TODAY’S WRITING TIP: WHEN YOU FIND YOURSELF EXPLAINING TOO MUCH OR GIVING AWAY TOO MUCH OF THE ANSWERS, STOP. MYSTERY GOES A LONG WAY IN PROVOKING THOUGHTS AND THAT IS WHAT ART IS FOR.
There were times when I could have murdered her/But you know I would hate anything to happen to her —“Girlfriend in a Coma,” Strangeways, Here I Come, 1987
A co-worker of mine recently retrieved music from the archives of my youth. With The Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma” playing in the background, I have thus spent the past few days shuttling between now and my teen years, when passing through an angst-ridden phase, I thought Morrissey was as dark as the kohl we put under our eyes at Saturday night New Wave parties to separate ourselves from the “normal, wholesome” kids.
In my life/Why do I give valuable time/To people who don’t care if I live or die —“Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” Hatful of Hollow, 1984
In my youth, I lived a double life. On certain nights, I would hang out with a group of friends in mainstream places, “disco” places like Rumours, Culture Club, Faces, and Mars, dancing to Madonna or George Michael. Other nights I would spend—and equally enjoy—with another group of friends in the Manila “underground,” drinking San Miguel Pale Pilsen in holes-in-the-wall like Mayric’s or Club Dredd, where, as the indie bands covered the likes of The Smiths, I sought the meaning of life.
I am the son/and the heir/of a shyness that is criminally vulgar —“How Soon is Now,” Hatful of Hollow, 1984
That was when I was young and Morrissey was just a beautiful, sad voice articulating beautiful, sad feelings on the radio or my Walkman or the turntable at home. Now that I’m older, I realize that Morrissey, born Stephen Patrick Morrissey in Manchester, England in 1959, is, like his idol Oscar Wilde, an iconoclast who made music to make a stand in a language that is at once cryptic and familiar, erudite and plebian. Even at the height of his fame, he was beyond celebrity. Based at least on his own pronouncements, music was his only currency, the medium with which he expressed his ideals or, more pronouncedly, all that he found ill in this world.
And if the people stare/then the people stare/Oh I really don’t know and I really don’t care —“Hand in Glove,” Hatful of Hollow, 1984
More than open and honest, Morrissey was forceful with his feelings and opinions. As a result, he had more than a “hatful” of enemies, including then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whom, in a public statement, he said, “could be destroyed,” as “the only remedy for this country.” Among his other enemies were David Bowie, Madonna, and Elton John, whose lyrics he generally described as “pointless and more concerned with celebrity than with music,” as well as Robert Smith of The Cure, whose antagonism toward Morrissey was just as seething. Attacking Morrissey’s animal rights crusade and his vegetarianism, which he had adopted as a way of life since he was 11, Smith once said, “If Morrissey says, ‘don’t eat meat,’ then I’ll eat meat because I hate Morrissey.”
When will you accept your life?/The one that you hate —“Accept Yourself,” Hatful of Hollow, 1984
But then, while he did not beat around the bush when it came to his displeasure of others, Morrissey had always been circuitous about his personal life, which, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, made him “a peculiar heartthrob,” having created a “compellingly conflicted persona.” In some of his songs, such as “Hand in Glove” or “Handsome Devil,” it might seem easy to conclude that he is gay, but as The Times critic Tom Gatti argues, “Morrissey’s music offers an infinite capacity for interpretation.” In 1984, The Smiths’ vocalist and lyricist said he refused to recognize the prefixes homo, bi, or hetero in defining human sexuality. “People are just sexual,” he said. “Everybody has exactly the same sexual needs.” Prior to that, in an interview, he “claimed to be a kind of a prophet for the fourth sex” on grounds that “he was bored with men… and bored with women.” Through it all, he maintained that he was asexual, disclosing only in 2006, without offering any more detail, that he was no longer celibate, hinting at “a late-blooming sex life.”
You ask me the time/But I sense something more/And I would like to give/What I think you’re asking for —“Handsome Devil,” Hatful of Hollow, 1984
Does it really matter whether he was gay or not? Back in high school, it didn’t. Even my “homophobic” rocker friends, who were as macho as they were big fans of The Smiths, did not seem to entertain the question. That was because Morrissey was a musician more than a celebrity, who graced magazine covers, endorsed lifestyle products, and traipsed around red carpet events with a lover in tow. But then that was then and this is now, where, to have room in the music industry, the paparazzi and a multi-million-dollar advertising contract are sometimes as important as talent—and definitely more important than having something to say.
So please don’t stand in my way/Because I’m going to meet the one I love/No, Mamma, let me go! —“Shakespeare’s Sister,” The World Won’t Listen, 1987
The Smiths broke up in 1987 due to irreconcilable musical differences between Morrissey and his longtime collaborator, The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr. As a solo act, Morrissey has since produced many songs with his signature depth and longing, including the 1994 hit “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get” from the number one UK album Vauxhall and I. Talk had it in 2008 that a 40-million-pound offer was at stake for Morrissey to reunite with Marr, but Morrissey dismissed the rumor, calling it a hoax.
Haven’t had a dream in a long time/See the life I’ve had/Can make a good man bad —“Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want,” Hatful of Hollow, 1984
Does Morrissey still have a place in today’s musical landscape, dominated by the likes of American record producer, composer, and singer Timothy Z. Mosley, aka Timbaland? I heard over the radio a few years ago that Timbaland once threatened to retire from the music industry that he found boring and not challenging enough. Maybe, especially if one could earn riches and respect out of such celebrity-obsessed lyrics as “People know me/As the Great Timbaland (Timbaland)/Been brought in the slums but I ranned (But I ranned)/Been boning girls in the Scooby Doo van (“Naughty Eye,” Under Construction II, Timbaland & Magoo, 2003).
He’s not strange/He just wants to live his life this way —“Vicar in a Tutu,” The Queen is Dead, 1986
Maybe, like the dead queen’s, Morrissey’s time is up. But music, like life, goes on.
NOTE: This article first appeared as an editor’s note in the weekly magazine I used to edit, Style Weekend. I’ve given it room in this site, after a frantic search through my archives, as today, payday Friday in Manila, I find myself at home, listening to my old copy of The Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow and remembering that I used to think Morrissey was the god of music. But unlike Marcel Proust, my literary idol, Morrissey is still up and about, albeit news of a recent hospitalization due to bleeding ulcers. He was in concert in Manila only recently and, although Morrissey once said that “there is more chance of hell freezing over than The Smiths getting back together,” there is still clamor for a reunion. I’m not sure I join in the clamor. I am happy enough with my memories.
- Bring back The Smiths (thesun.co.uk)