With Morrissey’s autobiography flying off the shelves, there seems no better time to reflect on the controversial and contradictory career of one of the great musical icons of our time. And if there’s anyone up to the task, it’s our very own northerner Phil Smith.
Hidden amongst the extras of the Who Put the M in Manchester DVD, chronicling Morrissey’s homecoming to the city that made him Morrissey, is one of his finest ever live performances. Delivered at the More Festival in 2004, it is a spectacular love in, in which the adoration and emotion beaming from the crowd eggs on one of the most iconic figures of 21st century British culture to an extraordinary display of stagecraft. Effusive, engaging and electrifying: this is Morrissey at his sparkling finest. As he tears into the classic ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’, the mass hysteria and passion amongst the crowd almost deceives you into thinking it is 1986 all over again.
At the heart of this lies the eternal frustration for all those who consider themselves Mozza lovers. The simple fact is, whilst his music has aged very finely indeed, the man himself has aged terribly.
Morrissey has descended into a frightful caricature of himself, doing everything he can to alienate one of music’s most devout fan bases. Public statements on race and royalty, amongst others, have ranged from the daft to the downright abhorrent. Where once he poked fun at the establishment to the delight of his followers, now he offends them both. Nevertheless, he has continued to produce extraordinary music to match his early output; maintaining the peerless wordsmithery and social insight that made so many take him to their heart. At times, he teases us with flashes of the self deprecation we once loved so dearly. The magnificent line in his autobiography that “naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is so big” is testament to this. We pine to see more of this. We may wish he was not our hero anymore; that someone a little less contrarian had written these beautiful tracks, but he did. Whatever we think of him, this truth remains eternal.
The successes of Morrissey and The Smiths’ lay in their ability to represent the zeitgeist of the 1980’s, picking up the mantle from their predecessors The Jam, whose career was very similar in longevity (or lack of) and intensity. For many, Morrissey was the antithesis of the Thatcherite intellectual school wreaking havoc on Britain’s social fabric. He was thoughtful, emotionally open, fun loving, articulate and clever. The crowds who came to see him developed a delightful tendency to launch flowers at him; an excellently silly symbolic gesture that typified those immensely dissatisfied with the Britain developing around them, lapping up Morrissey’s eye for parody. No corner of society was safe from his verbal assault, with the thrillingly incendiary ‘Panic’ demanding a typically Morrissey revolution, in which the nation was saved not by getting rid of Thatcher but getting Tony Blackburn to play better music on the radio. His genius has always been to be serious, but not too serious. To not be afraid to paint emotionally bleak pictures, but to do so with humour and sensitivity.
It is a picture that reiterates Morrissey’s truly unique place in the British psyche. He is neither the political radical nor the harbinger of teenage gloom that many have sought to portray him, but merely a genius with words able to articulate emotions which most of us can instantly identify with. Though tracks such as ‘Asleep’ are indeed gloomy and dark, they accurately depict moments of anguish and despair that afflict us all from time to time, even if we like to portray that angst was an emotion exclusive to our early adolescent years. He may present an over the top and overly intense perspective, but that is a theme across most music and literature. Everyone and anyone can sympathise with the sentiments expressed in ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’, delivered with a dash of trademark Morrissey humour: “why do I give valuable time to people who I’d much rather kick in they eye?”
We may wish he was not our hero anymore; that someone a little less contrarian had written these beautiful tracks, but he did. Whatever we think of him, this truth remains eternal.
Let us return to 2004. By now, Morrissey’s transition from national treasure to national laughing stock is apparently complete. Slowly but surely, those who the Smith’s influenced have taken on his mantle, from the Stone Roses to Pulp to Blur. Morrissey has shown no signs that he has come to terms with it. Above and beyond this, how on earth can the angst ridden tales of social, personal and political woe spun by Morrissey fit into the glorious New Jerusalem of the early 21st century? The wounds of the Thatcher era are supposedly healed, living standards on the up, New Labour are creating a classless Britain.
Well, take a snapshot of the Manchester crowd as Morrissey’s performance of ‘Everyday is Like Sunday’ (below), for it tells you everything you need to know about the eternal appeal of Morrissey. At the front barrier, those to who Morrissey means absolutely everything have assembled. Some are in tears of joy, grinning away as if they have been reunited with a long lost relative. Others, typically, look as if the melancholy tone of the first verse has reminded them that their entire lives are about to cave in. The younger crowd are not entirely sure what to do, having most likely never seen scenes like this. So, obviously, they result to forming a big circle and pushing each other round a bit. Towards the back of the crowd are those to whom Morrissey means absolutely nothing, other than that he is the architect of some of the greatest pop songs ever written.
They dance away, immersed in and amused by Morrissey’s hyperbolic, jaunty cry for a nuclear bomb to blow away his seaside town. The secret of his enduring success is laid bare: though his songs and tales may be centred around alienation from and disaffection with society, they have the ability to unite masses in their disaffection in a manner few have been able to achieve. Being disaffected really is a hell of a lot of fun when everyone else is too. The result is scenes of perverse joyousness and delight. This jubilation is timeless, transcending the fraught and fractured time in which it was originally formed.
At the end, he thanks “Manchester, so much to answer for…”, in reference to ‘Suffer Little Children’. To those of us who have grown up in the northern cities left battered and bruised in the post industrial climate, Morrissey is remarkably perceptive in chronicling the intensity and juxtaposition of emotions: a feeling of resentment to those responsible, a passionate desire to bring about change. On the flip side, a deep sense of suffocation and frustration with the dearth of opportunity, a growing sense of the need to leave these places behind whilst always staying loyal.
Morrissey means different things to each of us. He is the crusader of the 1980s. He is the pop icon who always delighted us on the dance floor. He is our emotional guide through the rocky road of adolescence and beyond. He is the man who showed the North had soul, intellect and heart in its era of vilification. He may have become something in middle age we all desperately hope to avoid, but part of his music will be forever in our hearts. Like it or lump it, Morrissey remains the ultimate musical icon of our time.
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