This interview with Morrissey was held in early summer of 1987 in the North London office of Rough Trade, the record company that he and The Smiths were due to leave for EMI. The piece appeared in Q Magazine’s issue of August ’87, shortly before the band announced its split.
Steven Patrick Morrissey, 28, momentarily reflects upon a subject which has commanded his unswerving interest for a number of years. Himself.
“I suppose I’m just an arcane old… wardrobe, really,” he sighs, in a Northern voice, softly cobblestoned.
Quite so. But such a remarkable item of furniture he has proved, so amply stocked within – with shirts of doubt, entire overcoats of irony, sock drawers of secrecy and not a few trousers’ worth of anguish.
An unusually capacious cupboard, also, with room in its gloomiest corners for a huddled mass of waifs and strays. To the more intense variety of Smiths admirer, he’s a refuge; for the lonely, he is a community embodied in one person. To life’s rejected, dejected, for the adolescent adrift, Morrissey is the one that will be there, the one who knows where they’re coming from. He has, after all, lived there all his life.
We peer inside at a most auspicious point in the five year career of Britain’s most authentically anti-pop star. His band The Smiths are about to release an LP which promises to confirm their critically esteemed standing. The record will be their last for that archetypal independent label, Rough Trade; straight afterwards they will join the venerable British institution EMI. In October they will be the subject of a South Bank Show documentary.
The forthcoming album, which is The Smiths’ sixth, is entitled Strangeways Here We Come – Strangeways being the name of a Gothically horrible House of Correction in Morrissey’s native Manchester: “I feel at the moment that almost anything absurd can happen. And if I ended up in Strangeways I wouldn’t be at all surprised.” Has the singer done something he should be ashamed of? “Well, so many things! No, not recently. But it’s always a possibility, I suppose. Fingers crossed.”
Before his incarceration, let us briefly consider The Smiths’ story. They formed in ’82, four obscure Mancunians: Andy Rourke (bass) and Mike Joyce (drums) joined Johnny Marr the guitarist, and one Morrissey, an introverted youth with no known pastimes or emotional attachments beyond infatuations with certain distant idols – notably Oscar Wilde, The New York Dolls, Patti Smith and James Dean.
Early singles such as “Hand In Glove” and “This Charming Man” brought the group to cult status in almost no time. A precociously self-assured first album (The Smiths, 1984) earned their brand of economical beat music an instant acclaim and some commercial success. Since then their 45s have sometimes hit (“Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” “Panic,” “Shoplifters Of The World Unite,” “Sheila Take A Bow”) and sometimes missed (“Shakespeare’s Sister,” “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” etc.) but their albums (including Meat Is Murder and The Queen Is Dead) have sold consistently well, especially for an act in the independent sector.
Outside of statistical measures, The Smiths, and Morrissey in particular, have come to possess a symbolic importance. They rose to prominence in the early ’80’s. In a time when calculated cheekbones ruled the charts and video-inspired power-posing was considered quite the thing, The Smiths’ image was shambolically bereft of chic. They made no videos and their frontman frolicked awkwardly in cheap clothing, flowers in his pockets, with a hearing aid or prescription spectacles for added dash.
During interviews he would profess celibacy and an aversion to drink. The Royal Family, the Brighton bombing and Band Aid were among the topics he would take on, always striking the most contentious posture with an innocent disregard for the outrage he might provoke.
For a sizeable minority of record buyers, all these things endowed our subject with an invincible mystique – enhanced by Morrissey’s artful vulnerability – that was never allowed to Spandau Ballet or The Thompson Twins. But above all were the songs. Morrissey’s collaborator Johnny Marr has emerged as a thoughtful melodist and an ingenious, though unshowy, guitar player, whose talents have been recognised by recent invitations to record with Ronnie Wood and Bryan Ferry. (Marr is by far the more rock’n’roll half of the partnership, in terms of lifestyle.) For examples of his craft, examine Smiths songs “How Soon Is Now” or “The Headmaster Ritual”.
The group has known some turmoil in its time: they’ve recently split from their latest manager, an American called Ken Friedman; the pressures of success, especially touring America, led Marr to the brink of a drink problem, while drug dependence caused Andy Rourke to be exiled from the band altogether, for a spell that’s now ended. Nor has their divorce from Rough Trade been free of grief on either side. Today, so Morrissey claims, they face the future with more confidence in their ability than at any time previously.
The Smiths make a music which is perfect for that abiding constituency of British youth which is disaffected with the discotheque imperatives of dance and impervious to the appeals of escapist glamour. Morrissey’s lyrics have, in the past at least, made much of his life’s remembered miseries: schoolday brutalities, adolescent insecurities, bungled efforts at heterosexual romance. Critics are given to seizing on his favoured themes (“Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want… Lord knows it would be the first time”) as evidence of wilful self-pity. And yet it’s that very streak of selfishness which makes his sentiments so easy to share.
Hard is the heart, for another thing, which cannot warm to a hit like “Panic”, whose success obliged the daytime Radio One personnel to play a disc with the jauntily singalong chorus, “Hang the DJ, hang the DJ”. Morrissey’s more maudlin traits appear to be given a very ample airing on his new LP. A few song titles are: “Death Of A Disco Dancer”, “Girlfriend In A Coma” (the current single), “Unhappy Birthday” and “Death At One’s Elbow”. Another number, “Paint A Vulgar Picture”, describes a record company planning to cash in on the death of one of their artists.
“It’s a very uplifting record,” he protests, “even if the titles lead one to consider it a rather dour record. I don’t know how far my judgement is valid – being an obviously immensely depressed person – but it’s not really morbid. Have I ever been guilty of self pity? To my mind, not really. But in the mind of a very stompingly normal individual – and obviously normal people really irritate me – I suppose normal people think I’m a very black, half-dead creature.”
At which point he laughs – an operation he’ll perform with surprising regularity. In conversation his opinions tend to the absolute, the dramatic, phrased in a picturesque and slightly Irish manner that employs its words in a way that’s sometimes three degrees east of a strictly dictionary definition. Printed transcriptions are apt to miss the drily self-satirising element in pretty well everything he says.
But just as there is a comic undertow in a lot of The Smiths’ work – unnoticed by many, friends and foes alike, despite Morrissey’s widely-published fondness for George Formby and early Carry On films – so too is there a basic seriousness, sufficient to ensure that nothing of theirs is ever merely camp.
Reared in Northwestern city greyness and still implacably provincial, Morrissey now divides his days between a home in suburban Cheshire: “Greener pastures, quite pleasant, often plush, but very boring” and a flat in Chelsea: “Quite dark, no natural daylight, which I insisted upon, obviously. They’ve bricked up the windows! No, but it’s a very dark place, and ghostly. “I’ve grown attached to London now. The experience I have of it is quite cushioned – I imagine if I lived in a squat in Shoreditch I wouldn’t have such a romantic view of London. But I have. I like just walking around, inhaling the cosmetic fake glamour of the whole thing.”
You are not a great one for the night life, are you?
I think I’ve been to a club once in the last year, which is not a very good record in trying to impress anyone in that area. Shameful, really. But I still feel The Smiths are quite detached from the great big hubbub of popdom and stardom and wealth. Things haven’t changed much in a particular sense.
Are you still drawing on your past?
No, I’m drawing on the present now, which makes me feel slightly uneasy about the future. Because if I was still drawing on the days when I was on the dole and despised by every human on earth I’d feel quite comfortable. But because I’m now drawing on the present, and the themes are still quite similar, it makes me feel quite quaky about the coming years.
Is your present as fertile a source of inspiration as your past?
Well you won’t believe it but I really find the present quite barren and therefore quite fertile, which is something that constantly confuses me because I often wonder that if I found immaculate, serene, unbearable happiness, would I become a window cleaner or something? That’s something I look forward to…
What advantages do you foresee in signing to EMI? There’s a certain amount more dosh in it for you, I imagine.
Again you wouldn’t really believe it but the dosh is not what most people would consider it to be. In fact I can’t even find it. As far as dosh is concerned it isn’t a dramatically glamorous contract. But that’s just the story of The Smiths’ experience really; we’ve never made enormous amounts of money or even impressive amounts of money. And with the EMI contract most people seem to think I will instantly become a millionaire and live in glamorous places and so on, and I will be removed from anything considered faintly ordinary –which has always been the case in some way, but not financially.
Won’t you be more vulnerable to record company pressure, though? To make videos or whatever.
I don’t really believe EMI want to sign The Smiths so they can completely change the group, turn us into something we aren’t. I think they know what The Smiths are – I hope they do – and there’s not really any point attempting to hoist us into gruesome manoeuvres which we’ve dodged in the past, or attempted to dodge. There’s no point. We’ll just run off.
But their lawyers will run after you.
Well, we’re quick runners. We’ve got bicycles.
As someone who’s often been frank about your heroes, how does it feel to be an object, for some, of a similar devotion?
An object? Yes I’ve always thought of myself as an object… It’s something I juggle with every day, this situation. Through matters of circumstance I very rarely meet people, so it’s not as if every night I’m meeting people who are swinging out at me and saying, “Let me have your jacket!” That very rarely happens. But because I’m such an obsessive creature I become so immensely devoted to the people that I like, practically to the point of hospitalisation. I have boxes and boxes at home, cuttings and old books. People who visit me can’t believe the streams of documentation I have on the people I like. But because I become so obsessive I can really understand it when somebody writes to me by every post, and sends me their underwear, and feels that enormous degree of painful obsession. I can understand it completely and I wholly encourage it! I’d like it to spread, in fact.
It must become burdensome after a point, surely.
Yes. There are some people who take train journeys to London to try and find me. They ring up the record company and appear at the doorstep and say, “I am here and I am going to lie on the doorstep until Morrissey arrives.” There are people like that. I don’t disapprove of that situation; they’re getting fresh air! (Laughs)
Do they not look to you to solve their personal crises?
Yes, it does happen a lot. There is a style of letter that I receive from very, shall we say, nervous individuals, who are very nervous about their own future. I get a lot of letters from people who don’t have jobs, and from back bedroom casualties, if you like, who are very worried because they can’t focus on anything in human life that makes them feel comfortable. And I get letters from people who say, “When The Smiths break up I will die, I will make a reservation for the next world.” But to me that’s not extreme. I don’t leap back with shock, because I understand that form of expression, that form of drama. I think it primarily stems from feeling quite isolated and believing that the people who make the records you buy are your personal friends, they understand you, and the more records that you buy and pictures you collect the closer you get to these people. And if you are quite isolated and you hear this voice that you identify with, it’s really quite immensely important.
Are you still the same monastic figure you’ve been portrayed as being?
I don’t really know what monastic means – oh yes, from a monastery…
Well, I suppose I was… This is a yes or no question, really. But yes.
Have you exorcised the ghosts of your past?
Not really. It sounds almost stagnant to admit that I haven’t really changed in any profitable ways, but I haven’t. I still do the same old things and I still avoid new things.
What are you driven by?
Hate, largely. This will sound almost unpleasant but distaste for normality. I’ve never really liked normal people and it’s true to this day. I don’t like normal situations. I get palpitations. I don’t know what to do. So this obsessive drive against normality – which I know sounds unprintable and unfathomable – that’s what it is. That is what it is. You look very confused.
I was wondering what normality is.
Oh, I think we know what normality is. It’s all those things that we know. Oh, you know…
Are you materially ambitious?
No, not at all. I like to have food and heat, and I like to live in faintly pleasant surroundings. But otherwise, no. I’ve got no desire to possess anything at all. I can’t fathom the idea of going to Madrid to shop. Which is why I’m not really successful as a pop star, if you like. Quite recently we went to Italy to do these television shows. And there were at least ten other famous acts from England, and we spent about a week with them. It was really intriguing to me because we’d never really mixed with pop stars before, and most of what they did, I didn’t understand. I have very humble requirements – they’re offbeat and quite damaging at times but they’re certainly humble. I don’t really want to own anything at all. Not even a moped.
What about respect and recognition. Do you crave these things?
I’ll do anything for respect and recognition. I’ll crawl across hot coals! Well, that’s an exaggeration. But it is important to me that intelligent people enjoy the records. And it’s important to me that intelligent people should have sane and attractive views of me as an individual. I don’t mind when idiots call me silly things. I can recognise people who simply want to sneer.
Are your management problems solved yet?
It’s an unmitigated disaster. It’s one of the things that makes me very depressed. We’ve been through a catalogue of managers, none has really been suitable. And the last one was a great shock because it did seem for once in our lives that everything was going to be ironed out and the future was quite solid. And he lasted five and a half weeks. And he’s not going to go down without a hideous great big dirty fight.
Are you now looking for a manager? Could you cope without one?
I can’t imagine signing any more contracts because it’s been so consistently awful. But similarly, to stumble through without somebody is also difficult. It’s an aging process and hard to live with. You wake up at night thinking of lawyers, and certain things they’d said to you the previous day. And when you wake up the next day you instantly see the face of this tour promoter in front of you. Which isn’t really very pleasant.
Is there any longer a thrill for you in live performance?
No, for me it’s totally, totally gone. Which is something I thought I’d never say. And I don’t really know what to do about it, to be honest, because there is great pressure to tour Thailand and things like that. But it’s a situation where people can’t really advise you because nobody really knows what it’s like. Most people do not know what it’s like to sing and front a group, so you can only trust your own instincts in this matter. And I no longer feel that it’s something I want to continue doing. I wouldn’t like to go on a stage if I just felt 55 percent of an interest, and that really is the case. So I don’t think I should do it.
You aren’t about to tell me The Smiths won’t tour again, are you?
I’m trying not to say that. Because it sounds like a stamping child.
It sounds like David Bowie, or Frank Sinatra.
Yes, lots of people have said it. And weeks later they’re arranging 88-date tours of Middlesbrough. It’s happened so many times before. So I’m not about to say it. I’d rather maintain a dignified, mystical silence.
I’m just about to let you.
Thank you. I’ll just sit here and create my mystique.
Read my 1985 interview with Morrissey here.