The fire in Morrissey now
Why the perpetual outsider offends all the right people.
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A minor controversy over a major event arose at the start of Morrissey’s career, and a similar experience may soon plague him in the present. Common to both are children, murder and Manchester. What has changed throughout the intervening years is the nature of controversy. What has changed is the nature of those taking offence. It was once the reactionary and the conservative, now it is the radical and the progressive. It was once the old, now it is the young. ‘Manchester, so much to answer for’, he sang in 1984, recalling the bodies on Saddleworth Moor from the 1960s of his childhood. The tragedy of the Moors murders continued to resonate. That’s how the nation grieved back then. It allowed itself to mourn; it allowed itself to be angry. While some events were too sacred to be sung about. ‘Suffer Little Children’ became a tabloid story, hyped up into a minor controversy; the lyric provided a list of the lost. ‘We will be right by your side, until the day you die.’
Those of us, like Morrissey, in our sixties, were in our twenties when we first heard that song. We’re aware we’re mortal now, though back then we believed we weren’t. The loss we mulled over as odd outsiders as adolescents has since become only too real. For some of us it came by way of pets, hair, figures, siblings and parents. In 2021, Morrissey spoke of his mother’s death the year before: ‘It brings something that you cannot cope with… the final stage of growing up, perhaps… When your mother dies it’s the point where the end of your own life begins.’ Finally we’re next. The last of the gang to die. The body will close down sooner rather than later – everything must go.
These days he sings: ‘I will look back in anger until the day I die.’ Not the finest lyric he’s written, granted, yet it deserves a place in the canon because of the rage behind it. The words are from the title song on Morrissey’s next album, Bonfire of Teenagers – a reference to the victims of the Islamist attack on the Manchester Arena in 2017. The aftermath of the event was similar to that which followed familiar tragedies. The motive of the attacker was swept aside, the lone wolf motif was introduced, mental illness was offered up as a chaser. The nation was encouraged to grieve, light candles and lay flowers, but not look back in anger. Morrissey alludes to this in the song not as a comment simply on those who took to the streets to mourn, but also as a comment on the culture that confines us to this ritual; to a country that has lost so much confidence in itself it can barely refer to an act as terrorism, or to the ideology of the killer, for fear of offending a radicalised minority.
‘No one writes songs about England anymore’, Morrissey announced when introducing ‘Bonfire of Teenagers’ on his recent tour. ‘Here’s one.’ It was Blackpool on a sodden night. Cabs were circling; collars were raised. Those assembled were agile elders and younger fans who may have been tanked up on drink or prescription drugs. Some rushed the stage. The elders were assisted off by security men. The youngsters were thrown back into the pit. In silhouette, the ancients gathered at the front, lit by the film that replaced the support act, old enough to have seen those depicted when they were young or alive: the Ramones, New York Dolls, the Sex Pistols singing ‘God Save The Queen’.
Morrissey’s performance was as energised that night as anything that appeared on screen before the band took to the stage. A number of the older songs were classics, and the current songs were contemporary. Songs about England; songs about the enemy within on these shores. These are subjects that creators of pop songs will never touch. Notably, those who sign themselves in as ‘political’ and labour under the delusion they are outliers, as they reprise the pet causes they believe made them radical in their youth. The world has moved on and society, like the nature of controversy, like our reaction to tragedy, has changed. These are the figures that now silence and censor; these are the figures who fear causing offence. Morrissey has never shared this fear. Once they loved him for it, now they would willingly silence him. Some attempted to. ‘I unintentionally invented the condition of being cancelled!’, he said in 2021.
Some of us liked the Smiths, but we didn’t love them – largely because we loathed some of those that did. The students, the middle-class graduates who believed that not eating meat and not voting Tory was shorthand for being revolutionary. These armchair activists had no understanding why the Tories were in government, or why more trade unionists than ever before had voted for them in 1979. The left was warming to the marginal preoccupations that would eventually overtake it, alienate traditional working-class voters and once again relegate Labour to obscurity for more than a decade. Time passed, governments came and went. Many devotees once loyal to the cult of Morrissey lost faith and failed to change – because he did. At least he noticed that the world had changed and reflected those changes, or reacted against them. ‘I apologise, I grew old’, he sings on a new song, ‘I Live in Oblivion’.
His devotees wanted ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’ decades after Mrs Thatcher resigned, and ‘The Queen is Dead’ years before she died. Bringing in Thelma Houston to duet on ‘Bobby, Don’t You Think They Know?’ and take more from a song than she brought to it, and putting James Baldwin on an official tour t-shirt, will not placate those labelling him ‘racist’. He has long since broken with racial etiquette by commenting on immigration, Islamist terrorism, and the ineptitude of London mayor Sadiq Khan and Labour MP Diane Abbott. Others cite earlier examples – to Morrissey mocking outmoded Bengali footwear, responding negatively to reggae and wrapping himself in the Union flag for a rendition of ‘The National Front Disco’. Irony and context are overlooked by offended onlookers. The reaction has been a feral one, invariably featuring the word that now bores us more than it scares us – racist.
‘But then there’s his racism’, wrote the author Douglas Coupland, earlier this year. ‘People tend to cut him some slack and chalk it up to the same gene that makes our parents crank up the racism in their late fifties. That’s right: Morrissey is old, which means you’re old, too.’ He’s right. We’re old. Our hearts are ancient; our minds alert. Those still cast as the odd outsiders. Yet, even when we were young we were not as ridiculous as the journalists and musicians who make so much of how Morrissey let them down. Meanwhile, his stance, at this stage of the game, has a touch of Beckett’s Krapp about it: ‘Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now.’
Some of us raised the needle from the groove before it reached songs about meat eaters and Mrs Thatcher, and lingered on the poignancy of ‘Everyday is Like Sunday’ and ‘Late Night, Maudlin Street’. These could only have been conceived by someone with a certain experience of a certain class from a certain time. Also by an outsider within that class. He had to have been one, to have written ‘I Know it’s Over’ while in his twenties. Here Morrissey introduced a figure found in poetry in the past – often from the pen of Larkin or Housman. ‘Dry as dust’, as Auden described him, Housman summed up the solitary, celibate figure who sought solace in the word. In doing so, as Morrissey pointed out, he said more about love, sex and intimacy than those whose lives were defined and completed by those things.
Here was a figure Morrissey feared he might become, the figure we feared we might become having been taught that marriage, parenthood, housing lists and a long life lived locally were the options. The queer and odd outsiders among us saw this figure in the lodgers and confirmed bachelors among the neighbours in the poor postcodes of our boyhood. Did they harbour a dirty secret? Had life simply passed them by? Did some of them find salvation in the written word, from their own hand or that of others? Some of us have become a version of them; old, outward bound and on the shelf – content in the company of great books by dead homosexuals and spinster poets. In ‘The World is Full of Crashing Bores’, Morrissey sings: ‘You must be wondering how / The boy next door turned out / Have a care, but don’t stare / Because he’s still there.’ The streets that once defined and confined ‘the boy next door’ have now gone, along with the neighbours.
‘We live in forgotten Victorian knife-plunging Manchester, where everything lies wherever it was left over one hundred years ago.’ This is Morrissey describing his formative years in his autobiography. It’s a place we recognise, those of us that came of age in a similar setting. For him it was Manchester, for me south-east London. The poorer postcodes of the capital, and northern cities, were like none that had gone before.
Urbanised England was a new nation, too. It was no longer solely the England of the country and the town. Yet it was so frequently overlooked in poetry, prose and pop. England remained the pastoral, the Albion of myth and folklore. But for some of us it wasn’t blue remembered hills that would haunt our memories, but bomb sites, half-heard songs from pubs about to close, the lights from market stalls reflected in puddles on wet December mornings. Over time we would romanticise these images and the half-forgotten pathways they returned us to. Pop music was our first language, our native tongue. We needed to escape these landscapes, and embrace the loss and longing when we did, and when they vanished, our memories of the buried past transformed into stories and folklore. This is where Morrissey came in, and where he stayed in many ways, and where part of him remains today. Peter Ackroyd has written that there is no real progress in English writing; our writers return to the location of the original sources of inspiration, whether it’s the mythical Albion or the streets of Manchester.
In a short film in 1985, Morrissey recalls the streets he was raised in, where his family lived. What the bombs didn’t take out, the bulldozers did. It was the same for many of us. On my patch, in those tender years, the neighbourhood of streets, pubs, tenements, schools, barber shops and cinemas went in the late 1960s. The postcode had become a backdrop for activist auteurs arriving with an agenda and a camera crew. In 1967, Ken Loach turned up with Terence Stamp to film Poor Cow in the condemned tenements in our neighbourhood, known to locals for housing single mothers, solitary males and those referred to in a sombre tone as ‘simple’. The neighbourhood was razed and replaced with a brutalist estate in the slate-grey early Seventies, where clouds were forever the colour of twine, when heels were higher than hopes, and the young and modern among us welcomed every breeze block that brought change. Ballard wrote about it. Bowie too. Then came Morrissey: ‘Amid concrete and clay and general decay, nature must still find a way.’
Now we walk like ghosts on streets that were once familiar, reminded of those who are gone and a London, a Manchester, an England that is no more. This was the England Morrissey has written of when at his most English, and in the grip of the melancholy so central to the English character and the English imagination. In recalling the past in this way, we are dealing in history rather than nostalgia, and if the latter, then the ‘literary nostalgia’ that the poet Fernando Pessoa described. We recall external things: the arrangement of furniture, the way a table was set. It’s a nostalgia for scenes. ”Thus someone else’s childhood can move me as much as my own’, Pessoa writes in The Book of Disquiet, ‘both are purely visual phenomena from a past I’m unable to fathom, and my perception of them is literary. They move me, yes, but because I see them, not because I remember them.’
This was how we related to the Morrissey songs that dealt in these scenes, scenes that were evident even in recent years with ‘Once I Saw the River Clean’. It was the England of our parents and grandparents that we caught a glimpse of in its final days. It was the last moments of an England that was fading, the very last of which came in September with the death of the queen. Even those of us who aren’t monarchists were impressed by her longevity and the virtues she embodied when carrying out the role for 70 years, rather than the role itself. (‘Send her victorious’, tweeted the former Johnny Rotten.) She, like our parents’ generation, belonged to a nation that despite its shortcomings – and there were many – had an identity and a confidence. ‘It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation’, the historian Kenneth Clark once said. ‘We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs.’ The cynics and the suicide bombers are among us, along with the grifters, race hustlers and a posh white left eager to erase the country’s past, re-write it, or define it in terms of its barbarism. Those with an alternate take are accused of celebrating a mythical, utopian, monocultural past. Yet the mythical, utopian, multicultural present they cling to is imploding before our weary eyes. As Morrissey says, no one writes songs about England anymore. The queen is dead, boys, and it’s so lonely on a limb.
Decades after singing about the death of the monarch, and dead children on the Yorkshire moors, Morrissey is now singing a song about England. A song about the murder of children at a Manchester concert in 2017. Perhaps Morrissey saw in those attending the concert something of himself as a child in that city, and the relevance of pop music in those young lives. It reverberates through those bones; images of pop stars linger in the minds, the hearts and remain on bedroom walls until breasts form and voices break. ‘All human activity is fruitless when pitted against the girls and boys singing on pop television’, Morrissey has written of his youth, ‘for they have found the answer as the rest of us search for the question. I will sing, too. If not, I will have to die.’ It’s not the death of the child murdered on the moor, or taken out by a terrorist, but the poetic ‘death’ of the dreamer who never fulfils his dream; the writer who never finds the words; the odd outsider who never finds a way in. It’s not death he’s referring to here, but life – the extended sentence for those who never learn to live. Not the lives of those that were extinguished before they got the chance to choose.
So he sang, too. Morrissey began his career with a song about a tragedy that devastated the city of his birth, a city he longed to leave. It continues with a song about a tragedy that devastated the city long after he’d left or moved on, in his words, to see ‘many shores’ – Los Angeles, Rome. Momentarily, he considered throwing his arms around Paris. But the England that made him remained throughout in mind, body and song. It’s an experience many of us understand – the mortal among us, for whom the end is nearer than the beginning. We each have our own place, and it remains long after home has become a question mark. Love it or loathe it, we leave it, but never lose it. It’s our England, our Manchester, our south-east London and long after it’s gone, it still has us and, like us, it has so much to answer for. As hateful as it sometimes seemed, it has left us with much to be grateful for. But we wouldn’t want it back. Not with the fire that’s in us now.
Michael Collins is a writer, journalist and broadcaster. He is the author of The Likes Of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class.
All pictures by: Getty.
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