WHAT did Morrissey do that was so bad?
For the tabloids it was his undisguised loathing for the Royal Family, his rampant vegetarianism, his refusal to play Live Aid, and his audacity, as a mere pop star, in discussing the crimes of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady.
The music press, his initial champions, never forgave him for the split of The Smiths in 1987. He’s too intellectual, they say. He can’t cut the mustard as a solo artist without Johnny Marr, they claim. And worst of all, he has been tainted with accusations of nationalism and racism since he wrapped the Union Jack around himself at a Finsbury Park gig in 1992.
Two weeks ago, the NME listed his crimes in anticipation of his British tour this week, and advised its readers to ‘brick’ the singer offstage. It’s the martyrdom of Saint Stephen all over again.
So it’s not altogether surprising that this most English of entertainers has gone into self-imposed exile. The quintessential Mancunian miserabilist now resides in the shiniest happiest city in the world: Los Angeles, renting Carole Lombard’s bachellorette pad at 7953 Hollywood Boulevard no less.
“I had a series of very bad years,” he explains as we drink tea on the balcony of his hotel suite near Thessaloniki in northern Greece, midway through his current European tour.
“There was nothing but the most obnoxious articles written about me, saying that I was the worst person in humanity. Then I went through the whole Smiths court-case thing and the judge was incredibly personal and incredibly rude.”
He pauses for breath.
“So I just thought, ‘what, really, is the point?’”
The ‘whole Smiths court-case thing’ was a dispute over royalties which cost Morrissey and his co-songwriter Johnny Marr £1.25million between them. He also got a very public slagging from a judge who, according to the singer, had an eye on the post-settlement headlines.
“You think, perhaps there’s an easier life. Somewhere else.”
He’s suddenly very wistful. And though he hasn’t found exactly what he’s looking for in Los Angeles, it will clearly do for now.
Never really intending to live there, he says, “I just stumbled across this house and suddenly I bought it. I quite like it and I live a very…” he pauses to consider “…a very peaceful life, not even vaguely the rock’n’roll life that people probably imagine.”
There are few people you’d imagine less suited to live in LA than this thoughtful, courteous and urbane Englishman. So, if it isn’t the sex, the drugs or the rock’n’roll, what is it about the place that attracts him?
“I like the light,” he says. “It’s astonishing to wake up in the morning and see that light and say, yes, you can do things today. That really doesn’t happen in Manchester,” he adds evenly, playing it straight. “It’s very therapeutic.”
And America has taken Morrissey to its heart.
“I’ve been noticed, shall we say,” he says with a wry grin.
His record sales in the US far outstrip those in the UK. Padding around the suite like he was born to it, the glowing, tanned singer is a picture of relaxed, almost feline contentment. Where he once wore NHS glasses and a hearing aid, Oxfam pullovers and overcoats, now he wears Gucci.
He’s less reserved and more down-to-earth than you might expect. All the same, I find myself making a conscious effort not to swear in front of him —it wouldn’t seem right somehow, like swearing in front of your mum. I’m slightly shocked when he says the word, “crap”. Despite all the time he’s spent in the States, he still seems absolutely English. A lot more English than me, in fact.
“Maybe I am. I don’t know,” he says, shifting in his seat, a touch uncomfortable, turning his head to gaze away. “I feel immovably English. Noel Coward lived in Jamaica for a lot of his life, Dirk Bogarde lived in France, but what does it really mean? He didn’t return to England with a string of onions around his neck.”
The talk moves on to the news from back home and Michael Portillo’s recent admission of a gay past and his subsequent candidacy in the Kensington & Chelsea by-election.
Once the initial shock of Morrissey’s professed celibacy had abated, he was subject to similar levels of nasty innuendo and speculation about his sexuality
“It’s just badger-baiting and name-calling,” he says with a resigned shrug. “It’s always nice to have someone to look down on and frown upon. The whole conversation is just too basic for me. I can’t imagine how somebody’s sexuality really matters.
“Because someone is heterosexual, it doesn’t make them a good politician. It doesn’t mean that we actually know anything about them. It’s such a redundant, British, old-fashioned piece of nonsense.”
He’s always refused to be drawn on his sexuality, deftly diverting any questions with an icy aloofness, although there is noticeably no mention of celibacy these days.
The fact is that Morrissey’s lyrics spoke, and still speak, directly to thousands of confused marginalised, wistful little romantics, gay or straight. The singer provided a degree of comfort for a lot of unhappy people. Surely, that’s all we really need to know?
Despite all the ‘evidence’ to the contrary — the bittersweet eulogies to Handsome Devils and Sweet and Tender Hooligans, the iconoclastic images of male beauty that fill his record sleeves, the huge backdrops of skinhead boys at his ill-fated gig in Finsbury Park in London, not to mention his slightly camp persona, we shouldn’t expect an imminent announcement that Morrissey is out and proud. It isn’t going to happen.
But, in the words of the song, what difference does it make?
These days, he finds Britain “claustrophobic” and on the rare occasions he does return, he finds the newspapers, and their constant preoccupation with the royals just too much to deal with.
“I always come back very optimistically, and I last about eight days. Then I’m on the phone to British Airways saying, ‘Please, I’ll do anything.. Just help me’.”
Although he denies adopting any Americanisms, the word he uses the most is ‘unbelievable’.
But the really unbelievable thing is the fact that Morrissey is currently without a record company. What on earth is going on?
“It’s not as tragic as you might think,” he assures me, explaining that after the Seagram group bought out his former record company, only the label’s three best-selling artists were retained “and to all the Northern scabs like me, they said, well, off you go.
Now he describes it as “a blessing. I’m completely free if anybody fancies me”.
As a result, his current tour is being undertaken without record company support and with no particular release to promote.
“You won’t find a speckle of hype in any part of the situation,” he tells me proudly.
Either way a series of sold-out, celebratory gigs from Dresden to Stockholm to Thessaloniki tell their own story. He admits he’s “astonished” at the success of the tour.
“It’s like it’s always been, word of mouth. It’s like a very, very strong private club.”
The songs he plays in some aircraft hangar on the outskirts of Thessaloniki come mostly his solo career, plus a few Smiths golden oldies.
Alongside his four-piece band, who are all tattoos, drainpipes and swagger, he puts in an electrifying performance, flouncing and sashaying across the stage, lashing his microphone lead like a born-again Miss Whiplash.
The Smiths tracks – in particular a spine-tingling rendition of Meat is Murder – bring the house down. Not bad for a man who turned 40 this year.
“I’ve always been this age,” he chuckles like an indulgent pantomime dame.
So does life begin at 40?
“Well, I think you change. You suddenly become very aware of the ticking clock and you don’t necessarily panic because it’s a comforting change. You realise finally what you do like and what you don’t like.
“And,” he adds with a chuckle, “you take some pride in the things you personally like, however perverted they may seem to other people.
“It’s simply a question of, “Here I am, take me or leave me”. And, as the old song goes, if you don’t like me, just leave me alone.”
[This interview was first published in the Big Issue in the North in 1999]