By ALAN JENKINS
There’s nothing like pop music for bringing people together – or for dividing them, a kind of tribal warfare by other means. Take Morrissey – as, in the years when he enjoyed unequivocal fame and success, with The Smiths, I mostly couldn’t. (I was probably about ten years too old.) In the twenty-five years since, though, he seems to me to have grown in stature as well as in girth. The nicely pointed combination of Johnny Marr’s cheerful guitar tunes with the cheerless ironies of Morrissey’s lyrics to which I failed to respond in the 1980s has become an immeasurably more seductive mix of gorgeous melodies, powerful, rockabilly-inflected rhythms and, driving it all, the long, agonizing melodrama that is being Morrissey.
This last may have deepened and darkened with the years but it isn’t really new, of course:
The boy with the thorn in his side
Behind the hatred there lies
A murderous desire for love
How can they look into my eyes
And still they don’t believe me?
And if they don’t believe me now
Will they ever believe me?
– that was Morrissey with The Smiths, in 1985. There are plenty who still don’t believe him, and elbowing their way to the front of his detractors, always, are the self-styled apostates. Their testimonies run to a simple formula: I used to love Morrissey: here’s how much! Then I interviewed him/ read an interview with him/ heard one of his latest songs and now I don’t anymore. The tone they favour is “more in sorrow than in anger, but — still pretty angry, actually”. Morrissey 25: Live, released to celebrate – if that is the word, of which more later – his twenty-five years as a “solo” artist, and the singer’s first live concert film since Who Put the M in Manchester? (2004), has already occasioned a couple of such pieces. It’s a funny phenomenon. These fellows seem to be annoyed that he made them copy his haircut back in ’86.
Well, so what. If Morrissey is not for you, or not for you any more: fine. But if he is, you’ll find the new film riveting and moving to the extent that you find those adjectives apply to the man. The venue is Hollywood High School, in whose classrooms once sat Lana Turner, Judy Garland, Fay Wray and Carole Lombard (though not all in the same class, one hopes for the teacher’s sake). In its intimate 1,800-seater auditorium Morrissey plays a nineteen-song set drawn from the whole span of his quarter-century, nine-studio-album post-Smiths career, which, as even the most devoted of his admirers will admit – not without a certain outrage of their own – has been an up-and-down affair.
But Morrissey triumphs over detractors, ill fortune and his own intransigence by turning all these to fiercely compelling account in his songs, in his voice, in his comportment onstage and off. The film (directed by James Russell) captures an authentically charismatic presence striding the stage, whipping the microphone cord around him, clasping the desperately outstretched hands of an audience from whom his every gesture solicits the impossible: a love sufficient unto his needs. Morrissey is a powerfully built man these days, and it’s wonderful to see him thrashing, throwing back his head and beating his chest, falling to his knees beseechingly before the projected images of battery farms and slaughterhouses (“Meet Your Meat”) that accompany a caustic, swirling rendition of “Meat is Murder”. Other highlights are the sinister London phantasmagoria “Maladjusted” (“You stalk the house, in a low-cut blouse. Oh Christ, another stifled Friday night!”), the as yet unreleased “Action is My Middle Name” (“Action is my middle name, I can’t waste time any more. Everybody has a date with an undertaker, a date that they can’t break”) and “You Have Killed Me” from his 2006 album “Ringleader of the Tormentors”.
For those of us who have grown middle-aged with (or before) Morrissey, there is a new poignancy in his wrestlings, explicit or otherwise, with our common mortal lot. And from beginning to end, there is barely any let-up in the intensity with which he expresses his own peculiar impasse, the unstoppable force of his narcissism meeting the immoveable object of his self-disgust. In the course of expressing it, he blooms out of (I think I counted) four beautiful shirts, as is his way, throwing one to the crowd at the climax of “Let Me Kiss You”.
As ever, Morrissey’s relationship with his Los Angelean fans is generous, humorous (“You mustn‘t whoop if you don’t want to”; “What’s your name? Kevin? David? Devin. Good name”) and – in contrast to the difficult conditions and unresolvable torments he sings about being in – beautifully unconflicted. “Thank you for singing so open-heartedly”, says one tearful celebrant, as the mic is passed to her. That about sums it up.
The film ends with the further testimonies of devotees as they leave the concert, flush-faced and inspirited. One of them hopes that we’ll be seeing a lot more Morrissey shows in the years to come. I hope so too, but it’s not looking good. Earlier this year, after battling through a series of health crises, Morrissey was finally felled by a bout of food poisoning and was forced to cancel what would have been a triumphant tour of South America. (He has a huge Latino following north of the border too, and indeed opens this show with a joyous shout of “Viva Mexico!”) He is currently without a recording contract and, given his proud refusal to bow to the downgrading of the artist that accompanies “the new reality” as the night follows day, he seems unlikely to attract one soon. “The future is suddenly absent”, he writes on his fansite true-to-you.net: “the wheels are finally off the covered wagon. Cancellations and illness have sucked the life out of all of us, and the only sensible solution seems to be the art of doing nothing”. He sounds abject, and the bulletin is distressing to read. It is preceded by a line from a no less abject poem, from A Shropshire Lad, whose sentiment is similarly shunless: what to do?
If it chance your eye offend you.
Pluck it out, lad, and be sound:
‘Twill hurt, but here are salves to friend you,
And many a balsam grows on ground.
And if your hand or foot offend you,
Cut it off, lad, and be whole;
But play the man, stand up and end you,
When your sickness is your soul.