This Charming Man
Sean Smith meets the original bromide bombshell
Sean Smith meets the original bromide bombshell
Steven Patrick Morrissey has never really received the respect he deserves in this country.
The mainstream media has never taken him to its bosom, in fact it has regularly vilified him. At his peak, in the mid-eighties, when The Smiths twisted on Top of the Pops seemingly every week, he refused to play Live Aid. Then there was his undisguised loathing of the royal family, especially on The Smiths’ penultimate LP, The Queen is Dead (the band split in 1987).
He’s been ridiculed for his unapologetic intellectualism and censured as a nationalist, a bigot and a racist, especially after he wrapped a Union Jack around himself at an open-air gig in 1992. Even as recently as a couple of weeks ago, the NME ran an opinion piece advising its readers to “brick” the singer offstage.
No wonder, then, that Morrissey stays away. He’s been living permanently in Los Angeles for three years.
In the rare interviews he has given since his exile, Morrissey has stomped on Britain all the more, much like the angry young John Osborne, who left for the south of France in 1956, and looked back in anger to declare: “I will be here no more.”
“I had a series of very bad years,” explains the singer as we drink tea on the balcony of his suite in a posh hotel just outside Thessaloniki in northern Greece, where he is midway through his European tour.
“There was nothing but the most obnoxious articles written about me, saying that I was the worst person in humanity, and then I went through the whole Smiths court case and the judge was incredibly personal and incredibly rude.” He pauses for breath. “So I just thought, what really is the point?”
“You just think, perhaps there’s an easier life, somewhere else,” he says, suddenly wistful. “I feel immovably English. Noel Coward lived in Jamaica for a lot of his life, Dirk Bogarde lived in France, but what does it really mean? They didn’t return to England with strings of onions around their necks.
“I never intended to settle in LA, I just stumbled across this house and suddenly I bought it.”
That’s the house Clark Gable designed for Carol Lombard, formerly owned by F Scott Fitzgerald, next door to Johnny Depp?
“Yes, I stumbled across Clark Gable’s house, as you do.” He laughs easily at the absurdity of the idea. “But I do quite like it and I live a very…” He pauses to consider. “A very peaceful life. Not even vaguely the rock’n’roll life that people probably imagine.”
Perhaps he lives in the refined decadent style of a Mapplethorpe photograph. We half expect to find him in Greece in trunks by a pool filled with handsome men.
In fact, padding around his hotel suite, the glowing, tanned singer is a picture of relaxed, almost feline contentment, Gucci’d up, with a conspicuously chunky gold ring on one finger. The design, he tells me, is a Mexican charm for wealth and prosperity. It’s obviously done the trick. He speaks in measured, precise tones, with the unhurried elegance of the very well-off.
He gradually reveals himself to be less reserved and more down to earth than you might imagine. When I start fiddling with the camera, I ask about getting a photo of his ring. Morrissey’s bushy eyebrows arch skywards and his cheeks dimple. Carry On, indeed.
Will he talk about sex? The man who made celibacy a lifestyle option is still prickly about the subject. He still picks up the English papers and is aware of the unceremonious revelations of Michael Portillo’s homosexual alliances.
“It’s just badger-baiting and name-calling,” he says with a resigned shrug. “It’s always nice to have someone to look down upon and frown upon. The whole conversation is just too basic for me because I really can’t imagine how somebody’s sexuality really matters. Just because someone is heterosexual, it doesn’t make them a good politician. It doesn’t mean that we actually know anything about them. It’s such a redundant, British, old-fashioned piece of nonsense. Whenever I go back, I find it very claustrophobic. I always go back very optimistically, and I last about eight days, and then I’m on the phone to British Airways saying: ‘Please, I’ll do anything. Just help me.’”
Like another great northern artist transplanted to LA, David Hockney, the pleasures of Americana seem to have soothed Morrissey’s soul.
“I do like the light,” he says. “It’s astonishing to wake up in the morning and see that light and say, yes, you can do things today. That really doesn’t happen in Manchester. It’s very therapeutic.”
In return, America has taken Morrissey to its heart. “I’ve been noticed, shall we say,” he says with a wry grin. “You learn how to walk through a crowd without looking at anybody.”
In the US, his record sales far outstrip his sales in the UK. He can draw audiences 35,000 strong and command two nights at the Hollywood Bowl. He has also played Las Vegas and drives a silver Porsche.
“Unbelievable,” he says – his most used word. It is, and all this without a record company?
“It’s not as tragic as you might think,” he assures me. The Seagram group recently bought out his former record company, Mercury, and only the label’s three best-selling artists were retained. “All the northern scabs like me, they said: ‘Well, off you go.’”
Released from a contract that would have tied him to the company for another three albums, he describes it as “a blessing. And now I’m completely free if anyone fancies me.”
As a result, his European tour is being undertaken without record company support and with no particular release to promote. “You won’t find a speckle of hype in any part of the situation,” he announces proudly.
A series of sold-out, celebratory gigs from Dresden to Stockholm to Thessaloniki tell their own story. “It’s like it’s always been – word of mouth. It’s like a very, very strong private club.”
Although his second-to-last LP, Southpaw Grammar, made UK number four, and the quite awesome single Roy’s Keen was delicious in its take on a very British subject, he remains suspect about his position in British pop. “A roadside curiosity,” he quipped back in ’97 when we last interviewed him. More recently he told The Face: “As far as I know, I don’t attract any fans at all,” and The Times: “I think that perhaps people think I’m still living in Manchester under some dreadful black cloud.”
He has his fans – The Independent took a Culture front page to ruminate on “The Last Great Pop Eccentric” – but Morrissey still wonders why The Big Issue in the North is out here in Greece. Surely no one in Britain still cares?
He may think himself “out of fashion”, but last year he picked up a Lifetime Achievement Award from the prestigious songwriters’ guild, Ivor Novello. Accolades aside, what’s really kept Morrissey in the headlines has been his potent use of imagery. It’s all rather obvious, but that’s why America, the true home of loud, brash celebrity adoration, loves him. In Britain, the interpretation is entirely different.
Image matters – always a strength of Morrissey’s. From the early Smiths days, when iconoclastic pictures of his heroes adorned the record covers, the man is a subculture-vulture of the highest order.
He’s currently into a Mexican kick, perhaps tiring of the fifties rock’n’roll look or the West Ham United obsession. And perhaps given the choice, he’d reconsider the use of seventies skinhead imagery, hardly an original idea, but one that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a racist. He also got into trouble for waving the Union Jack flag, when everyone from Noel Gallagher to Geri Halliwell has done the same to acclaim.
Morrissey also sent flowers to Reggie Kray’s funeral, but most of his passion for criminals, boot-boys, bad boys and outsiders is charged with eroticism rather than race concerns.
In concert, in Greece, Morrissey is still electric. His lean and stylish fourpiece, all tattoos and swagger, curled lip and greased-back quiffs, provide solid support to the words and gestures of the original bromide bombshell. A spine-tingling rendition of Meat is Murder brings the house down.
After the show, he continues our conversation about outsiders and rock’n’roll outlaws. Again, more image than real life.
“It’s definitely like that with me. It’s not that I’m an old rocker. Not very old, anyway.”
Quite. Morrissey turned 40 in May.
“I’ve always been this age,” he chuckles, like an indulgent pantomime dame. “No, I think you change. You suddenly become very aware of the ticking clock, and you don’t necessarily panic because it’s a comforting change. You realise finally what you do like and what you don’t like. And,” he adds, “you take some pride in the things you personally like, however perverted they may seem to other people. It’s simply a question of: Here I am. Take me or leave me. As the old song goes, if you don’t like me, just leave me alone.”
The Big Issue in the North is now Big Issue North. They also interviewed Johnny Marr in 2016.