10 QUESTIONS: MORRISSEY - Los Angeles Times
By Kristine McKenna
Scans of print edition from:
Los Angeles Times – 16 June 1991 - illnessasart.com
English singer-songwriter Morrissey is surely one of the most intriguing pop artists to surface in the last decade. Emerging in 1983 as leader of the English cult band the Smiths--a group that attracted an obsessively devoted following during its five years of existence--Morrissey took a vow of celibacy in 1983, which, he says, he continues to keep, wore a hearing aid as a fashion accessory for a spell, is a vociferous vegetarian and cites Oscar Wilde as a central influence. He loves the New York Dolls but hates progress, sees pop music as akin to a religious experience but says his fans love him because he’s accessible and human, and leads a solitary existence reading classical literature with only his beloved cats for company.
He is, in short, an introverted exhibitionist. When Morrissey performs he often sheds his shirt and writhes and moans in an overtly sensual manner, yet his lyrics lament the lack of love in his life in phrases at turns bitter, fatalistic, compassionate--and camp. With song titles like “Hairdresser on Fire,” Morrissey clearly sees the comical aspect of his world view.
Morrissey concerts have evolved into ritualized affairs that involve the stage’s being blanketed by flowers tossed by adoring fans, while other more aggressive followers--most of them male--march across the stage throughout his set stealing kisses from their hero. His shows are intensely emotional experiences, both for his fans and for him.
Backstage before his recent sold-out show at the Forum, the 32-year-old Manchester native came across as an empathetic, intelligent man with impeccable manners and a droll sense of humor. Though he’s deadly serious about his work, he has a philosophical detachment from it that allows him to talk about it with insight and wit.
Question: Referring to what takes place during your shows, you recently commented, “Can you imagine what it’s like being kissed by hundreds of people?!” So, what is it like?
Answer: What happens during my shows is extraordinary. Most of the people who jump onstage and kiss me are male and they’re not all young--they’re grown, very big men. I can’t think of another incident in pop history where men jumped on a stage and kissed a male artist. As to what it is in me or my music that evokes this response, I think the arena environment has something to do with it--people are allowed to be a little bit looser in big concert halls--but that doesn’t fully explain it. I think perhaps I touch on a different passion in people. It’s not simply the passion of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion--it’s more romantic than sexual. This isn’t something I tried to achieve, by the way--you can’t consciously work on getting a lot of people to want to kiss you.
Q: Central to your persona is your refusal to buy into the conventional male stereotype. What enabled you to reject that?
A: I simply don’t find it very appealing and never felt I qualified anyway--I sensed that from a young age. I also noticed early on that anybody who created anything really useful and intelligent was generally not of the typical machismo ilk.
Q: What things played a role in shaping your attitudes toward sexuality?
A: I read a lot of feminist books--mostly by American women writers--when I was quite young. And from the time I was young I was aware that women are allowed much more freedom as far as expressing emotion. Take women singers--they’re allowed to say intimate things and be fragile, whereas men aren’t. Men must strut. Singers like Judy Garland and Shirley Bassey had enormous strength yet they were on the edge, and you knew that they couldn’t simply end the song and walk away. The song went with them and they carried that burden throughout their lives.
Q: What do you think you represent to the people who follow you?
A: Singers attract fans who have aspects of their own personality. I think people feel I’m very passionate and obsessive, and they know this isn’t a profession for me--it’s a vocation. They know I’m not here to be unaccountably wealthy, don’t crave publicity and don’t care for celebrity status. At the same time, if you have strong feelings and ideas it’s not enough simply to have them--other people must know about it. It’s not an egotistical thing, however, it’s something else--I’m in a dialogue with my audience and that’s something I need.
Q: What do you owe the people who follow your music?
A: The communication or “the transaction,” if you like, has taken place. I’m confused by people who want to meet me and find it rarely works when we do meet because people have such strong notions about me, and their view of me is invariably inaccurate. Nonetheless, I haven’t forgotten that when I was growing up and I idolized Patti Smith I certainly wanted to meet her--I did meet her too, and it was hugely disappointing. She farted four times. It was at a fanzine conference in London around the time of the release of “Easter” and the room was crowded with young, impressionable people. There was one boy at the front who was no more than 17 and she walked up to him in this crowded, quiet room and loudly asked him an extremely vulgar question about how sexually endowed he was. I think she was completely mad at the time. The lesson here is that sometimes it’s better to cherish your illusions about people you admire than it is to meet them.
Q: Your lyrics suggest that you view the human race as breaking down into two categories: bullies and victims. Is that how you feel, and if so, where do you fit in that scheme?
A: Yes, that is the way I see it, and I feel like a victim for the most part. Such things are shaped early in life, and regardless of what happens to us later the die is cast. Life is predestined and though we can prepare ourselves for opportunities, we can’t create them for ourselves--that’s proven by the fact that there are millions of hugely gifted people who will never be known. Life is all a matter of being on the right staircase at the right time. In light of that, I suppose I’ve been quite lucky, but I hesitate to use the word luck because I don’t feel I’ve been given something I haven’t earned. I have put a little thought into what I do, so I don’t feel foolishly grateful to some mystical spirit.
Q: What’s been your greatest disappointment in life?
A: People. I find that people don’t really give much of themselves and don’t speak in an open way. Language is so structured and formal that it discourages a certain kind of honesty and I find that if you speak to people in a forthright way they back off in terror. To me, the true measure of a friend is how honest you can be and I avoid relationships where I can’t speak about certain things. I find that so draining. I think most people avoid honesty because they have absolutely no imagination. I truly tire of making excuses for people’s curious behavior and lack of sympathy. In England people are hysterical about touching--if you accidentally touch someone on a train they jump back in horror. It’s very sad.
Q: And yet in your music and in interviews you often express your great love for England. Exactly what is it about British culture that appeals to you?
A: Unfortunately, the things I love about England no longer exist. The world’s shrinking in a terrible way and beauty will finally disappear completely--I believe that will happen. I’m terribly fond of the turn of the century, and love reading about writers who led very solitary lives and endured a loneliness so intense that it led to their having an extraordinary vision of human feelings.
Q: What’s the most significant change you’ve observed in yourself in recent years?
A: We’re not supposed to say these things, but I think I look better. When I was young I was very gaunt and pale, but I’ve changed physically. I didn’t work on making that change, it just happened. I’m not a particularly vain person--I’m only vain to the extent that if I lost a hand I’d be very upset. Another change is that I’ve become much less shy. The biggest obstacle I’ve overcome in my life is the crippling shyness I suffered while growing up. I haven’t entirely overcome it, but it’s gotten better and I’m astonished that I’ve managed to come this far. The third and perhaps most important change is that I’ve come to accept that I am as I will always be. For years I believed and hoped something would happen to me in a private, personal sense, but I know now that it never will. I don’t feel anxious about it anymore though, and have stopped tearing the curtains and fighting with the furniture about it.
Q: That sounds like a rather lonely realization. Are you lonely?
A: Oh, extremely. I sense the presence of the people who are with me through my music, but they’re not with me on a day-to-day basis. I am very much alone.