Morrissey is dead
PUBLISHED: 09:01 25 June 2018 | UPDATED: 14:22 05 September 2019
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He was the voice of the shy youth who left the party early, went home alone and cried. But of late Morrissey’s once rapier rhetoric has acquired a darker hue, superfan NICHOLAS BARRETT investigates
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My adolescence was Smiths upon Smiths upon Smiths upon Smiths.
Smiths songs to define you and Smiths songs to confine you, with few hints that any other voice could ever burrow as far into the human experience as the one belonging to Steven Patrick Morrissey.
As what could be referred to as a second generation acolyte, I became infatuated with Morrissey on cold and lonely streets via my iPod headphones and the songs have been inexorably infused with the locations where they first broke the frozen seas within me.
My Love Life is Quey Hill in Falmouth, a steep and narrow lane that took me down to a harbour-side pub, where I would meet my friend Stuart for sardonic beers in the sun.
Southpaw is Statton Terrance, the riverside road to Penryn where I would walk home from parties where nobody had noticed my attendance.
And How Soon is Now will forever be tied to a dusky railway junction on the outskirts of Bristol where a signal failure introduced me to a slow suburban sunset. As an alienated 22-year-old, Morrissey's early mission was to combine the raw energy of the New York Dolls with the tongue in cheek perspicacity of Oscar Wilde, which he wrapped up in the effortless grace of James Dean. In doing so, he made rock music seem inviting to people who didn't realise that it was possible to be both bookish and cool.
Thanks to Morrissey, the libido could publicly co-exist with the life of the mind.
By writing such perspective music for so long, Morrissey has fermented a unique sense of intimacy between his words and his audience. In 1991, after the singer had fallen out of fashion in England, he toured the USA solo and encountered all the trappings of Beatlemania. In Dallas, his performance was drowned by adoring hug-hungry stage invaders who fatally interrupted Everyday is Like Sunday, a quintessentially British song about "the coastal town that they forgot the closedown". Those of us who were perpetually positioned on the periphery of the social circles we sojourned called out to him, and he called back to us.
And beneath the miserablist stereotype, there is a secret that only a minority of listeners are ever able to appreciate. Morrissey is actually quite funny and is funny on purpose, occasionally with elements of dangerously accurate self-assessments, warning us to "beware, I bear more grudges than lonely high court judges".
The modern world is an absurd place, and as soon as an artist or a writer recognises the inherent senselessness, then loneliness, alienation and awkwardness are no longer bugs of the human experience, but features that might even be essential for understanding the environment around us.
If the music the DJs play says nothing to you about your life then the failure isn't yours, it's merely a symptom of an entertainment industry that only knows how to unite us at the bottom of the barrel. In the Moztopian universe, the crowd is always likely to be misguided, and while the outsiders may be missing the party, the party is missing out on the intimacy that comes with belonging to the music that belongs to your own experience.
And so I trekked to obscure corners of Manchester to stand outside Salford Lads club and sauntered down Kings Road and wondered if number 384 still had the same door that Johnny Marr once knocked against in that legendary moment of Genesis. I dragged reluctant and confused friends through the streets of Rome to have my photo taken leaning against the Pizzeria La Montecario to prove that I didn't drift away from Morrissey when Morrissey drifted away from public gaze in 1987. And eventually, I found myself reading the first 200 pages of Morrissey's autobiography in a single sitting on a bench in Sunderland's Mowbray Park because that's where I happened to be on the morning of its publication and because every word from that mysterious mind seemed like it must be worth its weight in gold.
Perhaps it was the irony that gilded so much of what Morrissey said and sung that made it so hard for so many of us to recognise the early undertones of something darker. Every public figure who makes a counter-cultural dent in the public imagination is pelted with 'ists' and 'isms' as a matter of course. Anybody accusing our Morrissey of racism was probably just hungry for attention and almost certainly never liked his music to begin with. In the now notorious National Front Disco Morrissey is mourning the loss of a friend to the far right. "Your friends all say where is our boy? Oh, we've lost our boy, but they should know where you've gone because again and again, you've explained." It had to be nuanced because everything else was nuanced. And so even in those dark days and nights following the referendum in 2016, it seemed perfectly natural for me to stroll through the midnight streets of Florence singing "England for the English" with all the audible passion of an EDL hooligan and all the deniability of a liberal wearing subsidised spectacles under a regulation James Dean quiff. Even now I'll stand by that song. It's catchy, it's exciting, and it's dangerous, it's what rock music ought to aspire to. But now it's been tainted, not by the journalists who condemned it in 1992, but the singer who complained that a darkening world wasn't darkening quite fast enough.
In May 2017, Morrissey took to Facebook to tell his followers what to blame for the bomb that killed young music lovers in the native city of Manchester: "Theresa May says such attacks 'will not break us', (meaning) that the tragedy will not break her, or her policies on immigration." A fandom turns its back and gags.
It is worth noting that the bomber was born in Manchester to Libyan parents. Like most extremists, he was a second generation migrant, and it didn't escape me that Morrissey was born to Irish immigrants and grew up at a time when the IRA were creating more pain and misery on the British mainland than the Islamic State are capable of today. Should Elizabeth and Peter Morrissey have been denied the right to settle in Manchester? Should Morrissey's romantic Manchurian childhood have been precluded by the minuscule possibility that he would grow up and plan a mass murder instead of merely sing about one? Ironically, Morrissey ought to be a fan of the Conservative government, who have used thick layers of bureaucracy and restrictions to create conditions that barely fall short of President Trump's infamous travel ban by making it almost impossible for anybody from African and the Arab world to settle in the UK. It is ridiculous to expect a rock star to understand the intricacies of social cohesion in Northern England via a web browser from the safety of a gated mansion in Los Angeles, 5,000 miles from the front line. Nobody should read his ramblings with the hope of hearing sense.
It's not the first time Morrissey has disappointed his audience. Fans of Kanye West will recognise the exasperation that comes from spending years defending a genius who only rewards you with more reasons to make excuses on their behalf until the task becomes impossible. And yet, there is no reason for us to ever expect pampered musicians to be able to speak for an evolving audience for more than a decade or so. How could they? And more importantly, why do we want them to?
The answer may lie in a shift in our perception of cultural time. In "Ghosts of My Life" the critic and theorist Mark Fisher speculated that a slow down in musical ingenuity had warped our collective sense of generational belonging. Popular music, according to Fisher, has stagnated. The innovations witnessed between the late 1960s, and the early 1980s has almost evaporated to a point where new music no longer has any connection with the year in which it was made. Fisher proposed a quick thought experiment, "imagine any record released in the past couple of years being beamed back in time to, say, 1995 and played on the radio. It's hard to think that it will produce any jolt in the listeners. On the contrary, what would be likely to shock our 1995 audience would be the very recognisability of the sounds: would music really have changed so little in the next seventeen years? Contrast this with the rapid turnover of styles between the 1960s and the 90s: play a jungle record from 1993 to someone in 1989, and it would have sounded like something so new that it challenged them to rethink what music was, or could be." What Fisher perceived as a slowdown in musical originality has coincided with the ascent of digital technology that allows anybody to listen to any song from any era at any time. Such accessibility is a beautiful idea, but it has also disconnected culture from its temporal origins as we are encouraged to listen to what we already love, and invited to 'discover' music that sounds similar to the last album we listened to. It is easier than ever for the people who listen to music and the people who create it to become stuck in the past and use the limitless potential of the internet to seek out minor variations to the sounds and styles they already adore. Without a musical public sphere or the cultural pressure to move on, the decades melt into one another and listeners become lost in time. Once you find love, you're trapped.
As Morrissey would say "the older generation have tried, sighed and died". Next year he will be 60. Kanye West is 40. If a new generation is going to have any kind of unique cultural identity, then the gerontocracy must be overthrown. In 2016, as Morrissey and John Lydon celebrated Brexit from the Hollywood hills, I created a new rule and decided to delete every song I had that hadn't been realised in the previous two years. New Order, Talking Heads and Leonard Cohen had to be politely achieved. They have been replaced by Austra, a classically trained Canadian singer with a unique voice that manages to maintain childlike innocence and roaring emotional power. Austra is at her best while considering the trappings of modern life and the limits of democracy. I've also taken to Car Seat Headrest, an American band led by the courageously candid Will Toledo, who has sung about coming out of the closet to his friends on Skype and quickly pretending that it was a drunken joke after losing the confidence of his conviction. Like the 22-year-old Morrissey, Toledo has been liberated by the guitar for the benefit of humanity. And finally, there is Superorganism, a genuinely international psychedelic pop-group with musicians from Australia, Britain, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. These days I rarely go 20-minutes without singing along to Reflections on the Screen. These are millennials walking through the wreckage of the party their parents left behind and writing about a world with new sexual and social interpretations of what a person can be. More importantly, they are of their time and seem to strive towards distinctive sounds and ideas. Hopefully, they will inspire younger musicians to take their talents in new and experimental directions.
Alongside them were many average and forgettable acts, but tolerance has always been the toll you pay on the road to elation. As people live for longer, the cultural disparities between generations are bound to intensify. We can never deny the quality of yesterday's legends. But they are legends of their time, and unless we make an effort to rally around new voices, our generation will sink into history without a distinctive sound to call its own. If the reactionary rhetoric of the old guard is the wake-up call we need, then all we can do is say good night and thank you.
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