Like any longterm love affair, the relationship between NME and Morrissey has suffered turbulent times. But following a triumphant solo show in Wolverhampton in February 1989, NME’s James Brown found the former Smiths frontman on the upswing and in provocative form…
The doorbell rings once. Morrissey looks uncomfortable.
“I can’t imagine who that is. We’ll just have to ignore it. But they may not go away. It happens.”
There is not a second ring but Morrissey is clearly alarmed.
“Some people sit and ring and ring and ring. And circle the house and peer through the windows. It’s very tedious and very embarrassing because I don’t know why they do it.
“I often think that if people really liked me and understood me and appreciated me they’d ring once and go away. But the people who persist, and believe me this happens every day, well, I don’t really have anything to say to those people. To me that’s not adoration, it’s complete rudeness. How would you feel if I stood outside your garden gate and called your name out everyday?”
It’s Monday on the outskirts of Manchester and Morrissey is fencing with NME, his favourite music paper. The topics ahead are sex, crime, honesty beauty, fame, performance, adoration and, for the sake of capitalism and cliché, ‘The Last Of The Famous International Playboys’, a single.
“’The Last Of Famous International Playboys’, is the first record that I feel hysterical about,” he gushes, exercising his career-making talent for self-promotion. “And I’m very pleased to feel that way. I compare it to ‘Shoplifters Of The World Unite’. I heard ‘Shoplifters Of The World Unite’ once on the radio, a chart rundown. It was a new entry. They had to play it. They had no choice. And I laughed hysterically as it listened to it. I felt a great sense of victory. And that’s the same way I feel about ‘The Last Of The Famous International Playboys’.”
Morrissey is tangled up in blue jeans, blue T-shirt, blue deck pumps and blue eyes. His flat is spick’n’span. There’s a portable typewriter and a pile of anti-vivisection leaflets on the table in the hall. The television is off, there are no clothes to tidy away, the settee and arm chair are drawn a little closer, the tea is poured, the biscuits ignored. The assorted nuts in the bowl by the window, I’m told, are for the squirrels that inhabit his garden.
There’s a great deal to be discussed with Morrissey, yet as the short sharp shriek of the doorbell has just proved, there are others beside NME who feel it is their privilege to have the man’s attention.
“Some people see me as one thing and some people see another. And the people who see me as a ‘pop singer’ are the people who persist and ring the doorbell. But the people who see me as a valuable addition to music are the people who wouldn’t dream of coming near the house.
“I can’t really be responsible for what they see. Some people think that I’m a ‘nutter’ for want of a better word, and I don’t really feel that I manufactured that. Unfortunately a lot of people read The Sun, and there are a lot of Sun folk out there. I feel at home here but susceptible because of the persistent folk.
“I am obsessive about practically everything, yes, but I can control my obsessions. I am not uncontrollably obsessive.”
So you don’t go and stand outside people’s houses then?
“Not lately, I’m rational, very, very rational. Even in days of old when I followed others and I stood by the coach at soundchecks and so forth, I wouldn’t dive on top of people and slobber and say all the things you’re supposed to say. It was just enough to see them drive by in a coach and assume that they notice you. I’ve seen the film of Wolverhampton but I wouldn’t call that diving or slobbering. I think that was quite different, it was love. Unmistakably it was love. I was choked before I sang a syllable really.”
Ahh, yes, Wolverhampton. If there’s one event to mark the triumph of Morrissey’s solo career, and more specifically, to clarify the relationship between Morrissey and his public, it was his performance at Wolverhampton Civic Centre [his solo debut, December 22, 1988, at which fellow Smiths Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke joined his backing band].
The excitement and atmosphere inside the hall was the most electric I have ever experienced at any public event. Sensible and intelligent fans were transformed into screaming Mozettes (male and female) at the return of their beloved rebel boy.
It was a night Morrissey, also, will never forget.
“The concert was a very impulsive thing… all the best things happen on impulse, I find. I was interested to see how people would react towards me. There was no intention to cause chaos. It wasn’t an attention-seeking device, I just needed to see some particular faces. It was nice to be kissed repeatedly. I don’t think that happens very often, I also think it’s very rare for a male audience to kiss a male singer. I don’t think it even happens. Does it happen?
“For months previous to that I had languished in this very room, seeing practically nobody. And I had to go from that situation to Wolverhampton where you limbs are spread over… are being distributed amongst an audience is an incredible feeling. Can you imagine being kissed by hundreds of people? It’s probably happened to you, I don’t know. Where do you spend your evenings? It was immensely uplifting. Practically medical really. They appear very aggressive and brusque but when they touch me it’s very gentle.
What was it like to play with your former Smiths? Was it something you had planned for some while?
“Well it was a part of it for me. It made me feel more confident than if it had been otherwise. So I was very happy and very pleased with the onstage line-up. That made me feel very relaxed. It does help to have very solid people around you.
“It’s an interesting question whether we’ll continue to work together. These days of course it isn’t like earlier times when money and contracts were less concern, generally. The secret of The Smiths was that we did everything on impulse for our own amusement. That’s why it flowed so perfectly. But these days I suppose people are a little older and I suppose they need a safer arrangement, which is fair enough.”
Do you find people are still interested in your relationship with Johnny Marr?
“No I don’t actually. I think people have put that one away, in the cupboard, as it were.”
Have you put it in the cupboard?
“Well embarrassment more sadness because it was utterly, utterly phenomenally stupid. The split should never have occurred. It was utterly stupid. ‘You hate my cat, so I hate your cat.’ It was pettiness, it was literally my cat and Johnny’s dog. But really I’m now more familiar with ashes of Mrs Gandhi.”
How do you feel about the split, with hindsight?
“Well there are personal, there are private, there are public reasons. The Smiths had reached a point where they could dominate the world if they wished to. After years of semi-struggle everything was finally laid out before us and that was when The Smiths ended. I was quite annoyed by that because suddenly there were questions. Suddenly the question was ‘Well can he actually make a record now?’ and I had a lot of mail saying ‘Well it was good while it lasted but now it’s over’ and so forth. So it was a very dodgy period for me and I think my records very accurately illustrated that. I feel as though I’m actually in my third career now.”
Morrissey is currently more popular than he has ever been before. His first two singles both entered the Top 10 in the first week of their release, and I have already heard serious suggestion that ‘The Last Of The Famous International Playboys’ will be Morrissey’s first Number One hit record. Though lyrically concerned with criminal notoriety, using The Krays as its example, the title of ‘Last Of The Famous International Playboys’ screams for a more specific and familiar nominee.
Appropriately Morrissey has already furnished himself with four candidates.
“The Last Of The Famous International Playboys are David Bowie, [former T. Rex frontman] Marc Bolan, [former Buzzcocks frontman] Howard Devoto and me,” he announces modestly.
Do you see similarities between yourself and Bowie?
“What, the living Bowie or the present dead one? The living Bowie, there are some, yes. Yes, I do see similarities.”
Is crime another interest of yours?
“Well I think it always has been, not actively, but a fascinating subject. I’ve never stolen. I’m interested in the sense of celebrity, even on the level of murder, and the fame attached to grizzly crimes. Often wonder why people who commit such crimes are treated like celebrities, it doesn’t do the crime rate much good does it?
“The fame attached is part of the chase for people because there is such a pressure on most to produce proof that they have lived, if you like, leave something behind. And it’s not enough to merely reproduce. I think people are obsessed with fame these days. Everybody wants to leave their mark, nobody wants to be an ordinary plodding citizen. And the lengths that some people will go to are quite enormous, for better, for worse.”
If Morrissey has sinned in his rise to self-styled King of the Western World then it must surely have been indulging in his only weakness, which he himself credited as being a ‘listed crime’ if you remember ‘Shoplifters’. If, for privacy’s sake, we assume that his crime is no more than a healthy interest in fiction and fabrication, then it is Morrissey’s own ambiguity which has led to what many people insist on hinting at as being a somewhat spectacular cover-up.
Like all immediate success stories The Smiths have left in their wake a sea of assorted respectful, bemused, and sometimes embittered personnel. And like all successful rock’n’roll bands who don’t splash their underwear, their sex, and their mother’s little helpers across the fish and chip wrap of tabloids, there is an equally large stack of unfounded, unproven, and unwanted rumours, lies, and fantasies.
What is remarkable about The Smiths is that no one will really go any further than to mutter ‘Ooh, the things I could tell you about The Smiths’, before insisting it would be more than their life’s worth to even suggest whatever grotty little snippet they might have you believe.
And yet, apart from a very early interview with our own Cath Carroll where Morrissey spoke directly about the eroticism of the male body (and an interview in a lesser rag that was littered with tawdry references to public toilets), Morrissey has rarely been questioned about the highly sexual nature of his lyrics.
Had Morrissey’s lyrics – which gleamed with the same delicious and double-edged sexual delight on ‘Viva Hate’ as they had on ‘The Smiths’ – actually been daubed with the same restraint as the ineffective picture-postcard romance that made Glen Tilbrook and Chris Difford’s Squeeze so popular in the early ‘80s, then maybe his earnest promotion of sexual abstinence might have been swallowed whole.
As it is, without wishing to undermine his aggressive challenge to the staid institution of compulsory heterosexuality and monogamy, I find it hard to believe that it is a Crown Prince Of Celibacy who is responsible for such knowing or flirtatious songs as ‘Late Night, Maudlin Street’, ‘Reel Around The Fountain’, ‘Hand In Glove’ and ‘Alsatian Cousin’. Or for the specifically sexual visual control of his image, from the topless NME front cover to the particularly lustful dancing of the young tearaway hoodlum on the new video.
Are your lyrics really honest?
“Yes I think they are very honest. They’re honest to everything. Obviously that word is so dangerous because as soon as it’s used you’re suddenly suspect. They’re very true to me and what I want.”
There is a very high and strong sense of sexuality running through your lyrics.
“Well that’s me all over. I don’t think I’ve ever said words that don’t have that tinge…”
It’s not just a tinge.
“Well I’m being modest. That overblown brew of brimming sexuality, I think that’s there. I think what I said was that’s me as a living, breathing specimen was bereft of any physical whatever. I listen to these Stock, Waterman and Faceache with all it’s brimming disco and to me it’s sadly clinical, it isn’t sex; it’s obviously the A-Z of cliché.”
Do you see yourself as a sex object?
“I think I must be, absolutely, a total sex object. In every sense of the word. A lot of men and a lot of women find me… find me… unmistakably attractive. It amuses me, I sit down and wonder why, and then somebody writes a beautiful letter and tells me why. I find it baffling in a particular sense because, as I said earlier, I can’t remember any figure who attracted so many male followers. And a lot of the male followers who are, as far as the eye can see, natural specimens, have very, very anguished and devilishly rabid desires in my direction. And I find that quite historic.”
What about emotional circles and physical relationships?
“Well, I don’t have them. I have very good friends and we can make phone calls and laugh hysterically for three hours but that’s as far as it goes. My friends and I tend to have similar pasts, similar viewpoints, and similar handicaps. That’s the strength of our secret sect.”
All the times when you have discussed you asexuality and celibacy, have you been giving a fair representation of the experiences that you also draw your lyrics from?
“I think they have been fair. Totally accurate.”
Why are you so guarded about the life you write about?
“I’m guarded because a lot of people make fun and a lot of people think I’m clinically mad. So I’m ready to erect a small wall when somebody mentions ‘silly butties’ – celibacy. I’ve been around quite a bit now, I’m not a thin swirling creature anymore. And I suppose manhood does arrive at some stage, you can’t fend it off.”
People have this impression of you as a…
“Yes I know, I’ve heard this.”
As a celibate, as someone who stands back, and yet the knowledge you put across through your lyrics and the pain, the emotion, the excitement that you capture, they aren’t the words of a celibate. Unless the person was quite promiscuous prior to their celibacy?
“Not true, because I think the people who are knee-deep in bodies and flesh can’t be bothered to write about those things. If they sit down to construct a stanza they actually want to write about something a bit different. They want to get away from it because flailing flesh is very much part of their lives. It’s not very interesting and nothing very new and perhaps they don’t have a very clear vision of it. They’re so steeped in it.
“So I think if throughout my life I had been popular and active, shall we say [chuckles], I might have written about something else. But because I was, as I may have casually mentioned once, plunging, plunging, plunging I had to scribble, scribble, scribble.”
Do you find yourself being attracted to people?
“Yes sometimes. I do have the occasional flushes but they do pass. I sit down and have a chip butty. You don’t accept that do you? Yes, I do have flushes, usually at bank holidays. Mostly, no, people are a great disappointment to me. I think I am interested and then I discover the reality. People are quite light and frothy, which is fair enough. I know some people aren’t frothy at all. I think there’s a lot of frothiness about, especially in Peterborough.”
When you write, are you trying to soothe the way you feel about sex?
“It’s beyond ‘nudge nudge’. I don’t fit into any sexual category at all so I don’t feel people see it as being sexual, but as being intimate.”
Meanwhile back at the raunch, it is this very clever choice of asexuality, combined with a very physical sexual reality (even if it is only confined to the level of ‘look, don’t touch’) that makes Morrissey so attractive to his hordes. The sweet and tender, untouchable, topless Adonis, always ready to reveal his inner thoughts and passions yet just as eager to veil them in lyrical and sexual ambiguity.
Maybe it is this over-enthusiastic curiosity from fans that forewarns him of a more offensive and dangerous threat to the often remarkable relationship with his art and his audience that he has developed – ie from the blood-hungry tabloids. If this is the case, then Morrissey should be wary of the fate that killed off both his heroes Wilde and Dean, (indulgence and the pressures of fame) and maybe for once I can allow him the excessive protection and molly-coddling he has received from record company and followers. When I asked about the paradox of his two-sided character he replied with a standard, “Well I think it’s easier to be oneself onstage.”
Isn’t that sad?
“Yeah but it’s just like saying ‘Isn’t it sad that someone need drugs to be happy’.”
Have you ever felt like that?
“Err, when I was a teenager.”
So you’ve never been a rampant cocaine fiend then?
“I don’t even know what cocaine looks like. When I was a teenager I used to make my weekly trip to the GP and come away laden, as it were.”
You must have been offered cocaine as The Smiths became more and more the classic rock’n’roll band?
“I never heard the word mentioned, ever. More’s the pity, ha ha.”
Never on tour?
“No, not at all. I went back to the hotel every night with a tangerine.”
Do you feel like you’re constantly living out your fantasies?
“I’m not Batman. I’m not The Penguin. I have always been honest and it has always been worth it. There have always been risks from the very first Smiths sleeve to the very latest. I thought male naked buttocks were a risk. Not to me of course, but to everyone else.”
It is at these times that even the most ridiculous questions have to be asked of Morrissey…
Do you see you songs as being heterosexual?
“No I was beyond all that when I was three-and-a-half years of age. I left heterosexuality, umbrellasexuality, whatever, behind. I always said people to me were just sexual. I lied; actually people to me were never sexual. I’m beyond that and I think if you consider what you have to do to be that, you have to be beyond it. Salvador Dali, who died today, he was beyond that, although clinically heterosexual, I believe.”
What I can’t believe…
“Aha! You’ve said it now.”
Your lyrics are so amazingly sexual, very flirtatious, very knowingly saucy, double-edged, steeped in innuendo. Is that all drawn from your past?
“Well, yes, because, as I’ve said, I’ve been around nearly 30 years now you know, I’ve seen quite a bit. I’m not a teenager by any means, despite outward appearances. I think I’d omit ‘saucy’, I don’t feel very saucy at this particular moment in time. It’s not ‘nudge nudge’. No, it’s all a plan for the future. So how do you like the look of that bush over there, James?”
I think I prefer the rhododendrons.
“Yes, most of them do actually.”
You laid yourself absolutely naked on ‘Viva Hate’, didn’t you?
“Absolutely naked. Parts of it were quicksand but bravery won the day.”
Would you like to appear actually naked on your sleeves?
“Well, it might detract from record sales. I don’t want to enter at Number 92.”
Shall we call it a day?
“Yes, I think I’ve been naked enough today. I feel like putting a very small flannel on.”