Morrissey: heaven knows he's (a bit) less miserable now
At 52, Morrissey is among the top draws at Glastonbury – but he doesn’t have a record deal. Michael Deacon meets the ever-outspoken singer.
To go by his latest tour poster, which shows a tabby balancing uncertainly on his head – you might wonder whether Morrissey, now he’s reached middle age, prefers the company of cats to the company of people, like a maiden aunt. Does he?
“Well, I don’t have much choice. People don’t like me.”
Oh, that’s not true.
“It is true!”
What about all those delirious disciples who mass at his gigs?
“Yes, but they don’t know me.”
And if they did?
“If they did know me… they’d like me even more.”
How very Morrissey. No matter that he's been a pop star for nearly 30 years, first as the singer with indie deities The Smiths and then as a solo artist who’s had three No1 albums. No matter that at Glastonbury he’ll be second on the bill only to U2. At the age of 52, Morrissey is still pretending that nobody loves him.
I wasn’t entirely looking forward to our meeting. That may sound odd, because I’ve loved Morrissey’s music since I was a moping adolescent, and continue to love it now I’m a moping adult. To me he is both the wittiest and most moving lyricist in pop (“And in the darkened underpass I thought, ‘Oh God, my chance has come at last’ – but then a strange fear gripped me, and I just couldn’t ask”). Even if his lyrics were doggerel, though, they’d still sound beautiful, because of the haunting spectral moan that is his voice.
In recent interviews, however, he’d come across as surly and sour, the worst a squirmingly awkward encounter in April with Dermot O’Leary on Radio 2. Before my interview with him begins, at Battersea Dogs’ and Cats' Home in London, his personal assistant takes me to one side and warns me sternly that if I ask about The Smiths, Morrissey “will walk out”. Oh dear.
But it turns out he’s quite friendly, in his own peculiar fashion. He isn’t icy or combative; he speaks as softly as a parson. From time to time he even laughs, although laugh isn’t the right word – it’s more a kind of amused sigh. As well as gentler than expected, he’s also much broader – not fat, but bear-like. In some ways, he’s coming to resemble Ted Hughes: the silver temples clashing with tufty black eyebrows, the oblong jaw, the thin straight lips.
He begins by talking warmly of his fellow acts at Hop Farm, The Stooges, Reed and Smith, with all of whom he was obsessed as a teenager in Manchester: he grew his hair long and witchy to look like Smith’s, and sat up all night listening to her debut album, Horses, “because it was the voice of somebody who perhaps had felt unattractive all their life. Yet here they were, singing about it, and seemed to know a way to make the misfortune of their life become attractive. And I felt that I could therefore simply sing about my life and how I really feel, and perhaps it could transform itself into something acceptable.”
Acceptable. Interesting word. You might not think being accepted was Morrissey’s goal, from the contentious things he’s said to the press, whether about animal rights (the Chinese “are a subspecies” for their record on animal welfare) or the Royal family (“benefit scroungers”). Recently he poured scorn on the royal wedding. But April 29 encouraged British patriotism; wasn’t he pleased to see people, to quote one of his own songs, “standing by the flag not feeling shameful, racist or partial”?
“The Royal family to me are not England, and they are not the flag. The Queen is the ultimate dictator. And it is dictatorship. It’s forced upon the British people. And if the British people decided tomorrow that the Queen must go, the Queen wouldn’t hesitate to turn her tanks on the British people. It would happen. Because the police are commissioned to protect the Queen against the people of England. That’s their first and foremost task. And I find that absolutely absurd.”
I wonder if he reflects on his three decades of making such provocative remarks, and suspects they’ve harmed his reputation as an artist.
“I think it’s inevitable, yes. But I’m not an anarchist, I’m a very quiet and composed person. But really, isn’t it more to do with the fact that there’s nobody in modern pop music who makes any social statement whatsoever? And there’s a massive dumbing-down in England now, which mimics America in the 1990s, where everything is intellectually reduced. It’s very prevalent in television especially, whereby only very standard views can be expressed, and anybody who has another view is censored.”
The funny thing about statements like this is that, when he says them, he doesn’t sound at all aggressive or ill-tempered: his voice is calm and matter-of-fact, as if he were discussing nothing more important than the new ring road. But in print his views look splenetic. Perhaps it’s his habit of beginning sentence after sentence with “And”, which gives him a kind of biblical portentousness; also, he shares the teenage diarist’s taste for melodramatic adjectives and adverbs – everything is “horrendous” or “horrific” or “hugely humiliating”.
He isn’t frank about every topic, though. I ask him if he’s an atheist. There is a short silence. “Well, I’m a Catholic by birth and you can never shed it.” Does that mean he believes in God? “Well… I just mean you can never shed it.” Does he talk to God? “Well, we all do. Which is a form of prayer in itself. The most common phrase bandied about these days is ‘Oh my God’. People say it automatically all the time – not realising that that’s a form of prayer.” Curious.
It’s hard to say what Morrissey’s standing as an artist is, right now. On the one hand, he’s a big draw at festivals; on the other, his recent Very Best Of didn’t chart, and he has no record deal (“And there’s no label interest”). Until he gets a deal, his new album – which is written – won’t be recorded. He is aghast at the suggestion he should give his music away free online: “I’m a traditionalist. Also, you can be a hoot on the internet, and the world still wouldn’t know about it.” So if no deal materialises, no more Morrissey records.
There’ll be no more Smiths, either, although that’s no surprise; he’s spent almost a quarter of a century denying they’ll reform, and I believe him, particularly after the savage court battle of 1996 when The Smiths’ drummer Mike Joyce sued Morrissey and Johnny Marr, the guitarist, over performance royalties. But forget The Smiths – how about if Morrissey and Marr, just the two of them, got together for one big concert, to run through the old songs? No chance. “There’s something about the public always wanting a reformation here and there from such a body and such a band, just because they feel, ‘We're the public and we can demand it.’ And once it happens, nobody’s really interested.”
There will, at any rate, be interest in the autobiography he’s been writing, but I doubt it’ll be blisteringly candid; he’s always been cryptic about sex, maintaining that he’s celibate. Will the book say, for example, that he’s had lovers? “It isn’t sensationalist. But there are… dots to be joined.”
What about the lyrics on his 2006 album, Ringleader of the Tormentors? Some of them suggested… He sighs. “I know what you’re going to say before you even say it.” He looks like a 16 year-old who’s being nagged by his mother to tidy his bedroom. Anyway: to be frank, the lyrics made it sound as if he’d been up to something randy. “I know, I know. And so many of the reviews said what you’re trying to say right now. I just feel, ‘Please let me in on it.’”
So we must have misread the lyric, “I have explosive kegs between my legs.” Perhaps it was about a suicide bomber. (Morrissey has written a new song, incidentally, called Action Is My Middle Name, which features the lines, “Tongue against tongue, and we’ve only just begun – could I interest you in hours of fun?”)
Whatever the truth of his sex life, if he has one, at the age of 52 he’s still singing lines like “Nobody wants my love.” Surely these are adolescent sentiments.
“No. I think we all die saying those things and feeling those feelings. On our deathbed we’re still scrambling for dignity and a little bit of love and respect. We may be 112, but those feelings never go away.”
If he’s so lonely, why not just start a relationship?
“Well, you must be true to your heart. Yes, you might pair off for companionship, but maybe the other person doesn’t want to, or sees it slightly differently. There’s always somebody who loves more than the other.”
But if, as he insists, he’s been single his whole life, how does he know what relationships are like?
“You don’t need to have been down a pit to know that it’s dirty.”
He lives alone, dividing his time between Rome, London, Switzerland, America. He’ll retire one day, but won’t say when. In 1990 he wrote a B-side called Get Off the Stage, in which he attacked an ageing rock singer in “misguided trousers” because he won’t retire. In eight years, when Morrissey is 60, will he be singing in misguided trousers and be told to get off the stage by someone much younger?
He laughs – a proper laugh. “I think that’s already happened. Many times. And how right they are.”
Oh, I don’t know. His trousers look fine.
“Yes, they’re fine. It’s just the rest of me that’s a terrible problem.”
He says a lot of things like that – toying, in a dryly jocular way, with his Mr Miserable image. In the end – for all his “Nobody wants my love” stuff – I don’t think he is miserable: he’s too playful. Here’s an example. Bowing to the pleas of my inner 14 year-old, I ask Morrissey if I can have my picture taken with him. Both before and after the picture is taken, he is good-humoured, droll. But for the picture itself he puts on a different face: Eeyoreishly long-suffering, as if Tigger has trodden on the thistles he was saving for dinner.
Obviously I’m not saying Morrissey’s happy. He would probably consider the accusation libellous. But he admits that he is, at least, “less unhappy” than ever, and that middle age suits him: he feels better able to cope with life, “to shut the world away and stop watching the television news”, to accept himself.
“I do feel that, I do feel that. But more to the point I look back on the last 30 years and I feel as if I’ve been through a great deal. It has never been an easy ride, but finally you can feel enriched by all those dreadful experiences. And you realise, in a pathetic and sentimental way, that you wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
Morrissey plays Vicar Street Dublin on 27, 29 and 30 July