Is Morrissey a genius or a crank?
Second-generation Irishman Morrissey is known for his choice comments, but even by his standards his latest outbursts have been controversial. Ed Power probes the poetic lyricist’s complex character
Published 29/07/2011 | 05:00
What's eating Morrissey? Aside from the dog that reportedly took a chomp out of the bequiffed 80s indie godhead at the recent Hop Farm Festival in Britain, we mean. Always a bit of a contrarian, at 52 he is verging on full-blown grumpy old man.
Flailing from controversy to controversy, Morrissey has the air of someone determined to generate headlines, regardless of the long-term impact on his reputation.
Over the past few months, the blizzard of Moz-related imbroglios has been unrelenting. A curator of a popular Morrissey website was refused entry to one of his shows because of unkind comments posted about the singer. Audiences are reportedly being searched for meat products at his concerts to reduce the chance of haters pummeling him with sausages and ham (apparently, he won't object should you lob a quiche in his direction).
The former Smiths leader has compared Elizabeth II to Gaddafi and cancelled a festival performance in Sweden because -- oh, the inhumanity -- it was raining.
The howling irony is that, while his profile has never been higher, record company interest in new Morrissey 'product' is somewhere south of negligible. Without a label since 2009's well-received Years of Refusal, which took an ice-pick to the notion that he's an artist in inexorable decline, Moz has struggled to attract industry attention. This has resulted in the surreal vista of a singer with record sales in excess of 20 million working on his next album not knowing when or how it will be released (he's declined to 'do a Radiohead' and put it out himself).
"There's not much I can do about it," he said in a recent interview. "You assume that anyone who wants you will come and get you. I think labels, for the most part, want to sign new discoveries so that that label alone is seen to be responsible for the rise of the artist. Not many labels want bands who have already made their mark, because their success is usually attributed to some other label somewhere else at another time."
In the history of pop there has surely never been an artist as complex and unfathomable as Moz. Here is a second-generation Irishman, and sometime Dublin resident, who has infamously flirted with right-wing British nationalism. A lyricist of incredible wit and tenderness with a history of foot-in-mouth interviews. A reportedly shy and gentle soul with a snarky streak the width of the Shannon Estuary. Far from mellowing with the years, if anything these contradictions appear to become more pronounced the older he gets.
"He says what he means and people often take that up the wrong way," says Colm O'Herlihy of Remma, the Cork band championed by Morrissey and invited to open for him at Earls Court in London and The Point in Dublin. "He doesn't play the media game and has come to be seen as an easy target. He's a very good guy. It's because he's so honest that people have a problem with him."
"Morrissey is a welcome rarity," says Dr Eoin Devereux, a University of Limerick lecturer and organiser of several Morrissey and Smiths symposia. "He remains unafraid to speak his mind about many issues ranging from the parasitic nature of royalty, the brutality of the meat industry and the greed of the fast-food industry. Most of the time media coverage of him is inaccurate and cliched. What is not often commented upon is the way in which Morrissey has consistently written about an otherwise hidden experience -- namely working-class life. Songs like The Slum Mums and The Teenage Dad on His Estate present the perspectives of those who are all too readily written off in a media setting as scroungers and layabouts. Like Johnny Lydon -- another second-generation Irish singer -- Morrissey clearly does not worry about political correctness, which is refreshing."
For an Irish audience, perhaps, the most interesting thing about Morrissey has been his willingness to wrap himself in the Union Jack in a fashion that has left him open to the accusations of associating with Britain's Far Right.
It strikes us as strange that an artist whose Irishness bleeds through in so many ways -- his tireless cheerleading of bands from the old country, his love of Oscar Wilde, his stint in Dublin -- should be connected with extreme British nationalism.
"One of the things that marks his relationship with Irishness is ambivalence, "says Dr Sean Campbell, author of Irish Blood English Heart: Second Generation Irish Musicians in England. "Particularly during The Smiths period, there was a kind of elusiveness. [Smiths guitarist] Johnny Marr was much more open and engaged with Irish culture in Manchester. Morrissey was partly engaged with it, but he tried not to fix himself to Irish culture in the same way."
It is in the context of his Irishness that Morrissey's worship and championing of Oscar Wilde makes particular sense, suggests Campbell. "Wilde is interesting and not only because of his sexuality, which I think Morrissey obviously identified with," he says. "Wilde is situated between Ireland and England. There are lots of English people who aren't necessarily aware of Wilde's Irishness.
"Morrissey in a sense identifies with that. He seems himself as coming from both sides and is at home in two countries. That duality is both a burden... but also a creative well spring in the end for him."
Though his acid wit can make he seem somewhat of a snark, those who know him say that he is actually quite retiring and not necessarily comfortable with the degree of worship to which he is subjected. Certainly a night on the town with Moz can be a surreal experience, says John Brereton of indie band Sack, one of the Irish groups prominently touted by Morrissey.
The parade of fans wanting to tell him how deeply his music has changed their lives is unending.
"We went to the Choice Music Prize with him this year and afterwards we went down the Mercantile. It was kind of constant -- people coming up to him, 'can you sign this for my boyfriend or girlfriend, The Smiths are my favourite band'. It must be tough going. When we toured with him in America, it was incredible to see. He's such an icon. People are mad to get anywhere near him, jumping on stage and what have you. Fair enough, he's an icon. His lyrics are some of the best ever written. That's what you get for being so talented, I suppose."
Moz worship at its most extreme has a great deal in common with religious ecstasy according to Eoin Devereux, who has co-edited a new book Morrissey: Fandom, Representations and Identities.
"What is striking about this phenomenon is the spectre of men -- both gay and straight -- wanting to make a connection with the object of their devotion," he says. "Fans will queue from early morning to ensure a place in the mosh pit in order to try and rush the stage to hug and kiss Morrissey. Failing that, they compete with one another to touch Morrissey's hand. Fans will bring him gifts of rare 45s or books. He will usually throw his designer shirt into the audience towards the end of the gig which is fought over and divided into smaller pieces. I have written about how the fever-pitch feelings evident in all of his concerts bear strong similarities to an evangelical religious event."
Still, clearly not everybody is quite ready to be anointed into the Church of Moz just yet. John Brereton recalls going for a pint with Morrissey in a locals' bar near Vicar Street earlier this year.
"There was a guy there with a pint and a whiskey chaser in front of him. He looked at Morrissey and said, 'I know you're... you're yer man...'. Morrissey has his head cocked and says 'go on...'. And the guy says, 'yeah... you're that Jim Morrison fellow, aren't you. Morrissey just laughed."
Morrissey performs in Vicar Street, Dublin, tonight and tomorrow
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