There is no other contemporary artist who is so famously difficult, so seemingly enigmatic, and so passionately loved by his fans as Morrissey. From the moment he caught the public's eye in the early 1980s as the iconic front man of the Smiths, and through his subsequent solo career, the patron saint of misfits has fascinated and baffled in equal measure.
Yet, as Mark Simpson argues in this wickedly funny and deeply sacrilegious "psycho-bio" -- told through the lens of his own obsession as a lifelong fan -- Morrissey isn't quite so enigmatic as he might appear. To understand this most private (and sexually ambivalent) of stars, one need only uncover the countless clues to his personality in his startlingly candid song lyrics and his innumerable provocative interviews.
Simpson deftly explores why Morrissey bewitched a generation -- and why he remains as intriguing as ever. Both an insightful look at the singer's career and a personal story of a boy's first love for his music idol, Saint Morrissey is, like its subject, shrewd, sharp-witted, charming, and utterly original.
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Mark Simpson is the author of several books and writes regularly for Salon.com and The Independent on Sunday, among other publications. He lives in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :
The name, like the artist, like the unmistakable if somewhat dated hairdo, stands apart. Aloof in an age of ghastly accessibility. Aristocratic in an age of dumb democracy. Inimitable. Indigestible. Irredeemable.
Instead of being famous for being famous, Morrissey has the breathtaking petulance to be famous for being Morrissey.
And this from a pop performer! The former frontman of Manchester indie legends the Smiths and long-distance solo artist since their demise, in 1987, is the anti-Pop Idol: a reminder that pop music might not be just something you have to do, like expensive dentistry or cheap sycophancy, to become what everyone really wants to become these days -- a TV presenter.
A reminder that pop could in fact be literally an end in itself: a (dangerously careening) vehicle for someone's prodigious, provocative, poisonous, perfectly beautiful scorn. Like his hair, Morrissey has succeeded in fashioning his shyness into an elegant weapon.
Truth be told, Morrissey should never have been a pop star at all -- he should, by his own admission, have been a librarian, like his mum (though perhaps, given the gallows humor of many of his lyrics, he did end up following in the footsteps of his hospital-porter dad). Of course, librarians are very dangerous people and bear more grudges than High Court judges -- so you can imagine what happens when one ends up on Top of the Pops with the words marry me scrawled on his scrawny chest in Magic Marker.
Morrissey was the last, greatest, and most gravely worrying product of an era when pop music was all there was and all anyone could want. As anyone young enough to remember that time knows, sex, drugs, and materialism are piss-poor substitutes for pop music. Gloriously, terrifyingly, pop music was invested with far too much meaning by a whole generation of young people back then. And no one had overinvested pop music with more meaning than Steven Patrick Morrissey, spending the seventies in his box bedroom in his mother's Manchester council house, listening to the New York Dolls and Sandie Shaw, and wondering how he was going to become that strange, transfigured, transmitted thing, a pop star.
In that brief window of opportunity called the early eighties, the ultimate fan somehow spectacularly managed to become the ultimate star -- one with a global following that to this day displays the kind of devotion unmatched by the fans of any other contemporary artist. The kind of devotion that only dead stars command. Or deserve.
Worse, this criminally shy, working-class Anglo-Irish boy from the mean Manchester suburb of Stretford managed to become a pop star on his own terms, in his own right, and in his own words: bizarre enough back then, but an unheard-of outrage in today's music business.
Bookish, reclusive-but-pugnacious -- avowedly celibate -- with an almost Puritan disdain for cheap glamour and armed with a deeply unhealthy interest in language, wit, and ideas, Morrissey succeeded in perverting pop music for a while and making it that most absurd of things, literary. Some were moved to talk of how much Morrissey owed that blowsy, Anglo-Irish nineteenth-century torch singer and stand-up comedian Oscar Wilde, the "first pop star." Arguably, poor Oscar was merely an early, failed, and somewhat overweight prototype for Morrissey.
Now that the twentieth century itself has already been counted down like a particularly tedious Sunday-evening singles chart and the world has woken up to a Hit-me-over-the-head Parade of Boy Blands and Girl Gropes, even to his enemies Morrissey is looking more and more like the man he told us again and again he was: the celibate climax to the once splendid and now well and truly spannered tradition of English pop.
The man from whom, in other words, pop music and England never really recovered.
You think I exaggerate? You think me partisan? Well, of course...but even the NME, Britain's most famous music newspaper and his sworn enemy since the early nineties, when it tried to assassinate him in one of the greatest crimes passionels in music history, in 2002 finally faced facts (and all those torrid Morrissey centerfolds they ran in the eighties), naming him the "most influential artist ever."
Morrissey may stand apart and aloof, but he still casts a long, disdainful shadow over the current British music scene, almost without trying, even from the distant, sybaritic comfort of Hollywood, where he has lived since the late nineties, partly to be closer to his largest fanbase, partly to be within idolatrous distance of the grave of his secret heroine, Bette Davis, the "difficult" diva who defied the studio system and almost won, but mostly because of a fabulously sulky desire to continue punishing the English for their ingratitude by the most painful means possible -- depriving them of himself.
But then, one of the central paradoxes of the Morrissey phenomenon has been that while no one gives more of himself in his art and performance, no one is more selfish in the purest sense of the word. Morrissey is possibly the last privately owned company in a world where artists are floated on the stock exchange of public opinion.
As a result, he has somehow managed to hang on not only to his integrity, but also to his privacy in an age when transparency and confession are increasingly compulsory even for mere nobodies, let alone artists who have been globally famous for nearly two decades. Even in an hour-long TV documentary on Britain's Channel 4 in 2003 (his first major TV appearance in sixteen years), he managed to give nothing away except his relationship with hair dryers. Like his private life, his personality remains for most a puzzle to be unlocked. To the world, Morrissey remains a baffling enigma, an almost occult mystery.
Yet there is something rather pertinent here, something that everyone except his fans seems to have overlooked: Morrissey is not a mystery at all. There is no need to train a telephoto lens on his bathroom window or rummage through his dustbin in search of evidence of lesbianism. To get to the melancholic heart of Morrissey's condition, to get inside the wasteland of his head -- or his bed -- there is only one thing you need to do.
Listen to him.
Granted, this requires a certain amount of recklessness. Not only is Morrissey one of the greatest pop lyricists -- and probably the greatest-ever lyricist of desire -- that has ever moaned, but he is fully present in his songs as few other artists are, in a way that fans of most other performers, quite rightly, wouldn't tolerate for a moment. In an age when "truth" is whatever keeps the customer (vaguely) satisfied, Morrissey resolutely delivers only his own. Frequently unpalatable, it is often as hilarious as it is mortifying; after all, since desire is his subject -- or, rather, his tormenter -- frustration is frequently his material.
Morrissey's work is his life: There is no "clocking off," as he puts it. That is the key to his greatness -- and to his tragedy. Morrissey is a record to be played, never a life to be lived. One day, perhaps, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, a fascinating secret life of scandal and debauchery may be revealed (and I suspect that no one would be happier than Morrissey at such an exposé). But who would bet money on it?
In his singular oeuvre, which must include his interviews,
in themselves frequently riotously entertaining performances, Morrissey offers himself up, dandy-Christlike, as a fascinating, foppish "fuckup" atoning for all our neuroses. As the novelist and Morrissey's "sister-in-law" Michael Bracewell has suggested, for his audience, Moz represents not only the ultimate pop star but the ultimate patient, one it wants to kiss better.
Hence, like its subject, Saint Morrissey is not a conventional biography. Instead, it is a "psychobio" -- one that does not presume to put the performer on the couch, since he's already chained himself there, but does try to listen carefully and, informed more by literary than by clinical psychoanalysis, offers an interpretation and a kind of diagnosis of this famous patient's extraordinarily creative if rather disturbing symptoms. And the ways in which he has succeeded in turning them into a global epidemic.
Saint Morrissey is an inquiry conducted through words, images, and music into the beautiful but damaged soul of a man who has willed himself out of words, images, and music. It is a history of a man as a history of ideas, not all of them terribly wholesome.
It does not, however, promise any cure.
But before any of that, before we start rummaging around inside Mr. Morrissey's enormous head, please indulge me for a moment as I presume to lie on the couch myself and tell you something about Mr. Morrissey and me.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Simpson
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