Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

Disarming man: Our profile of rock singer Morrissey

Morrissey is one of the great eccentrics of our age, with a musical pedigree founded on a sublime four albums in the 1980s. He plays Belfast on Tuesday. Just don't mention the burgers, says Jane Graham

Northern Ireland is holding its breath this weekend. Not long to go. If we can just hold on a little bit longer, be on our best behaviour, play very, very nice, we might just have a victory on our hands.

I refer, of course, to the hotly anticipated return of Mr Steven Patrick Morrissey, scheduled to take the stage at the Belfast Odyssey on Tuesday night.

With Morrissey, a gig is never a given until it's over. Many things can tip "the most influential artist of his generation" over the edge. It's often the way with geniuses - apparently, Shakespeare was a bugger to work with, too.

Until the last breath of a Morrissey show, there is always a clear and present danger of a cancellation, a walk-out, a massive pouty cross-arms huff. Only last year, he flounced offstage in Poland after a heckler interrupted his karmic flow.

Organising a concert with Morrissey is like trying to pin down a mixture of Kevin the Teenager and Oscar Wilde - if the people don't annoy him, the wallpaper probably will.

There has already been controversy over the Odyssey show. Last month, it was confirmed that Morrissey "requests only vegetarian food is permitted within the building". And when Morrissey makes a request, it means either you agree, or you can forget it.

This was brought home to his Icelandic bookers only a few weeks ago, when he pulled out of a scheduled gig because the organisers wouldn't guarantee a meat-free zone.

"I shall leave the Harpa Concert Hall to their cannibalistic, flesh-eating bloodlust," said the be-quiffed one, deploying his usual flair for diplomatic understatement.

Of course, the leaked rider demands which made headlines in the run-up to this tour have seen Morrissey pilloried online, with the phrase "pretentious prat" popping up more than once. One wonders, though, have these outraged observers perhaps missed the point of Morrissey?

Can anyone who has followed his career even casually really not have noticed that the man is a totem of intractable, arrogant, self-regarding tunnel vision? And is that not why we love him?

Like his hero Wilde, Morrissey would be the first to declare his own genius. Even as a schoolboy, this second-generation Irish Mancunian enjoyed displaying his precocious intellect in long, literary letters to the music Press about the rock bands he had fallen in love with; The New York Dolls, T-Rex.

You can imagine him assuring himself that his teenage status as a watchful outsider, forever remote from the bustling crowd of mediocrities around him, only proved that he was probably the British Proust.

He might have lived his life in frustrated obscurity had he not met guitarist Johnny Marr - a garrulous gadfly, who buzzed around the pubs and clubs of Manchester like he owned them.

At 23, Morrissey was four years older than Marr when they met in 1982 and his polar opposite in personality and social preference. As Marr puts it, "I was in a playground. Morrissey was encamped in his bedroom and he never came out."

On paper, their relationship should have lasted 10 minutes. Instead, it turned out to be one of the great alliances of modern British music. In fact, as Marr tells it, theirs wasn't just a writing partnership, it was almost a love story.

"We bonded over a love of girl groups and people like Sandie Shaw, things no one else on the planet seemed to like. We met, then within about two days we started writing songs together. And we absolutely caught fire, as friends and songwriters.

"There was a sense that we really found each other. We wanted to spend every minute of the day with each other."

Morrissey remembers his first response to Marr in his 2013 autobiography, "I am shaken when I hear Johnny play guitar. He is ... almost unnaturally multi-talented. I can't help but wonder: what is he doing here with me? Why has Johnny not sprayed his mark - elsewhere, with others less scarred and less complicated than I am?"

Thus, The Smiths were born and the world was saved from the spiritual emptiness of an eternally Morrissey-less climate. And for a few years, it was glorious. Songs of great beauty and wit fell from the house of Morrissey and Marr like jewels from heaven.

The four studio albums released between 1983 and 1987 weren't just adored by the indie kids who read the NME and Melody Maker - all of them were top five chart albums, with 1984's Meat is Murder making number one.

(Surprising in retrospect; the debut, The Smiths, and third LP, The Queen Is Dead, stand up much better today).

The combination of Marr's joyful, free-form guitar and Morrissey's confessional, droll poetry, as funny as it was truthful, was like nothing that had happened in British music before and has never happened since.

Of course, with Morrissey at the helm, it couldn't last. Even Johnny Marr, an effervescent optimist, couldn't get more than five years out of his friendship with the complex curmudgeon.

The break-up of The Smiths was announced before their fourth album, Strangeways, Here We Come, was even released. Morrissey said it was down to business issues.

Marr said he had got sick of Morrissey's obsession with the kitsch of the past and "didn't join a band to play Cilla Black covers". Some might just say the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.

There were years of patchy solo success - the first solo album, Viva Hate, went to number one, 1994's Vauxhall and I was very warmly received - but after The Smiths, Morrissey made more headlines for his spats and his outspokenness.

The shining legacy of The Smiths was a tad besmirched when drummer Mike Joyce sued Morrissey and Marr for an equal share of royalties in 1996. Joyce won £1m but, according to Morrissey "destroyed a beautiful thing".

That said, Morrissey himself wasn't shy of a court case - in 2011 he sued the NME for "unsubstantiated accusations of racism" in response to a feature which weighed up the many instances in which he had been accused of flirting with the iconography and language of a particularly jingoistic English nationalism. The case was settled out of court, with the NME stating: "We do not believe he is a racist."

For a decade after Vauxhall and I, it looked like Morrissey might spend the rest of his time getting attention by being rude about the monarchy ("fascist and very, very cruel"), campaigning for animal rights and flouncing out of gigs.

But in 2007 he released You Are the Quarry, hailed by some as his first solo venture to really bear comparison with The Smiths. The first single, the hearty, passionate Irish Blood, English Heart, was a knockout and has been a live highlight ever since.

The album put Morrissey back on the music map and a maintenance of some kind of form has been enough to keep interest in him high since.

When he finally sat down in 2013 to write his memoir, Autobiography, Penguin were so keen to sign him they agreed to his ridiculous demand to have the as-yet-unreleased book published as an instant Penguin Modern Classic.

The book begins with a poetic rendering of his childhood, then develops into an eloquent rant against the fools and phoneys Morrissey will never forgive for crossing him. It's no Gatsby, but it's a very entertaining read.

Yes, his insistence on controlling the menu whenever he plays a show is megalomaniacal, his arrogance is sometimes staggering and he often gets it wrong. But imagine how much duller the story of British music - of British culture - would have been without him.

A night without a burger is a small price to pay to spend time with one of the great eccentrics of our time.

A life so far

Born - May 22, 1959, Park Hospital, Davyhulme, Lancashire

Educated - Manchester's St Mary's Secondary Modern and Stretford Technical School. He has three O-levels

Family - his Irish Catholic parents emigrated to Manchester from Crumlin, Dublin, a year before he was born. His father, Peter, was a hospital porter and his mother, Elizabeth, an assistant librarian.

Career - formed The Smiths in 1982, had four top five albums, disbanded in 1987. Since then, 10 studio albums - two of which were number ones.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph