These Things Take Time: Morrissey
Here, Morrissey reflects on getting older, the legacy of the Smiths, and the young devotees who hang on his every wistful word. Heaven knows he's not so miserable now
This story originally ran in the May 2004 issue of SPIN.
You don’t expect Morrissey to walk into the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel wearing dark aviators. It’s one of those rare Los Angeles afternoons when the Santa Anas blow the smog out over the Pacific and glorious sunlight blankets the city. But it’s strange to imagine the Smiths’ former frontman living in such a climate. He’s come to symbolize the hard rain and bleak, industrial environs of his native Manchester, England. I am almost let down that he is not bundled in a librarian’s cardigan. Instead, with his close shave, pink shirt, black sport jacket, charcoal trousers, and suede boots (which I assume are imitation, befitting rock’s most famous vegetarian), he resembles a hip West London businessman. Once the very embodiment of malnourished bookish youth, middle-aged Steven Patrick Morrissey, who turns 45 on May 22, is quite nearly robust.
We exchange greetings and make our way past the Polo Lounge (the hotel’s landmark restaurant/bar), down a carpeted staircase, and through a gilded, underground mini-mall with rows of shops selling alligator valises and silk cravats. When we step out into the garden, Morrissey smiles. He seems to drink in each individual plant — the bird-of-paradise flowers, the blooming, fragrant lantanas.
“It’s so beautiful,” he remarks.
Something about the way he walks as we head toward a private cabana by the pool implies that Morrissey (the man for whom the term miserablism was coined) is not even remotely brooding. His gait is almost sprightly.
“Did you see anyone famous in the Polo Lounge?” he asks me.
“No. Just a lot of self-possessed rich people,” I crack. Later that night, I’ll spy Colin Farrell hopping around on crutches while simultaneously drinking and smoking, but the sprawling, pink palace (immortalized by the Eagles in “Hotel California”) is no longer even remotely a rock’n’roll haven. It stinks of money, old and new (mostly new). The good life is lived here. Sure, it’s close to the home Morrissey has owned for the past six years (a Spanish-style estate that was built by Clark Gable for his wife, Carole Lombard, and was later owned by F. Scott Fitzgerald), but as we sit down beside a pair of topiary sea horses, order tea, and stare out at the potbellied sunbathers, I wonder why Morrissey chose this place over, say, the Chateau Marmont or his favorite English-style pub, the Cat and Fiddle, both just a few miles down Sunset Boulevard. As he re-engages the media to promote his first album of new material in seven years, You Are the Quarry (out May 18), is Morrissey trying to project a new image—that of a shades-wearing, sun-worshipping, dare I say, well-adjusted gentleman? Though he was in danger of becoming something of a has-been in the late’90s, Morrissey in 2004 has emerged from self-imposed exile as an exalted elder statesman of British pop. An institution. As far as I can tell, he knows this. And he wears it surprisingly well.
“Amazing to find soy milk at this hotel,” he says, lightening his English breakfast tea from a porcelain creamer.
“Maybe they fly it in from somewhere,” I suggest. Morrissey laughs. (It feels weird even typing those two words.)
“Are you happier?” I ask him. “Were you ever clinically depressed?”
He nods. “I think I was quite clinically depressed. I feel so much happier now.”
“Is it a natural change? Something that comes with age?”
“With age,” he says, “you can put things into perspective and realize how absurd people are. When you’re younger, you feel that if a person is a lawyer or an accountant or a high court judge, they must actually know something.'”
“But they probably just saw a job opportunity,” I say.
“They can still screw your life up, though.”
“Unfortunately, yes,” Morrissey says. “But that’s the fascist society we live in. I don’t know why you’re laughing.”
“I guess to keep from crying.”
“Feel free to cry,” he says. “You’ll feel a lot better.”
Morrissey has clashed with authority figures for most of his life—from schoolteachers (famously recounted in the Smiths’ “The Headmaster Ritual”) to the royal family (the band’s third album is titled The Queen Is Dead). Even after he became a star—aligning himself with guitarist Johnny Marr and forming the Smiths in 1982—his eccentricities seemed resolutely out of step. Using the template of ’60s British pop classicism, the Smiths created timeless ballads and rockers in an age defined by Keytars and silly haircuts. Though new-wave curios Boy George and Pete Burns dressed in drag, both seemed somewhat tame compared to the Smiths, whose early singles teemed with homoerotic imagery. Although British rock journalist Nick Kent called the Smiths “the only truly immortal group of the ’80s,” and despite a few hundred thousand followers who would leap in front of flying bullets for them, the quartet never enjoyed American mainstream success (their highest-charting and final studio album, Strangeways, Here We Come, peaked at No. 55 on the Billboard Hot 100).
After a shockingly abrupt split between Morrissey and Marr, the band dissolved in 1987, the very year that their closest contemporaries—R.E.M., U2, and the Cure—broke through to the masses. Marr went on to collaborate with a mixed bag of artists (Bryan Ferry, the Pretenders, Talking Heads), all of whose sole distinction seemed to be that they were past their prime. By the early ’90s, Morrissey was in the odd position of being able to sell out arenas like Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl in minutes, though he never received priority treatment from his American labels and rarely heard himself on the radio. “My success, if you want to call it that, has never had anything to do with the record company,” he says. “Ever. Ever. Ever.”
As a solo artist, an increasingly marginalized Morrissey took even more fire. In 1988, “Margaret on the Guillotine,” the closing track on his solo debut, Viva Hate, made him the subject of a police investigation for allegedly inciting a bloody coup against then U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (no charges were filed). In 1992,the influential British music paper NME branded him a fascist after he draped himself in the Union Jack and performed in London’s Finsbury Park in front of a backdrop featuring photographs of young skinheads. In 1996, Smiths drummer Mike Joyce and bass player Andy Rourke sued Morrissey and Marr for 25 percent of record royalties. Rourke settled, but the British High Court awarded Joyce an estimated 1 million pounds. Possibly riled by Morrissey’s courtroom behavior (he held up a copy of the popular Smiths biography, Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance, and icily informed Joyce’s attorney, “There are two names on the cover, Morrissey and Johnny Marr. Did you notice that?”), the presiding judge made a point to publicly dismiss his Smiths-era financial wrangling as “devious, truculent, and unreliable.” (For the record, this is one subject that Morrissey cannot make peace with. “There isn’t enough time in infinity,” he says.) Worse, his sixth solo studio album, Maladjusted, released in ’97, was greeted with almost universal indifference.
“The last album was not a showstopper,” he admits. “The sleeve was dreadful. I look like a mushroom or a leprechaun. It was designed by the record company [Mercury], and they were collapsing. There was a terrible dark cloud over it. I also find that, in the media, most writers say exactly the same thing. So, if they recognize a cloud above you, then they’ll say, ‘Oh, yes, there’s the cloud.'”
“‘He’s lost it,'” I suggest.
In 1998, without a label or management, nearly 40, and fed up, Morrissey disappeared. He’d moved from Dublin to Los Angeles in 1996, and on rare occasions had been spotted at a rock show (the Libertines at the El Rey, the Sex Pistols at the Greek Theatre) or at the Cat and Fiddle for a Sunday afternoon pint. While remaining gracious to fans who made pilgrimages to his front steps (I know one who licked his mailbox), Morrissey has spent much of his time away, promoting animal rights, working closely with the Los Angeles Animal Police and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Among his causes: protesting the abuses of baby elephants in Thailand; exposing the experiments conducted on dogs and cats by the Iams pet-food company; joining fellow PETA campaigner Pamela Anderson and a turkey named Chloe for a meat-free Thanksgiving dinner in 2002. “A lot of people aren’t interested in animals, so I have to tread very lightly because I don’t want to become a crashing bore about these things,” Morrissey says. “You won’t see me being arrested outside McDonald’s. I just do what I can. I think that animals need all the help we can give them.”
“Morrissey helped put PETA on the map,” says Dan Mathews, the organization’s vice president of campaigns. “The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder was a benchmark in defining animal rights as an edgy youth movement and has created legions of vegetarians.”
Morrissey launched a world tour in 1999, called ¡Oye Esteban! which affectionately acknowledged his newly discovered Latino fan base,then was relatively quiet until he appeared twice in 2002 on CBS’ The Late Late Show (during which host Craig Kilborn fawned over his visibly uncomfortable guest in a manner usually reserved for the likes of Doritos girl Ali Landry). “I’m looking for a deal,” Morrissey claimed in a December 2000interview. “And I’m open and free and available—not free, but I’m available.” A lack of either takers or acceptable offers gave Morrissey the dubious distinction of being the biggest unsigned act in rock history.
“I’m assuming that you express your personal feelings through your lyrics,” I tell him.
“Yes,” he says. “It’s always been absolutely and exclusively about me.”
“It must have been hard to lose that direct outlet after so many years.”
“It was very frustrating,” he says. “But I absolutely believe in fate and I knew that it would end. I felt like I was being carried along by something, and perhaps it’s all the better that there was a gap.”
Something was indeed carrying Morrissey along. While he was dining on Tofurky with sex bombs, the legacy of the Smiths was growing rapidly. In 2002, NME dubbed the Smiths rock’s most influential band, over the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He was named the greatest Manchurian ever in a poll of Manchester Evening News readers. In the final scene of the acclaimed 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, no less than God admonishes Factory Records chief Tony Wilson (played by Steve Coogan) for not having signed the Smiths. There was a series of reissues and best-ofs. All of this found favor with a new generation of listeners who weren’t even born when the Smiths broke up. Through it goes without saying that Morrissey has no plans to welcome the host of VH1’s Bands Reunited into his home, a Smiths reunion became the dream for those aghast at the prospect of having missed them forever. (Full disclosure: Reuniting the Smiths is also the subject of my 2003 novel How Soon Is Never?) Reflecting on his legacy and that of the Smiths, Morrissey says, “You don’t need to be throwing music at the public constantly. There are certain artists who are absolutely timeless and not dependent upon the media to support them. They’re not really dependent upon anything because the audience that they attracted in the first place came to them for the right reasons. And they understood.”
“My expectations for his new record are extraordinarily high, but this is normal,” says David Tseng, webmaster of morrissey-solo.com. “Morrissey is judged on a different scale, as there really is no other comparison.”
Though always influential (the Smiths can be detected in everything from Oasis’ Northern bravado to Coldplay’s painstaking sense of melody), the Smiths’ cultural relevance among today’s younger fans owes no small debt to the fact that they’re one of the foundations of emo. Rivers Cuomo stole Morrissey’s geek chic. Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst builds on his brooding vocal style. Thursday’s Geoff Rickly emulates his onstage flailing. Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba claimed his quiff. “Morrissey changed and influenced modern punk rock and hardcore more than anybody realizes,” says Gerard Way, singer for New Jersey emo goths My Chemical Romance. “His songs about death, irony, loss, and sexual ambiguity are set to pop music, but because of their content they should’ve never made it to the radio.”
“Are you aware of the emo movement?” I ask Morrissey.
He arches an eyebrow. “No. I was born yesterday.”
“What do you make of nü-metal bands like the Deftones citing the Smiths as an influence as well?”
“I think it certainly is a modern trend to expose the emotions, more so than ever before. And whether it’s as far-reaching as groups like Deftones or System of a Down, everybody is ‘coming out,’ and I don’t mean sexually. I mean throwing their emotions out there. Everybody seems to know what they need. They don’t necessarily attain it, but they known what they want to say [about it].”
“What do you make of the fact that many of your new fans are so young?” I ask.
“It’s fascinating,” he says. “Year after year, it seems to absolutely catch the 14-year-olds and capture their imaginations somehow. I think [being a teenager] is a time in your life when you gravitate toward a somewhat dark realism, and you want people to stop talking to you as if you were a child. You want people to give it to you straight. And I think my singing voice has always sounded like a real voice. It’s never sounded like it’s been heavily treated, and I don’t sound like a person who’s terribly happy. God knows how that started, given my natural exuberance.”
“But, as a 44-year-old, it must be awkward to have fans who are 14.”
“Not really,” he says. “It’s not as if I take them home and bake them pies. I can put it in perspective. And I’m thankful that anybody should listen—when I’ve often been told that nobody should.”
Jacob Sloan, a 19-year-old student at Manhattan’s New School University, has been hooked since hearing “How Soon Is Now?” on the radio in 2001 (it’s the Smiths’ best-known song—and it’s one year older than he is). “It was so eerie and cool. So I bought the Smiths’ Singles CD and it completely changed my life,” he says. Sloan, too, maintains that the generation gap isn’t really so strange. “There were things that Morrissey sang that I’d thought about myself. But I never imagined I’d hear them echoed back from another person. I love how he can sing about sitting at home alone at night, and suddenly the situation becomes epic and loaded with humor and conflict and tragedy. It’s as if he’s permanently stuck on the threshold of adulthood. Part of him wants to be accepted, while part of him is fiercely proud that he can’t fit in. Any teenager can identify with that.”
Thanks in part to this renewed interest, Morrissey signed a deal with mega-indie Sanctuary Records Group, which has revived the long-dormant imprint Attack for the singer who will bring other artists to the label (including Nancy Sinatra, with whom he’s collaborated on a single due out May 10). Last year, he compiled some of his favorite songs—ranging from the Ramones’ “Judy Is a Punk” to German new-wave performance artist Klaus Nomi’s “Death”—for the CD series Under the Influence. This summer, Morrissey will curate England’s annual Meltdown Festival, where, it has been reported, the surviving members of his heroes the New York Dolls will perform together for the first time since the mid-’70s.
The unspoken logic behind all this is that anything Morrissey touches will be consumed by the kids who are so newly smitten with him, as well as the older fans who have stuck by him. “I’m simply and only a music fan,” Morrissey stresses. “That’s why I worry about joining the pop celebrity community, because I would be frightened that they’d ask me awkward questions.”
When he resumes touring in May (commencing with a birthday concert in Manchester, supported by Scottish acolytes Franz Ferdinand), films the video for Quarry’s first single, “Irish Blood, English Heart,” and returns to The Late Late Show for a weeklong residence, I wonder if the Morrissey he’ll be presenting is the Morrissey that fans will be expecting. Nearly every lapel badge or T-shirt depicts the singer in his early 20s. With his temples now flecked with white, and his slightly fuller countenance, some may be disappointed. Morrissey seems aware of this but he is not too preoccupied by it.
“In the ’60s and the ’70s,” he says, “pop music in England was for everybody, and the pop chart was for everybody. Your parents bought pop music. There were middle-aged people in the charts, and they would get to No. 1.
“I think the [Smiths’ and my solo] music has always been somewhat aggressive, but I don’t think I’m a rock’n’roll person,” he continues. “I’ve always stood by so-called crooners like Matt Monro [best known for performing the title song from the 007 movie From Russia With Love] and, to a lesser degree, people like Doris Day—people who could really belt out an emotional number. I’ve never stood by rock’n’roll singers, apart from [the Dolls’] David Johansen. It was always the older generation of stately crooners that attracted me.”
“What will the faithful make of Morrissey, stately crooner?”
“Public taste has absolutely sprung open,” he says, “and now anything is possible. It’s totally open for anybody to infiltrate. And if you examine the British chart, any old piece of utter twaddle screeches into the Top 10 with no problem whatsoever.”
Commercial prospects aside, a Morrissey who enjoys the sun and the smells of the Beverly Hills Hotel will surely not fly with those who almost require misery from him. Morrissey may be unconcerned with the past, but few will let him forget it. An aging, flesh-and-blood Morrissey is a threatening concept. To fans, he rains a perfect idea. A spirit. A design for life. He almost belongs in two dimensions on a wall in a dimly lit bedroom. He should never lose his hair or his teeth. As long as Morrissey is eternally alone, painfully shy, perhaps sexually confused, certainly aghast to the point of illness at the world’s vulgarity, it is okay for them to suffer such maladies, too. More than okay, it’s preferred. This is a pop religion. He is their infallible and impossibly handsome Pope of Mope.
“Do you think some of your fans will ever allow you to be a real person?” I ask.
“I don’t think so, because the image they have in their minds is so fixed. A lot of them realize that I change and move on and grow older, but they won’t let me do it without severely criticizing me.”
“Like, you couldn’t wear a Hawaiian shirt or a straw hat.”
“I can do anything, but I have to be ready for rotten tomatoes.”
“How do you think you’re aging?” I ask.
“Well, it’s difficult to the degree that if you’re repeatedly photographed, people are constantly commenting on how you look. If you’re a bus driver or if you’re a tree feller, then people don’t constantly comment on how you look. But if you are in the public eye, it seems to be acceptable for people to tell you that you either look great or you look terrible. I’ve read on several occasions that I obviously dye my hair. Which is very amusing to me, because I haven’t since I was 12 years old.
I don’t think I’ve ever presented myself as human or physical perfection,” he continues. “If you look at the very early photo sessions, I was just saturated with spots. The diet I had at the time was absolutely restricted to chocolate and potato crisps. And I was absolutely emaciated in those days.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but You Are the Quarry is Morrissey singing his midlife. Lyrically, it’s downright curmudgeonly in places. Everyone gets theirs: the critics, the litigants, the obese carnivores, the Bush administration (“A lot of people have died under his name unnecessarily,” says Morrissey), and the Blair administration (“The political system in England is pathetic”). Several tracks, most certainly the proud “Irish Blood, English Heart,” and the self-explanatory “I’m Not Sorry,” even recall Frank Sinatra’s My Way”—or Sid Vicious’, depending on your mood. Those who simply miss the voice are in for a treat; Morrissey has never sounded better. “I didn’t sing this well in ’83 and ’84,” he boasts. The key? “Never any cigarettes. And alcohol in moderation.” The ballad “Come Back to Camden” proves the old falsetto from the Smiths’ “You’ve Got Everything Now” has held up. Despite some up-tempo tracks, the new album could almost qualify as easy listening. If 1991-92 was Morrissey’s rockabilly period (Kill Uncle and Your Arsenal) and 1995’s Southpaw Grammar his hard-rock effort, Quarry may be remembered as his “quiet storm” record. There are programmed, Dido-esque beats, space-age-bachelor-pad keyboards, even flutes.
“There’s an airiness about this record,” I remark. “It’s something we could play poolside.”
“Well, it’s very listenable,” he says. “It’s very gentle on the ear.”
Morrissey’s family solo band (guitarist Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer) are joined on the album by keyboardist Roger Manning, who has played with Air and Beck. Jerry Finn, who spit-shined AFI’s and Blink-182’s raucous punk with a radio-friendly sheen, does the same here for Morrissey’s anger and longing. But what of the anger and longing? Most of these songs are more about conclusions given than empathetic questions raised. Instead of classic Smiths lines like, “If you’re so funny / Then why are you on your own tonight?” which mainline straight to the heavy adolescent heart, there’s “You Know I Couldn’t Last,” the album’s stunning closer, on which Morrissey wails, “CDs and T-shirts and promos and God knows / You know I couldn’t last,” before defeatedly intoning, “Your royalties bring you luxuries / But, oh, the squalor of the mind.” He’s a seasoned, beaten-but-unbroken star whom few teens may relate to (unless they happen to be an Olsen twin). The song’s sentiment is reminiscent of the Smiths track “Paint a Vulgar Picture,” where Morrissey, in the guise of a teen fan, addresses an older, doomed rock star: “I walked a pace behind you at the sound check / You’re just the same as I am!” Today, Morrissey is on the other side. We’re now following him.
“Have you become that other person now?” I ask. “The star who you were looking at in that song?”
“Is it strange to be on the other end?”
“Rib-tickling. I would never have believed it, never. And part of me still doesn’t.”
But one thing about Morrissey will always remain the same—even if someday the queen forgives the title of his band’s 1986 masterpiece and dubs him Sir Moz: He will live his life alone. Like every Smiths and Morrissey record, You Are the Quarry contains powerful accounts of unrequited longing. On “The World Is Full of Crashing Bores,” he sings: “And I must be one / ‘Cause nobody ever turns to me to say, ‘Take me in your arms and love me.'” Part of me almost wants to grab him and say, “Just have some already.” After all, required love is—special. And sated lust isn’t so bad, either. Even Johnny Marr once cracked, “I must say that when he gets really upset, frankly, I think it’s just because he needs a good humping.”
“Do you think that one day you will meet someone who will change your life?” I ask Morrissey. He hoots me a glare, as though I’d just inquired, “Shall we split the roast beef club?”
“No, no,” he says. “I don’t believe that at all. I don’t actually believe in, as you so eloquently term it, ‘one day.’ I think that today is all there is and that there isn’t anything else. Just this minute and here we are.”
“Yes, but would you even be open to that if it happened?”
“I don’t think so, to be honest. I can’t think of anything that anybody could give me at this stage that I would jump off a building to grab.”
“But it fills up your day, having a relationship.”
“Believe me, it doesn’t. I’ve got my work at the L.A. Animal Police. That takes up all my time. I still prefer horses to human beings.”
We rise and move toward the hotel lobby. Along the way, Morrissey asks his manager for directions to the men’s room. Such a mundane query doesn’t feel quite as weird hitting the ears as I might have expected. We shake hands. I walk a pace behind him as he goes. He’s just the same as I am.