Meetings With Morrissey

At the dawn of the 21st Century Morrissey was beginning to look like history. He hadn’t released a new album for over two years (after Maladjusted had been critically savaged), he had no record company deal, there were rumours of deep depression and, worst of all, the 1998 court case with Smiths’ drummer Mike Joyce had ended in utter calamity.
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I’d tried to keep in touch by fax during the intervening years, often tempting him to get involved in television projects I vainly hoped would be close to his heart (particularly around the centenary of Oscar Wilde’s death). But the brevity of his responses reflected the disillusion and anger he felt towards the British legal system after his defeat in the High Court. Mike Joyce was “pure evil” and “has destroyed The Smiths” was his bitter verdict in 1998.  In early 2003 he was still angry:  “There was a terrible miscarriage of justice… so it’s been really shocking. I wish the very, very worst for Joyce for the rest of his life.”

But our correspondence started up in earnest again, in summer 2003, after he’d signed to Sanctuary and launched his own record label, Attack.   As I was still working at Granada Television, and would later do a stint on his beloved Coronation Street in 2005, much of our contact centred on great TV programmes and films of the Sixties and Seventies. Morrissey seemed to remember everything he’d seen on television growing up in Manchester.

I was astonished by his knowledge and recall of productions that Granada had screened up to forty years earlier. Even more mature archivists couldn’t recall programmes such as the Irish actor Michael MacLiammoir’s remarkable one man show The Importance Of Being Oscar from the early Sixties or the original 1976 version of Jack Rosenthal’s Ready When You Are Mr McGill.(Rosenthal was a key writer on Coronation Street during the Sixties and also wrote Spend Spend Spend about Vivian Nicholson.)

Apart from classic episodes of Coronation Street featuring his heroine Pat Phoenix that he desperately wanted to get his hands on, he also wrote fondly about other obsessions such as Jimmy Clitheroe, Diana Dors in Queenie’s Castle, the American drag artist Charles Pierce on the Russell Harty Show and particularly Bronco Bullfrog, the gritty 1969 East End drama about skinheads and suedeheads.

After some digging and a few subversive tape transfers I informed Morrissey that some of his desired programmes still existed in the bowels of Granada’s bonded warehouse. One typical, faxed response read: “Mr Swindley. How do you cope with the Granada archive? I’d wall myself up in there day and night. I came across a 1961 film of Shelagh Delaney recently and, of course, to me it’s like Bloomsbury… I don’t think you could ever realise how happy you’ve made me. I will not leave the house for 48 hours. I will not eat.” (NB. Leonard Swindley, one of the original Coronation Street characters, had been played by Arthur Lowe. In other correspondence I’d be addressed as further Corrie stars such as “Len Fairclough”, “Les Battersby”, even “Granny Hopkins”.)

So it was that, on July 2 2003, at a pre-arranged time and armed with a few classic Seventies episodes of Coronation Street and a copy of Mr McGill, plus assorted clips of Diana Dors and Jimmy Clitheroe I’d gathered together via friends at Granada and the BBC, I stumbled into The Grapes pub off Quay Street in Manchester, a spit from the Free Trade Hall.

I knew it was owned by Liz Dawn, aka Vera Duckworth, of Coronation Street, but I was taken aback to see her meeting and greeting visitors like the Queen Mum “Hello love,” she says.  (In the real world, the soap opera world, she would, of course, have said “Hello chuck”.)

Stranger still, in one corner, Kangol cap in hand (once the choice headgear for serious rappers such as LL Cool J and Run DMC), sat an equally renowned Mancunian legend - Steven Patrick Morrissey; cradling a glass of Guinness, brandishing the property guide to Alderley Edge, Cheshire, and looking for all the world like a Victorian Irishman.

“Are you…h-a-p-p-y?” he asked, as I sat down opposite him, almost 20 years on from when I’d first set eyes on him, onstage at the Venue in London in 1983.  I laughed and stared at him.  The pale thin student pin-up with the ridiculous quiff had long gone and, physically and mentally, he’d grown into a more rounded, stronger but still questioning and warm personality.

The eyebrows seemed bushier, the jaw perhaps more chiselled granite than before, and the hairline distinguished, vaguely greying, yet still somehow rockabilly. While I’d aged and shrivelled into some sort of middle-aged Weetabix-style skinhead, Morrissey now seemed to be turning into a cross between Anthony Newley and Frankie Howerd’s Dad. (When he moved to Italy to record Ringleader Of The Tormentors in 2005 he’d cultivate his Sicilian-godfather-meets-Pasolini image.)

Of course I’d seen him in performance at the Royal Albert Hall a few months earlier but here, in the pub, smack in the middle of his hometown of Manchester, he seemed totally relaxed again, as if the mid-to-late Nineties had never happened.

Our conversation took in everything from football and Ireland - he has a home over there - to mortality, his back problems (the end of his promising 5-a-side football career, apparently), not forgetting the bitter finale of the Mike Joyce court cases: “It’s resolved, I’ve paid him,” he assured me, although he had feared that Joyce wanted more.

He revealed he’d returned to Manchester to face The Smiths’ drummer in the dock once more, seven years on from his first High Court defeat.  After Morrissey’s subsequent appeals against the judge’s verdict had failed there had been a reluctance or refusal to pay Joyce, which had resulted in the drummer putting “a charge on my mother’s house and a charge on my sister’s house…He was also trying to sue me under the insolvency act, all of which was absolute nonsense.”   Finally, it seemed as if the whole drawn-out messy legal business following the death of The Smiths in 1987 had come to an ugly end and Morrissey could now get on with his artistic life.   Days earlier Joyce’s legal team had dropped three further claims and, according to a relieved Morrissey, “had finally abandoned the case”.

The Channel Four television documentary, The Importance Of Being Morrissey, had been broadcast three weeks earlier on Channel Four to positive reviews.  He’d ubiquitously appeared again on the covers of many major music and listings magazines, and I reminded him there’d also been an unflattering photo on the front of Manchester’s City Life, in celebration of his election (by the Lancastrian public) as Manchester’s Greatest Ever Frontman.  He grimaced: “Trust you.  I looked 88!”  But I congratulated him on this latest comeback, assured him he’d emerged well from the television portrait of the artist, and expressed the opinion that it revealed him enjoying Los Angeles.  “It wasn’t really my real life in the documentary, it was an illusion”.

He was enthusiastic about his new record deal and particularly about the launch of his Attack label; his old Smiths/Raymonde friend James Maker’s band Noko 440 would be one of his first releases (‘Born That Way’) alongside the New York Dolls, Jobriath and Nancy Sinatra. Inevitably I talked about my long-dead brother’s original Attack Seventies reggae singles (Linval Thompson, Jah Woosh, Ken Parker etc) and also reminded him he’d played me The Toys’ ‘Attack’ at our previous meeting in Cheshire back in 1997.

Morrissey had told me back in 1988 that he thought reggae was vile – he’d withdrawn this view later - so I was pleasantly surprised that he’d picked the name Attack. Soon I’d send him my brother’s favourite record on the label, Gregory Isaacs’ ‘Love Is Overdue’. This is the single he was photographed with, by Hamish Brown (no relation) for the NME in Los Angeles, March 2004.

The month before our meeting, June 2003, had seen the release of the DMC Morrissey-selected compilation Under The Influence. He’d sent me a fax announcing this: “I don’t know if you’ll find yourself whizzing down either Princess Street or Whitworth Street or Great Ducie Street this week, but there’s meant to be some huge billboards of my cold and set mug for this DMC doo-dah – no space to big”.

Apart from raising money for P.E.T.A. and introducing his audience to some of the extraordinary tracks that sustained him as a teenager – Nico, Patti Smith, The New York Dolls’ ‘Trash’, Ramones’ ‘Judy Is A Punk’, Sparks’ ‘Arts & Crafts Spectacular’ – Under The Influence also beautifully explained in the sleeve notes the importance of music to his soul: “In early 1970s Manchester the grinding horrors of daily life are softened by song…”  The compilation also featured the rockabilly tracks Nat County’s ‘Woodpecker Rock’ and Charlie Feathers’ ‘One Hand Loose’, the Cajun classic ‘Saturday Night Special’ by Lesa Cormier And The Sundown Playboys and The Cats’ bluebeat ‘Swan Lake’.

I expressed disappointment that the proposed duet with Michael Stipe had never happened but thanked him, sincerely, for the remarkable ‘Interlude’ with Siouxsie, even thought I was aware there had been friction between them.  He takes the compliment awkwardly and reveals she had been “professional, nice” but “she’d only do a video if she could throw stones at me in it”.  He reflected that Siouxsie & The Banshees had been dangerous on the first few albums but that The Creatures had become like The Cure, selling out into “soft goth”.

As a result, we got to talking about his remarkable journey from a troubled awkward childhood in Stretford and Salford through to his millionaire rock star existence in Los Angeles. Even though he was still in a state of “chosen aloneness” (as Linder Sterling described it) and he’d expressed the opinion “I don’t think human beings are meant to live together”, he certainly seemed a more optimistic man from the Morrissey I’d met in the late Eighties.

Do you think you’ve changed much over the years?

Morrissey: “People equate success with softness. People believe that once you’ve had a degree of success you’ve been given everything you’ve striven for and therefore you back off, you’re consumed by luxurious things. I’ve been successful but I’ve never been isolated within that success to the degree where I’ve never been affected for the good or for the bad by success. I am still quite critically, unbudgeably the same person.”

And you’re still going strong.

(He laughs.) “Well… I don’t want to walk onstage with a hair transplant, with shoes on the wrong foot. I find pop senility totally appalling to witness and obviously there’re so many strong examples of it now. I don’t want to haul the carcass across the studio floor and reach for the bath chair as I put down a vocal.”

Although I’m more Scottish than Morrissey is Irish, I expressed surprise that he’d become increasingly interested in his Celtic background as he grew older. Clearly the forthcoming single ‘Irish Blood English Heart’ confirmed this and, in several recent interviews, he’d even used the Irish expression “jaysus” and expressed admiration for the Dublin singer-songwriter Damien Dempsey.

There had been little mention of Ireland in Morrissey’s early lyrics, apart from his celebration of the great Wilde, but I reminded him that when he’d interviewed Pat Phoenix back in 1985, she’d said, “All of us who are half-Irish... who have the basic Irish... are born with the Celtic twilight in us. That moody Celt, the obvious Celt, stays with us and we never change, whatever our loyalties to the place in which we live.”

This inevitably took us on to a discussion of Coronation Street. Pat Phoenix had quit after 20 years (she’d first appeared as Elsie Tanner in 1960) and, according to Morrissey, Coronation Street “choked and died” when she left.

He’d complained about this once before, to Andy Spinoza in the Manchester magazine City Life: “The script is beyond public credulity. It’s like Postman Pat. Somebody loses an envelope, somebody breaks an umbrella and suddenly the credits roll and there’s sad music. And you’re expected to be there next week and be worried about the umbrella. It’s terrible, it’s like the loss of a limb. It’s such an integral part of the way I lived. I saw it the other night by accident and I was terminally ill. I was in intensive care, it was awful. They’re just clinging on. They should bury it.”

But, regardless of his negative criticisms, he admitted he couldn’t stop watching: “The only thing I ever watch on television is Coronation Street and mostly unhappily so. Everything else seems to be American or Australian. You can’t watch anything home-grown anywhere. I wish occasionally I could tune into something that expresses the British condition.

What’s the great appeal of the Street?

Morrissey: “I think the most appealing thing is I can tune into an environment where a number of characters are enormously happy with their lot in life. They’re content to walk from the postbox to the pub without questioning the past, the present and beyond. And that’s quite calming.

“The community spirit no longer exists in England but it’s powerfully reflected in the soap. The dream for many people is to live a very uncomplicated life, where they cease to constantly question why they’re here, where they’re going, what value they have.

“People within Coronation Street are happy to live in their houses, on their incomes, and they’re very happy with the political situation. It’s a dream.”

Another memorable aspect of his 1985 interview with Phoenix, I suggested, was her mention of suicidal tendencies. She’d told Morrissey, “You’re always very sad when you’re young. I’ve known this since my first very weak attempt at suicide. But now, I could fall down tomorrow and break my neck, but that’s OK. That’s all part of it.”

He’d spoken sensitively and movingly about suicide many times over the years, memorably after the passing of Kurt Cobain in 1994: “I felt sad and I felt envious.  I admire people who self-destruct.  They’re refusing to continue with unhappiness which shows tremendous self-will.  It must be very frightening to sit down and look at your watch and think, in thirty minutes I would not be here.”

“I think suicide intrigues everybody,” he’d said, “and yet it’s one of those things that nobody can ever really talk about in an interesting way. You always have the usual, ‘oh it’s so negative’, it’s so the wrong attitude…So many of the people I admire took their lives…Stevie Smith, Sylvia Plath, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Rachel Roberts…

“You could say it was negative leaving the world but if people’s lives are so enriched in the first place then ideas of suicide would never occur. Most people, as we know, lead desperate and hollow lives.”

I’d talked death with Morrissey before and, with both of us (at that point in 2003) thundering towards 50, I thought it might be a good time to raise this happy subject again. Morrissey had had to deal with the relatively recent and sudden deaths of several close friends, including Kirsty MacColl in December 2000. (MacColl sang on The Smiths’ ‘Ask’ and ‘Interesting Drug’ and had been married to producer Steve Lillywhite. Morrissey regretted that he had encouraged MacColl to visit Mexico, where she was killed in a tragic speedboat accident.)

You think about death a lot, don’t you?

Morrissey: “Yes, I’m quite obsessed with death. I’ve gone through periods where I’m intensely envious of people who have died. I have a dramatic, unswayable, unavoidable obsession with death.”* (*James Dean had a similar view to death. According to his friend John Gilmore, “Jimmy’s talk of death, dying and dismemberment wasn’t as exciting or interesting to me as it was to him.  It was never morose, though, and at times tended to become almost ecstatic…the image of his mother’s coffin was indelibly etched in his mind – the idea of dwelling in caskets in general obsessed him”.)

Why do you think that is?

“It’s just something that’s always there, that’s never really left me. I can remember being quite obsessed with it at the age of eight or nine.  nd I often wondered if it was quite a natural inbuilt emotion for people who are destined to… take their own lives. That they just recognise it and begin to study it.

“I think if there was a magical beautiful pill that one could take that would retire you from the world, I think I would take it. And I suppose that’s the extremity of the obsessiveness. I think I would get out if it was relatively easy. I’m sorry, Len, but you asked the question.”

If you don’t die by your own hand, and make it into old age, how ideally would you like to go?

(He laughs deeply, a cocktail of joyful despair.) “The problem with death as with birth is that it’s so violent. So… probably just propped up on those fluffy pillows in the front room.”

Is it best to die at the peak of your career or when you’re a spent force?

“Obviously when people die at the peak of their powers they become automatic godheads.”

Have you peaked yet?

“I peak… every night.”

What time and where?

“You’ll never know!”

Anything else you want to say?

“Just how… tickled I am.”

Afterwards, when we left The Grapes and walked back along Deansgate together, Mancunians of all ages smiled and acknowledged him as if they knew him really well. Not in any aggressive or intrusive way but in an affectionate, welcoming ‘I recognise that gentleman’ manner. A prodigal son who’d finally returned home, back to the streets where he ran.

Paperback published by Omnibus Press (2009), £14.95, click below to buy.