This chapter from Mark Simpson’s Saint Morrissey was serialised by Salon.com in April 2004 as ‘The Pop Star Who Hated Sex’
It’s not the marrying love between us, thank God
– Shelagh Delaney, A Taste of Honey
Morrissey’s just an old closet queen
– Boy George
Whatever people say I am, I’m not. God knows what I am
– Albert Finney, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
Of all the attention Steven Patrick Morrissey has garnered in his pop career, he is perhaps best known for not doing the nasty. His abstinence is seen as symbol, proof and cause of his eccentricity. After all, in an age utterly obsessed with and possessed by SEX such party-pooping is inconsiderate, anti-democratic, downright unhealthy and well, positively sinful. Worse, in a pop star who hasn’t been knighted and whose main audience isn’t grandmas it’s actually heretical.
As Oscar Wilde put it, celibacy is the only real perversion; and in Morrissey’s eyes, this was a good enough argument for practicing it. Like any form of Utopianism, reinventing sex requires you to renounce the thing you want to reinvent. Paradoxically, although celibacy is perhaps the least innocent sexual option — renouncing sex makes everything sexual — publicly it provided Morrissey with the innocence he needed to carry off his seductive-seditious project.
In order to be above sexuality, the prophet of the fourth sex had to be above sex. And in a world which can only, on a good day, conceive of two and a half sexes, the prophet of the fourth had to “take the vows” (and marry not Jesus but himself) to avoid being enmeshed in a dreary, mundane, mind-numbing parochial-ness. Whatever he did, whatever the mechanics and topography of his nakedness with another person, and the all-important, all-consuming details of whether their genitalia were internal or external, would be taken as the complete explanation of Morrissey himself — what he was, how he wore his hair, how he tied his shoelaces and, of course, the rationale behind his whole oeuvre. He would, in other words, lose control of his own narrative, surrender his own authorship. He would cease to be his own special creation and become instead someone else’s dirty joke.
“What do you like in your music?
I can’t forgive anybody a bad lyric really. I like to think a singer is singing with a sense of immediate death. The Gallows Humour, lah de dah. That it’s the last song I’ll ever sing, quite literally. I like singers to sing with desperation.
Well you know, desperation, humour, what’s the difference?
Well, yes, humour; we’ve mentioned sex.”
— NME, 1989
Celibacy massively enhanced Morrissey’s stardom by turning him into a conundrum, a puzzle that had to be solved. As a highly sexual pop star who renounced sex, he made himself the Rosetta Stone of sex itself and found himself interrogated about his “sex life” like no other pop star had ever been before. (By way of contrast, Boy George’s infamous “I prefer a cup of tea” remark was rather too eagerly believed.)
“Where does the anguish and the hate come from?
As with most things, I’m still trying to find out.
Why can you fall in love so easily with images, but not with people?
I’m still trying to find out.”
— Blitz, 1988
In an age fascinated with telling the secret of sex, over and over again, Morrissey had to be made to talk. In interview after interview the celibate star would be pushed up against the wall, bright lights shone into his eyes, and made to explain his alibi over and over again in the hope of catching him out. Tricks mixed with threats mixed with wheedling pleadings in an attempt to get this most uncooperative of witnesses to turn Queen’s Evidence.
“You must get a few propositions these days …
Not many! The shock of the whole thing to me is that not many situations do arise. I thought literally queues upon queues would form, but it’s not the case. After the end of a sizzling performance, where people are simply eating each other to get close to the stage, I find myself back at the hotel with Scrabble and an orange. It’s all very curious.”
— Jamming, 1984
“What is your ideal sexual experience?
I don’t have a vision of it at all. Why do people ask me questions like this?
Because you ask for it. You’re the only person who can seriously be asked those questions.
Oh, come now.
Is there any sex in Morrissey?
None whatsoever. Which in itself is quite sexy.”
— Blitz, 1988
“Well, I don’t believe you haven’t ever gone out with anyone, Stephen [sic].
Well, I haven’t, so put that in your Sony cassette and … [laughs sharply] I really haven’t.
But you’re a human being.
You’ve no evidence of that. Artists aren’t really people. And I’m actually 40 percent papier maché.”
— Melody Maker, 1997
One biographer even announced that he was writing a book about Morrissey’s “love life,” an exceptional, if slightly disturbing, accolade (though, oddly, years later, there’s still no sign of it). Clearly, by making his private life a tabula rasa, Morrissey succeeded in provoking everyone to write all over it.
“What is the greatest myth about fame?
That someone somewhere consequently wants to sleep with you.”
Interviewers frequently asked him point blank if he was gay. When this got nowhere, in their terms, some would resort to cutting out the question altogether and just going straight to the answer they wanted. One grilling him for an American rock magazine in the early Eighties announced: “Morrissey is a man who says he’s gay” — without providing any quotes to back the statement up. As a consequence of this, Morrissey and The Smiths were perceived in the US almost from the beginning as a “gay act,” something which did not exactly help them, but rather more importantly it simply wasn’t true. This journalist was merely doing his job, however. He was just simplifying things for his readers, just filling in the gaps, just helping Morrissey “out” — as more and more people have been inclined to do as Morrissey’s career has progressed. Since Morrissey was openly admitting, nay flaunting – in his work – the fact that he wasn’t “straight,” he must, therefore be “gay.” Stands to reason, dunnit?
What these very helpful, very kind people forgot, however, was that the law “what’s not one thing must be t’other,” absolutely correct and inviolable as it is, is a law which only applies to stupid people. And journalists.
“Are you gay?
I feel that I am quite vulnerable and that’s quite good enough because I wouldn’t want to be thought of as Tarzan or Jane. … I don’t recognize such terms as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual and I think it’s important that there’s someone in pop music who’s like that. These words do great damage, they confuse people and they make people feel unhappy so I want to do away with them.”
— Star Hits, 1985
“There was that quote in …
Here we go, here we go …
that you were gay or something like that.
Yes I know.
How do you view that?
Well, I just think it’s all so untrue and I think it’s so unfair, I mean, obviously, any kind of a tag I’ll dodge. I’ll really dodge any kind of a tag, whatever it is … I’m not embarrassed about the word ‘gay’ but it’s not in the least bit relevant. I’m beyond that frankly.”
— Australian Radio, 1985
“You write a lot about the homosexual experience …
Well … not a lot.
OK, you write a lot about homosexual ‘longing.’
I’ve always said I leave things very open and that I sing about people. Without limitation. And I don’t think that automatically makes me a homosexual.
You’ve always taken offence at that word.
Because it’s limiting and restrictive.”
— The Face, 1990
“What about camp flirting?
I never do that.
I knew you’d stray. I knew as soon as I mentioned ‘camp’ you’d stray from the real meaning of the word. I knew you’d suddenly think of feathers and things like that. No, I don’t flirt. You were there at Wolverhampton, you could see the steam, there was aggression.”
— NME, 1989
Some have pointed to the fact that Morrissey has admitted to both male and female (rather unsatisfactory) encounters in his life and wondered why he didn’t simply announce that he was bisexual. Well, perhaps because bisexuality isn’t an escape from sexuality at all, it’s two sexualities. Moreover, it suggests twice the opportunity instead of merely twice the frustration. Yes, Morrissey’s struggle to resist the iron law of “sexuality” which most of the rest of us have to submit to was always flagrantly self-important and lofty. Teenage even. But isn’t that what artists and stars — rather than common-or-garden celebrities — are for? Morrissey’s ambition, his perversity, his sensibility was far too large, too talented, too vicious to be fitted into this harmless, silly, precious, sequinned little word “gay.” (He would assert repeatedly that he had nothing against “g” people themselves, but then who could blame him if he did?)
“Have you got a love life?
I’m not answering that question.
Because you’re just too nosey, you don’t deserve to know. “
— On “The Janice Long Show” on BBC Radio 2, 2002
Throughout his career the pressure on him to “come out” (with his hands up) increased. This capitulation was allegedly for “Morrissey’s own good,” a contemporary version of that line from old cop shows: “make it easy on yourself, kid.” The skinny spectre of the camp “Carry On” star Kenneth Williams, who claimed not to be interested in sex but admired workmen’s oiled bodies in his private diary, was invoked rather too facilely. Besides, it wasn’t as if Kenneth Williams was someone whose existential problems and narcissistic erotic attachment to his own sexual repression and isolation would have been solved by an appearance on “Gaytime TV,” a cocktail kiss from Serena McKellan and a bottle of poppers. (Well, maybe the poppers might have helped.) People nowadays seem to imagine that ‘sexual identity’ is a place where people find themselves and true love, rather than the place where they lose all hope.
“Is celibacy really a victory of guilt over lust?
I wish it was, I wouldn’t feel so badly about it then. In fact, I wish it had any purpose whatsoever. It certainly wasn’t something I ever tried to instil on the public at large — I never expected a massive movement of celibates storming down Whitehall — it was just something that slipped out really. In a manner of speaking.”
— Melody Maker, 1987
By the late Nineties the fashion for “coming out” had reached a feverish pitch; people who had once been happy to hear as little as possible about gayness began to outpace even gayists in their dogmatic insistence on the need for “honesty.” A married British MP caught visiting a male pick-up area was clapped in the stocks by the press, tabloid and “quality,” not because of the homosexual dimension, they claimed, but for his “hypocrisy” and “denial” about his sexuality (he refused to “confess” that he was gay). Even the President of the United States faced impeachment for not coming out about his extra-marital (non-penile vaginal and therefore, under the law of many US states, “sodomitical”) “sex” life. And in 1998 that other sexually ambiguous British pop performer, George Michael, whose shuttle-cock-stuffed shrink-to-fit perma-crotch was launched on the world around the same time as Morrissey’s shrub-stuffed baggy-arsed jeans, was caught “performing” in a public toilet — in a painful pincer movement involving the British tabloid press and the Beverly Hills Police Department.
“Sex is a waste of batteries.”
— Melody Maker, 1986
The refusal up until this time of the “elusive” Mr Michael to make a public announcement about his private life (despite having all but announced his orientation in his more recent work and interviews) apparently amounted to a crime of global proportions. Realizing the game was up, and ever the consummate showman, he responded by giving the public what they wanted — he out-tabbed the tabloids, and confessed all in televised interviews in the US and the UK. By co-operating fully with the authorities — and the public — in regard to his sexuality he was able to avoid having to express any shame about the arrest, and instead was actually able to go on the offensive and allege he was the victim of police entrapment. He even released an hilariously vengeful single and video called “Outside” which turned his arrest into a celebration of “sexuality” and “public sex.”
Ironically, though, the brightly lit, out-and-proud undeniably catchy “Outside” was so concerned with sunny self-justification and literally shame-less self-promotion it failed to capture anything “outside” at all, and said much less about the real, shadowy nature of desire and compulsions than his “in-the-closet” songs such as “Fastlove” or “Spinning The Wheel.” Or — it goes without saying — any of Morrissey’s criminally ambiguous and evasive “outside” songs. In truth, “Outside” effectively marked the end of George Michael’s career as a serious artist. Not because “coming out” turned the straight world against him, but because, paradoxically, it meant that he could no longer write about “inside” feelings honestly. He could only be a spokesperson.
“Were you being slightly flippant when you said your love songs were written from total guesswork?
No, I was being absolutely serious. Which isn’t really funny.”
— Melody Maker, 1985
Perhaps, as many people appear to be convinced, Morrissey is simply lying. Perhaps secretly he is the life and soul of Elton John’s hot-tub parties, has his own booth at Heaven nightclub, possesses Europe’s largest collection of peaked caps, and has a live-in boyfriend who is Kylie Minogue’s personal stylist and colonic-irrigationist. (Funnily enough, no one ever seems to think that Morrissey’s “really” covering up a life of secret heterosexual bliss, even though being outed as straight, i.e. post-Seventies Bowie, would probably be much more embarrassing for him).
But if Morrissey is just fooling us, just “living a lie,” how do you explain his work? How do you explain the obvious, undeniable, massive, throbbing sublimation not just of eros but life into his songs? Why, in other words, would this pathologically, paralytically, criminally shy creature bother to get up on the stage and sing at all?
Despite an acknowledgement of sorts in the 90s that he had finally succumbed, albeit briefly, to some kind of relationship with a young Cockney boxer (and, in all honesty, who wouldn’t?), and heavy hints that celibacy and he had parted company, Morrissey resolutely refused the blandishments of the press and refused to kiss and tell and show the home video — except in his “enigmatic” songs — and the gossip and speculation continued. Perhaps because he was not vulgarly famous enough to warrant the kind of media gang-bang at gunpoint which Mr Michael endured, perhaps because he was not quite as reckless, or perhaps simply because he still didn’t really have much of a “sex life” at all, Morrissey was able to continue protecting and preserving the virtue of his private life — such as it is.
Many of Morrissey’s fans however recognize his celibacy as a saintly gesture and continue to believe in it rather like Catholics believe in the virgin birth (which is to say: “I know very well that …, nevertheless …”). For most of his career it had proved the seriousness of his commitment, even if it was to his own misery. He might perform before a crowd of thousands, he might be mobbed by ecstatic, sweating fans, male and female, eager to hug and kiss him until they were finally dragged away by bouncers, but he returned to an empty bed every night — the perfect vantage-point from which to observe other people’s messy love lives.
“I find that people who are knee-deep in emotion and physical commitment with human beings, I find they’re often totally empty of any real passion … I mean, if we look back on the history of literature, it’s always these really creased, repressed hysterics, if you like, who are enchained in these squalor-ridden rooms, who say the most poetic things about the human race.”
— Melody Maker, 1984
Celibacy, which as has been pointed out by others actually, pedantically means a refusal to get married, crystallized Morrissey’s image as the loneliest man in the world, and only enhanced his appeal to those proceeding through the loneliest time of life — adolescence. It is a period which is often — even in this day and age when sex is more compulsory than taxes — excruciatingly characterized in the relationship department by lots of thought but little action; a peculiarly pleasurable pain which Morrissey vocalizes as no other has. In publicly eschewing the consolations of coupledom, perhaps the only remaining religious faith in the Western world, he once again displays his genius for turning a powerless, frustrating situation (rejection) into an extremely powerful and satisfying one (rejecting) — again, something which powerless, frustrated adolescents under an entirely inhuman pressure to couple/conform could relate to.
“I constantly spectate upon people who are entwined and frankly I’m looking upon souls in agony. I can’t think of one relationship in the world which has been harmonious. It just doesn’t happen.”
— NME, 1984
Morrissey’s refusal to cop off was not a cop-out but an extremely brave avowal of his understanding of human relations and the futility, as he saw it, of intimacy; his life was the theory and his work was the practice, not the other way round. Pop music was his exhibitionistic route to a virtual, ironic intimacy — which in some ways has turned out to be rather more successful, and certainly longer-lasting, than the usual, “real” variety. When, during a particularly extravagant performance of “William, It Was Really Nothing” on Top of the Pops in 1984, he tore off his shirt to show the family audience tucking into their tea the words ‘MARRY ME’ scrawled in magic marker across his scrawny chest, he was making a proposition to everyone in general and no one in particular — or was it vice versa? Whatever, his proposal was accepted wholeheartedly by millions, many of whom, twenty years on, still remain faithful; countless actual, living human beings have come and gone out of their lives and have been forgotten. But not Morrissey. Even those who think they’re over him, who think they walked out on him or that he walked out on them years ago, know deep down, in those really squidgy bits they don’t let anyone else see, that they’ll never ever be rid of him. The more they ignore him, the closer he gets.
“I’ve still yet to touch perfection … I’ll know it when I do it, and I think it will be totally enchanting to affect other people’s lives with a form of perfection. It will be like marriage!”
— Morrissey, Blitz, 1988
Crucially, Morrissey’s terminal singleness meant that the fans could possess him through his work — which was full of him and his eroticism in a way that his life wasn’t — reassured in the knowledge that there was no one else, no shameless groupie nor jammy live-in lover who could possess him more fully, more authentically, than they. Morrissey’s work and his public performance was, in effect, his “private life.” His songs offered an intimacy which most people wouldn’t inflict on their life-long lovers. Morrissey was a fan who had crossed the bedsit Rubicon and became a star, but he had somehow retained the fan’s greatest defining feature: frustration. He did not act out his fans’ unfulfilled fantasies so much as embody them. His famous celibacy told his fans that he was still one of them, still lying alone on the floor of his bedroom listening to records and moaning mother me smother me — just as they were, even and especially those clever swine who had grown up and got married.
“I’m just simply inches away from a monastery and I feel that perhaps if I wasn’t doing this that I probably would be in one … which of course is a frightening thing to dwell upon.”
— Picture Disk, 1984
Morrissey has no need of sex with people so long as he continues to have it with his audience. Each stage performance is so obviously a sexual release — one of the things which makes his concerts so memorable and so sublimely, indecently unprofessional. If the yelps and yowls and the desperate, ecstatic falsettos on tracks such as “This Charming Man,” “Barbarism Begins at Home” or “Maladjusted” hint powerfully at an orgasmic release, onstage they turn into a form of musical pole dancing — a protruding, curling fleshy tongue, a salacious smile, a sadistic whipping of his mike cable, a coquettish swing of those magnificently inhibited hips, a tempting spasm of his shiftless body, a golden sparkly shirt torn from his back and flung into an audience which, as one, pounces on it and renders it to the tiniest, dampest, most fragrant fragments, while the curious love-object himself lies on the stage writhing around in ecstasy-agony or on his back, legs akimbo airborne or draped over a monitor in an obliging gesture towards his audience. A Morrissey gig is an extraordinary, epic, religious prick-tease. But then, this is the self-conscious nature of his relationship with his audience: “Tell me tell me that you love me/oh, I know you don’t mean it.” (“Tomorrow”)
“Do you ever go out dancing, stuff like that?
Heavens no! I can only do that in front of four thousand people. It’s the answer to everything.”
Morrissey’s celibacy is the symbol of his central contradiction. For all his bravura posturing as the loneliest monk, he can’t quite make up his mind whether he is rejected or rejecting, which is itself the basic and irresolvable problem of self-consciousness. He keeps people at a distance because he feels too good for the world and the people in it, and because he feels he isn’t nearly good enough for the world or the people in it. “I Know It’s Over,” an emotionally exhausting, scourging track on The Queen is Dead, begins with the immortal, self-immolating lines: “Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head/and as I climb into an empty bed/Oh well, Enough said.” Climbing into an empty bed is compared, typically, to a kind of burial; at the same time it expresses the worry that he might go from the womb to the tomb without ever encountering any other kind of intimacy.
“Desire is excruciating to me, and as far as I know that’s all there is. I can’t imagine response, and I can’t imagine being loved by somebody whom one loves.”
— Details, 1992
The joke here, of course, is that for Morrissey there never is “enough said” about the matter, as the whingeing title of the track that immediately follows this, “Never Had No One Ever,” demonstrates. However, in “I Know It’s Over,” celibacy is portrayed as essentially a rejection of life — all his achievements, including his art, are just empty distractions and consolations that, in the end, merely underline even more sharply this basic failure. He taunts himself, asking if you’re so terribly good looking and entertaining “then why do you sleep alone tonight?” the answer the voice in his head hisses is, “because tonight is just like any other night.” You are on your own, he tells himself, with your “triumphs and your charms/while they are in each other’s arms.”
The question “why are you on your own tonight?” is the essential problem of loneliness, the question which solitude asks repeatedly of itself, and which can never be satisfactorily answered, even and especially by someone who has actually chosen loneliness, or at least likes to think he has (when it suits him). It is a constant theme of Morrissey’s work that he would dearly love to be normal, and sex, after all, is something that we hope will render us human.
“Which song do you wish you had written?
‘Loneliness Remembers What Happiness Forgets’ (Bacharach-David).
— Q, 1995
Of course, Morrissey’s wish to be normal can be expressed only because there is no chance of it ever being granted; it is another, equally constant theme of his work that he’s glad he isn’t normal. For a man who is a collection of celebrated, creative pathologies and dysfunctions, normality/cure would be a kind of erasure. Morrissey is much less interested in being normal than in the gap between himself and “normality,” as it is this disunity which makes him special, defines his genius and describes the walls of his confinement (and refuge). They may be in each other’s arms, but Morrissey is hugging himself with the lonely but strangely delicious knowledge of his difference.
“What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Next door’s cat.”
— Kill Uncle Tour Book, 1991
In “I Know It’s Over,” he goes on to isolate another contradiction of his celibacy: the perverse anti-faith that a cynical person has in the institution of love, rather like the atheist has in God: “Love is Natural and Real/but not for you, my love/not tonight my love.”
As the capitalisation of “Natural” and “Real” suggest, there is an irony bordering on sarcasm attached to the delivery of these words, but this is probably just a defence-mechanism; the cynical celibate idealist invests Naturalness and Realness with more substance than anyone else, since his whole sense of self (pity) is defined by his separation from these things. Undoubtedly, Morrissey’s appeal to his fans and his repulsiveness to his much larger number of detractors consists of the fact that he has made a home out of his loneliness. It isn’t that Morrissey is happy to be alone but that he is ravishingly resigned to it. Worse, he has made a glamorous career out of telling and re-telling the “secret” most people, quite rightly, do anything to avoid admitting to themselves: “This story is old — I KNOW/but it goes on.”
“If I see a beautiful woman I can be attracted like any man. But I find it very embarrassing. It’s the same whether it’s an attraction to a man or a woman … Human relations don’t work … If I see someone I find attractive, then I flee in the other direction.”
— Les Inrockuptibles, 1995
Like a latter-day St. Sebastiane, exposing his flesh perhaps a little too eagerly to the cruel, phallic arrows of outrageous fortune, Morrissey has chosen to represent in himself an unpalatable truth about the contemporary human condition — the impossibility of intimacy. Impossible, that is, except through the laughably false medium of pop music. In this way he has become a symbol of the basic paradox of post-modern life and the terrible curse of self-reflexivity; a symbol which most people would rather not read because within Morrissey’s own eternally adolescent self-dramatisation is a story of their own unhappiness and separateness — a teenage unhappiness and separateness only partly submerged beneath their adult busy-ness and sophistication. For such people, understandably — commendably — determined to get on with their lives and not acknowledge the sadness in it, Morrissey is an unappealing cross between Coleridge’s albatross and A.A. Milne’s Eeyore the donkey: “Oh God, Morrissey … He’s soooo depressing. Have you got any Cheeky Girls?”
However, for those damned or foolish enough to read, Morrissey achieves through his art what his lyrics say is unachievable in life: by symbolizing the impossibility of intimacy, he himself becomes the only person that his fans feel a pure and genuine, “natural” and “real” connection with. This is the very heart of pop’s evil-beautiful transcendence, how the pop star both rises above and stands in for life and love.
“You broke all our hearts and never said sorry.
That’s because I never was sorry.
Are you a bad man?
— Melody Maker, 1997
Morrissey himself has few illusions about his condition. For all his determined avoidance of limiting categories and dodging of discourses, Morrissey, the hypochondriac’s hypochondriac, has a keen sense of his own pathologies — diagnosing oneself is all very well, and can be quite enjoyable, since it’s a form of self-obsession; other people thinking they have the right to do so (or worse, write bleedin’ “psycho-bios” about you) is quite intolerable. “Southpaw,” the last track on Southpaw Grammar (1995), a wistful and regretful work even by Morrissey’s standards, asserts that a sick boy “should be treated” because he’s “so easily defeated” and seems to speculate whether it is an attachment to “Ma,” or at least a failure to engage with life, which has cost him the kind of “normal” happiness and companionship that more conventionally robust boys appear to have achieved without even thinking – which is, of course, the only way to achieve anything vital and normal. “So you ran back to Ma” he sings, audibly shaking his head, “which set the pace for the rest of your days.”
The song ends lingeringly on a closing couplet repeated over and over, like someone murmuring tunefully in their sleep, not sure whether they’re having a wet or a bad dream, until it finally dissolves into wordlessness and a neck-hair bristling guitar outro: “And now there’s something that you should know/The girl of your dreams is here all alone”
“Have you ever met the girl of your dreams?
No, I’ve rather met the girls of my nightmares.”
— Les Inrockuptibles, 1995
Copyright Mark Simpson 2007
Saint Morrissey is now available on Kindle