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Sing Your Life: Morrissey at 60

Can you separate art from the artist? When it comes to Morrissey, you’re asking the wrong question.

As Morrissey releases his 13th solo studio album, the same tired debates and arguments are being rolled out.

To recap, Morrissey turned 60 last year. Elder statesman of rock age. Old enough for a free Travelcard on his rare visits to London.

But the big day slipped by with little more than a murmur. No birthday live shows, no BBC Four retrospective, and no 60-track Spotify playlists.

His groundbreaking, pop-redefining five years with The Smiths in the mid-1980s should have been enough to warrant a dizzy celebration. And then there’s his occasionally brilliant early solo career and genuinely triumphant 2004 comeback.

Morrissey
Morrissey © Creative Commons

As ever with Morrissey, it’s a little bit complicated. His bad-tempered, snarling battles with a record industry from which he refuses to cut himself free can easily be ignored, as can the middling (at best) quality of his last few records.

What’s been more difficult to set aside are the political outbursts that have seen him increasingly lurch from alt-rock to alt.right.

Every unpleasant squeak about immigration or Islam or race is followed by the same, boring Bigmouth Strikes Again headlines and an equally-reductive retread of the argument about whether or not you can separate art from the artist.

With Morrissey, both these responses utterly miss the point.

Morrissey’s public pronouncements aren’t some juvenile slur dug up by journalists scouring social feeds for cheap clicks. They’re not an ill-advised mid-interview blurt to be swiftly apologised for, if never quite forgotten.

This isn’t about “cancel culture”. These aren’t one-off rants or rambles. The ideology of his outbursts are central to Morrissey’s public being.

And while the personal is unavoidably political for all of us, in his work Morrissey has always been completely both.

Others sang your life, but now is a chance to shine
And have the pleasure of saying what you mean
Have the pleasure of meaning what you sing

Sing Your Life’ from Kill Uncle (1991)

Aside from relatively narrow concerns about whether or not fans should financially support a horrible person, in the case of Morrissey it doesn’t really matter what the man born on May 22, 1959 in Lancashire really thinks or feels.

There is an idea of Morrissey; some kind of abstraction. But in 2020? Unless you’re in the ever-shrinking circle of family, friends, or colleagues, there is no real him: only an entity, something illusory.

Morrissey – ‘Sing Your Life’

In any meaningful sense, the Morrissey you hear on record is Morrissey. Any other Morrissey is of minimal critical interest. It simply is not there.

From The Smiths on, whether Morrissey is writing in the first or third person, the art has always been the artist. The singer is the song.

And in that regard, none of this discussion is anything new. The first serious issues with Morrissey’s work came all the way back on his first solo album.

Bengali, Bengali
Oh, shelve your Western plans
And understand
That life is hard enough when you belong here

‘Bengali in Platforms’ from Viva Hate (1988)

An open letter to a first-generation immigrant, ‘Bengali in Platforms’ could – and maybe should – have ended Morrissey’s post-Smiths career as soon as it started.

Dressed up in cloying faux-sympathy (“Break the news to him gently”), the message is clear enough. This Bengali immigrant does not “belong” in the narrator’s England.

While many rightly called out the song at the time and since, some of us desperately twisted and turned to excuse it. We were all-too eager to forgive or ignore such small-minded prejudice to allow us to enjoy the brilliance on either side of it.

Morrissey – ‘Bengali in Platforms’

We stretched its meaning past breaking point. Reframing it as a character song, or even a critique of racist attitudes rather than the slightest endorsement of them.

Morrissey scholar Simon Goddard understandably-if-not-quite-excusably took that line. In his Mozipedia he dismisses concerns about Morrissey and his lyrics in turn as “misconstrued”, “misunderstood”, “wild misinterpretation”, “nonsensical”, “false”, “tired and inaccurate”, a “witch hunt” and even a “racist smear campaign”.

Others disagreed. Cornershop knew the score from the off, grabbing some of their first headlines for righteously burning a photograph of Morrissey outside EMI’s offices.

Still sticking to the text and tracks, that was far from the end of it.

Tooled-up Asian boy
Has come to take revenge
For the cruel, cold killing
Of his very best friend

‘Asian Rut’ from Kill Uncle (1991)

On the surface, the dismal ‘Asian Rut’ from the limp Kill Uncle is more sympathetic than ‘Bengali in Platforms’.

While it opens questioning what drugs an anonymous “Asian boy” is on, it soon emerges the “tooled-up” kid is out on a fatally doomed bid to avenge the (presumably racist) murder of his best friend.

The murder is a “cruel, cold killing”, the Asian boy is “brave” and the three-on-one attack that halts his attempt at vengeance “must be wrong”.

Like ‘Bengali in Platforms’, the surface-level sympathy feels false, mocking even. Scratch just an inch below and the song feels cold, heartless and emotionally disconnected from its supposedly lead character.

Morrissey – ‘Asian Rut’

In his very best moments, Morrissey is so at one with his characters that he utterly becomes them. By contrast, here he’s a detached first-person narrator “just passing through here on my way to somewhere civilized”.

‘Asian Rut’ is no morality tale. There are no lessons learned. Minimal anger. Zero catharsis. There’s a complete absence of empathy. By contrast, even Jack the Ripper gets a more sympathetic hearing in Morrissey’s dialogue-in-song, earning level-pegging with his victims.

As a one-off, ‘Asian Rut’ would be a cold, strange addition to anyone’s back catalogue. On the heels of ‘Bengali in Platforms’, it’s clear that race and racism was fast becoming a preoccupation for the solo Morrissey.

Issues with its lyrical content to one side, Kill Uncle was so musically underpowered and melodically vacant it made a serious dent Morrissey solo career.

Then along came a Spider…

We may seem cold, or
We may even be
The most depressing people you’ve ever known
At heart, what’s left, we sadly know
That we are the last truly British people you’ll ever know

‘We’ll Let You Know’ from Your Arsenal (1992)

The phrase is bandied about far too often, but propelled by Mick Ronson’s production, Your Arsenal was one of Morrissey’s two genuine, unarguable, returns to form.

Sonically it fused The Smiths’ melodic melancholia and Ronson’s ’70s rock edge with a much more successful version of the rockabilly attempted on its predecessor.

Morrissey – ‘We’ll Let You Know’

But yet again, lyrically Morrissey wilfully strode into troubling territory.

‘We’ll Let You Know’ was a delightfully delirious, woozy, love-letter to British (actually English) football hooliganism, pointedly written in first-person plural (compare and contrast with the distancing third person of ‘Bengali in Platforms’ and ‘Asian Rut’).

Oh, you’re going to
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
England for the English!
England for the English!

‘The National Front Disco’ from Your Arsenal (1992)

And on ‘The National Front Disco’ a mother mourns her boy who’s been “lost” to the NF because “there’s a country, you don’t live there, but one day you would like to”.

A blistering stomp of a track, it’s certainly not unambiguously pro-National Front, though neither is it really condemnatory.

Even more than ‘Bengali in Platforms’, ‘Asian Rut’ or ‘We’ll Let You Know’, ‘The National Front Disco’ is a pure character piece that in isolation offers plenty of plausible deniability.

Morrissey – ‘The National Front Disco’

What’s more, by 1992 the National Front had long been in decline, making the song feel like a historical study to file alongside This Is England, rather than a current expression of its author’s politics.

A decade after chairman John Tyndall split off to form the BNP, the NF was an irrelevance as a political party, even as its wretched, racist ideology lived on.

But coming in a run of songs on a similar theme, it felt as though artistic preoccupation was fast becoming a borderline obsession.

After Your Arsenal came Morrissey’s solo high point Vauxhall & I, an album that thankfully shied away from matters of race, racism and nationality and was all the better for it.

Then there was the artistic dip of Southpaw Grammar, the personality-altering blow of losing a court case to former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce, and the miss ‘n’ hit Maladjusted.

Seven years in the wilderness followed before Morrissey finally returned with one of the great comebacks. And when you saw Morrissey’s name up in Elvis ’68 lights at his long-awaited Manchester homecoming, it was clear he knew it, too.

I’ve been dreaming of a time when
To be English is not to be baneful
To be standing by the flag not feeling shameful, racist or partial

‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ from You Are The Quarry (2004)

Half a decade of intermittent touring had kept the flame alive while allowing enough of the mutual contempt that has grown between Morrissey and the media in the ’90s to die down.

And while the internal rancour from Morrissey had probably only grown in the years since his self-imposed exile, on record at least it veered away from the arguably actionable (‘Sorrow Will Come In The End’) towards almost gently self-parodic (‘The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores’).

Morrissey – ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’

Rather than ignore the controversies of his past work, Morrissey sought to revise and recast them. Morrissey was no racist. He was a patriot. His celebration of Englishness was no different to The Libertines’ post-racial celebration of a quasi-mythical Albion.

As if to prove it, Morrissey won a public apology from The Word in 2008 and a second one from the NME in 2012 for suggesting anything otherwise in their framing of his quotes from an earlier 2007 interview.

Again, the legal settlements about Morrissey the Person are almost irrelevant. Morrissey the Artist had already outlined his case on disc by launching his comeback with ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’.

And we were so surprised by how good the songs sounded that we wilfully pushed our reservations about what they meant to the back of our brains and swallowed the argument.

Over the 15 years that followed as Morrissey’s public pronouncements veered from unpalatable to unacceptable, the quality of his music almost helpfully followed a similar trajectory.

As well as long-time fans and apologists now keeping their distance, Morrissey’s continued fall didn’t just lead to those tired and empty art/artist discussions.

It also opened the door to countless people falling over themselves to tell anyone who’ll listen that not only did they never like Morrissey, they always hated The Smiths, anyway. It’s a self-regarding, incurious way of approaching all this.

But what these people inadvertently do get right is that these issues didn’t just spring from nowhere when the post-Marr Smiths first demoed an early, more unpleasant-sounding version of ‘Bengali in Platforms’.

There’s a club if you’d like to go
You could meet somebody who really loves you
So you go and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
And you go home and you cry
And you want to die

‘How Soon Is Now’ from the B-Side of ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ (1984) / A-Side single (1985)

Over their four studio albums and flurry of singles in half a decade, The Smiths presented a specific version of vulnerable masculinity that was pretty much unheard of in pop before.

Rock had long been dominated by the crass Freudian guitar waving that had taken hold since the tail end of the 1960s (“I’m gonna give ya every inch of my love”).

The Smiths – ‘How Soon Is Now’

And while other expressions of maleness in rock had emerged by the mid-1980s, none were quite like The Smiths.

Sexual but decidedly not sexy. Romantic but absolutely not loved up. Essentially unrequited. Certainly not macho but not feminine nor truly androgynous either. Buzzcocks with a jangle, maybe.

The melancholy, self-pity and dark humour of those Smiths’ songs tap into a universal teenage experience.

Girl afraid
Where do his intentions lay?
Or does he even have any?

‘Girl Afraid’ from the B-Side of ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ (1984)

While the importance of Marr (and Rourke and Joyce too, for that matter) is all too often underplayed, it’s undeniable that the connection of Morrissey’s lyrics with their young audience is what would rightly immortalise The Smiths.

The Smiths – ‘Girl Afraid’

The band expressed the trials and torment of teenage wildlife like no other pop group before or since.

Looking back now though, it’s possible to see how, if (over)indulged, the raging sense of teen injustice, isolation and rejection so perfectly captured and transmitted by The Smiths becomes a feedback loop.

I was driving my car
I crashed and broke my spine
So yes, there are things worse in life than
Never being someone’s sweetie

‘That’s How People Grow Up’ from Greatest Hits (2008) / Years of Refusal (2009)

Left to fester or even encouraged, resentment rides high. Emotions won’t grow. Self-pity tips into self-loathing. Mix that up with narcissism, sexual entitlement and a dose of unhealthy misanthropy and you’ve got a primordial soup for hate.

No-one would suggest that putting Meat is Murder on repeat as a teen is a one-way ticket to /r/incels (gone, not missed), or that collecting Smiths records sets you on a rocky road to UKIP.

Morrissey – ‘That’s How People Grow Up’

After all, most of the millions of Smiths fans (and three quarters of The Smiths) manage to get through a week without endorsing For Britain.

And no-one needs another unduly sympathetic embrace of supposedly Lost Boys definitely old enough to know better already caught up in the alt.right.

But if you believe that art has value, meaning and impact (which it does), and that pop is art (which it is), then a proper critical appraisal of music that explores such powerful and universal emotions must be worthwhile.

It may not get us anywhere further as a culture, but it’s certainly more valuable than pompously pouting about how unenthused you were by The Smiths 35 years ago, or asking yet again if you can separate the art from the artist.

One reply on “Sing Your Life: Morrissey at 60”

Great piece. Tom Ewing said as a teenage Smiths fan, you made a Faustian pact with Morrissey. That his worldview would help you through the loneliness and alienation but would never help you past it, in fact quite the opposite, entrenching your unhappy solipsism.

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