The Morrissey myth

Not a seer, or a pioneer, or a free spirit — just a bore

26 October 2013

9:00 AM

26 October 2013

9:00 AM

Drinking in Corbières, a dingy basement bar just off St Ann’s Square, 30 years ago, you could bump into any number of groovy young Mancunians clustered round the jukebox, talking about the bands they were going to form. One night, as the jukey played ‘The Cutter’ by Echo & the Bunnymen, all evening long it seemed, there was talk of an odd duck from Stretford called Steven Morrissey. Nobody knew him but his name was in the wind.

Soon he had formed The Smiths with a guitar player, Johnny Marr, whose sweet pop sound complemented, or supplemented, his partner’s predominantly sour words. For three years the collaboration worked, so long as you felt, as many teenagers have always felt, that the world was jolly unfair, and your place in it uncertain. For those who had scrambled through their teenage years the band’s appeal was less obvious. Richard Williams, the sort of critic who gives pop journalism a good name, thought The Smiths represented the clearest possible case for the restoration of national service.

Morrissey was indeed an odd duck. The use of a surname by itself was the first clue. It seemed to say: I’m not just a pop star, I’m serious. Then there was the self-conscious dropping of literary names, starting with every troubled adolescent’s favourite spokesman, Oscar Wilde. Sometimes it is hard to realise what a remarkable man Wilde was, given that so many mediocrities have sought to summon his spirit to give flavour to their own lives.

But what made Morrissey unusual was the often clever way in which his songs incorporated other aspects of popular culture. The Smiths were not merely a pop group, they were a northern pop group, like The Beatles before them. And like The Beatles, they borrowed freely from the long-established music hall tradition that lies at the heart of working-class Lancashire life. A lyric like ‘as Antony said to Cleopatra, as he opened a crate of ale’ could fit snugly into a routine by Les Dawson or Ken Dodd. It’s an arresting image. It’s funny.

In those early days Morrissey was frequently funny, though even then there was an underlying bitterness, and a sense that the spontaneous quips had been thoroughly scripted. At times they were lifted from his favourite films, which included Billy Liar, A Taste of Honey, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and many of the Carry Ons. His vision of English life was never really an original one. He observed the north through the filter of writers, film-makers and jesters (George Formby being a particular favourite) who had preceded him.

Years later, after he had moved to London, Morrissey befriended Alan Bennett, who has since said that every time he popped round for a cup of tea the singer wanted to talk about Jimmy Clitheroe, a television star of the early Sixties (who wasn’t actually all that funny). No doubt the pair also chewed the cud about Housman and Auden, poets that Morrissey allegedly admires and about whom Bennett has written superbly.

In his autobiography, published at his insistence as a Penguin Classics imprint (feel free to supply your own joke), Morrissey is happy to quote other famous writers. Goethe and Gertrude Stein are in there, suited and booted, while his schooldays are, we are encouraged to believe, ‘Kafka-esque’. That would be Freddie Kafka, one imagines, who lived next door to the Morrissey family in cosy Kings Road, Stretford, while the lad was growing up. This kind of pretentiousness has been taken at face value for so long by the more credulous members of the pop media that it’s no surprise that Morrissey regards himself as an artist. One of those critics alluded in his review of the book to Eliot and Larkin. Poor chap. He probably pours sugar on his chips and salt in his tea. What the book reveals, of course, is a man blessed with candour but no self-knowledge, which is a bit of a disadvantage when writing an autobiography.

Sixties Manchester was not heaven on earth. Nor was it the Dickensian dump Morrissey would have us believe. Whores did not tout for business in leafy Stretford and as for his memories of miserable schooldays, and teachers who liked to punish miscreants, these are overgrazed pastures. But this is the picture he wants people to see, of how the forces of repression turned him into the mardy little pup who never grew up, and there was nothing he could do about it.

In three decades of unloading his misery on a world he finds too cold to take part in, few people have escaped his wrath. The royal family exists as a kind of dictatorship, judges are bent, patriotism is a joke, last year’s Olympic Games was barely a step away from a Nuremberg rally (didn’t you see those jackboots?), and the Krays, being working class, were misunderstood. And don’t forget, boys and girls: ‘meat is murder’.

This is not an iconoclast speaking. Morrissey is not a seer, or a pioneer, or a free spirit cutting through swaths of prejudice. He’s a bore, every bit as tedious as the buffer who drains a chota peg in St James’ and tells his companions the world has gone to the dogs. Shamefully Penguin fell for this ruse, and lent a spurious respectability to a mucky exercise. They must know they will never be allowed to forget it.

It is worth quoting Bennett, one of the few people of whom Morrissey approves. ‘It’s all very well never to do what is expected of you,’ he wrote in The Old Country, ‘but what do you do when the unexpected is what people have come to expect?’ Quite. Morrissey is midway through his sixth decade and, emotionally speaking, he’s still waiting for his balls to drop. You can’t help thinking it has been a sad life.

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Show comments
  • Bartlebywasright

    It’s funny that Michael Peterson equates bitterness with
    Morrrisey when one can’t help but see how bitter Michael is. Hell, he’s bitter
    that Morrissey even uses the name Morrissey. Mikey even remembers the song that
    was playing on the jukebox when his Morrissey bitterness started. Mikey’s been
    bitter for over 30 years. He knows a thing or two about sad lives.

    • Doggie Roussel

      Do you mean Michael Henderson ?

  • Chris Hobson

    Morrisey is a moaning mancunian, a self loathing self hating joke of a ‘musician’

  • d_whpl

    I am a huge fan of the Smiths and Morrissey but it has been terrible for me to come to realise, in the last few years when with the widening of the internet more and more of his views and interviews surfaced, that politically and humanly he… well… isn’t as gifted as he is musically…

    • Richy

      Bing! Couldn’t have put it better than this. I regret that there is always a caveat when I think about how much I love The Smiths.

    • Don Logan

      I loved The Smiths and a lot of Mozzer’s solo stuff but I do have to admit he is an utter twat.

    • Erik Rex

      As artists, commentators, or simply humans, most of us are not nearly as gifted as we would like to believe.

      • David

        Speak got yourself, I’m a living legend

  • JonBW

    I can’t help thinking that Michael Henderson (like a number of other journalists) has entirely missed the point.

    Morrissey is a writer of genius: if you appreciate the subtle irony in songs like ‘Sweet and Tender Hooligan’ or ‘The First of the Gang to Die’ then you can recognise that the reference to ‘Kafka-esque’ schooldays is probably ironic hyperbole. And that the demand that his autobiography should be published as a Penguin Classic was probably also ironic.

    His whole persona is based on exaggeration and setting out to shock. I think that he’s deliberately trying to avoid the awful fate of becoming a national treasure (and who can blame him?).

    I don’t know what he’s like as a human being; but I do know that what he presents in the media is almost certainly contrived.

    And I also know that The Smiths blew away the rather turgid pomposity of early-eighties pop (and I quite liked Eco and the Bunnymen) like a spring breeze, then went onto produce some wonderful music. Mozzer’s solo out put has been patchy but it has also produced gems.

    • christopher_y

      His whole persona is based on exaggeration and setting out to shock.

      Well, then, Henderson has entirely got the point, although he leaves it to Alan Bennett to express it in his final paragraph. There is no artistic point in trying to épater les bourgeois in an age when les bourgeois are falling over themselves to pay vast sums of money to be épatés. There’s a good commercial point of course, but that’s another story.

      • Eddie

        Morrissey did not shock at the time of The Smiths – at all. Not wearing shoes and waggling gladioli? Hardly shocking. But then there is so much sexnviolence about on telly that none of that shocks any more.
        What Morrissey rightly said about Englishness being lost because of so much immigration did shock the usual pro-immigration pro-multiculti diversity-obsessed media though.

        • Simon Fay

          Hasn’t he recanted though?

        • La Fold

          That was during his whole National front disco nonsense and upsetting the “Bullied at the bus stop” NME hacks by draping himself in a Union Jack.

    • Eddie

      The Smiths were always stronger lyrically than musically, I think; the music was not innovative at all, and often rather weak. For those focusing on lyrics, fine.
      Some early songs were good, but it’s been a quarter of a century since then.

      • AB

        The pithiness of the lyrics and Morrissey’s distinctive vocal style masked the quality of the music. When he does Smiths songs in his solo performances they get dominated by his voice. When Johnny Marr does them, you remember the quality of the music and the lyrics without getting distracted by Morrissey’s voice. http://botzarelli.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/johnny-marr-at-the-brudenell-social-club/

      • JonBW

        The Smiths blew everything else away when they first emerged; you can argue that the Orange Juice, Aztec Camera et al were doing something similar, but the Smiths did it best.

        And I think they’ve stood the test of time.

        All entirely subjective, though.

        • Eddie

          Sorry, but no, they did not do that.
          I was very much into indie music in the 80s.
          Arguably, NO indie band blew anything away – though something like New Order’s Blue Monday was revolutionary.
          You and your mates may well have been Smiths obsessives, but most people were not, and The Smiths did not have a string of number 1 hits or anything.
          What blew everything away in the 80s was the emergence of dance music and rap/hip hop, and that was reliant on cheap Japanese technology. The use of synthesizers and the whole New Romantic thing of the early 80s was way more revolutionary than The Smiths – even though I do like some of The Smiths stuff and have a couple of albums.

          • george

            Amazing: you usually come across as being about 80.

    • dolores

      National treasure? Moz is so competitive, you bet he wants to be a national treasure, that’s how sad he is.

      Just a few years ago Manchester voted on their greatest living Mancunian. It was the glorious Mark E. Smith. Moz was asked to comment and said Mr Smith was often touched by genius.

      Moz hadn’t played Manchester for ages. On the next tour he played 3 separate venues in Manchester and, although he had failed to be voted greatest living Manc, like Napoleon, Moz attempted to crown himself – by titling his live DVD,’ Who Who Put The M in Manchester’. Vainglorious indeed.

      • JonBW

        Like I say, I think a lot of it’s tongue in cheek.

        Though I’d always regard Mark E. Smith as the greatest Mancunian.

  • Doggie Roussel

    The emperor’s new clothes spring to mind when commenting on that humongous prat Morrisey’s shenanigans… he is not taking the piss; he seriously considers himself to be on a higher cultural plane than us mere mortals.

    He is a drudge, a bore and a self-important, narcissistic twerp.

    If one needs a fix of pop culture, I’d suggest that Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen might provide more relief than this odious con artist and charlatan.

  • Jordan Moseley

    Why do we always feel it right to judge a singer based on their ideas an beliefs?
    Lady Gaga has all the same beliefs as Morrissey and yet she sells thousands, all because it is set to a ‘thump thump thump’ beat.
    Morrissey is boring is he, miserable is he?
    Please, tell me about the happiness and joy of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, please tell me about the depth of Nickelback and Kings Of Leon.
    Please explain the ‘talent’ of bubblegum pop.

    Morrissey would never appeal to a middle-class twat or a self-righteous ‘journalist’ because he understands the grime and grim life of the North, you think life is all petals and rosebuds as Elton John would make us believe, naive is the word.
    You hate Morrissey because he is much more successful than a pitiful little journalistic guttersnipe could ever be.

    And as for Oscar Wilde (Shakespeare’s talented other), he was a literary genius and it’s fine when a dumb-founded idiot like Johnny ‘death’ Depp does it but when a true literary marksman like Steven Morrissey does it, he must be hung, why?

    Love or hate him, he still has a place in your mind, doesn’t he, Mr Henderson?

    No need to reply, we all know you’re clutching your ‘Queen Is Dead’ album and crying that ‘I can’t grow a quiff’.

    Just easier to like what others like, isn’t it Michael?

    Go listen to Bob Dylan, U2 and Spandeau Ballet.

    Leave The Smiths and Morrissey to the professionals.

    • Doggie Roussel

      “it’s fine when a dumb-founded idiot like Johnny ‘death’ Depp does it but
      when a true literary marksman like Steven Morrissey does it, he must be
      hung, why?”

      Whatever the meanings of “dumb-founded” or “a true literary marksman” might confer on the unclad Emperor Morissey, it seems apparent that he has donned the mantle of many a Svengali and false prophet who have conned their audience and followers over the years: Rasputin, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Jimmy Swaggart etc etc… any of the evangelical nutcases who have proliferated over the years and whose underlying motive has always been their own financial profit or self-advancement and whose continued self-indulgence relies upon the gullibility of their acolytes and audiences.

      Morissey is a patent fraud and talent-free, tacky and self-obsessed into the bargain.

      • Jordan Moseley

        Well done, you picked out the most obvious points and ignorantly argued against them, you should be a journalist, forget the subtext.

        Mr Wilde once said: Talent Borrows, Genius Steals.

        People should know that when something is released into the public domain, it is exactly that, public.

        How idiotic a person must be, to compare the voice of the troubled youth of the 80’s to a ragtag group of miscreants.

        Morrissey is NOT a celebrity or a ‘pop-star’, his name should only be mentioned in hush tones with such authors as; Wilde, Yeats and Byron.

        I agree that Morrissey can sometimes be a little hard to take but if one can only see past the arrogance (which is obviously meant ironically, for any idiot who doesn’t GET that) then people would discover words spoken and spat with love and hate, unlike most artists, Morrissey sees his fans as his friends and cohorts, ‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’.

        I do not need to argue any longer as I finish this comment I realize, YOU have a few thousand on your side, but I have Millions of people on my side.

        Wilde is on mine.

        And the truth sleeps.

        • Doggie Roussel

          ” Talent Borrows, Genius Steals”… more like money walks, bullshit talks.

          I doubt whether Oscar Wilde would have had the time of day for that posturing poseur, Morissey.

          Imagine bracketing this clown with Wilde, Yeats and Byron… Tartuffe would have been more apposite.

          Because of modern communications we have a surfeit these days of pop culture and, while there is the occasional bright sparkle, there is a huge amount of dross and Morissey is definitely at the bottom of the barrel.

        • dolores

          Morrissey is a sad phony. Truly disinterested educated people have reviewed this book and found it badly written and Mozza to be a screaming bore.

          As an ex-fan I know how arch and tongue in cheek his comments can be, but he has lost his edge and in this autobiography now turns his quips on ordinary people, especially women, in a shockingly mean spirited way. He is narcissistic and so insecure he has to comment on every little thing he has done that someone else failed to achieve.

          Interesting how ‘January 8th’ suddenly took Moz and Elton off the road with illnesses; Elt rushed out an album which HE claimed was the best of his career, while Moz FINALLY let his autobiography loose on the world. I think we all know the reason for their panic – and probable annoyance – just as we know who this year belongs to. And it’s not Paul McCartney.

  • sarah_13

    Morrissey, another misfit deluded narcissist. I grew up at exactly the same time as he did in Manchester. It was perfectly fine. Plenty of teachers were mean and plenty weren’t, it’s called schooldays. He talks crap and trades of being some kind of intellectual in foreign shores where they don’t know any better. Shame on penguin for acquiescing to his demands.

    • Jordan Moseley

      Manchester is a huge place, one side was probably different to the other.
      He applied to Penguin (ironically) but THEY were the ones who approached and funded the book.
      He speaks his mind and in a world where NOBODY does, he is hated and detested, what was the last ‘true’ thing you said?

      Once more, another is deserted.

      • Simon

        The last ‘true’ thing she said was, “He talks crap and trades of being some kind of intellectual in foreign shores where they don’t know any better. Shame on penguin for acquiescing to his demands” – evidently.

  • Chingfordassociates .

    Wonderful songs and gigs though and sad life or not he has certainly bought himself a better class of misery via the proceeds: he lives in a mansion in Los Angeles.

    • Teacher

      Does he now? Not a two-up, two down in Manchester? Does he feel the pain of the working classes better in Los Angeles? Yes, I expect that’s the reason.

      • Simon Fay

        I expect the dazzling blue of the Pacific skies reminds him of coal-miners’ eyes coming off shift.

        • Teacher

          Ah, indeed. And all that sunshine will boost his vitamin D levels. His fans will be grateful for it.

  • george

    Wow. At least you’re not writing about the British royal family, and therefore you can say what you think. I find that unless I say that every piece of net on every titled hat is perfectly judged, people complain. They’re royals not gods, for heaven’s sake. (Wish there were another idiom instead of that: it seems to undermine my point!)

    • george

      See what I mean?

  • saffrin

    Not a seer, a pioneer, or a free spirit — just a bore that incites suicide.
    The world will be a happier brighter place when Morrissey is gone.

    • Jordan Moseley

      Yet another idiot left behind.

      • saffrin

        Just keep taking those anti depressants jordan, you’ll be alright.
        Morrissey’s done wonders for the pharmaceutical industry.

        • Jordan Moseley

          Oh look, another!

    • tomdaylight

      I think Morrissey’s songs have prevented far more suicides than incited any.

      • saffrin

        There must be some manically depressed people out there if Morrissey is anything to go by.
        I for one can’t hit the off button fast enough.

  • Advocatus_Diaboli_69

    Morrisey divides his time between his homes in LA, Rome, Switzerland and the UK.

    More champagne anyone?

    • post_x_it

      To his (modest) credit, unlike Sting, he doesn’t lecture others about their “carbon footprint”.

      • Emily Carpenter

        Yes he does

  • loftytom

    Quotes from the “great Man”.

    “You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies.””

    On the death of Children at Uttoya
    “That is nothing compared to what happens in McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried shit every day.”

    And a lovely quote which, had it been said by a conservative, would have had the Guardianistas foaming

    “”If you walk through Knightsbridge on any bland day of the week you
    won’t hear an English accent. You’ll hear every accent under the sun
    apart from the British accent.”


    • Doggie Roussel

      Well said… and if you walk down Sunset Boulevard, you’ll see Morissey mincing along the sidewalk and be subjected to his Mancunian twang…

      ” Vive l’Empereur nu !”

  • Simon Fay

    A dreary old frequent-flying queen out to shock. A Northern version of Dirk Bogarde or Virago Press’s answer to John Lydon.

  • La Fold

    I love the smiths music, morrissey himself, not so much but lets be honest, he is just a diet Allan Bennet

  • jamesthecritic

    Most Mancunians are like this, particularly working class ones – they come across as downbeat and disgruntled. I believe this is e cause of Coronation Street. Tis progr

  • sweetiepie27

    I’ve noticed a lot of ‘writers’ getting a little antsy over the last week. How very wonderful! A little cross maybe that Morrissey, the man without a record label can not only have the audacity to outsell those mainstream pop heros in world tours, but can also produce the fastest selling music memoir of all time? How dare he have the world talking about him?! Mr Henderson, I suggest you go to Headmistress Annie Lennox’s office immediately. She would like a word. “Reading the various reviews of Morrissey’s autobiography, the divisive
    reactions are fascinating…With a life steeped in the acute
    articulation of what it feels like to be an “outsider’s outsider”… Mr M
    continues to stir and shake us up.

    I’m appreciative and grateful for his extraordinary artistry, artifice
    and social/personal commentary… and more than anything I wish him the
    freedom and space to be himself…unencumbered and unhampered by
    anyone’s “opinion” or projection of who they think he is or should be.
    He’s made a profound connection and difference to a multitude of lives,
    which is more than can be said for the belligerent scribers who seem to
    have a bone to pick with his very existence.

    We all have to live with ourselves at the end of the day, till the end of our days…and I think he’s a very elegant survivor.

    God bless Morrissey and all who ever dared to sail forth, with or without a compass.”

  • Sam Pryce

    Au contraire, Monsieur Henderson, this is all a bit unfair, isn’t it? He’s only being narcissistic in jest, as you’d see if you’d paid attention whilst reading the book. I think somebody’s a bit jealous, n’est-pas?

  • Pinky Floyd

    Class hatred

  • Hippograd

    Many Mancunians could easily forgive Morrissey for being world-famous if it weren’t for one horrendous fact: he comes from Manchester. Just like them. And they’re not world-famous.

  • Gary Ross

    Viva Hate!

  • persimmian

    Given the fact that this rag saw it fit to do an unwarranted character assassination piece on him, you can be assured that Morrissey is doing SOMETHING right!

  • Matthew Dinaro

    Listening to the Smiths you might think Morrissey is putting on an act, channeling disingenuous teenage melancholia into a satirical catharsis of itself. But from every indication–and this book is the final blow–he really IS like that. And that may, in the end, be infinitely more depressing than any Smiths lyric.