There was a a lot of music that sustained and soundtracked my recent sabbatical, but none more effervescent than that of the man in question. Which seems fortuitous, as his is a particularly comforting voice at moments when the veil is pulled back on the human condition, as it was here last week. What follows is a slightly revised version of the Moz chapter in A Mess of Help, a personal favorite which I was pleasantly surprised had never found its way onto the site (in its entirety). So, if you have five seconds to spare…:

You cannot write about Steven Patrick Morrissey without getting personal. This is because Manchester’s favorite amateur deity has never made music for people to enjoy casually. Love his work or hate it, the personality is too strident and the voice too distinct to be relegated to the background. Morrissey’s are the kind of songs you have a relationship with, and mine began with my older brother John.

It was 1989, and our family had just moved from New York to Charleston, South Carolina. To say goodbye (and help us with the inevitable culture shock), one particularly hip babysitter had gifted John Louder Than Bombs, a compilation of songs by The Smiths, the immortal group that Morrissey fronted from 1982-1987. I got a GI Joe that changed colors in the sun.[1]

It’s a familiar story: prodigiously cool older sibling subjects hapless younger one to inappropriately good music in a process that involves equal parts enthusiasm and shame. “You’ve never heard of The Smiths?! Where have you been?” I remember him asking me.[2] Where I had been was with him, of course, at that point my sole source for contemporary music. John’s utter lack of shyness about sharing new discoveries remains a favorite trait, and as was his right as an older brother, he could never resist doing so without a hint of incredulity.

He played me the song “Half a Person”—still a favorite—and I remember wondering to myself at what kind of YWCA could you work as a backscrubber (I didn’t ask). The working-class wasteland of Thatcherian England that Morrissey was singing about seemed like a distant planet, but a beguiling one. The sad melody struck an arpeggiated chord, too, so when he was over at a friend’s house one day, I snuck in and dubbed the song. I only needed to wait until John’s rapidly evolving tastes took him in a different direction, which they did later that year, at which point I ‘permanently borrowed’ the disc. Shoplifters of the world, unite!

What I discovered on Bombs was a wonderland of melancholy and mischief too devastating for my pre-teen ears to appreciate. And so I filed it away for later, hopeful that I would develop into the sort of person capable of grasping Moz’s dour appeal. By the time college rolled around, all resistance would be futile.

Little did I know I was one in a long line of hopeless young romantics to whom Morrissey’s poetry would serve as a beacon. Sorrow will come in the end, he told me, and along the way, life’s miseries will be myriad. The only romance was doomed romance, the only love, unrequited. The only person you should detest more than yourself is everybody else. It may not be the most hopeful worldview, but it is certainly a dramatic one. The attraction should be self-evident.

As much as I loved the music, though, what really hooked me was Morrissey’s persona, one of pop music’s most original and eccentric creations. The militant vegetarianism, alleged asexuality, wide-ranging anti-institutionalism, and penchant for scandalous denouncements are only a small part of what I’m referring to.[3] Indeed, the man’s draw had little, if anything, to do with aesthetics or politics or even the whole Oscar-Wilde-in-a-pompadour schtick. Those aspects are all entertaining to be sure, but the heart of Morrissey’s appeal, at least to me, lay in the paradox. Morrissey is loved because he is unloved, embraced for his alienation, praised for his self-pity. He abhors the wealthy classes yet seems repulsed by ‘common’ brutishness. No one has bitten the hand that feeds with more panache (“burn down the disco”), or subverted rock conventions (of subversiveness) more gleefully, even those of the ‘punks’ he claimed to admire. As he writes in his Autobiography:

“In Manchester, the famous Manchester Evening News desperately attempts to portray the Smiths as ‘fans’ of [Moors Murders serial killers] Hindley and Brady, and finally relent with the almost-invisible [headline] ‘BAD BOYS ARE TOPS’ when Meat Is Murder hits number one. How delightful to be thought ‘bad,’ I muse, as I sit by a reading-light, pawing George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life.”[4]

If there is a less ‘rock n’ roll’ work of fiction than Eliot’s Scenes of a Clerical Life (1857), I’m not sure what it is.[5] Which explains why he finds the discrepancy between public projection and private reality so humorous. Therein lies Morrissey’s charm: for him, tiresomeness and predictability are far worse sins than conventional ‘badness’. He is a true subversive, you might say, rather than a conventional iconoclast (if such a thing exists). Morrissey’s ascetic taste in literature was actually more shocking than any feelings he might have had about serial killers. 

Happy in the Haze of a Drunken Hour

Perhaps no song captures Morrissey’s knack for skirting the line between loneliness and misanthropy better than The Smiths’ single “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”. In reference to its opening verse, Morrissey once explained, “When I had no job I could pinpoint my depression, but when I did get a job, I was still depressed.” He has enough self-knowledge to know that our real problems are rarely circumstantial. As he croons, “I was looking for a job, and then I found a job / And heaven knows I’m miserable now”. In Morrissey’s world, as in ours, internal realities are more definitive than external ones.

Later on, after Christianity came back into my personal picture, I began to understand the theological resonance of Moz’s lyric. Works of the law are indeed a bottomless pit when it comes to genuine self-fulfillment. No amount of accomplishment or change in context has the power, in and of itself, to assuage genuine depression. “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” adroitly locates our real problem inside the heart, not outside of it (Mark 7).[6]

Morrissey’s relationship with law in the song doesn’t end there, though. If life is a courtroom (one of his favorite metaphors), everywhere our hero looks he sees evidence of the verdict against him.[7] When he passes “two lovers entwined”, he cannot help but interpret their connection as a condemnation of his lack.[8] No possible judgment escapes his radar.

The song also captures the I-should-but-I-can’t dynamic that is so pronounced in Morrissey’s repertoire. Why do I smile at people who I’d much rather kick in the eye?” goes the chorus. Yet Morrissey’s self-pity is never one-dimensional. He cannot escape the both-and nature of the human predicament. Indeed, what comes across time and again is how overtly at odds Morrissey is with himself. Both victim and perpetrator, actively unloved and actively unloving, there is something courageous (and deeply true) about his willingness to own his cowardice, to lay the blame for his unhappiness at his own feet.

This is, of course, not unlike the biblical portrait of fallen human nature, of men and women who are created in the image of God, yet inescapably subject to Original Sin. We are, more often than not, our own worst enemies; no one is innocent, least of all those who claim to be. Life on this side of Eden is fundamentally tragic.[9]

But Morrissey’s early pronouncements would be far less compelling were it not for his songwriting partner/co-conspirator Johnny Marr. A true master of his craft, Marr possessed an equally rare brilliance. He would set Morrissey’s melancholy lyrics to bright, upbeat melodies, illustrating the (often) stark divide between our exterior and interior lives. It was an ingenious trick, one that many have cribbed but few have pulled off with anywhere near as much success. You might say that Marr adopted the opposite approach from the one Morrissey outlined in the band’s song “Unlovable”, where Moz admitted to wearing “black on the outside, cause black is how I feel on the inside”. Another layer to the onion.

Yet there is no ‘Gospel according to Morrissey’. You cannot remain true to the spirit of his work and wring anything solidly redemptive out of it. The only consolation on offer is, ironically, identification with another’s suffering, both self-inflicted and otherwise. That is, while there may be no happy endings in Morrissey’s world, don’t we all feel a little less miserable, basking in his misery?

To listen to his music is to discover that one is not alone in one’s loneliness. Indeed, his followers revel in the romanticized hyperbole of their hero’s misunderstood plight, reassured by the fact that there is at least one other person on the face of the earth who is just like them. If you described Morrissey’s gift as incarnational, you wouldn’t be (too) far off.

A Whole House Will Need Rebuilding

As towering as his erstwhile group’s output may be, some of us believe that Morrissey’s real story did not begin until after The Smiths folded. His solo career, with all its bumps and lumps and detours, was where the cult of Moz would truly blossom.

Some artists mellow as they grow older; Morrissey has only become more himself. His self-pitying songs have become more pitiful, his loneliness more despondent, his angry swipes more petulant (even offensive), his romance more swooning, and his celebration of London lowlifes more eccentric. He may have remained more or less true to the sonic blueprint laid out by Marr, but everything else in his peculiar universe has become more fully drawn. Or maybe there is just more to work with, as the man has been prolific.

Most true believers consider the high-water mark of his solo career to be 1994′s Vauxhall And I, and I am among them. By all accounts Vauxhall was written, or at least incubated, during a period of prolonged depression and grief. Morrissey has commented on the “odour of retreat, of departure” that the collection evokes. “The album wasn’t as fiery or as passionate as its predecessors but it seemed a bit resigned, which quite pleased me.” Also unlike its predecessors, the filler quotient on Vauxhall is virtually nil.[10] But even among such hallowed material as “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get” and “Why Don’t You Find Out for Yourself?”, what distinguishes the album are its stunning bookends, the oddly uplifting opener “Now My Heart Is Full” and the concluding crucifixion of “Speedway”.

Given the circumstances that birthed the record, the tone of “Now My Heart Is Full” is a bit surprising. Or is it? The song finds Morrissey describing, in one of his strongest ever vocal performances, the spiritual rebirth to which his dark night of the soul appeared to have led him. The track has a strong dawn-like quality, of nighttime slowly swelling into daybreak. He remarked at the time:

“[‘Now My Heart Is Full’] has a sense of jubilant exhaustion with looking over one’s shoulder all the time and draining one’s reference points. I have perhaps overtapped my sources and now all that is over basically. I have a vast record and video and tape collection but I look at it now in a different light. It’s no longer something I feel I need to be embroiled in night and day. I have realized that the past is actually over, and it is a great relief to me.”

Whatever he went through during this period was powerful enough for Morrissey—who is rarely, if ever, at a loss for words—to have trouble articulating (“I can’t explain / So I won’t even try to”). His suffering appears to have produced some sliver of peace, short-lived but nonetheless authentic. Listen to him intone the descending title with increasing confidence. “Now My Heart Is Full” comes perilously close to resurrection.

As much as the opener shimmers, however, it is eclipsed by the closing “Speedway”. In the invaluable Mozipedia, Simon Goddard puts it this way:

“Self-martyrdom has always been a fundamental trait of Morrissey’s writing, but never has he nailed himself to a proverbial cross with such sacrificial drama as on ‘Speedway’, Vauxhall’s soul-baring, near-biblical finale which by virtue of its analytical frankness ranks as one of his most insightful and therefore most essential songs of all time.”

Named after one of Elvis Presley’s most embarrassing movies[11], “Speedway” captures the Morrissey paradox perfectly: he is both martyr and martyrer, tormented and (ringleader of the) tormentor(s) at the same time.[12] As the timeless chorus goes, “All of the rumors keeping me grounded / I never said, I never said / That they were completely unfounded”. He gives us a wink, yes, but only to make the vulnerability more palatable. Oddly enough, instead of inspiring revilement, the candor produces a loving smile, especially when he finally comes clean: “And all those lies / Written lies, twisted lies / Well, they weren’t lies”. The shift, mid-stream, from accusation to confession is both jarring and hilarious—a difficult feat.

Again, the Christian in me cannot help but admire the refreshing lack of defensiveness. In a sea of self-justification, Morrissey offers a more profound view of himself. If he is justified at all, it is by how unjustified he knows himself to be.[13] Echoes of repentance abound.

Of course, a more skeptical take might be that he is flipping rock bravado on its head and in the process, actually exalting himself to greater heights. Lord knows Morrissey has never been shy about fooling with religious imagery.[14] As if to drive the messianism home, he closes with the following assurance: “In my own strange way I’ve always been true to you / In my own sick way I’ll always stay true to you”.

Is Morrissey exploiting his own confession? Or embracing his guilt and hypocrisy—and discovering, to his great surprise, that love and devotion flow naturally from the repentant heart? Perhaps he is winding us up and once again playing with his image. It wouldn’t be the first time. Or maybe he is describing a loyalty that supersedes personal shortcomings, the kind we only find when we have been forced to pull over on life’s, you know, speedway.

I don’t know the answer. And I am not sure I would want to. The raised eyebrows give the song its life. The chainsaw doesn’t hurt either.

In the Future When All’s Well

Given Morrissey’s piercing insight into himself and others, as well as his proclivity for running against the grain of any/all rock orthodoxies, it is curious that his religious sentiments seem to have strayed relatively little from the lapsed Catholicism of his youth, or the ‘born-again atheism’ of his adult life. He has no time for institutions of almost any kind, to say nothing of the Church. I’ve read interviews where he hesitantly confesses to belief in God, as well as ones in which he dismisses religion entirely. Consistency has clearly never been one of his chief values. His conversation with the divine is ongoing, and nothing if not candid.[16] Fortunately, though, Morrissey’s “ministry” is not confined by whatever he claims to believe, thank, er, God.

Which is part of what I mean when I say that you cannot write about Morrissey without getting personal. Spend enough time with his music, and he will take up residence in your brain. He certainly has in mine. The Morrissey persona has a life of its own, independent of Steven Patrick himself. The character is too vivid, too three-dimensional not to become a mental fixture—not if you’re actually listening. Perhaps he has achieved immortality after all.

My relationship with Moz remains an important one. The college student who felt so sorry for himself has grown up, at least a little, and the empathy that Morrissey’s music did so much to foster has led me to a rather unexpected career in ministry (after a sort).

But what I like best about the Morrissey in my head is that he can’t be fooled. He knows when I am being less than fully honest. His is the first voice to object whenever I am tempted to whitewash the human condition or offer up a convenient platitude about the purpose of suffering. Should difficult circumstances prompt me to shift the blame for my problems away from myself, to focus on the speck in the eye of others rather than the log in my own, he registers disappointment loudest. When I pretend my convictions about human nature derive from St Paul or Luther or Christ himself, he reminds me that their descriptions only jived with Moz-laid groundwork. He knows that whatever truth I recognized in the biblical anthropology was because I had a great teacher. He knows this, and it bothers him.

But what bothers him more is when I talk about a father’s unrequited love for his prodigal children, the paradoxical reality of the God who was hated for loving and whose light will never go out. He knows those seeds were sown not by a Magisterial hand but, at least in part, a Mancunian one—and he knows how grateful I am.

I’m glad he is bothered. He wouldn’t be Morrissey otherwise.

 

[1] The nefarious Zartan!

[2] I was ten years old at the time. The Smiths had already been broken up for a couple years but, needless to say, had yet to make inroads into the South Carolina grade-school demographic. One can only hope they’ve since gotten further.

[3] There’s a quote in Autobiography that encapsulates a number of these traits, and it happens to be one of the book’s funniest moments (which is really saying something): “‘And what do YOU like in life?’ [the priest] asks me, ready to play the patronizing game at my expense in order to raise a giggle from the rest of the class, thus rendering him popular for a few perverse minutes. ‘Mott the Hoople’, I answer truthfully.”

[4] The reference to George Eliot is a telling one. The most well-known anthem Morrissey wrote for The Smiths, “How Soon Is Now?” open with a line from Middlemarch (“I am the son / I am the heir / of nothing in particular”). As for Autobiography, let us pray we never find ourselves on Moz’s bad side. Never have so many hyper-articulate insults been hurled at so many.

[5] The third and final of the Scenes, “Janet’s Repentance”, contains what may be the most sympathetic portrayal of an Anglican evangelical in all of Western literature in the Rev. Edgar Tryan. Again, an extremely transgressive and funny choice by Morrissey.

[6] Morrissey strikes a similar note on Louder Than Bombs’s opening track, “Is It Really So Strange?”, in which he hilariously reveals the futility of adopting a geographic solution to life’s problems: “I left the south / I traveled north / I got confused—I killed a horse / I can’t change the way I feel.”

[7] He would make the legal implications plain in a solo track a few years later, the wondrous B-side, “I’ve Changed My Plea to Guilty”, the chorus of which utters the title phrase before lamenting, “because freedom is wasted on me / see how your rules spoil the game”. Romans 7:8 springs to mind.

[8] He would explore this theme a bit more memorably on “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”. The man has no peer when it comes to the titling of songs.

[9] A favorite of his excoriating descriptions of human nature comes in the solo standout “Nobody Loves Us”, where Moz observes: “We are just stood here / Waiting for the next great wound / And we just can’t wait to make more mistakes / And to fluff our breaks, and to stuff our faces with cake”. Ooof.

[10] Why he didn’t include the stellar “Jack the Ripper” is anyone’s guess.

[11] ‘natch!

[12] Saint and sinner, anyone? (Let’s not get carried away.)

[13] It likely goes without saying, but Morrissey’s attitude has very little in common with pietistic or self-flagellating strands of Christianity, where one is (oxymoronically) justified by outdoing one’s neighbor in humility.

[14] If there exists a more clever sacrilegious song title than Moz’s “I Have Forgiven Jesus”, I haven’t heard it.

[15] “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” A proto-Morrissey line if ever there was one.

[16] A few memorable examples, not mentioned elsewhere, of his dealing with religious questions or themes would have to be: “Dear God Please Help Me” — “Forgive Someone” — “I Know It’s Going to Happen Someday” — “I Am Two People” — “Satan Rejected My Soul” — “Work Is A Four-Letter Word” — “There’s a Place in Hell For Me and My Friends”.