A BRIEF TAPED intro (Prokafiev's "Romeo and Juliet" culture vultures) and The Smiths hit the stage with "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" - all thrills and spills and chills down the spine.
With his off-the-bum jeans and off-the-shoulder shirts, Morrissey is as gorgeously camp as ever, assaulting the male myths of rock idolatry with his usual little-bit-of-delicate-sleaze-and-a-lot-of-tease routine - the missing link between Norman Wisdom and Joe Dallesandro. Morrissey doesn't need to have sex in private because he does it all on stage. Don't be fooled by the coy boy, Miss Goody Two Shoes pronouncements: Morrissey owes more to Little Richard than he would care to admit.
In the past, The Smiths have erred on the side of private gloom. Not tonight. With their best ever album behind them, The Smiths have now achieved something approaching the perfect pitch with a collective musical voice that is funny, fluent and profound. Morrissey's switches of register - one moment coming on all wry and ironic, with a keen eye for the comic detail, the next, deadly serious, delicately recording certain feelings and stripping them down to the bare bones - are now beguiling rather than gauche. What strikes you most about The Smiths, these days, is Morrissey's longing for passionate speech - the desire to say something that matters, to say something that above all else, will move the listener.
In an ironic age, this is a difficult task and, in the past, it has left The Smiths wide open to charges of a wayward, wimpy mooniness. But Morrissey the lovelorn dickhead is no more. Welcome, Morrissey, the possessor of a generously comic higher intuition. As somebody who hated the majority of Meat Is Murder that is something that I thought I would never admit to.
The band climax the set with "The Queen Is Dead" against a giant image of the most beautiful man in the world, Alain Delon. A swift dash back to the hotel and Morrissey spends most of the night politely answering calls from swooning fans.
"Sex is hard work just like everything else. I'd rather laugh in bed than do it." - Andy Warhol
The Sexual Hangover, No Sex, Defunkt Sex, Post-Sexual Sex, call it what you will, but sex just isn't sexy anymore. In America, No Sex has reached epidemic proportions and it's not just the fear of AIDS and herpes. For 30 years we've had sex saturation in the guise of a sexual revolution and candid sex has now become candied sex - sex as the boundless sweetshop of sexual identity and consumption. It was inevitable that, after the Grand Bouffe, abstinence would set in. Some people like to try a new thing just for the heck of it and No Sex is the new thing.
As Sylvia Lotringer has written: "Revolutions are never good news for queens. When everything is permitted, nothing is extraordinary. Sex has ceased to be extraordinary." And if there is one thing that Little Mo wants to be, then it's extraordinary. Along with the likes of Germaine Greer and Andy Warhol, Morrissey has been a key propagandist for the Celibate Tendency. Giving up sex has become such a declaration of independence. Sex is such a hassle, such a bore, such a waste - think of all the time and energy spent in the search and consummation. But can anyone really overcome sex? While you can live without sex (afer all, monks do it), can you live without desire? But we'll come to that later.
Meanwhile I'm sitting in my hotel room at Stoufers Inn On The Square, waiting to be summoned to the 11th floor to interview the Great One. On the telly Doctor Ruth, America's renowned down-home sex therapist, is counselling Bert from Ohio about the lumps on his penis. Doctor Ruth offers firm but frank advice: "Go to the Doctor, Bert."
The phone rings. It's Morrissey awaiting my presence. So I collect my tape recorder, my notebook, my best knowing smile and a new packet of Kleenex and set off to meet him.
MORRISSEY'S PROPENSITY TO speak about No Sex has become such an explicit, expected and expedient feature of The Smiths' interview experience that it takes a certain amount of courage on behalf of the interviewer not to touch the subject. Me, I'm a born coward so I ask him has liberation from sex replaced sexual liberation as a radical demand? First off I get the coyboy routine.
"That's difficult for me to answer, because, personally, I have nothing to do with sex, nothing whatsoever. I'm not a tremendous authority on sexuality in general, so I can't really say."
Oh come on, Morrissey. You harp on about sex all the time. Is it just a pose or is it born out of a reaction against the way rock 'n' roll masculinity is traditionally presented?
"Mmm, well, yes. There's all those very tangled bits of seaweed but, in essence, I don't think, without wanting to sound self-congratulatory, that anyone with views such as mine has been successful in the rock 'n' roll sense. And that makes me, if you like, vaguely unique but really I'm not plotting anything. I'm just dramatically, supernaturally, non-sexual."
"In The Smiths' song, 'Stretch Out And Wait', there is a line 'God, how sex implores you'. To make choices, to change and to be different, to do something and make a stand, and I always found that very, very encroaching on any feelings that I felt that I just wanted to be me, which was somewhere between this world and the next world, somewhere between this sex and the next sex, but nothing really political, but nothing really threatening to anybody on earth and nothing really dramatic. Just being me as an individual and not wishing to make any elaborate, strangulating statements."
Do you like strong women?
"Yes, I do... Germaine Greer for instance. I would like to eventually turn into Germaine Greer."
At the moment, she's been harping on about how, in the post-pill age, women are treated like donuts and that sex is a waste of time.
"It is! It's a waste of batteries. If we all had to face each other as individuals, as human beings, we'd all be petrified. People thrive on barriers and descriptions and loopholes."
Isn't this asexual chic merely a refusal of maturity - a fey, adolescent form of sexuality that speaks of sweaty socks and masturbation in locked bedrooms?
Morrissey is indignant. "Not at all because you make it sound slightly retarded and it certainly isn't. I think that's a wrong image, I think that's a deliberate slur. I certainly never had smelly socks... but don't ask me about masturbation." He laughs.
Free at last. Free at last. Free from sex. But can we ever really be free? Morrissey's genital continence might be strategy to rise above the debased form of rock 'n' roll sexuality we know today with its obsessive phallic focus. Asexuality might restore sexuality to its fullness as a non-goal-orientated experience. Asexuality might be a form of sex strike, a consumer boycott, something radical and special. But, more likely, it's just another swing of the pendulum - after sex comes No Sex. It wouldn't surprise me to find, in a couple of years time, Morrissey eulogising the joys of fist-fucking and water sports.
BLACK POP CONSPIRACY
"Pop has never been this divided," wrote Simon Reynolds in his much-lauded, recent piece on the indie scene, referring to the chasm that now exists between indie-pop and black pop. The detestation that your average indie fan feels for black music can be gauged by the countless letters they write to the music press whenever a black act is featured on the front page.
It's a bit like the late Sixties all over again with a burgeoning Head culture insisting that theirs' is the "real" radical music, an intelligent and subversive music that provides an alternative to the crude showbiz values of black pop.
Morrissey has further widened this divide with the recent single, "Panic" - where "Metal Guru" meets the most explicit denunciation yet of black pop. "Hang the deejay" urges Morrissey. So is the music of The Smiths and their ilk racist, as Green claims?
"Reggae, for example, is to me the most racist music in the entire world. It's an absolute total glorification of black supremacy... There is a line when defense of one's race becomes an attack on another race and, because of black history and oppression, we realise quite clearly that there has to be a very strong defense. But I think it becomes very extreme sometimes."
"But, ultimately, I don't have very cast iron opinions on black music other than black modern music which I detest. I detest Stevie Wonder. I think Diana Ross is awful. I hate all those records in the Top 40 - Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston. I think they're vile in the extreme. In essence this music doesn't say anything whatsoever."
But it does, it does. What it says can't necessarily be verbalised easily. It doesn't seek to change the world like rock music by speaking grand truths about politics, sex and the human condition. It works at a much more subtle level - at the level of the body and the shared abandon of the dancefloor. It won't change the world, but it's been said it may well change the way you walk through the world.
"I don't think there's any time anymore to be subtle about anything, you have to get straight to the point. Obviously to get on Top Of The Pops these days, one has to be, by law, black. I think something political has occurred among Michael Hurl and his friends and there has been a hefty pushing of all these black artists and all this discofied nonsense into the Top 40. I think, as a result, that very aware younger groups that speak for now are being gagged."
You seem to be saying that you believe that there is some sort of black pop conspiracy being organised to keep white indie groups down.
"Yes, I really do."
Morrissey goes on: "The charts have been constructed quite clearly as an absolute form of escapism rather than anything anyone can gain any knowledge by. I find that very disheartening because it wasn't always that way. Isn't it curious that practically none of these records reflect life as we live it? Isn't it curious that 93 and a half percent of these records relect life as it isn't lived? That foxes me!"
"If you compare the exposure that records by the likes of Janet Jackson and the stream of other anonymous Jacksons get to the level of daily airplay that The Smiths receive - The Smiths have had at least 10 consecutive chart hits and we still can't get on Radio 1's A list. Is that not a conspiracy? The last LP ended up at number two and we were still told by radio that nobody wanted to listen to The Smiths in the daytime. Is that not a conspiracy? I do get the scent of a conspiracy."
"And, anyway, the entire syndrome has one tune and surely that's enough to condemn the entire thing."
People say that about The Smiths. And it seems to me that you're foregrounding something that isn't necessarily relevant to a lot of black music, especially hip-hop. It's like me saying that I don't like The Smiths because they don't use a beatbox.
"The lack of melody is not the only reason that I find it entirely unlistenable. The lyrical content is merely lists."
Do you dislike the macho masculinity of many of the records?
"No. I don't find it very masculine."
Well, a lot of it is about...
"What? Chicks?" he sniggers.
No. One upmanship. Having the best, the biggest.
"Mmmmm. It's just not the world I live in and, similarly, I'm sure they wouldn't care that much for The Smiths. I don't want to feel in the dock because there are some things I dislike. Having said that, my favourite record of all time is "Third Finger, Left Hand" by Martha and the Vandellas which can lift me from the most doom-laden depression."
Why is it that people like yourself can eulogise Sixties black pop and yet be so antagonistic towards present-day black pop? Nostalgia?
"No. It was made in the Sixties but I don't listen to the record now and say, 'Well, I must remember this is a Sixties record and it's 1986 now so let's put it all into perspective.' It has as much value now as ever. We shouldn't really talk in terms of decades."
It seems to me that nostalgia is something that afflicts the whole indie scene. They can't face up to the fact that pop music is no longer created; it's assembled, quoted and collated. That's why so many indie bands are caught in a timewarp with 'real' musicians playing 'real' music on 'real' instruments. Isn't that the reason for The Smiths' much-vaunted Luddite tendencies? Can't hi-tech have a liberating aspect, enabling non-musicians to construct music? And isn't this well in tune with the punk ethic that the indie scene is supposed to draw its inspiration from?
"I hate the idea of having to learn to play the instruments, too. But it makes it so easy. It means that anyone with no arms, no legs nor a head can suddenly make a superb LP which will obviously go platinum. I can't help it. I love Wigan, I love George Formby, I love bicycles. I love Wigan's Ovation."
"Hi-tech can't be liberating. It'll kill us all. You'll be strangulated by the cords of your compact disc."
Suddenly, Morrissey breaks off and stares at me as I munch my way through the giant bowl of crisps on his hotel room table. "Why are you eating all those stale crisps?" he asks. "You'll regret it in the morning."
Suddenly, there's a knock at the door. "Shall we see who it is?" I suggest. "No. It's probably a cockroach," he replies. Such is the Morrissey interview experience.
IN EVERY HOME A HEARTACHE
"And someone falls in love,
And someone is beaten up,
and the senses being dulled are mine." - "Rusholme Ruffians"
Legend has it that sometime in the late Seventies, somewhere in the northwest of England, there existed a mythical city called Manchester. To the north of the city lay the infamous Collyhurst Perrys - a vicious cult of midgets dedicated to Jumbo cords, wedge haircuts, Fred Perry tee-shirts and easy violence. Morrissey remembers them well. So do I, especially the night my skull cracked open under the weight of a specially sharpened heavyweight Perry belt-buckle. (Perrys were always good at CSE metalwork.)
"They're still there. Trouble is, now they're all 33 and they're still doing the same thing. The memories I have of being trapped in Piccadilly Bus Station while waiting for the all-night bus or being chased across Piccadilly Gardens by some 13-year-old Perry from Collyhurst wielding a Stanley Knife. Even when I was on the bus I would be petrified because I would always be accosted. They were the most vicious people. They would smack you in the mouth and ask you what you were looking at after."
They were all so small, as if suffering from some sort of genetic defect...
"Hence 'City Hobgoblins' by The Fall. What's the line? ... 'Half my height, three times my age'."
They always used to hang around the Arndale Shopping Centre.
"I know. On The Queen Is Dead, 'Never Had No One Ever', there's a line that goes 'When you walk without ease/on these/the very streets where you were raised/I had a really bad dream/it lasted 20 years, seven months and 27 days/Never had no one ever'. It was the frustration that I felt at the age of 20 when I still didn't feel easy walking around the streets on which I'd been born, where all my family had lived - they're originally from Ireland but had been here since the Fifties. It was a constant confusion to me why I never really felt 'This is my patch. This is my home. I know these people. I can do what I like, because this is mine.' It never was. I could never walk easily."
I know what you mean. In one way I despise Manchester and yet I still have a deep affection for the place.
"That's because we're in Cleveland not in Manchester," he laughs.
If the Perry's didn't get you, then the beer monsters were waiting around the corner. I still remember studying the football results to see if City or United had lost, in order to judge the level of violence to be expected in the city centre that night.
"I can remember the worst night of my life with a friend of mine, James Maker, who is the lead singer in Raymonde now. We were heading for Devilles (a gay club). We began at the Thompson's Arms (a gay pub), we left and walked around the corner where there was a car park, just past Chorlton Street Bus Station. Walking through the car park, I turned around and, suddenly, there was a gang of 30 beer monsters all in their late twenties, all creeping around us. So we ran. We bolted. Unfortunately, they caught James and kicked him to death but somehow he managed to stand up and start running. So James and I met in the middle of Piccadilly Bus Station and tried to get on a bus that would go back to Stretford because they were chasing us and they were really hefty beer monsters."
"We jumped onto the bus and I thought 'Saved!' and turned around and saw it was completely empty, no driver. We thought, 'My God! We're trapped on this bus!' They were standing at the door shouting, 'Get out, get out!' We had all these coins and we just threw them in their faces and flew out of the bus. We ran across the road to a bus going to God-knows-where outside The Milkmaid. We slammed four fares down and ran to the back seat. Suddenly the emergency doors swing open and these tattooed arms fly in - it was like 'Clockwork Orange'. The bus is packed, nobody gives a damn. So we run upstairs and the bus begins to move and we end up in Lower Broughton. For some reason we get out and we're in the middle of nowhere - just hills.
"On top of this hill we could see a light from this manor house. We went up these dark lanes to the manor house and knocked on the door. It was opened by this old senile, decrepid Teddy Boy, no younger than 63, with blue suede shoes on. 'Do you have a telephone?' 'No.'"
"We had to walk back to Manchester. It took us seven days. We came back home to my place, finally, at something like five am and listened to Horses by Patti Smith and wept on the bed. That's my youth for you in a nutshell."
Life for the would-be Bohemian in Manchester was always hard. Pre-punk, those seeking sanctuary from the patrolling behemoths covered in vomit, had little alternative but to take refuge in the gay clubs, like Dickens (a sleaze pit where your feet stuck to the floor when you walked in), or the gay pubs, like the Thompson's Arms, the Rembrandt, or the Union (the hippest spot of degeneracy in town - full of trannies with plastic legs).
"The gay scene in Manchester," says Morrissey, "was a little bit heavy for me. I was a delicate bloom. Do you remember the Union? Too heavy for me, as was Dickens. The Rembrandt I could take. It was a bit kind of craggy. There was no place, at that time, in Manchester, in the very early stages, that one could be surrounded by fascinating, healthy people" (pause) "fascinating, healthy bikers for example. It was always like the cross-eyed, club-footed, one-armed, whatever!"
"The gay scene in Manchester was always atrocious. Do you remember Bernard's Bar, now Stuffed Olives?"
I do indeed. I particularly remember the endless stream of aging music hall acts that Bernard booked (Mr. Memory men, jugglers, etc) in order to create what he thought was an upmarket ambience. Perhaps that's where the inspiration for "Frankly, Mr Shankly" came from? I also remember that you were kicked out if you dared so much as snigger at the appalling turns.
"If one wanted peace and to sit without being called a parade of names then that was the only hope. Bernard's Bar was fine for a while but what I was really into was the music." That's where punk fitted in.
"Nineteen seventy-five was the worst year in social history. I blame 'Young Americans' entirely. I hated that period - Disco Tex and the Sex-o-lettes, Limmy and Family Cooking. So when punk came along, I breathed a sigh of relief. I met people. I'd never done that before."
Punk changed everything. The Manchester Scene was born. Sweaty nights at the Electric Circus watching The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, Blondie, Television et al and sordid nights at The Ranch, a one-time gay club run by female impersonator Foo Foo Lamar.
"I never liked The Ranch. I have a very early memory of it and it was very, very heavy. I never liked Dale Street. There was something about that area of Manchester that was too dangerous."
You big jessy, you big girl's blouse, Morrissey. But he's right. It was dangerous and, with the increased media visibility of punk, the violence got worse. You see, punks were not only faggots, they were uppity faggots as well. They made music, they wrote poetry, and, of course, they dressed up. It was as if they were protesting against the limits of prole Northern experience: 'There must be something more to life than this," they said. Something more than the endless round of beer-swilling and snogging at Tiffanys followed by a boring day on the factory floor or in the office.
At the heart of the scene was an understanding by the people involved that they were destined for something other than exploitation. The Manchester scene wasn't a product of Manchester but a triumph over it. It was a battle against some of the longest odds possible to be something other than dull prole pond-life. So what happened? Fame, success, a little bit of money - and the cries of "Sellout" - the usual story. So was it that special?
Morrissey thinks it was: "It was a breed of people. It was like the wartime scarcity crowd who have gone now. Compared to what we have now, good heavens, we had something then. We have nothing now. It was a very creative time.
Do you think it was something to do with the water?
"It definitely began with the water. It must also have something to do with Central Library. I was born in Central Library - in the crime section."
If any Manchester bohemian worth his salt spent his nights at The Electric Circus and The Ranch then his days were spent at Central Library. There you could spend hours searching through their extensive collection of fiction from all corners of the globe and, at lunch, you could hang out with the older bohemian set in the basement cafe. And what about the toilets? I remember it well.
"I used to love it at Central Library. The smell and the sound. How, when you dropped a book, the sound would echo around the place. Musical, musical! The toilets were guarded by uniformed gorillas. It was like guerilla warfare going on in there - an awful, frightening place."
What about Whitworth Street toilets (an infamous cottage)?
"Ahh, yes, Whitworth Street toilets. I never knew Bert Tilsley. But let's steer away from public toilets."
Shall we leave Manchester now?
"Da dee dee. Do we have to? We still haven't discussed the hours and days I queued up outside Coronation Street waiting to get Minnie Cauldwell's autograph."
I was never a large Coro fan.
"A severe large gap in your cultural capabilities."
Ah, Manchester - the music, the clothes, the violence, the grace, the sex...
"I don't remember any sex," says Morrissey coyly.
Which is where we came in.
Reprinted WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only. Illustration by Marc Arundale. Reproduced without permission.
Melody Maker readers respond to Morrissey's recent comments about black music (September 27, 1986). The letters originally appeared in the reader's letters column Backlash, October 11, 1986. Edited by Colin Irwin.
Morrissey ... 'a rash, racist bigot' (Original caption)
"READING your latest interview with Morrissey, I was deeply disturbed by his rash and ultimately racist statements concerning black music, especially as I once credited him with vision and intelligence.
Firstly, his amazingly bigoted remarks concerning reggae. As in all forms of music reggae has its good and bad. Sure, reggae of the hard-line rasta variety can often be seen as spouting a form of racism; but what about the reggae that is blatantly against any sort of superiority at all, like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Ranking Ann, Lorna Gee, or a lot of Marley's stuff ("One World")? The sweet, sensitive voice of Gregory Issac's? Or, on the other hand, just because Boris Gardener's black doesn't make him more offensive than Jennifer Rush or more engaged in a conspiracy. Morrissey's generalisation ignores the rich diversity of a culture which has evolved under the white man's boot. If he can't sense the passion in the best reggae then he's a bigot.
This half-baked "Mein Kampf" type idea of a "black pop conspiracy" is even more offensive. Sure, most black music that charts is insipid rubbish, but so is most WHITE music for Chrissakes!! All this shows that certain strands of music, irrespective of ethnic origin, are more acceptable to those in record company executive boardrooms that manipulate our pop culture to their own ends. And it's news to me, Morrissey, that those in control are black. It's the WHITE boardroom conspiracy that keeps The Smiths off the air alongside [George] Clinton, LKJ and [Afrika] Bambaataa - the same conspiracy that ignores black musicians who do not fit the white executive's preconceived notions about what black music SHOULD be.
Which brings me to my final point, that Morrissey is simply encouraging such stereotyped notions. Of course, a person's ethnic/social background will influence their creative output, but it doesn't mean that if someone has a different colour skin pigment from Herr Morrissey (which I have) the latter will be able to lump them all together under one heading. Morrissey is encouraging a return to pre-Motown musical apartheid which puts black music in one corner and white rock in the other and builds a wall between them. Thank God, bands like The Specials and Talking Heads proved Morrissey wrong yonks ago. I for one will no longer purchase any Smiths product and I will be most disappointed and fucking angry if Morrissey doesn't get the stick he deserves for coming out with such ill-informed and potentially dangerous bullshit."
AN OUTRAGED ASIAN, Birmingham.
YOU can rest assured there's PLENTY of stick flying Morrissey's way in the letters currently dive-bombing High Holburn. His comments about black music did seem extraordinary, but Morrissey's an emotional boy who appears to let his heart rule his head, as we know from his lyrics and from his interviews in the past. Does he REALLY believe all that stuff he came out with? Backlash is open to further correspondence from Mr Morrissey ...
"FOR Morrissey's sake I hope the Melody Maker's readership don't have [a] tabloid mentality. Although I and most people who read the article would agree with what Morrissey says about modern soul acts, when he makes vast generalisations ("reggae to me is the most racist music in the entire world") he makes a statement that is unfair. Although some reggae acts can be both racist and sexist (as can other types of music) all acts can't be lumped together. If Morrissey just doesn't like reggae, which is most likely the case, he should say he just doesn't like the sound. I doubt Morrissey has ever listened to reggae properly, and if he has, he has certainly been listening to the wrong artists. Most reggae bands are about multi-racial solidarity and unity. If Morrissey is going to start making generalisations like these, he may as well start writing for Mr Murdoch now."
A. BLACKSMITH, East Ham, London E5.
Click here to view the original Letters page
the Melody Maker interview
"I don't think my opinions were particularly wayward. After that a lot of people rang me up and wrote to me, saying 'At last someone is saying this — we're tired of all this stuff...' But the journalist made me sound demonstrative, and it's certainly not a crusade by any means. But I've never completely embraced dance music. I never ever went to clubs, I never danced, or anything like that. I went to concerts, I went to see groups in gig situations. But I do possess records by people who just happen to be black. It has happened!"
- i-D, October 1987
The following short article examines the literary nature of Smiths songs, and the group's appeal to an American audience. Originally published in the September 30, 1986 issue of Village Voice. Words by Don Shewey.
Her Majesty's Muggers
You would never know from one glance at their plain, pasty faces, one listen to their droney playing, one earful of the singer's plaintive monotone that the Smiths are among the most charismatic, idolized bands in all of English-speaking popdom. You would probably never know at all unless you witnessed a concert like their gig at the Pier last month when the audience leapt to its feet as if for the national anthem and sang along with Morrissey: "You shut your mouth!/How can you say/ I go about things the wrong way?/I am human and I need to be loved/Just like everybody else does!" Any remaining impressions of the Smiths as passive-aggressive wimps snivelling about private grievances in bed-sitting rooms would vanish with a few spins of their latest single, "Panic", a T-Rex-meets-Malcolm-X jingle that advocates "Burn down the disco/Hang the blessed DJ/Because the music that they constantly play/Says nothing to me about my life!"
At first I didn't get the Smiths at all, but I'm [a] believer now. Except for Elvis Costello, Steven Morrissey is the only songwriter since the birth of punk to write songs that matter the way the songs of, say, Joni Mitchell or Paul Simon mattered during the heyday of '70s singer-songwriters. I would go so far as to say that Morrissey mates the Rimbaudian modernity of Lou Reed with the emotional directness of Hank Williams. My conversion was gradual. It began when poet Dennis Cooper intriguingly compared Brad Gooch's book of stories Jailbait to the Smiths. It quickened when a playwright friend of mine, who often entertains me with instances of masochistic romanticism, started tantalizing me with quotes from songs like "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" and "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want" ("Lord knows it will be the first time"). A major selling point was Morrissey's response when The Face asked who was the last person who had seen him naked: "Almost certainly the doctor who brought me into this cold, cruel world."
What really got me was 1984's A Hatful of Hollow (sic). This 16-track collection, which shamefully has never been released in America, includes a bunch of British hit singles, B-sides, and live radio performances of six songs from The Smiths that are slower, more acoustic, prettier than the studio versions. Though their latest release The Queen is Dead is clearly the best of their American releases, A Hatful of Hollow is my candidate for the Smith's great album. Talk about masochistic: "Slap me on the patio/I'll take it now." Talk about unlucky in love: "I looked at yours/ You laughed at mine (sic)/And 'love' is just a miserable lie." Talk about pessimistic: "Hand in glove/The sun shines out of our behinds/No, it's not like any other love/This one is different because it's ours." Such a nimble mixture of Love Comix and Une Saison en Enfer has not been seen since the disappearance of Patti Smith (who some feel is the inspiration for the band's name).
While it's true that the Smiths satisfy the literary cravings of bookworm rock fans the way few other acts do, Morrissey's lyrics aren't the whole story. The first album's muddy mix of "This Charming Man" emphasizes the neo-Motown bassline behind Morrissey's telescoped tale of a boy rescued from a bicycle accident by an older gentleman and their fantisized affair. In Hatful's version, what's overwhelming is guitarist Johnny Marr's stunning countermelody, which captures without words the ecstatic freedom and lightheartedness of a boyhood bike ride. I guess it's that bicycle that links the Smiths in my mind to Denton Welch, the British novelist. Welch was crippled in a bike crash at 18, yet before his painful death at 31 he created a small body of work astonishing in its ability to see both beauty and pain with equal clarity. He could have been reviewing the Smiths' songs when he called some drawings "grim enough to have been done with a corpse's dirty finger-nail split down the middle and dipped in the excrement of cockroaches." And like Morrissey, he would have laughed out loud after he wrote that line.
No question that Morrissey is one morbid dude. He favors titles like "Pretty Girls Make Graves," "Suffer Little Children," "Barbarism Begins at Home," and plain ol' "Still Ill." His idea of an apology is "Sweetness, I was only joking when I said by rights you should be bludgeoned in your bed." His idea of a heterosexual pass is "Let me get my hands/On your mammary glands." His idea of an endearment is "If a 10-ton truck kills the both of us/To die by your side/The pleasure and privilege is mine." But this must be seen partly as provocation. The discrepancy between their morbidity and humor is what makes the Smiths a rich and (here's a taboo word) adult pleasure. Likewise the contrast between Morrissey's hyperemotional yelping and Marr's surprising lyricism, between the singer's most wistful sentiments and the band's brash, Ramones-like battery; if Dan Fogelberg sang some of these precious, self-pitying songs, you'd puke.
And the contradictions keep on coming. Normally, the perfect director to make videos of the Smiths' anguished, lovelorn tunes would be Derek Jarman, the biggest homo-vogue aesthete among British film makers. The twist is that, along with two promos for The Queen is Dead, Jarman was hired as director for the atypical "Panic," the Smiths' most direct attack on the soul-killing irrelevance of mass culture from Dallas to Lionel Richie. The video for this inflammatory anthem fuses extremes of artiness and political engagement - a pretty boy's scowl cuts against Her Majesty's smug mug, while an outstretched hand leads the camera's scan of the slums and bullet holes that represent panic in the streets of London, Birmingham, Carlisle, Dublin, Humberside. It's ironic that even as the Smiths cling most firmly to local references, they have amassed a fervent American audience among the supposedly less-than-zero generation. But the course of band-love never runs smooth. The Smiths canceled several dates recently, including the September 16 sellout at Radio City. The official word was laryngitis, but rumor had it Morrissey was stung by a bee.
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