« Morrissey strikes again »

 

Interview by Jean-Daniel Beauvallet

Les Inrockuptibles (no. 442 May 19-25, 2004)


Translation by
Guillaume Deleurence ([email protected])

 

Since your last album « Maladjusted» , in 1997, you disappeared. Were you afraid of being forgotten?

Im surprised that people remember me after such a long absence. I spent the last 7 years fighting against music industry and now, I am back in the spotlight. If I had released an album just after Maladjusted, nobody would have noticed it. Everyday, I read interviews where the most unexpected people on earth list me as a reference, from JK Rowling, who wrote Harry Potter, Outkast, Randy Newman to System of a Down, from Franz Ferdinand to The Libertines… It shows me that my last 21 years have not been useless.

 

For someone like you who loves to comment on the news, this absence must have been a purgatory?

I do not want to play the role of the talkative guy, of the useful comedian. I have been questioned about the most unthinkable subjects, about which I have no opinion or expertise at all. But I have to be true: I have missed the central position that was mine in the eighties. This said, Im not the kind of guy to ask for attention, to knock on doors. But, well, I would have liked to talk, for example, about the New Labour, the renewed party of Tony Blair. Im very depressed by this man, I never trusted any of his words. During the Thatcher years, I have religiously voted for the Labour, to get rid of her. What I ignored then was that this party would spawn a selfish monster, deaf to anything. At least, Thatcher was a visible enemy. She never tried to make people think she was a friend, a funny and vivid person. England is politically drifting, a shame on an international level. I am astonished by the resignation of English musicians.

 

How do you feel about the fact that Tony Blair gives medals to English musicians?

I remember the way Mick Jagger changed the world, what he represented for a generation by fighting against the institutions, the police, the justice… How can he be knighted 30 years later? David Bowie had the dignity to refuse it - which surprised me from someone who aims to be adored by everyone. I doubt that the Queen will one day invite me to drink tea. As far as I am concerned, what I have been asked, and that I accepted, is to program the Meltdown festival. An opportunity to put together again the last three New York Dolls, to invite Sparks, Sacha Distel, Jane Birkin, Nancy Sinatra, Franz Ferdinand, The Ordinary Boys, Linder, James Maker, Loudon Wainwright III, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Damien Dempsey, the Libertines, the actor Alan Bennett. The other honours are not for me. I am and will remain a pariah.

 

You live in Los Angeles. Has England killed you slowly?

Someone in England would have killed me, for sure… Moreover, the England that I loved so much, that I sang so much about, even when declining, has started to disappear. I had to leave quickly. It could have been Gibraltar or Morocco, but it was Los Angeles, a town for which I don’t feel a crazy love.  I thought I would leave one year, in order to let things calm down in England. It’s six years now. It’s incredible how time flows quickly when you’re asleep (laughs)…

 

What would you have become in England?

A pariah, I would have been buried more and more. I had grown up with musical press, shaped by the pop singles, but it became impossible for me to open newspapers or switch the radio on.

 

In 1992, you came on stage with the English flag: you were immediately accused of racism. Many years later, that same flag became the emblem of Brit-pop…

If all this would not have been so depressing and serious, I could have found this situation ironic… I‘ve been victim of attacks too vicious to smile about it. I refused, at that time, to enter into the debate, because it appeared to me as hateful. That word « racism » will stay linked to my name, which is unfair and atrocious. Because years after, one just had to show this flag to get immediate success and in the newspapers… An entire generation of bands with no songs, with no experience of playing concerts got automatic hits. I had then the feeling that the machine became crazy, that the level was low, that pop music had lost its defences and was accepting anyone. 

 

You grew up with vinyl: how do you feel about the dematerialization of music?

I’ve never downloaded any song from the Internet. I was offered an iPod, I didn’t even succeed in opening the box… I find it sad: music deserves efforts. How can you love a record that arrives so easily?  When I was a child, accessing to the music I loved was difficult: it was not on radio nor TV… Even if music was my only love, it was a permanent fight to get it into my arms. Without records and their mysteries, I would never have become what I am now. They shaped me, every single I possess is linked to a special feeling. I was touching them for hours, looking at the diamond landing on the record with fascination… I was going downtown by bus, and on my way back, I was reading the covers, I was learning them… I spent afternoons in records shops to look at the credits of each album… All is too easy now: listening to music, creating music, becoming a star… Every 12 year old kid with a computer can make a record - technically at least. Shows like « Pop Idol » have just one goal: to humiliate music, show it as a frivolous, inept, inoffensive thing.

 

If you stayed in England, would you became prisoner of the Morrissey character?

Even in Bangkok, I would be Morrissey, I cannot help it, I don’t play. I never felt to be prisoner of any caricature, I feel free. California allowed me to discover what life outside is like. I became more expansive thanks to the sun - more physical too. In England, the weather forced me to stay within myself, to live indoors. While in California, I can surf with my cat (laughs)… For example, I have discovered the pleasure of driving. In England, cruising cannot exist: you have to go from one point to another, there must be an end. And it’s not very pleasant to drive under the snow. In California, I can leave without a goal, visit Mexico, spend hours following the coast, walk in the Latinos areas. Driving became for me a real passion, I listen to music while I clear my mind everyday. At the moment, I drive a Jaguar.

 

Do you keep up with radio?

I’m not capable of it, because each time I hear a song that I do not like - it happens often - I have to change the station. Whether it’s life or a song, I cannot force myself to endure any more suffering (laughs)… For example, hip hop remains for me a wide mystery. I dream of explanations.

 

When do you miss England?

I would like to walk, like when I was in Manchester or London, but it’s a suspect thing to do in LA. People are not supposed to meet in the streets. I miss pubs, supermarkets, even the bread: it’s quite tough to get vegetarian meals that I love so much. Thank God, I live near a bookshop, Book Soup, where I can smell that nice smell of culture. Except that, I don’t go out really. I don’t know my neighbours (Johnny Depp, for example…) I cannot get into small talk about the rain and sunny weather. Things have not changed: I always felt alone, isolated. I even feel more that way at 44 than when I was 20 or 30. I learned to take care of me, to appreciate my own company. I have understood that there are not so much interesting people outside, so I prefer to stay home, with myself (laughs)… I’m my best friend. I go to bed with me, I wake up with me, me and myself will never divorce and we have good times. I’m lucky.

 

Do you sometimes come back to Manchester?

My mother still lives here, I can’t recognize the town. Everything has been restored. It’s an incredible town, where people are stylish, sexy. When I was younger, it was a depressive, dark town, showing scars from war. And then, suddenly, the elders are gone: where did they put them ? Are they all dead? I just see now young people up with fashion, with tan skin due to the sun. But, well, I don’t imagine myself like that, so no regret (laughs)…

 

Did you recognize your youth in the « 24 Hour Party People » movie, about the Manchester music scene?

I was there at the first Sex Pistols gigs, at the first Factory parties and I found the Mancunian humour in the movie… They perfectly showed how living in Manchester was a fierce battle during seventies. I was supposed to act in that movie normally, but I refused, because there was a scene which was humiliating for my dear old friend Linder. That’s why I refused them permission to use Smiths songs, which is absurd, because the scene with Linder is not the picture.

 

In 20 years, you moved from the poor Manchester area to a villa in Hollywood: do you live it as a form of revenge?

My life is far too serious to care about revenge. I could not live in Hulme anymore, my former area: I could not last there for more than 1 hour, I would be slaughtered ! But, mentally, I never left Manchester, destiny just sent me away. That’s why I don’t mix with the rock stars, with my Hollywood neighbours. I’m a stranger. I’m just a fan of music from Manchester. I’m closer to the poor musicians of Northern England than the MTV musicians.

 

Don’t you fear that your villa might become an ivory tower?

It’s already resembling that. But I don’t lie to myself, I’m not dazed by money. I don’t wake up saying « My God, where am I ? », but rather laughing. My whole route is a huge joke, and I can’t get used to it.

 

Is what’s good for your comfort, your health, your physics also good for your music?

No, you’re right. I spiritually hate all what puts me far from myself, from what I’ve always felt. I could without doubt simplify my life, but I try to be an artist. And to be one is not a part-time job: I must be an artist 24 hours long. I have sacrificed everything for that: pleasure, love… My life is just a ritual sacrifice: I live in fire (laughs)…

 

Yes, but you keep a straight line, very reasonable: you never wish to have sex, drugs and unlimited alcohol?

I would like sometimes to get mad, to go out of myself. But I have too many principles, I’m too obsessed by my allure, my reactions… I never found it very elegant to fell on the floor vomiting… I take care of my health. In « I’m not sorry », I say : « There’s a wild man in my head »… I understand that wild man. But, hopelessly, I go to bed every night without any story, not late. This is my damnation.

 

All alone ?

I’m boring to death: I never needed sex, today even less than when I was 20. I don’t now what debauchery is. At my age… Maybe it will fall on me later  I will have wrinkles and be devastated, but I have to try this thing. And I don’t hide anything: I’m not a guy who hides a secret sexual life. It doesn’t exist, that’s all. I don’t receive any proposals either.

 

You never mentioned homosexuality more clearly than in this album, especially the lesbians on the The Lazy Dykes song…

Maybe it’s because I’m a lesbian. This song is a hymn for lesbians who don’t know they are, a call to all the women prisoners of their wedding, of habits: I tell them to come to the Palms, a lesbian club on Santa Monica Boulevard, an amazing place where they could be happy. When I was younger in Manchester, there were also gay clubs, such as Berlin or Legends, extreme glam-rock places… I never dared to go in there. My thing is the concerts.

 

When you were young, were you the kind of guy to stay near the dance floor, making cruel jokes about the dancers, but secretly wishing to be like them?

Yes, it was me, I was dying of jealousy. I desperately wanted to dance, to be like the others. But I could not free myself, I was too conscious of my awkwardness. I was looking at myself dancing. I should have drunk to forget about all this. But I would be fat today.

 

Is it something that happened around you?

No one in my family became alcoholic : they are to shy, too reasonable. There never were wild stories in my home, but I saw some outside, in Manchester streets, where inhibition is not trendy.

 

How did the Smiths functioned? During the tours, the others were looking for girls or drugs…

It may seem strange to you but honestly I never saw drugs backstage, I learned all this through the press. Which is quite annoying for me: they could have offered it to me, it could have been good for me to join the club (laughs)… They must have thought I was too fragile for this, they were even paying attention not to swear in front of me… Well, I was busy, burning my wings: I had to stay sober and conscious, to maintain the unity of The Smiths, to defend fiercely our difference.

 

You gave everything to create and maintain The Smiths: was this band your last chance at the beginning?

Exactly. That’s why I became obsessed by The Smiths, why I abandoned everything for them, gave them all my energy and my soul. It was this or nothing.

 

Did you feel that you have lost your strength sometimes? Especially on Southpaw Grammar and Maladjusted?

I made many mistakes on Maladjusted: to work with Steve Lillywhite for the third time, and to sign with a label that showed no interest to me. In front of this, I lowered my arms. The press was killing me, radio were not playing my records… I began doubting: I could not give the best of me anymore.

 

Did you think it was the end?

During those seven awful years of misery following Maladjusted, I always kept a little hope. I’ve been through humiliating experiences during those years. Meetings where people said : « We like your voice, but your band is crap » or « We have a great idea: you are gonna record with Radiohead… » I soon realized that Hollywood is just a factory where promises are not serious.  I became a kind of trophy, which was nice to show in fashion restaurants, but with no following. To be treated like this is humiliating, I often came back home with a profound depression. But I was lucky to find a little music label, Sanctuary. When I signed the contract, they offered me a guitar which belonged to Johnny Thunders, when he was in the NY Dolls: the white Vox Teardrop. And when I began recording, then sent me an incredible fruit basket. For the first time, a label wanted to be nice to me.

 

You seems to be cool on that album: there’s nothing left from that frustration?

It’s not lounge music yet, but, yes, it’s true, I’m relaxed. The choice of Jerry Finn helped it. He contributed to liberate myself. I saw something interesting in his work, even in the Blink182 records. For the first time, I was able to let someone else decide  something I have never done, especially with a younger guy, he’s only 34. I live in a bubble, and I did not know that the punk bands he’s working with, like AFI or Green Day, liked my work.

 

Your style is not the same: from the literary text in 1985 « Meat is Murder » to « You know where you can shove your hamburger » in 2004.

(laughs).. I should not laugh, because the goals are not different. But I have learned to be more cool, to see that everyone is laughable.

 

You are going to bring the New York Dolls together again. Would like to play one day with The Smiths again?

All the meetings I’m supposed to have with Johnny Marr, I learn it from the press or rumours. The worst is that people get angry when the rumours are not confirmed. Johnny and me, in a room, writing songs: this memory is further and further away. I never received any offer in that way. Moreover, the trial between us makes any project impossible.

 

Will you one day publish a book?

I already feel I’m a writer. Just a writer singing his stories. Which is difficult because a whole part of life has to fit in a 3 minute song. I’m condemned not to write too much. For that, there will be my autobiography… Each songs tells a story, and I have written hundreds of : I never felt imprisoned by that way of writing. I would feel that if I was a milkman.