while wearing a ‘For Britain’ badge. 

He has openly offered the fringe far party support, and declared ‘It is the first time in my life that I will vote for a political party. Finally I have hope.’ As he labelled the treatment of Tommy Robinson ‘shocking’, he argued that it was the mainstream media who were, in fact, the racists for labelling him as one, and that he despised racism and fascism in all forms, claiming ‘I would do anything for my Muslim friends, and I know that they would do anything for me.’ One wonders if this included giving him the considered advice to be quiet. 

However, Morrissey has built his considerable reputation and fortune on refusing to be quiet, even when it would have been politic so to do. He rose to fame as the lead singer of The Smiths, striking a unique pose in the annals of rock music; for those who considered the likes of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury to be too manly and macho, here was a fey, swooning figure who could sing lines like ‘Keats and Yeats are on your side, but Wilde is on mine’, even as he dived into grimmer and more unusual lyrical areas involving everything from the Moors Murders to the ethics of slaughterhouses. It certainly wasn’t Duran Duran. 

He was a self-proclaimed asexual celibate, but many wondered if many of his tormented torch songs (‘I Know It’s Over’, ‘Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me’) were in fact suppressed expressions of passion to his bandmate Johnny Marr. In any case, it soon became a moot point; the band split in 1987, with the interpersonal tensions between Morrissey and Marr too great to continue, and he was left, figuratively and literally, on his own. 

The adulation with which Morrissey was treated by the then-influential musical press was all but unparalleled. The NME was even known, only half-jokingly, as the ‘New Morrissey Express’ on account of its slavish adulation of his every move. His first solo album, Viva Hate, was released a brisk six months after the Smiths’ swansong Strangeways, Here We Come, and its lead single, ‘Everyday is Like Sunday’, was swiftly – and accurately – compared favourably to the best work of his former band. From the bleak, Betjeman-esque wit of its opening lines, ‘Trudging slowly over wet sand/Back to the bench where your clothes were stolen’, the possibility emerged that this revitalised Morrissey, aided by Stephen Street’s compositions, could be an even more exciting proposition. 

However, another song, ‘Bengali in Platforms’, contained a line that seemed to suggest a more complex side to the singer. At first glance, it appeared to be a warm and witty hymn to assimilation, but the ever-vigilant music press picked up on the line ‘Life is hard enough when you belong here’. Was Morrissey – the patron saint of the oppressed and lonely – in fact a racist? Nonsense, his defenders responded. The song was a sympathetic character sketch, and the lyric, although potentially provocative out of context, worked perfectly. Perhaps you carnivorous fools are too stupid to understand real wit and sophistication, they added, with a theatrical huff. 

Yet if Morrissey did not want to be regarded as a racist or nationalist, he made some deeply provocative gestures that even his most ardent admirers struggled to explain away. Just as it is a deeply unfortunate coincidence that noted lifelong anti-racism campaigner Jeremy Corbyn has frequently been photographed alongside some of the most bigoted figures in the world today, it was probably an error of judgement on Morrissey’s part to play in front of a Union Jack backdrop at a Finsbury Part music festival in 1992, shortly after releasing a song called ‘The National Front Disco’. His erstwhile defenders the NME openly accused him of racism, leading him to withdraw from the frequent interviews that he had given the publication. And the solo albums continued, but with less commercial success. There was an embarrassing court case about royalties with The Smiths, which Morrissey lost, and the judge labelled him ‘devious, truculent and unreliable’. By 1998, he was living in Los Angeles, without a record deal, in Carole Lombard’s former house. The unkind might have suggested that he was closer to Norma Desmond.  

Certainly, his image had changed; as one critic put it, he had evolved from ‘the aesthete interested in rough lads into a rough lad interested in aestheticism (and rough lads)’. He was still a fervently worshipped cult figure, with an incongruously substantial Mexican following, but the days of his greatest success appeared to be over. Yet you cannot keep a good man down, as the saying goes, and he soon returned with a successful 2004 album, You Are The Quarry. It was anticipated with a 2003 documentary, The Importance of Being Morrissey, in which an eclectic selection of famous fans (Bono, JK Rowling, Alan Bennett and the like) queued up to sing his praises, and the man himself struck louche and Wildean poses. That his comeback single, ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’, contained the lines ‘I’ve been dreaming of a time when to be English is not baneful/To be standing by the flag not feeling shameful, racist or partial’ was barely remarked upon. 

Morrissey has always thrived on an unusually symbiotic relationship with his fans, who frequently invade the stage to embrace their often shirtless idol

He reconciled himself with the NME, claiming that it had reformed since the bad old days. And his subsequent album, Ringleader of the Tormentors – for my money, his best solo work, perhaps because of its luscious Tony Visconti production – not only featured the extraordinary ‘Life is a Pigsty’, which he often heralds as his favourite song, but also seemed to herald his referring semi-explicitly to his apparent homosexuality on ‘Dear God, Please Help Me’. Over a swelling Ennio Morricone string arrangement, he sang ‘Then he motions to me, with his hand on my knee…now I’m spreading your legs, with mine in between…dear God, if I could, I would help you.’ At last, it seemed, Morrissey had found some kind of peace; as he sang ‘the heart feels free’, a thousand critics approvingly suggested that the album was serving as a quiet apologia for his more ill-considered and thoughtless public utterances of the previous few years. 

Of course, it all went awry. An interview with the NME ended in libel action after the journalist reported Morrissey making anti-immigration comments, saying ‘It’s very difficult [to return to England] because, although I don’t have anything against people from other countries, the higher the influx into England the more the British identity disappears. … the gates of England are flooded. The country’s been thrown away.’ His subsequent albums have failed to attract either critical or commercial success on the same level. There were endless cancellations of gigs, and many rumours of ill health. His committed fanbase adored him; many other more casual admirers were less impressed. 

There were forays into literature. He demanded that his autobiography be released as a Penguin Classic. A novel, List of the Lost, referred to an erect penis as a ‘bulbous salutation’ and accordingly won the Bad Sex Awards. He claimed to have been sexually assaulted at an airport by a security guard. And so on, and so on. Perhaps the lowest blow of all came when, after he had publicly denounced David Cameron for expressing admiration for The Smiths, Cameron was able to respond that, when it came to Morrissey’s political views, ‘he’s gone rushing past me’. 

Regarded cumulatively, Morrissey’s latter-day career becomes a monument to very British bloody-mindedness, and damn the consequences. His support for Britain First and ‘magnificent’ Brexit lost him the last vestiges of respect amongst the chin-stroking music intelligentsia, and his gigs are now often cancelled, with the rumour being that they attract considerably lower ticket sales than in his heyday. Some record shops, who would once have stocked his music in prominent positions, have even now refused to sell his albums. He has become a prophet without honour in any country, not least his own. And one suspects that is exactly how he would like it to be. 

At a time when expressing a right-wing or conservative view in public is likely to lead to the end of an artist’s career, it makes sense to leap joyfully into the deep end of controversy, rather than paddling nervously around the shallows of it. And the true believers adore him for it. Morrissey has always thrived on an unusually symbiotic relationship with his fans, who frequently invade the stage to embrace their often shirtless idol, and no doubt many of his most ardent admirers have now lent their support to causes he espouses, from vegetarianism to nationalist politics.

Some view him as the patron saint of the lonely and dispossessed, while others just admire the music. Heaven knows, I would be miserable now myself if I was unable to cite some of my favourite lyrics of his – ‘To die by your side, well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine’, ‘Even now, in the final hour of my life, I’m falling in love again’ or ‘I didn’t realise you wrote such bloody awful poetry, Mr Shankly’, to name but a few. 

So the arch provocateur goes on, with a raised eyebrow, a microphone cord wielded like a lasso and, one presumes, a certain enjoyment of the endless controversy that he engenders. Perhaps the cautious would not wish to go as far as his biographer Simon Goddard, who confidently stated in his Morrissey encyclopaedia Mozipedia that ‘it has surely been dumbfoundingly obvious for some time that Morrissey, the outsider’s outsider, is by his very Morrisseyness entirely incapable of racism’, but attempting to pigeonhole this complex, mercurial figure – who somehow manages to be both poetic outsider and burly bruiser, even now – is a fruitless endeavour. As he himself sang, ‘I’ve seen this happening in other people’s lives, and now it’s happening in mine’. As panic floods the streets of London, and beyond, Morrissey’s latest testament will once again provoke, outrage and delight. Plus ca change, as both his admirers and detractors know

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover