From the hip
Morrissey unleashes wit and wisdom on Iain Shedden
It will come as a surprise to some, but Morrissey would like to hang out at the beach when he arrives in Australia in a week or so. It’s not going to happen, though. The price, he says, would be too great for someone whose relationship with the media is largely a one-sided affair.
“I’d love to go on the beaches in Sydney,” he says, “but in this iPhone-obsessed world I’d be unflatteringly snapped and be turned into an obese spectacle in British newspapers — Heaven Knows He’s Really Fat Now — that type of cleverness. So I tend to stay inside and wait for someone to invite me out for a candlelit dinner, which happens approximately once every 17 years, so I can’t complain.”
And there, in just a few sentences, you have the quintessential Steven Patrick Morrissey, spouting caustic wit with a dollop of faux romance, offset by the merest hint of narcissism and wistfulness. Set to music and repeat every three or four years.
Not one to hold back with his views on anything, the Mancunian singer, songwriter and author explains his volatile relationship with the press with more humour than restraint. “I’ve never been typical and I’m not servile,” he says, “and this makes me far too difficult for the media to bother with. I’m repeatedly asked to justify myself, but that’s OK, even if the very liberal tolerance afforded to pop artists with nothing to offer. Ed Sheeran, for example, is deeply annoying. I think the media will attack you because they’re convinced you can take it on the chin. I’m generally assumed to be aggressive even though I am quite the opposite, although, yes, I certainly have a chin. I can’t deny that.”
In case it matters, Morrissey, who will be 56 next Friday, has enjoyed his time in Australia in the past, he says, not least the concerts that earned plaudits when he toured briefly in 2012. This time he’s here to perform over four nights at Sydney Opera House as part of the Vivid Live festival, starting on May 26.
There have been several developments in the singer’s life and career since that previous visit. Last year saw the release of Morrissey’s 10th solo album, World Peace is None of Your Business, a recording on which he exercised fully his lyrical and vocal dexterity but also let loose on a variety of topics, including perennials such as animal rights and environmentalism.
He took the opportunity also to put a wellread boot into marriage, the prison system in Ireland and the psychological demands of a university education.
In 2013 came the much anticipated autobiography, titled, in typical Morrisseyan fashion, Autobiography, and published, to the chagrin of some literary gatekeepers, by Penguin Classics. It was a book that divided critics, some lavishing it with praise for its multitudinous bons mots, others dwelling on its self-importance. Few could argue that the 660 pages did not reveal Morrissey to have a gift for the long-form written word. Vitriol courses through most of Autobiography, in the direction of teachers, the music business, George W. Bush and, for a good 50 pages or so, his fellow musicians in the band that made them all famous, the Smiths. In hindsight he regrets a few omissions from his life story but is pleased he was able to put it out without having to talk about it.
“I accidentally left out a few significant things — meetings with famous people, being with Lou Reed in Italy, with Joni Mitchell in Hancock Park, being thrown into a police cell at LAX airport — but overall I had no reservations about unleashing the book because the songs had always been very confessional, so it was surely a natural assumption that the book would be, too. I determined not to do any interviews for the book, and Penguin skilfully released it with zero publicity and hardly any announcements, and I think this drew a lot of
I’M VERY PROUD OF THE LYRICS TO THE WORLD IS FULL OF CRASHING BORES
people in because, as you know, whenever anyone publishes their autobiography they shove themselves into the public eye until everyone starts to vomit at the sight of them. So I did the reverse and it worked very well.”
So encouraged was he by the success of that project that he immediately embarked on another, a novel that is now completed and awaiting publication, although he won’t be drawn on its subject matter. “It is finished and is, I think, unconnected to anything I’ve ever written or said previously,” he says. “That certainly makes a change, doesn’t it?”
When Morrissey met guitarist Johnny Marr in 1982 they were an unlikely pairing, although both were driven by an ambition to have a career in music. Morrissey had a trial run in a punk band, the Nosebleeds, and briefly in Slaughter and the Dogs, but before teaming up with Marr had turned his hand to writing. He submitted letters regularly to music magazines such as NME and penned three books in the early 1980s, one on the New York Dolls, another on B-movie actors and the third on James Dean.
In Marr he encountered a perfect foil. They shared a passion for the Velvet Underground, T. Rex and David Bowie. Although it was yet to be proven, the singer’s wordy irreverence would soon blend effortlessly with his collaborator’s distinctive and original guitar chops. With drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke, the Smiths were born and proceeded to alter the landscape of British rock music with a succession of melodic and hook-laden singles, including Hand in Glove, This Charming Man, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and How Soon is Now? The band released four albums between 1984 and 1987 but had split up by the time the last one, Strangeways, Here We Come, was released.
Morrissey won’t talk about the Smiths —
and certainly not about a reunion, although it is something that it is floated in the media whenever Marr and Morrissey are within a country of each other. There’s also the difficulty around the fact Joyce took them to court over royalties in 1996 and won. When asked about a reunion, the singer is dismissive. “The question is so irrelevant that I don’t actually understand it,” he says. Nor is he curious about what Marr might have to say about their fractious relationship when the latter publishes his autobiography next year.
The Smiths’ legacy far outlasts its tenure. Morrissey is a different story. Since releasing his
debut album Viva Hate in 1988 he has maintained a steady following, scored a smattering of
hits such as You’re the One for Me, Fatty, Irish Blood, English Heart and The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get, all of which boast flowing, nimble lyricism and vocal styling. Given his rarely concealed dislike for people as a whole, it’s no surprise his favourite lyric is taken from his seventh album, You are the Quarry. “I’m very proud of the lyrics to The World is
Full of Crashing Bores,” he says. “Partly because they’re obviously very true, but also because I can’t think of anyone who has ever made that observation.”
His songwriting stems from observation, however, and he jots things down. “Yes, I carry around notebooks because we do tend to hear things that we’ll never hear again, so there’s no point relying on memory all of the time. I also listen intently to what people say, and I have the annoying habit of constantly seeing it written down before me. This is only annoying because most people don’t say anything interesting. Consequently all of my notebooks are blank.” OK. Although he appears to be in good spirits generally, one wonders if Morrissey gets more cynical as he gets older. Lyrics such as “humans hate each other’s guts and show it” from World
Peace’s song Mountjoy would suggest that, but he reckons, overall, he is a positive person.
“I think if I wasn’t positive then I wouldn’t ever get out of bed,” he says. “But I also think it’s positive to fully understand the mechanics of the human race, and for the most part they are stupid, ignorant and destructive. Earth would be a much better place without humans and it is actually dying solely because of humans. Elephants have not destroyed the planet.”
Morrissey has lent his name and actions to several causes, not least animal rights. The singer, famed for his Meat is Murder stance, has banned the selling of meat products at his Sydney concerts and pulled out of a prospective concert in Iceland because the venue insisted on selling meat. Morrissey issued a statement that read: “I love Iceland and I have waited a long time to return, but I shall leave the Harpa Concert Hall to their cannibalistic flesh-eating blood-lust.”
Concerns about the menu aren’t the only reason Morrissey has cancelled shows through the years. Of some concern intermittently has been the state of the singer’s health. Illness is a natural hazard for touring musicians, but he has been more prone than most. As early as 1991 the singer cancelled shows in Australia on his Kill
Uncle tour because of flu. More recently double pneumonia prompted the abrupt end of an American tour in 2013 and last year a virus ended another American jaunt.
“Yes, I’ve had a lot of health issues,” he says, “to put it mildly, but they come and go — as we do, which makes me no different to any other human.”
Reports around that last American tour suggested Morrissey claimed he had contracted the virus from his support act, Kristeen Young, something she disputed after being asked to leave the tour. He has another explanation as to why he no longer shares microphones.
“I had the practice of handing the micro- phone to audience members throughout the night,” he says, “so that they could say whatever they wished, but doctors ordered me to stop this because they said I was inviting Asian flu into the microphone that I would then continue to sing through, and then the following night would be cancelled because I was on a life-support machine. So I stopped handing the microphone around. Little things mean a lot.”
The singer is looking forward to his Sydney performances, even if he won’t get to the beach. Looking further ahead he has another album in the works, although at present he doesn’t have a recording company. EMI dropped his contract just a few months after the release of World
Peace is None of Your Business and others haven’t been queuing up to sign him.
“Six labels have turned me down,” he says. “The policies are unchangeable in modern music, and the fact I can sell out four nights at Sydney Opera House and the London 02 doesn’t mean a thing to a label executive. If you are not 21 then they don’t see how you could possibly make good music, or how people would want to listen to you. The music world is unsalvageable … hence Sam Smith. Madonna has recently complained that the music industry is ageist, and she’s quite correct.”
Morrissey once said he couldn’t see himself performing beyond the age of 55, but he’ll be doing just that when he takes to the Opera House stage 10 days from now. He’s still in good voice, in more ways than one.
“I don’t ever practise and I never warm-up,” he says. “I think you can either sing or you can’t, and no amount of concentration or whiskyavoidance will affect your power. My good friend Damien Dempsey has an incredible voice and he drinks 48 pints of Guinness every day.”
Morrissey performs at Vivid Live at the Sydney Opera House on May 26, 27, 30 and 31.
Morrissey today, main picture; the Smiths, above left and left; far right, the solo years