Johnny Marr's set at All Points East festival in London, which saw thousand of fans singing Morrissey's life-affirming lyrics, proved The Smiths singer's legacy is complex
If you want to really test your faith in humanity, pay a visit to the forums section of morrissey-solo.com, the website dedicated to the former Smiths singer turned alt-right spokesman. In response to news that Merseyrail in Liverpool removed a poster for new album ‘California Son’ when a commuter complained due to Moz’s support of a minor far-right political party, one commenter wrote: “This is merely the first step in the fight back. I’m going to start a campaign to have Salford Lad’s Club torn down, and replaced with a mosque. Who’s with me?”
Oh, man. Are these Morrissey’s people now? To my shame, dismay and fatigue – not to mention my mental health – I have become obsessed with scrolling these forums and similarly bleak Twitter threads. From the age of 15, Morrissey was probably the single biggest cultural influence on my life. And now his dedicated website is a place for fans to spout hate. How could this have happened? And is there anything to salvage from this misery? It’s in the last decade (particularly since 2017’s ‘Low In High School’) that Morrissey’s persona has become increasingly toxic, whether he’s criticising #MeToo or immigration or…
Well, you know what he said. But there was a time when saying you’re a Morrissey fan wasn’t akin to saying you torch orphanages at the weekend for a laugh. I grew up in a shit town in east Yorkshire where the only model of masculinity on offer was what we now call toxic masculinity, although as far I know the term didn’t exist then. It was just the way things were.
When I was 15, one summer’s day (promise I’ll attempt to resist working Smiths and Morrissey lyrics into this article) in middle of the six-weeks holiday, bored, desperate for something to do, I decided to play darts in my Dad’s garage. I was looking for flights and happened upon three cassettes: ‘The Queen Is Dead’ by The Smiths, ‘Viva Hate’ by Morrissey and, erm, ‘Addicted To Love’ by Robert Palmer. Two of these cassettes changed my life. I’ll let you guess which ones they were. Morrissey was camp and clever and well-read, and he wasn’t ashamed about any of it. It was a revelation I never quite recovered from.
White working-class boys are the demographic least likely to attend university in the UK; when I was at school it was considered ‘gay’ (this was presented as a bad thing, though it was also several millennia ago; I sincerely hope things have changed) or uncool to try. But Morrissey, with his lyrics about a vicar in a tutu, about Keats and Yeats, about loneliness, was just the way he was. You could take it or leave it. Many chose to leave it – he was always divisive – but to countless young fans like myself, he represented another way of being.
This was in the early noughties, two decades after The Smiths broke up, and Morrissey’s ideas – that sexuality was a spectrum, that being male needn’t mean being a ‘man’ (or at least not that kind of man), that it was cool to be clever – still seemed absolutely revolutionary. There was a song on ‘Viva Hate’ called ‘The Ordinary Boys’, which goes: “Ordinary boys, happy going nowhere / Just around here / In their rattling cars.” I thought: Holy shit! He’s talking about my town. That’s embarrassingly melodramatic and self-indulgent, of course, but so much of being 15 is. At that time, Morrissey’s music gave me hope.
I now know he’d said some terrible things in the press long before that, but with little internet access, I had no idea back then. Another ‘Viva Hate’ song called ‘Bengali In Platforms’ addresses a jewellery-wearing subject with the cautionary lines: “Shelve your Western plans and understand / That life is hard enough when you belong here.” At that time I decided the song was about a crossdresser to whom Morrissey was sympathetic, though it sounds different today. Yet there are many Morrissey songs that still move me impossibly.
Two latter-day albums, 2004’s ‘You Are The Quarry’ and 2006’s ‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’, feature some of his most life-affirming lyrics. ‘I Like You’ (“You’re not right in the head / And nor am I / And this is why / I like you”) and ‘To Me You Are A Work Of Art’ evoke thoughts of people close to me. This stuff is hard-wired now. Erase them and I’m a different person.
I recently interviewed the singer-songwriter Jade Bird, who offered words of wisdom on cancel culture. She was talking about Ryan Adams, who’s been accused of sexual and emotional abuse, and said: “ I delete that [music] from my library… It doesn’t matter how good the music is, because after that it’s bitter. As you’re listening, you’ll remember the story.” It’s a compelling argument, though not one I think I’m entirely on board with. She also suggested that there’s a cut-off point, so The Smiths are okay, as they predate their singer’s consistent insensitivity, but solo Morrissey isn’t. Yet those songs still mean everything…
By Bird’s logic, I could make 2006 my Morrissey cut-off (though there are some later bangers). This weekend, at All Points East festival in London, thousands of people got together to belt Morrissey’s lyrics back at Johnny Marr during his joyful main stage set, where he played ‘This Charming Man’ and ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’; a field filled with music fans, their arms around one another, all bawling, “To die by your side / Well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine.” I’m afraid that’s something I’m not willing to relinquish.