“The Northern Woman, she’s like the Galapagos Turtle. She’s an entirely different species.” - Alan Bennett
“Morrissey is a woman trapped inside a man’s body.” - Tony Wilson
“Tony Wilson is a man trapped inside a pig’s body.” - Morrissey
“There isn’t another man like me anywhere. I’m one on his own.”
- Shelagh Delaney, A Taste of Honey
THE MOST ARRESTING thing about Morrissey’s work, the thing that grabs you like a particularly overzealous store detective, is that voice. It’s a voice which drives some to distraction and others to infatuation. Love it or loathe it, it is a voice on its own. In an industry full of stars who started out by imitating their predecessors so badly that they were mistaken for original talent, Morrissey’s voice seems utterly, shockingly unique. Aurally and authorally.
That oddly affective/effective self-possessed wobbliness, which disgruntled parents, rightly worried that their daughter or son is listening to something deeply unhealthy and unhygienic, have described in irate letters to the star as the sound of a man ‘having his legs sawn off’, is the signature of someone who is determined to sing, but at the same time half-reluctant, driven but self-doubting, inspired but repressed. A soft boy who has made some very tough choices — a choirboy who has chosen his own damnation.
All underscored, comically, mockingly, by his understated-but-unmistakable hard, sharp northern vowels and softly cynical-lyrical, almost Chaucerian consonants and vowels (and in a darkened unnderpasss I thought oh Godd my channce has cum at lasst [phoenetically typing, that is]), delivering that native black humour (‘and if a ten ton truck kills the both of us/to die by your side/the pleasure, the privilege is mine’), that self-promoting self-deprecation (‘Well me without clothes/a nation turns its back and gags’), and that oddly naturalistic poetic pop vernacular (‘So stay on my arm, you little charmer’).
In fact, the reason so many people hate Morrissey’s voice is precisely because it is so dramatically personal, confiding in their ear that he is not just another jobbing popster or busking entertainer, thank you very much. The forthrightness and candour of his voice is an instantly recognisable challenge that its melodiousness merely makes more pronounced; it demands that you listen to it, really listen to it instead of merely hearing it, at the same time conveying the impression that if you don’t like it, well, you can bloody well lump it. If you happen to be too stupid or too Southern to get the joke it is always telling against itself, there is nothing more abrasive and offensive than Morrissey’s voice.
In a (regional) sense, of course, Morrissey’s ‘voice’ is not really so unique. In fact, it’s rather common — as common as you can get, according to some Southern snobs. Morrissey’s ‘voice’, you see, is that of the Northern Woman.
However common the Northern Woman might be, she is still a very special creature, thriving only in damp, cool, slightly backward climes where people actually talk to one another at bus stops and check-out queues, and where you’re never more than a ten-minute walk from a good fish and chip shop. She has a certain intensity mixed with a certain breeziness, a certain desperation mixed with a lot of self-irony — perhaps the product of her awareness of her contradictions. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but she doesn’t always make sense herself. She is direct, but frequently overdone. She is a survivor, but strangely tragic. She is strong, but touchingly vulnerable. She is all woman, but sometimes there seems to be more than a little man in her. She’s a bit of a queer fish is the Northern Woman, and she is Morrissey.
I have a talent for eavesdropping and it’s amazing what you learn while waiting to pay for your fruit juice.
Melody Maker, 1987
Yes, of course, she’s quite ‘camp’ too, although the word has been so abused of late that it seems almost worthless now. In this context, it might mean that she’s ‘larger than life’, but also larger than conventional ideas of femininity. The sharp-eyed social comedians Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood, from the northern counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire respectively — and much admired by Morrissey — made impressive careers in the Eighties out of recognising the comic potential of the Northern Woman and her lovable, minor monstrousness and modest madness (qualities which were taken to their hilarious extreme in the Nineties and Noughties in Mrs Merton and The Royle Family by working class Mancunian comedienne Caroline Aherne).
Like Morrissey, Wood and Bennett are northern artists who did something very few other writers bothered to do before them: they listened to the way northern women talk. Morrissey’s achievement, however, was the incorporation of that voice into Eighties pop music, introducing the Northern Woman to millions of young people around the world who had never heard of her before. And even if they had, the last thing they expected was for her to speak to them through the skinny body of a be-quiffed, be-jeaned, James Dean impersonator.
However, the Northern Woman had made it into the British pop charts before — way back in the Sixties. And Morrissey had bought all her records. He spent his childhood adoring Northern girls who had grabbed the limelight; women such as Cilla Black, the little Liverpool lass with the big voice, big ambition, big teeth and the even bigger nose who sang in a Northern accent complete with working men’s club cabaret (‘Sumthing tells me sumthing’s gonna happen to-ni-i-i-i-i-i-i-ght . . .’). Or Lulu, the raucous redhead who exhorted ‘everybody shout now!’, who was so Northern she was actually Scottish.
[Lulu’s ‘The Boat That I Row’] has nothing to do with a boat — I’m sure you’ve guessed. She’s more or less saying to the world, ‘You’re not going to change me. This is me, take me as I am.’ . . . There’s always more to these things than meets the eye.
Brit Girls, Channel 4, 1997
Or Viv Nicholson, the Yorkshire lass from a mining town who didn’t cut a record, but whose spectacular pools win in 1961 represented the same kind of disposable success as a Top Twenty hit — and had the same giddily transforming effect. Viv bought her way into a realm of bad taste so extreme that it took her back into penury but gained her fame, turning her into a folk hero, immortalised in her warts-and-all autobiography (now a West End stage show), Spend Spend Spend. She was accorded the exceedingly rare and prestigious honour of gracing not one but two Smiths record sleeves (‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ and ‘Barbarism Begins at Home’).
The Sixties in Britain was an era of social mobility, or at least the promise of it. The rise of consumer culture was fuelled by wage increases to the working classes, which meant that for the first time they could afford to buy some of the things they made, and that kids like Steven had pocket money to spend on Cilla Black records and other faddish nonsense. This new spending power and the explosion of pop culture it provoked gave working-class status a new sexiness and fashionability. It was seen as an antidote to stuffed-shirt, stiff-lipped (Southern) British bourgeoisdom. Culturally, big-heartedness was gaining the upper hand over small-mindedness, and the common people were now hip and in the charts. And in Britain the most common people were Northerners, which was precisely why they had been derided and pitied for so long — and why the northern voice began to be heard loud enough to wake the deaf cow next door in British popular culture in the Sixties.
‘Northerness’ in British culture has faint echoes of ‘blackness’ in American culture. It was the Sixties which saw the first real advance of ‘coloreds’ in the US: ‘vital’, ‘soulful’ black music from the booming ‘Motortown’ of Detroit was crossing over into the mainstream, that is white, market (and finding its way into the record collection of young Steven, who was a fan of Motown). Ironically, many northern working-class British female singers in the Sixties sang songs that had originally been written for black artists in the US, but whose blackness was considered uncommercial in Britain. Cilla ‘Black’, for example, built her career out of covering Dionne Warwick hits (much to Dionne’s distress, apparently).
Even her pals, the Beatles, from Cilla’s hometown of Liverpool, and of mainly Irish immigrant descent, began as Chuck Berry impersonators, and later included on their records songs originally performed by black girl groups. In Britain, to be northern, working class and Irish, as Steven Patrick Morrissey knew only too well, was the next best worst thing to being a nigger. Not for nothing did his skinny spiritual antecedent, the southern Anglo-Irish malcontent John Lydon title his autobiography after a notice which was a common sight in the windows of London rooming houses in the Fifties: ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’ (it wasn’t necessary to add ‘No Northerners’ as a strictly controlled internal passport system meant that until the Sixties northerners weren’t permitted south of Newport Pagnell).
Is God alive?
I’m far too provincial to answer that question.
Rolling Stone, 1999
Mind you, just as ‘blackness’ turned out to be a quality not entirely exclusive to blacks, ‘northerness’ wasn’t exclusive to the North of Britain. Since the Northern Woman was an archetype, she didn’t actually have to be from the North geographically — just emotionally. For young Steven, London’s Dusty Springfield, aka Mary O’Brien, with her soulful singing style, beehive, extravagant eye shadow and not entirely convincing/over convincing femininity, qualified immediately.
But standing head and rather broad-shouldered above them all, was Sandie Shaw, née Sandra Goodrich, ‘the princess of Britpop’, who hailed from Dagenham, a dour-but-doughty working-class ‘motortown’ downwind and downriver of London. Steven fell swooningly in love with Sandie (eventually consummating his passion in 1984 when he persuaded and cajoled her out of retirement to cover his beloved ‘Hand in Glove’, the song that Sandie had being trying to sing all her life).
It’s fantastic working with Sandie Shaw — it’s like meeting myself in a former life.
Sandie was not just any old pop singer, but a true star in the sense that she embodied all sorts of contradictions. Her voice was strong but soft, giving it unusual depth, and her big hit songs conveyed a happy melancholia, hinting at a psychological complexity beneath their apparent straightforwardness. Songs such as the poignant urban hymn ‘(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me’ (probably responsible for Steven’s later weakness for overlong single titles), the extravagantly bitter-sweet ‘Girl Don’t Come’, the clearly influential ‘Heaven Knows I’m Missing Him Now’, and the paradoxically self-pitying ‘Stop Feeling Sorry for Yourself’ (‘don’t sit there on the shelf/get out, stop feeling sorry for yourself today’), a song which dispenses wise advice but somehow only encourages you to ignore it, and which was obviously written specially for Steven. Even her exuberant smash hit ‘Long Live Love’ (‘Venus must have heard my plea/she has sent someone along for me’) seems to have a kind of implicit ironic pessimism to its very naïvety. The dark side even makes itself felt in her 1967 Eurovision winner ‘Puppet on a String’, which for all the lyric’s grating shallowness, and the mechanical Euroompapa orchestration, Sandie manages to somehow suggest it might be a reference to toy execution.
I liked ‘(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me’ because it sounded as if she’d just walked in off the street and begun to sing, and strolled back home and bought some chips. Good old Essex.
Brit Girls, 1997
Nor was Sandie an unambiguous figure herself. She was not exactly the shape that a girl was supposed to be: tall, big-boned. Worse, she had a reputation for being somewhat strong-headed and didn’t appear much bothered with pretending to be ladylike. She also had ideas that a girl wasn’t supposed to have, taking an interest in left-wing politics and feminism — probably part of the reason she came to loathe ‘Puppet’ with its vacuously submissive if not downright masochistic refrain.
We don’t talk about that [‘Puppet on a String’]. Not round here.
Brit Girls, 1997
Through the alchemy of Sixties pop music and thanks to the rising tide of androgyny, Sandie became loved, prized, beautiful; she became a star. And apparently on her own terms. Shucking her shoes off on Ready Steady Go was a sexy gesture of liberation from restrictive definitions of femininity which Steven recognised completely (more substantively, perhaps, behind the scenes she also retained tight artistic control and was producer of most of her music, a fact that went publicly unacknowledged for more than twenty years). Although her songs were often sad, and about suffering at the hands of men, Sandie, by dint of her personality and that belting voice, came to represent a new feminine independence and optimism.
There were other, more native Northern Women who made it on to Steven’s TV screen in the Sixties. Granada TV’s Coronation Street, Britain’s first soap opera, was full of them. Set in a cobbled street of terraced houses in Manchester and centred on the corner pub, The Rover’s Return, Coronation Street managed to capture (and fetishize) working class life at the very moment that it was changing for ever, as a result of the rise of consumer and pop culture which the show itself symbolised (it was paid for by advertising).
Coronation Street was first broadcast on ITV, Britain’s only commercial channel at the time, in 1960 and rapidly became a big hit nationwide, still dominating the ratings today and also an institution of Manchester life. The characters — and they really were characters — soon took on a life of their own and ‘Corrors’ as it was known locally became more Manchester than Manchester, something that Mancunians had to watch or else miss out on what it meant to be Mancunian. ‘Corrors’ gave the residents of this ‘backward’ Northern mill town, including young Steven Morrissey, some early lessons in post-modernism and irony — and how life can be made to imitate art.
Usually North Country people are shown as gormless whereas in actual fact they are very alive and cynical.
Like most soap operas, Coronation Street was aimed largely at women, and tended to portray them as very much in control, tough, wise and self-reliant, but also vulnerable and often tragicomic creatures forever being let down by the fickleness of foolish men whenever they made the fatal mistake of not treating them like aberrant little boys or mental retards — men whose masculinity always proves sadly lacking next to their own. As one Eighties character, Susie, a young, dodgy strumpet-type bestowed with great psychological insight memorably remarked, ‘Men! They’re all limp lettuces aren’t they Gail?’ This was partly flattery of the show’s core audience and partly social verity — the north is a devoutly matriarchal culture. However, the ‘Corrors’ girls’ battery of caustic put downs, tart common sense, and fondness for gallows humour barely disguised a deeply romantic worldview; one that had been disappointed time and time again in its contact with the world in general and men in particular, but often took a perverse, I-told-me-so consolation from that disappointment. The credo of pop culture, in other words — or at least of the kind of pop culture Steven was devoted to.
To Steven, Coronation Street was not a TV programme but nothing less than Utopia in a cathode ray tube. It featured characters that were entirely familiar to him — were him, to some degree, and were certainly family — but the like of which had never been seen or even acknowledged before on television (with the possible exception of afternoon re-runs of Bette Davis movies, America’s own, aristocratic version of the especially impossible Northern Woman). For a boy rapidly retreating into the wasteland of his head, it was a world that he could be part of from the comfort and safety of his own (matriarchal) home. Most enticingly of all, ‘Corrors’ offered Steven some hope — if Coronation Street could be a hit, perhaps there might be a place in the world of pop culture for a mummy’s boy from the streets of Stretford. He bombarded Granada TV with scripts and storylines, all of which were politely declined, perhaps because the producers suspected that Steven was pitching for more than a writer’s credit; that really he was asking to be allowed to live on Coronation Street, probably with Elsie Tanner, played by that ‘force of nature’ Pat Phoenix (who would later be officially canonised through her appearance on the sleeve of ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’).
Oh she [Pat Phoenix] was simply a blizzard of professionalism — of goodwill, of warmth — she was like a hurricane. She just simply exploded into the room and I was quite taken aback by this. You simply wanted to rush towards her bosom, and — you know — remain there forever.
Record Mirror, 1985
Fortunately, Steven didn’t go to live with Elsie Tanner (or disappear into her bosom). Instead, he went to live with a dreamy, gawky girl called Jo, in her dilapidated bedsit in Salford. Jo was the creation of Shelagh Delaney in her winsome play A Taste of Honey written in 1956 and made into a film in 1961 by Tony Richardson, now seen as one of the best examples of the short-lived New Realism movement in British cinema, before the escapism, materialism — and commercial success — of US-targeted Bond movies sidelined kitchen-sink drama to the small screen. Morrissey’s voice may be that of the Northern Woman, but it is supremely the voice of one Northern Woman in particular: Shelagh. Such was the influence of this one, in some ways rather slight, but in other ways extraordinary play on Morrissey that references to it run through his entire oeuvre like the lettering in a stick of Blackpool rock. Sandie may have been the love of his pre-teen years, but Shelagh was the love of his adolescence, reaching him in a way that no one else had done before: emotionally and intellectually.
Jo: You’ve got terrible tendencies, haven’t you?
Geof: How do you mean?
Jo: You like everything to be just that little bit out of date, don’t you? Clothes, books, women.
Shelagh Delaney, A Taste of Honey
Shelagh was swallowed whole by a ravenously lonely boy and eagerly incorporated into his world. In fact, A Taste of Honey became his world, in much the same way that, years later, Morrissey’s own work would provide an alternative, symbolically rich landscape for millions of other lonely kids to inhabit/moon about in. Just as his words were to provide a generation with its inspiration, so Shelagh’s provided him with his own.
Shelagh isn’t the only writer whose words have been taken on loan by Morrissey — the Big Nosed roll of honour includes Dorothy Parker, Elizabeth Smart, Joe Orton, Dame Edith Sitwell, Leonard Cohen, James Dean, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, Richard Allen and Jack Kerouac, to name just a privileged few. However, none of these, not even Oscar Wilde, provided Morrissey with the lyrical ‘inspiration’ that Shelagh did. The list of cribs from A Taste of Honey alone is so impressive it is worth setting out (more or less) in full:
‘Hand in Glove’: And I’ll probably never see you again
(‘I’ll probably never see you again. I know it!’)
‘Reel Around the Fountain’: I dreamt about you last night/and I fell out of bed twice (‘I dreamt about you last night. Fell out of bed twice’.);
You’re the bees knees/but so am I (‘You’re the bees knees, but so am I’.)
‘You’ve Got Everything Now’: As merry as the days were long
(‘As merry as the day is long’.)
‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’: Six months is a long time
(‘It’s a long time, six months’.)
‘I Don’t Owe You Anything’: (‘I don’t owe you anything’.)
‘Alma Matters’: It’s my life/to ruin/my own way
(‘Anyway, it’s your life, ruin it your own way’.)
‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’, an exquisitely mournful track, even by Morrissey’s moody standard, from the second album Hatful of Hollow, in which his voice hovers behind Marr’s lilting, stone-kicking, shoulder-shrugging riffs like a haunting painful-pleasurable memory is an intense, distilled, three-and-a-half-minute version of the play, where the ‘lifts’ come thick and fast: Wrap her up in the News of the World/dump her on a doorstep, girl (‘You can’t just wrap it up in a bundle of newspaper . . . and dump it on a doorstep.’). Characteristically, Morrissey improves the line by changing ‘newspaper’ to News of the World a Sunday scandal sheet otherwise known as News of the Screws — an ironic comment on an unwanted baby’s first contact with the harsh realities of life. In a river the colour of lead (That river, it’s the colour of lead.’); I’m not happy and I’m not sad (‘I’m not sorry and I’m not glad.’); and, most famously, The dream has gone but the baby is real (‘Oh well, the dream’s gone but the baby’s real enough.’)
Even I — even I — went a bit too far with A Taste of Honey.
Years later Morrissey was to accuse Suede’s Brett Anderson, someone who has clearly assembled himself from leftover bits of Seventies David Bowie frocks and spare Morrissey lyrics, of having reference points so close together that there was no space between them. An unkind and unenlightened person might have said the same about Morrissey’s early work. But these are more than simple ‘cribs’. As the man himself is fond of quoting: talent borrows; genius steals. Morrissey was no petty thief; he was much more professional than that. He turned up in a removal van outside Shelagh Delaney’s house in broad daylight, instinctively knowing which plant-pot she’d hidden her keys under and brazenly emptied her house of its contents. (The neighbours didn’t call the police because he looked the sort that Shelagh would hang around with.)
Morrissey took much more than mere words from A Taste of Honey; he took its world, its language and its voice, made them his own and in the process fashioned something new and yet timeless.
You’re nothing to me. I’m everything to myself.
Shelagh Delaney, A Taste of Honey
It isn’t too difficult to see why A Taste of Honey would have such an impact on a teenage Steven buried in his bedroom, hunched alternatively over a book or the manual typewriter his mother had bought him, trying to master the world through words. Written by Anglo-Irish Shelagh when she was just eighteen and set in her home town of Manchester, it is a bitter-sweet story of Jo (played in the film by a captivatingly goggle-eyed, slightly boyish Rita Tushingham), a misfit, bastard teenage girl struggling not to be a victim of fate, whether in the form of her sex, her class or her origins. She is the unwanted but not unloved product of her sluttish mother’s ‘little love affair that lasted five minutes’ with a ‘retarded’ man Jo never met (Jo’s ‘brass’ mother is played by the redoubtable Dora Brien in an extraordinary semi-comedy performance that is one of the great supporting roles of British cinema).
Exemplifying the awful injustice of original sin, Jo’s own birth ended her mother’s marriage, ensuring she never had a father and distancing her mother from her. And, to boot, may also have bestowed upon her a genetic predisposition to madness, a concern which preoccupies her throughout the play. Like all of us to some degree, and Morrissey more than most, Jo is an embarrassed, neurotic product of dissipated passion — it just so happens that the passion that produced her dissipated sooner than is usual in polite society.
I’m afraid that they [the British Sixties new realism films he loves] probably remind me of my childhood because I lived in lots of those circumstances and I also think that . . . I gaze upon them fondly because it was the first time in the entire history of film where regional dialects were allowed to come to the fore and people were allowed to talk about squalor and general depression and it wasn’t necessarily a shameful thing. It was quite positive . . . people were allowed to be real instead of being glamorous and Hollywoodian, if that is a word, and I sincerely hope it isn’t.
Morrissey on Australian radio, 1985
In an attempt to break away from her mother’s well-meaning if dissolute and distracted influence and taste what little sweetness life has to offer, Jo has an affair with a black sailor, another outsider in Fifties Manchester. He asks if she’s worried about being seen with him; she replies that she ‘doesn’t care’. ‘You mean it too,’ he says, impressed. ‘You’re the first girl I’ve met who really didn’t care.’ Jo, like our Steven, is already outside of society, so she really doesn’t care; she has nothing to lose (And if the people stare then the people stare/I really don’t know and I really don’t care). However, she knows — and perhaps half hopes — that despite the ring he’s given her and the way he is dreaming big dreams and planning big plans, ‘I’ll probably never see you again’. She’s proved right and discovers that she, like her mother and a billion other women before her, is pregnant with spent affection: ‘the dream has gone, but the baby is real enough’.
Having, half-gratifyingly, discovered love to be just a miserable lie, and reconciled herself to a single life, Jo embarks on a platonic romance, unlike any other love, with an effeminate homosexual art student who wants to mother her (and practically give birth to her baby himself) while she wears the trousers — two misfit bastards (Geof as ‘one of them’ is illegitimate by default), victims of and rebels against Nature, clinging, hand-in-glove together, refusing to be downtrodden, the sun shining out of their behinds. There is a slight, eerie premonition of Myra and Brady in this odd, outsider relationship, but with pathos instead of bloodlust, impossible desire instead of evil.
I’ll bash its brains out. I’ll kill it. I don’t want his baby, Geof. I don’t want to be a mother. I don’t want to be a woman.
Shelagh Delaney, A Taste of Honey
Taste is arrestingly realistic and matter-of-fact yet has a dream-like quality to it, something more pronounced in the film, which, even in 1961, seems to be already nostalgic for a disappearing Manchester; the black and white cinematography of cobbled streets and factory chimneys, together with the poignant use of light and dark, sunshine and gloom, lends an aesthetic reverie to the gritty documentary feel, especially when backed by the strangely bitter-sweet sound of children laughing and playing in the streets and continuously, endlessly, effortlessly singing hypnotic nursery rhymes (lyrically underscoring the pre-pop music context of Jo’s world, but also an echo to Morrissey of his own, solitary investment in singing to himself, something he spent much of his childhood doing).
There’s even a day trip for Jo and Geof to the moors outside Manchester, affording a distant, aerial view of the narrow streets (a sunlit, carefree visit now inevitably contrasted with the ‘sullen misty’ moors of Myra and Ian). Most of all, the film is steeped in the sense of disappointed desire, of happiness just out of reach, forever slipping away in plain view, like Jo’s sailor smiling and waving to her from the deck of his boat as he disappears down the Manchester Ship Canal, off on the ‘alley-alley-o’, taking his lying promise with him. In other words, Taste is the landscape, the mother country, the heart of much of Morrissey’s work, especially his Smiths period; it is a lyrical play whose affecting but plain-speaking poetry proceeds from ordinary people showing their extraordinary side, the ordinariness of extraordinariness. Likewise, it exists narcissistically in a world of its own, where it is everything to itself: the drama and all the characters seem to proceed from Jo’s adolescent imagination; they are merely aspects of her own predicament, conversations between her emotions. This is not so much a weakness as a strength and the source of the play’s — and Morrissey’s — mesmerising charm.
Women never have young minds. They are born three thousand years old.
Shelagh Delaney, A Taste of Honey
Unlike the other works by Fifties (usually northern) working class authors that were turned into films in the early Sixties, such as Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, Billy Liar, and Room at the Top, Taste was written from a female perspective, or rather intro-spective. Unashamedly self-absorbed, it manages to be genuinely ‘shocking’ and contemporary in its subject matter: adultery, promiscuity, teenage pregnancy, maternal irresponsibility, abortion, miscegenation, homosexuality, congenital madness . . . (if this list reads like an episode of Brookside, perhaps this is why, in the late Eighties, Morrissey made an appearance in a spin-off of that show called South). However, Taste managed to cover all these themes without being sensationalist, refusing to hide behind pompous gestures and pseudo politics. It isn’t a play about an angry young man, but a vaguely anxious young girl — a much more ‘universal’ subject, since most of us are vaguely anxious young girls at some point in our lives. And all of these characteristics — poetic naturalism, shocking without sensationalism, refusal of pompous gestures, dreamy introspection, a freshly feminine perspective — were to be features of Morrissey’s own work.
It has been pointed out that the ‘Sheila’ in The Smiths’ infectiously exuberant single ‘Sheila Take a Bow’ is probably Shelagh Delaney. The song certainly sounds like a tribute, but one which recognises the trap of self-sufficiency and isolation that lures those unruly boys and unruly girls who will not settle down — a trap which Morrissey can’t escape from. Like Jo, he’s speaking-singing to himself as much as anyone else, telling himself not to stay at home (not that he’s going to pay any heed, mind): ‘Is it wrong to want to live on your own?/No, it’s not wrong — but I must know/How can someone so young sing words so sad?’
Sheila/Shelagh/Jo/Morrissey/the listener is invited to take a bow and ‘boot the grime of this world in the crotch, dear,’ asserting her independence, her strength, her purity, but at the same time, in typical push-me-pull-me fashion, she’s told to come out ‘and find the one that you love and who loves you’, which is, in practise, as we all know, the ultimate compromise.
Morrissey is the one doing the singing, and it is he who tends to choose ‘sad’ words, yet in a sense, it is Shelagh’s voice that he sings in: boot the grime of this world in the crotch, dear. Taking his identification with the Northern Woman to its ultimate conclusion, and tallying with the picture of Candy Darling, the Warhol transsexual and inspiration for Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ on the single’s sleeve, Morrissey is clearly also the ‘Sheila’ of the song (perhaps this is partly why ‘Sheila’ is bowing rather than curtseying). In this way he’s just being true to Delaney’s own message. The gender roles within Geof and Jo’s relationship in Taste are very mixed up and unclear; it’s what makes their odd affair of two single people being single together seem so exciting, liberating, fresh — and ultimately doomed. It’s what makes it seem so genuinely touching — in places where you haven’t been touched before. Hence in ‘Sheila’ the identity and gender of the narrator, as in so many of Morrissey’s songs, is not so much unclear as transcended, providing both the male and female listener with multiple points of identification (the key to the subtle, fecund richness of so many Morrissey lyrics; even subject and object naughtily refuse to follow convention and switch positions frequently, sometimes playing top, sometimes bottom).
A little later, both the song’s and Morrissey’s own deliberately, exuberantly confused ‘transsexuality’ is spelt out in an invigoratingly casual fashion: You’re a girl and I’m a boy/La la, la-la, la-la/Take my hand and off we stride/La la la, la-la la-la, la/You’re a boy and I’m a girl/La la, la-la la-la.
It’s the childish, infectious, taunting, carelessness — wordlessness — of the ‘La la la, la-la la-la la’ which stays with the listener, haunting them long after the last chord dies away, like the sound of the children playing happily in the streets in A Taste of Honey. It’s a lyrical raspberry blown to the world and the destiny which it decrees is anatomy, a brazen, laughing, giggling, brawling challenge to convention and normality — a challenge which Morrissey, hand in hand with his inner ‘Sheila’, from ‘Girl Afraid’ to ‘Alma Matters’, was to continue delivering like an insult wrapped in a kiss for the rest of his career.
Did you hear TATU’s version of ‘How Soon is Now’?
Yes, it was magnificent. Absolutely. Again, I don’t know much about them.
They’re the teenage Russian lesbians.
Well, aren’t we all?
Jo should have been a pop star, but she appears to live in a world where pop music hasn’t been invented yet — at least for girls like her. Her ‘madness’ is the protest of someone suffocating, gasping, drowning — a child born prematurely but somehow still alive.
Morrissey would change all that. Morrissey, the ultimate, if highly unnatural evolution of the Northern Woman, made his masculine body the instrument of Jo’s frustrated, premature aspirations. He took her tough vulnerability, her girlish resolve, her proud awkwardness, her endearing neuroses, her dreamy realism, her Lancastrian scorn, and hand in hand with his own perversity he strode off with them into posterity — far surpassing the artistic achievements of all the Northern Woman pop stars of the Sixties he adored.
But all this was to come later. In the meantime, teenage Steven was to be abducted by a trans-sexuality much more overt and extreme than anything Delaney had ever come up with.
It was called the Seventies.
An excerpt from Saint Morrissey by Mark Simpson