From the hip

Mor­ris­sey un­leashes wit and wis­dom on Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - writes 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



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

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