“The Smiths are sooooooo depressing!” said every naff twat you knew in the Eighties – which was millions upon millions. But, annoying as it was, every time you heard that lazy dismissal it confirmed something deeply, almost sexually satisfying: that most people simply didn’t deserve to be Smiths fans.”
I wrote an essay for Rolling Stone celebrating the 30th anniversary of the demise of The Smiths, explaining why we’re really lucky that they split in 1987.
So I checked the register of historical facts, and was shocked and ashamed to discover The Queen is Dead was released thirty years ago.
To commemorate/commiserate three whole decades of vicars in tutus and boys with thorns in their sides – though we’re still waiting on Charles appearing in his mother’s bridal veil – the Kindle edition of my ‘psycho-bio’ Saint Morrissey is available to download for the next couple of days from Amazon US/UK for just 99 cents/pence.
MORRISSEY HAS ALWAYS enjoyed the last laugh. His entire career has been based on it. Back in the 1980s, when he was in his pomp as the pompadoured front man of The Smiths – and loudly rejecting everything the 1980s stood for – Morrissey was asked if he thought that success was a form of revenge. “Absolutely and entirely a form of revenge,” he agreed. But revenge for what? “Well, for everything, on everybody,” he replied. “So now I can just sit back every night – when Minder is finished – and just chuckle, deafeningly.”
Right now he must be chuckling so deafeningly the neighbours are complaining to the council. Wherever it is he lives these days.
His much anticipated, much delayed, much-discussed eponymously titled autobiography is sweet revenge indeed. Has any book in recent memory not actually about wizards provoked so much interest? Before even its existence was certain? Before anyone seems to have read the thing?
Whatever its contents – and your guess is as good as mine – Autobiography is already stamped with Big Mouth’s trademark scorn. The photo on the book jacket (pictured), offering the world his not insubstantial chin. The apparent absence of review copies, ensuring his critics will have to pay to have their ha’pence worth – and everyone and my mother has an opinion on Morrissey.
But the best and biggest joke of all is that it doesn’t matter what they scribble. Or in a way, what he’s written: Morrissey has succeeded in getting Penguin to put his memoirs out as a Penguin Classic. The Bard of Stretford is somewhere between Montaigne and More. Someone who has always been openly obsessed with turning himself into a “living sign” (and the Amazon blurb mentions the word “icon” twice) – is now officially an instant classic. Penguin say so. So there.
A flabbergasted literary world has rushed to remind Morrissey that he just hasn’t earned it yet, baby. But in actual historical fact he already has.
Before he found something much more rewarding to do, the young, lonely Steven Patrick Morrissey wanted nothing so much as to be a writer. From his box bedroom in his mother’s council house in suburban Manchester this autodidact who left school at sixteen typed out screeds to the NME, and pamphlets about his twin obsessions, glam punk band The New York Dolls and James Dean. His mother was a librarian, and he famously quipped later: “I was born in Manchester Central Library. In the crime section.”
But Johnny Marr came calling and Morrissey became one of the most unlikely, most literary of popsters – using pop music as a giant fax machine to tell the world the story of his life: insisting that his lyrics, which often “borrowed” from the writers he admired, be printed on the record sleeves. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if – and part of me hopes – his memoir turns out to be just his collected lyrics, with some hand-drawn titivation in the margins.
And what lyrics! Morrissey is unquestionably the greatest lyricist of desire – and thus of frustration – who ever moaned. If a young Oscar Wilde, another one of Morrissey’s idols, had heard The Smiths he wouldn’t have bothered writing plays. He’d have formed a band.
But part of the drama of Autobiography, part of what makes his book such an event that provokes such curiosity from all sides, is that despite turning it into great art, and becoming a global star, the actual details of Morrissey’s private life have remained resolutely private. Which is a shocking, almost indecent achievement in a culture as sure of its entitlement to know everything as ours is today.
Perhaps it’s just sour grapes on the part of a writer who was never a pop star, but having created this mystique, this cherished iconic status through his art and through his quaint obsession with old skool stardom in an age of mere celebrity, can it, I wonder, survive confession? Can prose compare to bloody poetry? Will he kiss and tell? Will he settle scores? And has Penguin dared to edit him?
But most of all, will he finally say “sorry” for stealing away the hearts of a generation?
Because the 80s is the decade that actually ended the 20th Century – the 90s was just an after-party clean-up operation – it’s also the decade that never came to an end itself. In fact, the 80s is the decade that just won’t die.
Economy in (‘Big Bang’) recession. Tories in power. Cuts on the table. Riots on the streets. Royal weddings on the telly. The Falklands becoming a fighting issue. And my mother complaining about Morrissey: ‘I see that chap you like so much has been in the papers again. Ridiculous man! And he still can’t sing!’
As Madonna might put it, it’s all a bit reductive.
In fact everyone has been enjoying moaning about Morrissey lately – just like the good old days. In case you somehow missed it, at a performance in Argentina last week, his band appeared in t-shirts printed with the charming message ‘WE HATE WILLIAM AND KATE’ (remember 80s protest t-shirts?).
Perhaps worried this might be overlooked back home, the former Smiths front-man also offered this bouquet to his Argentine fans about those bitterly contested, sparsely-populated rocks in the South Atlantic: ‘Everybody knows they belong to you’.
The Times, Mirror, Telegraph, Sun and Mail all dutifully denounced Morrissey’s big mouth. The Guardian for its part ran an earnest discussion between two music critics titled: ‘Is Morrissey a national treasure?’ (The answer seemed to be ‘yes – but a very naughty one.’)
Not bad for a 52-year-old crooner currently without a record contract. But then, just like that other 80s diva keen on hairspray and frilly-collared blouses, we’ll never entirely be rid of him.
The British experience of the 80s is forever dominated by two very difficult personalities. Both from the north, both unafraid to speak their mind, and both possessing a gender all of their own.
And while one was a working-class militant vegetarian anarchist Sandie Shaw fan with a flair for homoerotic imagery, and the other a bossy petit bourgeois social Darwinist and devotee of General Pinochet who famously outlawed the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, both of them were radicals on a revenge trip.
But if Margaret Thatcher owned the 80s, Steven Patrick Morrissey stole its youth. Or at least, the youth that didn’t want to be a part of Thatcher’s 80s. The Smiths were not just an‘alternative’ band: they were the alternative that Maggie said didn’t exist.
In fact, The Smiths were reviled by almost everyone at the time – Fleet Street, the BBC (they were effectively banned from daytime Radio 1), the record business (they were signed to a teeny-weeny Indie label), and indeed most of the record buying public (their singles struggled to even get into the top 20).
But they have become the heart of a decade that didn’t have one. They are now the band that everyone liked – two or three decades after the event.
Including, most famously, David Cameron, who used The Smiths and Morrissey as a Tory re-branding and detoxifying tool at least as important as those melting glaciers he went to gawp at. Declaring The Smiths his favourite group not long after gaining the leadership of the ‘Nasty Party’, he was even pictured, if memory serves me right, with a copy of Morrissey’s 2005 album Ringleader of the Tormentors on his desk.
But Morrissey, whatever you may think of him, isn’t a man to be assimilated lightly. Especially by a Chipping Norton Tory.
When, in 2010, his estranged former Smiths collaborator Johnny Marr tweeted that he ‘forbade’ David Cameron from liking the Smiths, animal rights activist Morrissey endorsed him, adding:
‘David Cameron hunts and shoots and kills stags – apparently for pleasure. It was not for such people that either Meat Is Murder or The Queen Is Dead were recorded; in fact, they were made as a reaction against such violence.’
No-one can be genuinely surprised that someone who called an album The Queen is Dead is fiercely anti-Royalist. No-one can be shocked that the man who sang ‘Irish Blood English Heart’ is no fan of the remnants of the British Empire. And let’s not forget his famous 1984 quip: ‘The sorrow of the Brighton bombing is that Margaret Thatcher escaped unscathed’, or the track ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’ for his 1988 album Viva Hate.
Unless, that is, they hoped that Morrissey had mellowed with age and become some sort of singing Stephen Fry with a quiff. Morrissey’s views haven’t changed. Morrissey hasn’t changed. He still hasn’t grown up. He’s still an adolescent curmudgeon, an otherworldly prophet from Stretford – he’s just older and thicker around the middle, and with a bit more cash to spend. He did, after all, promise us again and again that he wouldn’t change, couldn’t change.
It’s we, his fans, who have changed. If we’re embarrassed by his antics it may be because we’ve finally become the people we used to hate.
I shall never be able to play The Smiths again without thinking of Prime Minster David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague sharing a hotel room – and Cameron complaining about Hague’s disappointing endowment.