the release of Vauxhall And I, Morrissey intends to take
over America. If only he can get over himself. William Shaw gets down
with everyone's favorite poet-miserablist.
Patrick Morrissey knocks on my door at the exact appointed minute and
strides into my hotel suite. He's wearing a neat, well-pressed checked
cowboy shirt, two imitation pearl buttons on each pocket. Under it on
a silver chain dangles a small square pendant which reads 1 OZ.
"What's that stand for?" I ask nosily.
"That's my secret," he laughs. "I do a lot of baking."
Without asking, he starts switching the lights on. A little taken aback
at the way he has so instantly commandeered my room, I say, "You like
the lights on?" It is 3 p.m. The California sun is shining brightly.
"Yes," he smiles. "You," a pause, "like them off,
"Yes," I answer. Morrissey ignores me and switches the other lamp in
the room on, like a cat marking his territory. I offer him something
from room service. He declines cordially. I leave the sofa empty for
him to relax on. He chooses the armchair directly opposite me and sits
For over ten years Morrissey has been the greatest autobiographical
songwriter of his age. He has always written movingly and tenderly about
the man he knows, loves, and loathes best. But despite the fact that
he writes so articulately about himself, he hates discussing it. He
defuses questions that probe too deeply with a Wildean quip or a laugh.
He doesn't trust interviews: "I'm treated like some escaped convict,
constantly having to explain oneself fully, the basis of one's mere
existence." He uses the regal "one."
in Los Angeles. His press attache says he's there on holiday. Morrissey
denies it. "I'm not running around with a bucket and spade. I do
seem to be here, but I'm not doing anything in particular.
I'm just existing." It's the start of a new year and Morrissey has
a new LP, Vauxhall And I, recorded in the summer of 1993, after
one of the worst periods of his life. Last spring, three of his closest
associates died within weeks of each other. When his manager Nigel Thomas
had a sudden heart attack, Morrissey was thrown into shock. Shortly
afterward Tim Broad, who had directed eleven of his videos, died. The
following month Mick Ronson, whom he had idolized from his work with
David Bowie and who had produced Morrissey's last album, Your Arsenal,
died of cancer days after speaking to Morrissey about future collaborations.
Having been to two funerals in as many months, he couldn't bear the
idea of attending Ronson's.
Last year, during one particularly long dark phase, he locked himself
in his Victorian house in Primrose Hill, London, and refused to leave.
His sense of dejection was utterly debilitating. "It doesn't really
matter how people try to uplift you; within me it's an immovable, strange,
genetic/medical condition that I have never escaped from," he explains
with matter-of-fact sadness.
Morrissey is depressed. It's a cliche how depressed he is. But his depression
is clinical and he's spent a lot of time on the psychiatrist's couch
and on medication. Valium made him happier, but he was wary of side
effects. These days he eschews medication and therapy. Instead, he accepts
his depression as a part of his artistry. When filling in a questionnaire
for a British newspaper recently, he paused over the question When
were you happiest? before answering May 21, 1959. Fans can correctly
identify that date as the day before he was born. And when I ask him
where he was happiest, he answers earnestly, "I've got no idea. That
place is still somewhere on the horizon, I assume. I hope."
Actually things aren't so bad. Sometimes even Morrissey has to admit
this, though he doesn't like to push the boat out. He is widely loved.
In 1993, David Bowie covered Morrissey's song "I Know It's Going To
Happen Some Day." Bowie played him his version of the song at ear-splitting
volume and, to Morrissey's discomfort, watched him to see his reaction.
Morrissey thought Bowie's rendition was beautiful. He felt like crying,
but succeeded in conquering the emotion. Chrissie Hynde has recorded
a version of "Every Day Is Like Sunday" that has yet to be released,
but Morrissey say it is "astonishingly good." A collaboration
with Siouxsie of the Banshees has resulted in a song called "Interlude"
(though Morrissey fears that due to legal tangles between their respective
record companies it will never see the light of day).
And he has a new album filled with the usual cleverly phrased doubts
and anxieties. But there are also new songs with a hint of happiness.
On "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get" he casts himself as a
potentially victorious lover, something that has never occurred in the
entire rainy-day history of Morrissey.
"But as the song ends, I don't necessarily succeed," he protests.
"Though I am quite determined... which - yes, you're absolutely right
- is the new me. I feel a lot more comfortable the older I get. Which
is a song title in itself," he giggles.
He admits it. Something has changed. He's not exactly happy, but he's
happier. The biggest difference, he confesses, is that he no
longer needs to be famous. In the last eighteen months he's watched
his undeniable desire for it evaporate: "Fame was the spur, but it
isn't now. I actually find it slightly embarrassing and a slight infringement."
He puts it down to growing old.
first time I met Morrissey was on November 17, 1983. The Smiths' second
single, "This Charming Man," was becoming their first chart hit. Backstage
at a small London college I was ushered to the dressing room to interview
Morrissey. "I was raised in dire poverty," he boasted. "You
never had any money or socks or anything, and I think that had a great
influence on me." He came out with large, disdainful, arrogant phrases,
and poured out a giant love of pop music that none of his would-be-cool
contemporaries seemed able to match. "So many people," he gushed,
"don't talk to the press or appear on TV. You can only presume that
it's due to their absolute lack of imagination." He declared himself
naked before the world. "We just rip our hearts open and this is
how we are. The whole thing is so completely heavenly." And then
he puts on his beads, grasped a bunch of red gladioli, and before a
few hundred people, the Smiths took the stage and launched into "Handsome
Devil" with perilous abandon, Morrissey thrashing himself with the flowers.
Just eighteen months before, Morrissey had thought himself washed up
at twenty-three and so he retreated into a sullen introversion, writing
words for songs that would probably never exist. He believed he had
missed his chances for pop stardom. All he had to show for himself were
two concerts in 1978 singing for local punk group the Nosebleeds (with
Billy Duffy, later of the Cult). The Smiths allowed Morrissey to change
from the intense homebound geek, crippled with depression, into someone
who discovered how to open his heart for the world to see. Morrissey
remembers those early days fondly. They were frenetically exciting.
He felt constantly sick with the tension of it all.
In Britain the Smiths became a fundamental part of male adolescence,
alongside acne and soccer. They were the revenge of the boys. The 1980s
had started with pinup bands like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, who
sang hi-gloss songs for girls to test their blossoming emotions against.
Morrissey became the boys' pinup: a man boys could love, not with lust,
but as a personification of their own loneliness. Those too sensitive
to explore maleness through Def Leppard records happily put on plastic
beads and visited the florist whenever the Smiths came to town.
There is a cardboard box in the offices of EMI London filled with correspondence
to Morrissey from fans around the world. Nearly all the letters are
addressed in the same stylized, childlike scrawl that Morrissey himself
uses. These are not just simple acts of worship. His fans imagine him
as a wiser, poetic best friend, stricken by a tragic weltschmerz
that only their love can heal. At his concerts a stream of fans of both
sexes ritually charge the stage to hug him for a second. It has become
a set piece of his shows. In '92, at the Orpheum Theater, Minneapolis,
he collapsed under a human pyramid of huggers, and announced Englishly
the next night: "It's very nice of you to come up here, but it would
also be very nice if I could sing."
Once, in 1987, a young man in Denver held the local radio station at
gunpoint, demanding that they play only Smiths songs. For four hours
they complied and the Colorado airwaves were filled with the then-unfamiliar
sound of Morrissey, until the police persuaded the gunman to back down.
When Morrissey heard what had happened he felt, of course, extreme pleasure.
"But how did you know about it?" he demands. "I've
never come across anybody who knew about it." The fact that the
siege has never been properly reported anywhere outrages Morrissey.
"If it was any other artist, it would have been world news. But because
it was poor old tatty Smiths it was of no consequence whatsoever."
was born almost thirty-five years ago in Davyhulme, Manchester, the
son of two Irish immigrants who brought up Steven and his older sister
Jackie with a strong sense of Catholic propriety. "There was," explains
Moz fondly, "no such thing as strong language or nudity." He
laughs. "Unfortunately, I was raised with the notion that excitement
and exuberance and extremities were something other people did and were
not for me, and I must always have a very firm grip on every situation
I was in. Which was also slightly damaging to me..."
The first nightmare Morrissey remembers was when he was six, after watching
an episode of Mystery and Imagination about lepers. It haunted
him for a very long time. He found any programs about changelings fascinating;
those tacky, badly filmed transformations from man to animal in werewolf
films especially scared him. Frankenstein, however, didn't worry him
He grew up to be a shy boy. Athletic, like his father, but troubled
with a sense of strangeness.
His salvation was pop music. At six he was already drawing his own pop
magazine. As early as twleve this strange shy boy became a devoted Nico
fan, lapping up her albums Desert Shore and Chelsea Girl.
He was, he says, "enormously comforted by her isolation and depression."
From then on a forever-changing succession of idols were pasted
up on his bedroom walls, including Marc Bolan, David Bowie, and the
New York Dolls - a reflection of whatever was on his turntable at the
time. "Which, as I now think back," he adds, "was uncommonly
Morrissey was always a fan. In 1981 his slim volume The New York
Dolls, written as a star-struck nineteen-year-old, was published
in Britain. A couple of years later he followed with James Dean
Is Not Dead. The five thousand copies that were printed are eagerly
sought by the Morrissey following and have been known to change hands
for upwards of $100. The very first time the Smiths played in America,
Morrissey was ecstatic that they had been booked at the Iroquois Hotel,
because James Dean had once stayed there. But it was awful. Morrissey
spend the night standing on his bed terrified at all the cockroaches
fidgeting around the floor.
23, 1976, when Morrissey was seventeen, his parents separated. He stayed
at home with his mother. "Which I actually think is quite natural.
I love them both very much, but I didn't raise them, and I can't really
alter the past. It's nothing unique. Millions upon millions of people
come from 'damaged backgrounds,' shall we say." He considers
this, then adds, "Mine wasn't so much damaged as merely nothing
The brutality of lost childhood is a perennial Morrissey motif. On Vauxhall
And I, there is a beautiful song of mourning called "Used To Be
A Sweet Boy." It's a slow elegy for a little boy who used to hold Daddy's
hand and smile, dressed in a blazer and tie. Morrissey has always been
obsessed by the death of children. The first song he ever wrote with
Johnny Marr, before they'd even thought up the name the Smiths, was
called "Suffer Little Children," about the deaths of four children who
were born around the same time as Morrissey. The killings were known
as the Moors Murders because the bodies were all buried on local moorland.
When the song was to be released as the B-side for "Heaven Knows I'm
Miserable Now," Morrissey wrote to the mother of one of the victims,
Leslie Ann Downey, explaining that the song was an expression of compassion.
He was so intrigued that he arranged a meeting with her and formed a
friendship that last several years. According to Morrissey, they discussed
the murder at length. "I was very surprised that she was so burdened
by her daughter's death," recalls Morrissey, "given the lapse
of time. It was obvious that the woman was completely destroyed."
"Would you like to have children?" I ask.
"Only in an ideal world."
"The answer will be unsatisfactory, and a bit dramatic, but I'm not
sure what it is about life that's supposed to make it worthwhile. It
sounds like something somebody would say on the Oprah Winfrey show,
but nonetheless, I've never really enjoyed life. I've never known how.
I seem to have such overbearingly high standards that I set for myself
that there's not really any way in which I can win. I don't say that
with moist cheeks and a trembling voice. I say it quite matter-of-factly.
I'm not really frightened by death; it's not a particularly horrendous
thing for me. I feel sad for other people, but not for me."
"Not even if it's a complete full stop?"
"That's fine for me."
We have been talking now for nearly two hours when there's a knock on
the door It is Jake, a close friend of Morrissey's, who receives "very
special thanks" on the new LP. Jake is fair-haired and ordinary-looking,
also dressed in urban rockabilly clothes. He is shy and avoids my gaze.
He and Morrissey leave together.
next day Morrissey spends some of the afternoon watching boxing on TV
and then wanders down to my room. Jake leaves him at the door and arranges
to pick him up later. I have deliberately left the lights off this time
to see what he does. Once more, Morrissey strides around, switching
them on. Once more he declines drinks and food. All that's different
is that we have reversed chairs.
"Do you mind if I smoke?" I ask.
"I don't mind if you do, as long as you don't light that cigarette."
"That's okay. If you rather I didn't..."
"I'd rather you didn't. I don't want to sound like an old prune,
but if I get cancer, will you drive me to the hospital?"
We talk about boxing. Those who want to admire Morrissey as the fey,
poetry-reading vegetarian often seem to overlook his deep love of the
mystery of violence. Yet it's always been there. He was the ten-year-old
whose fascination with skinheads stayed with him all his life, and the
teenager who used to pore through a copy of The Murderer's Who's
Who. His reverence toward thuggery continues on Vauxhall And
I. On the aching "Now My Heart Is Full" Morrissey sings lovingly
of the psychotic gang members depicted in Graham Greene's Brighton
In the absence of other intimacies, Morrissey seems to have embraced
the muscular intimacy of boxing. Last fall he went to see the most talked
about British fight in years, Eubank versus Benn, and sat in the front
row, maraveling and horrified at the way you can feel and hear the gruesome
fleshiness of the punches in a way you never can on TV. Much to Morrissey's
disappointment, his favorite, Eubank, didn't win. "Eubank is an astonishing
machine," he says.
Morrissey has been in a few fights himself and relishes the memory.
He's never lost one. "You react instantly," he tells me. "Your
body really obeys this sense of attack within your mind. It's great.
You should try it on a waiter," he beams.
4, 1982, The Smiths played a short support slot at the Ritz in Manchester.
It was their first performance. James Maker, a friend at the time, danced
onstage in women's high-heeled shoes and Morrissey sang an obscure cover
version of a song by the Cookies, "I Want A Boyfriend For My Birthday."
Morrissey's art often drips with homoeroticism, from the playful lewdness
of the early "Handsome Devil" ("A boy in the bush/Is worth two in the
hand/I think I can help you get through your exams") to the use of "palare,"
the language of London's rent boys, on both the title of the more recent
album Bona Drag and the track "Picadilly Palare." Yet to the
frustration of some of his gay following, he has never declared any
orientation at all. Morrissey always publicly pronounced his celibacy.
He insist his songs simply express truncated, go-nowhere desires. No
one believes him, but the frequency with which he restates his claim
Even before he became desirably famous, as a seventeen-year-old he reportedly
boasted in his diary: "I don't have sex much... I can almost count
the number of times." For the public record, however, Morrissey
abhors the concept. Much to his fury, his hated biographer, Johnny Rogan,
has announced that his next book will include a lengthy investigation
into Morrissey's relationships. ("Well, therefore, there's nothing
to write about," snaps Morrissey.)
Morrissey's flag of celibacy may have another meaning. It's a wall he's
put around himself. Somewhere in his closely guarded psyche there seems
to be a soul for whom sex, however much he desires it, will always be
somehow wrong, somehow ugly. Somewhere in the quiet, Catholic, moral
household he grew up in, where his parents didn't get along, but in
a very civilized way, Morrissey grew up thinking intimacy was somehow
repulsive. Most of us do, but we get over it. He's getting over it too,
perhaps, at thirty-four.
But it's still a slippery subject. I ask him if he might ever make an
unambiguous statement about his sexuality.
"Well," he says blithely, "it can't possibly be believed,
I know, but sex is actually never in my life. Therefore I have
But it's in your songs.
"The desire for, the search for, yes, but the actual physical act
is never in my life."
"You must have had sex at some time in your life," I insist. "So for
that moment at least your sexuality becomes fixed."
"Um," says Morrissey awkwardly, "it has never become fixed
in my life." A long and rather solid silence fills the room.
The diaries of Kenneth Williams, a British comedian who starred in many
of the bawdy, slapstick, working-class Carry On films that
Morrissey loves, were published recently. In them, Williams, a gay man
ill at ease with his own sexuality who lived in semi-isolation, talked
frequently about the desirability of death.
"Have you read the diaries?" I ask.
"Of course," he answers.
"I thought in a lot of ways Williams was quite similar to you," I say.
"Which is not a great compliment, obviously."
The warning laugh comes again. "Obviously he was powerfully unhappy
from birth to death," says Morrissey, "and embedded with hatred
for everyone around him."
"But also found intimacy rather repulsive."
"Yes, but I wonder whether that wasn't simply because he finds himself
repulsive and couldn't possibly believe that anybody else could ever
want him. And," he says, changing gear from third person to second,
"if you feel that way, then nobody else does want you."
I have lost track of exactly who he's talking about here. Himself
or Williams. He says he had to stop reading the diaries because he found
them so depressing. "But I suppose," he says, "all these things
are embedded within us at a very early age and you simply go through
life repeating the same mistakes. There's nothing you can do about it
because all those emotions are cast in stone."
"There are lots of people who make a living saying they are not cast
Morrissey lowers his voice and answers, "That's a blatant lie. Occasionally
people like Gloria Steinem come up with interesting comments like 'It's
never too late to have a happy childhood.' But it is."
"What did your psychiatrists tell you?"
"For the most part they listened, which is very excrutiating to me."
respect other than his music, Morrissey is an emotional clam. Only in
writing, recording, and most of all performing has he learned to make
contact with the world head-on, baring his soul with a wild and scary
brilliance. What I saw the first night I watched the Smiths was a passionate,
precipitous outpouring of sentiments that Morrissey had silently bottled
up for years. The stunning intensity with which he displayed both his
darker side and his yearning for love on the Smiths' first two albums,
The Smiths and Hatful Of Hollow, was a triumph over
his demons, even though Morrissey himself found the public self-revelation
Since then he has produced an astonishingly prolific body of work. Depending
on which B-side compilations and live albums you count, Morrissey has
recorded somewhere between twelve and fourteen albums. Back to back
they show him as the absolute antithesis of rock star as chameleon,
ever desperate to embrace the new: Morrissey has been fearsomely sure
from the beginning what he was going to sing about, and how. The differences
between his records are unusually subtle. Tellingly, his latest album
exhibits the biggest mood swing. His ever-present bitterness still seeps
through Vauxhall And I, but these songs have a sense of warmth
and certainty: Expansive, wistful songs like "Now My Heart Is Full"
are Morrissey's public announcement that he is finally coming to terms
For that reason he remains ultrasensitive about how his work is received.
If he opens his sole channel of communication and is derided for it,
Morrissey will be inconsolable. It happened at the last concert I saw
him play, in the summer of 1992 at London's Finsbury Park, when he danced
across the stage in a gold lame shirt, wrapping himself in a Union Jack.
Hardcore skins in the audience pelted him. Deeply stung, Morrissey canceled
the next days' show and barricaded himself in his house for days.
But on those occasions when his performance is reciprocated by the same
wild emotional abandon, it works. After the Smiths split, it took Morrissey
a while before he was ready to perform live again. On December 22, 1988,
in Wolverhampton, he played his first concert in two years. Mike Joyce,
the ex-Smith who drummed for him that day, felt an "overpowering sense
of love" coming from the crowd toward the stage. Morrissey remembers
the day as filled with radiance. A succession of Morrissey fans grasped
their idol. Morrissey's friend Tim Broad captured the scene on video:
Fan after fan throws his arms around the stripped-to-the-waist singer.
After each two-second contact, before a security guard frees him, Morrissey
turns away from the fan, smiling shyly, and with embarrassed but quite
people ever get really close to Morrissey. Working relationships with
him can be torturous. Sometimes he shuts down communication completely.
Other times he issues cryptic messages on postcards. When Viva Hate
producer Stephen Street complained to the press about their business
arrangements, Morrissey reportedly sent Street one of his cards. On
it was written "Enough is too much."
"It must drive people into weird states of mind," I say, "because..."
Morrissey interrupts. "I don't actually care. To be quite honest."
"Not even if they're driven into paranoia?"
"Well, they can leave. Is that harsh?"
"I'm incredibly kind to people," insists Morrissey. "But some
friendships aren't necessarily meant to last forever. It's not because
I suddenly wake up and despise them, it's just for the common good that
it's best to move on."
Among others whose services Morrissey has dispensed with over the years
is Mike Joyce, the Smiths' drummer. Seven years after the Smiths split,
Mike is still in interminable litigation with Morrissey over his share
of royalties. But Joyce still talks with shining admiration of Morrissey.
In the house in Manchester where he lives with his wife and two kids,
he remembers his audition, watching this strange, silent man pacing
the floor and delivering songs of astonishing intensity. And he talks
about the jeans shop, Crazyface, that they rehearsed in, all totally
confident that they were going to make it. How Mick Jagger "bopped"
at the side of the stage when they played New York, and about how listening
to Morrissey was the most moving thing in his life, next to having children.
When Johnny Marr first announced his departure from the Smiths in 1987,
Morrissey was shocked and hurt. Since then, the fence has been mended.
"The relationship between me and Morrissey is the best of the group,"
says Marr. "I still see him now. We played a game with the press and
they played with us, but it's not true life. We're friends."
Morrissey says that he doesn't have many friends. When asked to list
them, he names three: Jake, who hovers outside my door, another friend
called Debbie, and this old friend Linder Sterling, who recently published
a book of photographs, Morrissey Shot. These, he says, are
strong friends. They are in his life more or less daily. But he still
envies the easy, close friendship of others.
Given his record, I assume the song "Hold On To Your Friends" on Vauxhall
And I is an act of self-chastisement. Morrissey denies it. "It
was written about somebody I know in relation to their treatment toward
me." But when I ask if his own lack of trust in others prevents
him from becoming close to people, he replies simply: "Yes,it is
a lack of trust. I'm simply waiting for people to do something damaging.
And they inevitably do."
There is a long pause. Then he adds: "I often wonder, if I was a
penniless pauper, would a lot of people that I know want to know me?
Maybe they would, but it's more than likely they wouldn't, because when
I was a penniless pauper, nobody wanted to know me." And
he starts laughing.
a knock on the door. It's Jake. "Morrissey," he says, ostentatiously
looking at his watch, "you have to go."
There is, I think, nothing Morrissey has to go to. It is simply a prearranged
escape. Morrissey returns to his hotel room, looks through some papers,
moves them from the settee to the desk and back again. He looks at a
copy of Bleak House that he has been reading slowly. His eyesight
is not what it used to be.
interview was originally published in Details magazine,
Reprinted without permission for personal use only.