Thursday, 17 October 2013

Morrissey and me…

That's a bit misleading actually: there isn't a Morrissey and me. There was a young Vole who was obsessed with The Smiths, and a friend of mine once accidentally sent Moz flying at a gig and was bullied mercilessly when she was thrown back off the stage and into the crowd ('you hurt God', someone hissed at her). But that's about it.

The Smiths split in 1987, when I was 12. I may have seen them on Top of the Pops before then, but at this stage I can't tell what's original memory and what's the result of seeing too many dishonest 'I Remember 1985' shows starring Stuart Maconie and Zoe Ball. What's certainly true is that I had no interest in music for several years after 1987. My parents listened to Vaughan Williams, church music, RTE and my dad owned – apparently for patriotic reasons – a Dubliners tape and a best of U2 (their manager was in his class at school). A book of Beatles sheet music was in the piano school but I doubt mum could hum a single one of their songs. 'Revolution No. 9' did not play while we ate breakfast.

And yet…once at university The Smiths became central to my musical life. I arrived clutching a copy of REM's Automatic for the People on cassette tape (a present), quickly acquired a cheap 70s record player and 10" copies of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci's Patio and Tindersticks' Sweet Kathleen and began my musical education. While hoovering up pretty much anything released as long as it was a) limited edition b) on vinyl c) on a cool record label and d) new, I quickly realised that everyone around me knew an awful lot about music I should have been listening to for years. Most prominent of all was The Smiths: every cardiganed soi-disant intellectual I knew (hello James!) talked about them constantly. I had to acquire some. I grabbed whatever I could find second-hand at Cob Records and started studying them like sacred texts. Perhaps because virtually all pop music was new to me, none of it sounded weird. That voice: normal. Singing about books and child murder: no weirder than Wham!. Artfully ambiguous cover art: OK. Coming to them late, I didn't listen to The Smiths as an act of defiance in the face of a beastly and degenerate pop world. They just felt perfect. As an angsty 18-year old who preferred reading to socialising, they were perfect.

Down the indie disco competing to hit the dance floor before even the first chord had finished, shouting the lyrics to the other misfits flapping awkwardly next to me and feeling enormously superior when they stumbled over a line, while the morons and philistines on the edges waiting for an Oasis track stared at us.

And of course, being a newly-minted record collector, they were ideal: a complete works could be collected on lovely vinyl, very cheap (they were a minority pursuit by this point) and endlessly discussed over beer and joints. Once the LPs were in my possession, it was on to the singles. 12", 7", imports from America, Japan and even Greece ('Draize Train').

James, Matthew and I would test each other not on the lyrics, but on the little messages scratched into the run-out groove of the records. Later, when I would commute up and down to Bangor for my MA, I knew where I'd find the pair of them: unconscious through drink on the floor of my bedroom. Always, always, a Smiths album would be on the record player.

Aside from all this terrible stuff, The Smiths introduce me to more than a lifestyle. Through their records I discovered books, films, entire artistic movements and politics: as a vegetarian (then), it was wonderful to flaunt the rather crass slogan 'meat is murder' in the faces of carnivorous friends. The Smiths looked both ways: nostalgic for a working-class solidarity and independence that I'd never experienced but found rather attractive, but also outward looking in a romantic fashion ('Keats and Yeats are on your side, while Oscar Wilde is on mine') which seems dreadfully gauche now but filled our lives then. Plus, it was wonderful to find yet another wonderful band was first-generation Irish. The Smiths proved you could be leftwing, oppositional, bookish and cool (though it was very much a tiny subculture by the time I got round to hearing them, at the start of brash Britpop).

It had to end, of course. Musically, I caught up with Morrissey's solo work: decent at first but gradually descending into self-parody. Every album I bought taught me never to rely on your heroes (or on newspaper reviewers, who claimed that every fresh horror was 'a return to form'). Worse though were the interviews. Every time Morrissey opened his mouth, he said something horrible. 'Reggae is vile' had amused me at first, but soon what seemed like arch, ironic Englishness came to form a pattern of xenophobia, at best. His defenders explained away 'Bengali in Platforms', 'Asian Rut' and 'National Front Disco' as commentary on political and cultural developments, but I was never convinced. As far as I could see, the son of immigrants had wrapped himself in the flag of Ireland's oppressors, then adopted the attitudes of the most reactionary elements of society. Describing the Chinese as a 'subspecies' for their attitude to animal rights, dismissing the Norwegian massacre as no worse than daily life in McDonald's or KFC and lamenting immigration (from his homes in Rome and Los Angeles) as dissolving Englishness or Britishness just horrified me. Would he send his own parents 'home'? The sight of him dolled up in skinhead gear waving Union flags might have been a homoerotic position, but it didn't look like it - no wonder Oasis, also sons of Irish immigrants, felt comfortable with Union flags all over their kit.

Sometimes, The Smiths would resurface to remind us, scattered amongst the housing estates and office jobs of an awful, consumerist culture, that a flame of refusal still flickered. When Diana Spencer died, I wandered through the streets of Stoke surrounded by weeping zombies. People I liked and respected mourned the death of a spoilt toff as if they'd known her, as if she meant something other than a minor variation of aristocratic style and a failure to 'clunk click every trip'. Amidst all the wailing and gnashing of teeth and sombre music, I switched on Radio 1 (not a habit) and chanced upon the otherwise bland Jo Whiley playing this:

It was soon yanked off and I gather she got a severe wigging for playing a song in which the narrator fantasises about being killed by a ten ton truck 'in a darkened underpass', but for a moment I was reassured that somewhere out there, others retained a sense of proportion.

A shame really that he lost it. I like Morrissey's outspoken hatred of animal cruelty, the Royal Family and all sorts of other positions. But as I grew older, I wondered firstly what had happened to the thoughtful, wry, ambiguous persona of The Smiths era, and started to see his statements and music as a form of rut. Stuck in a teenage mentality, he seemed to replace musical inspiration with attention-seeking. Easy for pop stars, I suppose: nobody's going to challenge him or if they do (as several newspapers found out), they get sued. Pop stars exist in a bubble in which success and adoration confirm their belief in their own infallibility. Some escape this, even some of the weirder ones like Michael Stipe, while others develop a carapace of righteousness (looking at you, Bono) which rapidly becomes unjustifiable arrogance. That it came to Morrissey feels worse, because even to this late-comer second-generation fan, he felt better than that, he felt like one of us.

What a loser I am to feel this strongly. At least I never tried to copy the quiff, though I do pair cardigans with DMs quite frequently… And I'm recovered to the extent that I find this Mojo Nixon cover of 'Girlfriend in a Coma' highly amusing:

Will I be buying the autobiography, just published as a Penguin Classic? Maybe. Probably second-hand, as I think Moz has enough of my money already. Am I outraged that Penguin agreed to the great man's demand that it come out in the Classic imprint?

No, not a bit. Canonisation is a subjective exercise of cultural hegemony. If Morrissey cares enough to want to share a shelf with 'the Greats', that's his privilege. It's an auto-didact thing, I suspect: he educated himself to a large extent and wants to associate himself with his teenage literary heroes. Half his record sleeves looked like Penguin Classics anyway, so this is a neat addition. It seems rather sweet to me, and if it subverts the Telegraph and Penguins definitions of 'classic', that's fine by me. I'm guessing it's a better read than bloody On The Road anyway.

If you're wondering about buying the book, here it is sung by comedian Peter Serinafinowicz:

1 comment:

Wading Treacle said...

if only the Sun on Sunday reporter had bothered to read this entry. This says more about PV than the political entries ever could. I was almost in the indie disco with you, there.