Until recently he performed wearing a hearing aid, though his ears work just fine. His eyes don’t, but he refuses to wear his contacts onstage. For three years he sat in his bedroom filling notebooks with words while his mother pampered and protected her “seriously withdrawn” son from the rest of Manchester, England. By day, he’d been a schoolboy track star; by night, he sought sustenance in the feminist writings of Susan Brownmiller and Molly Haskell. Denying rumors that he’s gay, he admits only to being celibate for the past five years. Though his voice has been described as dronish, he is a rock star. And as if he really needed to tell us: “Duran Duran and Wham! are planets from what I feel.”
He is Steven Patrick Morrissey, now billed as just plain Morrissey—singer, songwriter and creative heart of the just plain Smiths. Those who have yet to experience the Smiths will have their chance soon; the group is currently on its first American tour, sparked by the success of its third LP, Meat Is Murder. Yes, in his only trendy move so far, Morrissey is a vegetarian. But, oh, what bite he has—in his songs of social alienation and love gone awry as well as his comments on his pop peers. “Michael Jackson has outlived his usefulness,” says Morrissey. “Prince and Madonna are of no earthly value whatsoever.”
Back home, in less than two years, Morrissey has convinced the frightfully fickle youth of Britain that he is the spokesman for a generation sagging under rampant unemployment and social disaffection. We cannot cling to the old dreams anymore, he sings. No, we cannot cling to those dreams. “Most records portray life as it isn’t lived by people,” explains Morrissey. “There’s a fear in the record industry that so many people can’t accept songs about dissatisfaction and anger in a positive way.”
If Morrissey is any indication, both are at epidemic levels on the isle; all classes have been lapping up Morrissey’s railings against society, child abuse and bad government. “I tell listeners in words outside the accepted dictionary of [pop] language. They sometimes find it unacceptably honest. Mention of sexual rejection is a reminder of when it happened to them, and they don’t really want to know.”
His dour lyrics, couched in the sparkling pop strains of the Smiths’ 21-year-old composer-guitarist Johnny Marr and backed by bassist Andy Rourke, 21, and drummer Mike Joyce, 22, suggest a temperament often at odds with its surroundings. The band’s name was chosen as “retaliation” against glitz. “What could be more earthy and unglamorous than the Smiths?” says Morrissey. “It’s flexible because it means nothing.” The hearing aid was sociological shorthand. “In the midst of all the glamour, light and shallow veneer of pop, I wanted a symbol that spoke for downtrodden and lonely people.” Because, after all, there is sometimes a way out. In Morrissey’s case, as he readily admits, “Coming from a depressed background has paid dividends.”
Morrissey is the 26-year-old son of a night security guard who gave him “almost no sympathy.” His father and mother, a librarian, divorced when he was 17. Until recently Morrissey’s recollections of his childhood were “totally morbid—undercurrents of violence and hopelessness among the pupils at school” and “dreadful, incredibly uninteresting episodes with girls.” Thus, all those years spent with the books.
After leaving school at 17, Morrissey bounced through jobs as a civil service clerk, hospital porter and record store salesman, sometimes not lasting “beyond the initial payday.” But his mother was “very tolerant and patient. If I needed a typewriter, she’d get me one because she believed I had talent. She was hounded by friends and relatives who thought it was idiocy. Now a lot of people are eating their words.”
Morrissey’s neighborhood rep began to brighten when Marr knocked on his door, and suddenly he was in a group. The band quickly got a contract, and Morrissey pulled out his notebooks and began attacking serious subjects, but not without humor. I’d like to drop my trousers to the Queen, he proclaims in Nowhere Fast. Every sensible child will know what this means. His drollness is his “trampoline,” he says, without which “things would become too desperately serious.” Like Oscar Wilde, one of his heroes, Morrissey used to carry flowers. Only his were not lilies but gladioli, which he used to throw at his audiences. Onstage he is mesmerizing, not because of flash or flowers but because of the force of his personality. Offstage he is articulate and calculating. “But keep it quiet,” he says with a sheepish grin. “I don’t want to detract from sales.”
These days Morrissey and his mum share a comfortable three-bedroom brick home near Manchester, where Elizabeth Morrissey fields his calls and cooks his meals. Like mothers everywhere, she thinks all her son needs to make his life complete is a good woman—one who, in the words of his only sister, Jacqueline, is “independent, intelligent, mature and probably older.” Morrissey is not obliging for the moment. “I have no sexual standpoint whatsoever,” he says. “I am celibate, but I don’t consider it a banner.”
What does inspire Morrissey to hoist his flags is the power of rock, in which he has an almost messianic belief. “Many people underestimate it as a force; this is dramatically wrong,” he says. “It is the last refuge for young people; no other platform has so much exposure.” That exposure has extended to our shores. Despite what he calls the “Dallas mentality,” he is hopeful about the Smiths’ reception in America. “The U.S. is not asleep. It is a hotbed of radicalism. People’s lives all over the world are similar. They have the same desires and needs.” Until recently the avenues open to Morrissey, he says, were “completely unusable,” but he’s found his calling now, or it has found him. “I want to write words and sing them.” America, prepare to face the music.