Heaven Knows I'm Not Miserable Now
by Michael Bracewell
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|As frontman for The Smiths,
Morrissey turned miserabilism into an art form. But instead of the rainy
Salford towerblock you might expect him to call home, he's living next
door to Johnny Depp, in an LA house designed by Clark Gable. And now
he's returning from self-imposed exile for his first tour in three years
Dressed in an oyster-coloured, velvet Gucci tuxedo, a West Ham Boys'
Club T-shirt and a pair of Gucci dress trousers, Morrissey leads his
band across the massive, darkened main stage of the Coachella music
festival in southern California. For the past 20 minutes, the shoving,
screaming, chanting crowd of nearly 35,000 fans have been working
themselves up into a pitch of jubilation, teased by little hints that
the man whom some of them clearly regard as their personal saviour is
about to take to the stage.
As Morrissey gets closer to the microphone, he breaks into a strange, jerking run, pushing up one of his shoulders like an actor playing Richard III, and hurls his entire body into a series of self-enshrining, open-armed gestures of salute. It is a wholly regal entrance, despite the fact that he looks like he's possessed. "We - Is - MORRISSEY!" he bellows, and the crowd goes berserk.
To anyone arriving from Britain, watching these fans not only trying to push towards the stage, but actually trying to climb on to it, it would be difficult to align the sight in front of your eyes with last year's reports in the British press that Morrissey was out of fashion. Witnessing Morrissey's progress through California, on the first leg of his current Oye Esteban! (Hey Steven!) tour, you can see how his stance of defiant individualism has intensified, if anything, but also how the pale young aesthete who pronounced the death of pop in 1986 has rejected that entire image for a far more muscular, reclusive identity.
This concert at Coachella could, in fact, be seen as far more of a home fixture than a show at the Manchester Apollo or the London Forum. A resident of Los Angeles - even though he keeps a very wide berth of the other pop stars in Hollywood - Morrissey now spends most of his time in California. He lives alone near Sunset Boulevard, in an extremely exclusive residential enclave, and is more likely to be seen driving his silver Porsche towards Mexico than posing beside a 1962 Cortina in Salford. But although the man has changed - become stronger, more reserved and more steeped in an international, voguish glamour - his mission remains the same.
"Back in those days I was poorer and more mentally impoverished than any human being has ever the right to be," Morrissey had told me, glancing through the tinted window of the limousine that was taking him from his last engagement - in Las Vegas - towards Los Angeles. "And it's extremely difficult for me to follow the line which has brought me from there to here. But yes, I think that we're all lonely, and yes, I think that personal happiness is simply a mirage to keep us all going. But I'm not terribly bothered. I swallow it. I live with it. But really, who's happy?" As far as Morrissey's happiness is concerned, reports have erred on the negative side, to the extent that we still cling to the myth of a lonely recluse in bedsit land. For nearly three years, Morrissey has refused to give any interviews in Britain, preferring, as ever, to leave a string of ambiguous, frustrating, but often very funny clues as to where his extraordinary career has taken him. "What brings you here today?" asked a hopeful reporter from MTV who cornered Morrissey after his acceptance, in 1998, of a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Ivor Novello Awards at the Grosvenor House hotel in London. "The 138 to Streatham Hill," replied the star. An hour earlier, accepting the award from Anthony Newley, Morrissey had thanked his former partner in The Smiths, the guitarist John Marr "of Wythenshawe" for "getting me where I am today. Which begs the question, 'Where am I?'" The day after his concert at Coachella, Morrissey is sitting in a broad leather armchair in the window of his house in Los Angeles. This house was designed by Clark Gable for Carole Lombard, and later owned by F.Scott Fitzgerald. A couple of decades later it was part-time home to the film director John Schlesinger, and used to host the opening preview party for Saturday Night Fever. You could say that it was built on the point where the very ley lines of glamour converge. Morrissey is wearing a pair of vintage jeans, which probably cost more than a small saloon car, and sipping from a can of Red Bull.
"Personally, I feel that I have dismantled that whole 'Morrissey, Miserable, Manchester' label," he says, in his soft, measured Mancunian accent which always seems to be protecting his innocence. "But I don't know how many people know about it. I think that perhaps people think I'm still living in Manchester under some dreadful black cloud. 'You can take the lad out of Manchester', as they say, 'but you can't take the yard-brush away from the lad.' "Someone once asked me, towards the end of the Eighties, where I thought I might be in ten years' time. And I replied that I would always be standing at the back throwing glasses. And, extraordinarily, that has happened. So in one sense nothing has changed with me, I am the outsiders' outsider, but the baffling thing is that I attained this position unwittingly. Of course, as you know, I became fastened to the word 'miserabilism', and, of course, it choked. But I could never be anything other than what I am, and what's so terribly wrong about being reasonably serious?" Morrissey's house is a luxurious mixture of Hispanic and Italianate influences, harmonised by a Californian sense of hugely expensive privacy. Inside, the cool, Roman-looking rooms are elegantly austere. Two framed photographs of Steve McQueen, the size of major portraits by Gainsborough, dominate the principal rooms.
An enormous stone fireplace, looted by Hollywood from some decaying chateau, has a huge silver cross on its mantelpiece. The cross is from Gucci. Several hundred dollars-worth of perfumed candles fill the air with an aromatic, faintly ecclesiastical scent. The house bears the imprint of Morrissey's particularly strong aesthetic sense, and has the air, almost, of being a perfectly lit stage on which his moods can perform.
Secluded and intimate, with a Roman stone fountain beside the courtyard of the garden, the house and its tranquil surroundings speak of the search by Hollywood's stars of the Golden Era in the Thirties and Forties for a bit of peace and quiet beyond the spotlight. Today, Johnny Depp lives next door. To the original generation of Smiths fans, back in the middle of the Eighties - ecstatic boys and girls, all mimicking Morrissey's kitchen-sink cinema-style of quiff and National Health glasses as they mobbed the stage at the Dundee Caird Hall or the Liverpool Empire - the idea of their idol moving to California would have seemed heretical. The whole point about Morrissey, back in those days, was his romantic nostalgia for an archaic notion of Englishness - as glamorous, in its own way, as this luxurious residential backwater in Los Angeles, but deriving its glamour from the appropriation of unlikely icons as champions of the dispossessed. "The Smiths happened because I had walked home in the rain once too often," Morrissey remarked.
But his wholly ambivalent presentation of Englishness turned sour, and prompted his move to America, when, following a concert at Finsbury Park in 1992 where he wore a Union Jack flag draped over his shoulders, the British music press accused him of nationalism and racism. This, of course, was before the Britpop phenomenon, in which everyone from Noel Gallagher to Geri Halliwell reclaimed the Union Jack as an icon. Morrissey was pilloried by one article in the then influential music press entitled "This Alarming Man" - playing on the title of The Smiths' single, This Charming Man. Until now, Morrissey has refused even to discuss these accusations.
"Even though I have never in my life been racist, if the press continue to say, 'Morrissey is Racist', then somewhere along the line people begin to associate you with the word," he says. "And it becomes a part of your biography. But I have had nearly everything bad said about me; I can't really be accused of anything else now, except murder, and I'm sure that that's bound to come at some stage.
"The British will let almost anything happen to them, and just stand back with their arms folded. And yes, yes, yes, there is a great shame attached to holding a Union Jack - I haven't figured out what, but there is." For Morrissey's career as a "living sign" - to quote from the last line of his song, Vicar in a Tutu, on The Queen is Dead - his representation of dispossessed Englishness became entwined with a romantic identification with doomed, dismal boot boys. A hugely complex, and to some eyes highly eroticised account of south London's petty criminal outsiders, Morrissey's empathetic relationship with "yob" culture gave him some of his best songs of the early Nineties, and prompted much of his worst press.
"Those songs concerned defiance amidst enforced intellectual change," he explains. "I thought that the people closest to the gutter were the truest people, and maybe that's because people who are born hugely poor in the United Kingdom have a very keen sense of things being taken away from them. From my own roots in a working-class family, I, too, have that keen sense of everything slipping away. And by singing about that I was considered to be lamenting something passing - but what's wrong with that?
"The England that I have loved, and I have sung about, and whose death I had sung about, I felt had just finally slipped away. And so I was no longer saying, 'England is dying', I was beginning to say, 'Well, yes, it has died and here's the carcass' - so why hang around? Los Angeles offered brightness, and so I packed up my troubles in my old kit bag, and - I didn't smile, smile, smile, but I went anyway. And there's the terrain outside that window..."
As buffeted by the middle Nineties as he had been borne aloft by the middle Eighties, Morrissey found himself in the curious professional position of being demonised and marginalised for many of the very qualities that had turned him into an icon in the first place. A judge ordered that he and Johnny Marr should pay former Smiths drummer, Mike Joyce, #1.25million, and Morrissey is still embroiled in the lengthy and hugely expensive processes of appeal. He even found himself creatively gagged on the issue, when a record company refused to release a track that he had written about his experience of the trial. But as Morrissey sang on The More You Ignore Me - "Beware, I bear more grudges, than lonely high court judges..." "That fight is far from over," he says now.
In the Nineties, he has on the one hand achieved a legendary status, equivalent to his own pop icons such as Nico or The New York Dolls, but on the other slipped out of fashion with the mainstream of rock and pop. This is despite the fact that in 1998 the Institute of Contemporary Arts held an entire celebration of his cultural identity, and a whole new generation of fans and supporters - many of them within the world of young contemporary art - were beginning to rediscover his reputation as the ultimate in British cool.
Jumping from record label to record label (EMI, RCA, Mercury) and manager to manager, he agreed to tour with David Bowie on Bowie's Outsiders tour in 1996, only to retire from the whole thing after just a few concerts. And once again, the rumours began to fly. One of these rumours seems to sum up that entire period: Morrissey was in the lift of a hotel, and a writ was served on him. Having presented the legal document, its deliverer - breaking down - then asked for forgiveness and an autograph. Meanwhile, the Bowie controversy was added to Morrissey's reputation for contrariness.
"I have never spoken about this up until now because, in spite of everything, I do respect David," he says. "I simply have to play Star Man or Drive-in Saturday and I will forgive him for anything. But I left that tour because he put me under a lot of pressure, and I found it too exhausting.
"But then, Bowie is principally a business, and I can't imagine he would have telephoned his own mother without considering the career implications. David surrounded himself with very strong people, and that's the secret of his power: that everything he does will be seen in a certain light. But it certainly wasn't the greatest career move that I ever made, even though they gave 6,000 refunds in Manchester when I didn't appear - but I don't think you'd have read about that in the Manchester Evening News..."
Today, on an American and European tour which shows a new generation of Morrissey fans - and a fair number of old ones - displaying the ritualised riot of adoration that has followed him from the earliest days of The Smiths, Morrissey can be seen to have won his place as a star on his own terms. The current tour - which begins in Britain at Nottingham Rock City on Tuesday - essentially comprising his greatest hits, is seeing a massive revival of interest in the Morrissey phenomenon.
There is a sense that in Britain he is now very much considered an exile - and hence absolutely perfectly positioned for cultural rehabilitation in his own country. "It's the British way to punish people who won't play their games," says Morrissey. "If you're absent from Britain for any length of time, you arrive back at Heathrow and scan the headlines of all those British newspapers and get the general idea.
"Although I don't have a (record) label at the moment, I really wanted to sing. And although a lot of people thought that it was strange for me to consider touring - most people only tour when they've got a product to plug - I don't really think that my career has followed the set pattern in that regard. In the past, I have released an album and not toured. So I don't think that any of the strategic rules apply to me. And it's a small victory for me, to prove that I can survive without the support of the music press, without a record label, and, once again, any real managerial help."
Morrissey is considering releasing his next LP through the Internet - a move also undertaken by Bowie - and in so doing cut out the record companies. The record has been written in Los Angeles, and is as steeped in the poetry of solitude as anything he ever wrote in Manchester. Like all significant artists, Morrissey discovered his themes at the very beginning of his career, and will probably spend a lifetime pursued by their insistent demands upon his writing. Ultimately, the very controversies that have brought him to the brink of professional disaster are the qualities which render him so unique and enduring.
"I spend hours just driving around the small rundown Mexican areas of Los Angeles - that is, the areas where the small, rundown Mexicans live," he says. "And I have become quite fascinated by that. And so, yes, you could say I've come from Salford to Lincoln Heights. It's a short walk, really, and there are very familiar types in each place, and they are all interlinked. And, yes, Los Angeles has its own equivalent of The Blind Beggar pub, and, yes, Los Angeles has its own Salford Lads' Club - which, curiously, is full of Salford Lads. "And I know that people who dislike me will dislike me even more for saying this, but I don't have another life. I don't exist as another person, somewhere else doing something else with other people. There is no other me. There is no clocking off."
(c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 1999.
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