Perhaps it is too easy to take Morrissey for granted.
Already a pop music icon when he released his first solo album, “Viva Hate”, in 1988, Morrissey has only released nine additional albums in the 25 years since then, and only three since Maladjusted in 1997. He has still managed, however, to retain his iconic status regardless of shifting trends in the entertainment industry, and the vacillating vagaries of the music biz.
Morrissey is so cool that his presence only needs to be suggested through album cover sleeves, concert posters, t-shirt logos, and random television clips in his 1988 video “Everyday is Like Sunday” for his power to be felt.
And, of course, anybody who is instantly recognizable by a single name has got to be doing something right.
Morrissey has always been a singular figure in the pop landscape, and people seem to have either gravitated to his side and stayed for the duration, or just never got it at all, and will just never get it at all.
Oh, well…more for us, I suppose.
It has always been too easy for Morrissey’s detractors to find a quarrel in straw with his persona, his pronouncements, or his politics. He has been an outspoken vegetarian since he was 11-years-old, proclaiming that “Meat is Murder” in 1986, unwittingly creating a rallying cry for vegetarians for all time. Much to the consternation of carnivores everywhere, Morrissey has remained a vocal proponent of a cruelty-free lifestyle, calling out the Royal family, Prime Minister David Cameron, and Bryan Ferry for hunting (among numerous other predilections), fellow vegetarian Paul McCartney for supporting the Royal family, and, from the stage of a sold-out Staples Center in 2013, Beyoncé for purchasing rhinoceros skin handbags.
While the rest of the media world seemed to experience a sense of collective amnesia at the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 2013, Morrissey, as one who lived in England during her reign, took it upon himself to remind the world that “She simply did not give a shit about people, and this coarseness has been neatly transformed into bravery by the British press who are attempting to re-write history in order to protect patriotism.” Well, after all, this is the man who sang the hilarious condemnation “Please die” in 1988’s “Margaret on the Guillotine.”
No, Morrissey has always traveled to his own music, playing exactly what is on his mind whether it received popular support or not. In this way, Morrissey has never lied to his fans, and this is one of the reasons much of his audience has stuck by his side through thick and thin. Morrissey has spent years without a recording contract, and even without new albums to promote, he could still sell out performances around the world. Such is the draw of Morrissey’s mystique; inexplicable, but inordinately tangible.
Which is why his fans were horrified throughout most of 2013, as Morrissey was forced to cancel 60 shows on his North and South American tour from January to August due to continual, and seemingly random, hospitalizations for food poisoning, bleeding ulcers, Barrett’s oesophagus, double pneumonia, and injuries from a car accident (whiplash, concussion, arm injury). Needless to say, each new report spelled ominous prospects for the future, and one could only hope that Morrissey would make it through this spell of unfortunate circumstances alive.
The sheer absurdity of the level of catastrophe visiting itself upon Morrissey in 2013 made things seem, at times, as if this were all an elaborate hoax. On the other hand, everything just seemed too surreal and grotesque to be anybody’s idea of a joke.
Things started looking up in October of that year, however, when the esteemed Penguin Classics published, in paperback (like any good Penguin Classic), Morrissey’s autobiography, Autobiography. The cover is of a serene Morrissey, with the author’s name and the book title creating a two-worded symmetry of simplicity. A look inside at the publisher’s imprint exposes that the copyright belongs to a company named “Whores in Retirement”; a nice touch amidst all of this high-minded literary seriousness.
The opening lines feel as if they are echoes of a Morrissey song we have not heard: “My childhood is streets upon streets upon streets upon streets. Streets to define you and streets to confine you, with no sign of motorway, freeway or highway.”
Penguin Classics’ publication of Autobiography caused a great furor amongst the literati because, well, Morrissey isn’t dead or anything and the book is not a text that has been sitting on dusty shelves for 100 years or so, and…it was just wrong! But…this is simply another example of how Morrissey can be so right.
Morrissey’s securing publication with Penguin Classics demonstrates his unerring taste in branding and design, as well as his unwillingness to compromise. He could have waited for as long as he wanted for the most lucrative publishing deal to come along from any old publisher, but not just anybody gets to publish with Penguin Classics. Once again, Morrissey belongs to a very exclusive club.
But Morrissey has always adhered to a conspicuously singular aesthetic for himself which incorporates subtle artistic details and considerations that can just as easily go unnoticed by those unfamiliar with his points of reference. For example, Morrissey resurrected the defunct reggae label Attack Records in 2004 to, ostensibly, release his own You Are the Quarry, but has subsequently released albums by Jobriath, Nancy Sinatra, and the New York Dolls under its imprimatur. Similarly, Morrissey has also revived the RCA Victor “His Master’s Voice” imprint, as well as its classic 1970’s logo, which appeared on Bowie and Lou Reed records from the period.
Another evocative visual touch to Morrissey’s album titles is their being embedded within quotation marks, suggesting utterances of supreme significance, as well as the hermetic isolation of thoughts separated from the rest of the world. Of course, the quotation marks could also simply be a salute to Bowie’s “Heroes”album cover.
Morrissey’s visual humor was always apparent throughout his career, as well, for those who know where to look. For example, consider the compact disc inner sleeve for 1992’s “Your Arsenal””. There is a striking resemblance between that 1962 photograph of British gangster Charlie Richardson, and the portrait of Morrissey cradling a baby for the cover of his 2009 release Years of Refusal. Pretty funny stuff.
With Years of Refusal, his most recent release to date, the fun doesn’t end with the cover photo either. The songs contain some of his funniest lyrics ever, beginning with the all-purpose, “Thank you, drop dead,” to “The smiling children tell you that you smell,” and from the rhetorical “There's a soft voice singing in your head/Who can this be? I do believe it's me” to the physical and psychological “Diazepam (that's Valium)/Tamazepam...Lithium/HRT, ECT/How long must I stay on this stuff?”
Despite Morrissey’s ability to mock the most grievous of circumstances with his trademark wit, there is something about Years of Refusal that seems altogether unforced and genuine in a very disarming way.
Morrissey has always been accused of using his platform as an artist to empty his personal diaries into the winds of the world, and although there has always been an element of transforming the lead of his life into the gold of his art, Years of Refusal really feels like an intentionally personal self-portrait. The album doesn’t address any subject matter that Morrissey hasn’t explored before, but there is a finality to his contemplations of childhood trauma, the black cloud of depression, and ageing that seems conclusive, as if there really aren’t any illusions anymore.
Years of Refusal reminds us that it is not inconceivable that Morrissey would be more than happy to leave the glitter of the world stage behind, and continue his personal journey away from the glare of the camera eye.
When Morrissey sings, “You’re going to miss me when I’m gone,” it would be too easy to consider that he has probably said the same thing a hundred times in a hundred different ways, but as recently as 2012 Morrissey was pondering the possibility of retiring at the age of 55 in 2014, concluding that he has “aged a lot recently, which is a bit distressing.” However, the retirement statement was categorically and emphatically retracted almost immediately, and attributed to “wishful thinking on behalf of the writers.” Hilarious.
Well, much better for us, really, as the good news just kept coming from Morrissey in 2014. Following a successful showing on the charts for Autobiography, Morrissey announced a new deal with Harvest Records (yes, the old hippy/folk/prog rock label from the ‘70’s) on January 16th of this year, followed, on Valentine’s Day, by an announcement of a new tour. It was also reported that Morrissey spent the spring in France recording a new album, World Peace Is None of Your Business, with a July-ish 2014 release date.
And if that isn’t enough Morrissey news to see one through the rest of 2014, there is always This Charming Charlie, a look into the secret lives of the Peanuts characters as imagined through Morrissey’s lyrics.
So, we should all give praise and thanks that we still have a couple more years, at least, with our man at center stage. It’s a crazy world, and it’s nice to hear someone help you laugh your way through it, with songs like “Girlfriend in a Coma,” or. “You’re the One For Me, Fatty,” or even “There is a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends,” a piano ballad so striking that Frank Sinatra should have covered it.
But, as Morrissey sang in 1997, “So, the choice I have made/May seem strange to you/But who asked you anyway?”
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.