Saturday 14 December 2019

The not so charming man - Morrissey gets even pricklier


Tanya Sweeney

That Morrissey has become increasingly cranky in middle age is, by now, a given. But the man long fond of pithy and occasionally profound sound bites has become even pricklier of late.

Recently, he staged a take down of the 'shockingly abysmal' venues he played on tour in Italy, then followed it up by declaring all-out war on his US label Harvest. It's one thing telling it like it is… but it smacks of a man oxter-deep in career frustration.

His latest and tenth solo studio album, World Peace Is None Of Your Business, initially did brisk-ish business on release this summer (charting at 4 in Ireland, 2 in the UK and 14 in the US), but sales halted when the album was removed from iTunes (Moz accused Harvest of 'botching' the project).

Slowly but surely, the wheels started coming off his comeback. Firstly, there was an unseemly story - later denied - that Morrissey asked his bodyguard Bradley Steyn to 'hurt' the editor of a fan website that continued to support the singer through many sour times. Next, his long-time opening act, Kirsteen Young, was asked to step down off the tour (according to a statement, she passed on 'an horrendous cold' to him, resulting in a fever that put him out of commission). His guitarist Jesse Tobias further muddied the waters, posting online the rather cryptic "good riddance to false friends".

On the message board, there has been ongoing rumblings of inter-band fisticuffs. Whatever the truth about the ill-fated US tour, Morrissey's health woes appear unrelenting. Last month, he informed Spanish paper El Mundo that he had undergone 'cancer scraping' treatments, and added with typical gallows humour, 'If I die, then I die. I'll rest when I'm dead'. Still dogged by flu, Morrissey then cancelled a handful of European dates last month. Suffice to say, it's been nobody's idea of a textbook comeback. All told, it's been a curious summer for a man once so intense with energy, vim and creativity.

So where did it seemingly all go wrong for this not-entirely-charming man? Much like former Sex Pistols star John Lydon, Morrissey produced such a compelling and culturally impactful persona early on in his career that he's never managed to escape. Morrissey's evasiveness, his deft lyrical balance of light and dark, was utterly compelling in the 1980s… nowadays, not so much.

The melancholia that was such an asset to the young Morrissey has rotted on the vine. "He's slipped into a pattern of behaviour which doesn't have the flair or humour it once did," says Dr Colin Coulter, a lecturer in Popular Music at Maynooth University and co-editor of Why Pamper Life's Complexities?: Essays On The Smiths. "I think it was (academic) Simon Reynolds who said that Morrissey's tragedy would be to live out the rest of his days trapped in his own media projection."

Thirty years ago, Morrissey was running amok in rather virgin territory. When it came to speaking up for the underclass and truth telling, he was in a league of his own, a bolt from the blue-collar streets of Manchester's Hulme district. But now, he's operating in an industry, and a celebrity culture, that's an entirely different beast.

"There's such a crowded field of people offering pale imitations of him that it can be easy to forget that he was the original," explains Coulter.

Where in The Smiths, Moz's artistic foil - now nemesis - Johnny Marr provided balance and dynamic tension, it's perhaps fair to say that these are two elements sorely lacking in his solo career. It's rather telling that his main collaborative partner of the last two decades, Boz Boorer, receives only a few scant mentions in his memoirs. "It certainly doesn't suggest a partnership of equals," surmises Coulter.

Yet, in the tug-of-war between Morrissey the celebrity and Morrissey the musician, the former often wins out. Before the drop of his tenth studio album, Morrissey had been largely on-radar for Autobiography, a 650-page memoir released in September last year (after, predictably, a kerfuffle over 'content' with the publisher).

In a first, the book was released on the Penguin Classics imprint, normally reserved for canonised, dead authors. Yet it seems that Morrissey has got a grá for putting pen to paper; buoyed by the success of Autobiography, he has started work on a novel. "In 2013 I published my Autobiography and it has been more successful than any record I have ever released, so, yes, I am mid-way through my novel. I have my hopes." Perhaps, for the man whose boundless lyricism propelled him to greatness some 30 years ago, fiction could well be the best métier for him.

But as his fans chomp at the bit for his next literary instalment, rock watchers were bemused last week when Billboard announced that The Smiths could very well end up being inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame soon. Not because it would be ludicrous to see these champions of the underclass, venerated in such a way… but because seeing the four of them in a room together is unlikely at best. For now, the future remains unwritten - or at least, half-written - for the star.

All the while, the rest of us live in hope that, as only he can, Morrissey doesn't besmirch that magical, poetic legacy.

Morrissey plays the Dublin 3Arena on December 1. See for details

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