An exploration of the artist's life & career...
This week, music legend Morrissey turns 60. It's almost impossible to imagine that the hands of time are able to touch upon the famous figures that we have come to revere, those people we have grown up with and admired, imitated and adored – they seem almost immune from the biology that governs us all, separated by the art and the fame that has served as a catalyst for that 'other-worldliness' they so often possess.
Steve Jobs once said, “Time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” If there is one thing that can be said of Morrissey, as a person and an artist, it is that he has very much made his life his own: there is no one comparable. Morrissey has become a notable figure in the music industry because of the impact he has made through his music and public persona. It's hard to imagine a figure who could be less filtered than Morrissey; something that drives his adoring fans onwards and his detractors to distraction. He won't change - and indeed, why should he? It appears nothing, to him, is worthy of compromise - if he believes in it, then he lives by it.
Born on 22nd May 1959 and raised in Manchester, Morrissey knew from an early age that he wanted to live an artistic life. The initial outlet for the creative side brewing inside him was sparked with writing: he started out by pursuing music journalism – until he eventually formed the legendary The Smiths, alongside fellow bandmate Johnny Marr. No one could have predicated the success and status the band would gain when, during their active years (1982 -1987) they were lauded by critics, hailed as the most significant band to emerge from Britain since The Beatles and eventually went on to have four albums make the top 200 in Rolling Stones “Greatest Albums of All Time” iconic list. All four of their albums made the top 5 in the UK charts, and they had success with several single releases hitting the top 20.
Morrissey's unique signature was all over The Smiths; his trademark cynicism, wit and intelligence already evident despite his young age. Lyrically and even in interviews, Morrissey was already showing the world back then that he wasn't someone who would water-down his opinions – he was forthright and self-assured, yet paradoxically, an occasional wisp of coy, nervous shyness could, at times, be glimpsed by audiences during early TV appearances.
With the subsequent success of the band, The Smiths cemented the foundation for Morrissey's journey forward into becoming one of the most talked-about, respected and engaging solo artists to emerge from the UK. Without Morrissey, The Smiths would not have been the band they were, and without Morrissey the UK music scene would have had a wide, yawning absence that no other could fill.
By 1988, Morrissey had begun his solo career. His albums - which include Viva Hate!, You Are The Quarry, Years of Refusal, World Peace is None of Your Business and Low in High School - connected with his growing audience. No longer the UK homebody, Morrissey, by the 90s, was a worldwide artist who subsequently toured sell-out dates across many countries of the world.
For Morrissey, it hasn't been an easy ride: the media haven't always accepted him kindly. Unused to figures that don't fit into their box, he has often been met with scorn by mainstream journalists. If they are holding out that he will change, they are wasting their time. Despite angling after the same tired headlines, the music still does the biggest talking: ticket sales, record sales, online fan sites and interest in Morrissey has not waned, his music carrying him forward and offering us all assurance that his position in the music world is securely tethered to our collective history.
What is it that draws people to him? It is often interesting to examine this, because the answer is often different depending on who you ask. The music professionals who work with Morrissey in the studio and on tour certainly have a fierce loyalty and admiration for the artist. Recently, I asked producer Joe Chiccarelli (who has worked on several albums with the man himself) what he thought of Morrissey, and of the way he is perceived in the media. “We need people who push the boundaries for civilisation to progress... to question the unquestionable and at times speak the unspeakable, regardless of the consequences.”
Morrissey has been no stranger to controversy – mainly because of the media's heavy spinning of his opinions. This hasn't dented the respect that many hold for him; ultimately, the talent talks louder than any media criticism. “Morrissey,” Chiccarelli continues,“is a poet, a punk rocker and a bit of a provocateur. His voice is that of a seasoned crooner - great tone, amazing delivery and a singular style . An extraordinary lyricist who has created some timeless classics for many generations to come. I always treasure my time spent with him.”
Boz Boorer - the much loved, long-standing guitarist for Morrissey - initially began working with him in the early 90s and his guitar playing has since become an integral part of the artist's albums and live performances. The respect that Boorer has for Morrissey shines when he talks about him. I asked Boorer if he could tell me about his time spent with Morrissey and how the music itself has evolved over the years:
“The way we work has evolved in a few ways,” he explains, “but basically it’s the same work ethic. I think the main development in the music is the repertoire. When we started, Morrissey had only released a few solo records, after a few years we started to play some Smiths’ songs which broadened our horizons, but now there are about a dozen albums to draw from. A rich bed of a lot of different styles of music. Another way it has blossomed,” he continued, “is through the variety of producers Morrissey has chosen, from the sadly missed Mick Ronson and Jerry Finn to Joe Chiccarelli currently at the helm, they have all helped shape the music that has been recorded. Then there is the widening scope of Morrissey’s songwriting. It looks like it’s gaining ground in leaps and bounds. With a wider range of writing partners, the influences are reaching wider then ever.”
“We have had some incredible players pass through the ranks over the years,” Boorer states. “When we first added a keyboard player it opened up a whole new capability and quality of sound. Morrissey has also drawn his current band from a large demographic area which enriches the sound and widens its musical scope.”
With the recent success of the shows in Canada and the residency on Broadway, how does Boorer feel about the latest gigs? “I think the recent concerts we are playing have been the best ever and show no sign of letting up.”
Those who have worked with Morrissey are not alone in their respect for the man: his legion of supporters hold him in the highest regard.
Author Matthew Jacobson, who released the book Pieces of Morrissey in 2017, is a passionate Morrissey fan, having followed the artist's career since the 80s. The result of his love of the singer led him to pen the book which details fans' ardent devotion to the artist. What drives a fan to follow an artist across the world? To treat torn pieces of Morrissey's shirt thrown from stage as if they are precious pieces of the Holy Grail? I asked Jacobson to explain. “Morrissey memorabilia is more important to fans than their own family mementos. My book is an analysis of mine and my fellow fans healthy obsession with our Northern lifeguard. During a Morrissey gig in my home city, I was fortunate to catch Morrissey’s shirt. Clutching the shirt was a comfort blanket to me... I felt there was something spiritual about it...”
I asked Jacobson why he thought Morrissey had become as relevant as he has - what makes him and his music so outstanding? “Morrissey stands alone. His unique art, observations and thought provoking interpretation of the world is full of substance, purpose and meaning. The world and society is just as toxic as it’s ever been and provides a canvas for Morrissey. He paints a poetic vision - with social commentary and social justice at the forefront...it’s also combined with wit, poetry, beauty and love.”
Long-time fan Angie Cooke from Manchester, feels Morrissey has become a part of her own personal history, proving how music can be a huge catalyst in people's lives. “By the time I’d turned 16, Rank by The Smiths was released. Talk about my mind being completely and utterly blown,” she said. “I became a devotee on the spot, beginning a lifelong love affair which is well over 30 years in duration... I tracked down all of The Smiths and Morrissey singles.... I was even on TV back in 2016 on the BBC Four series People’s History of Pop, such is the level of degree of my devotion.” I wanted to ask how Angie feels about Morrissey today - does she still follow him as much as she did before, as that diehard teenager? “At the end of it all,” she states, “I will love that man today, tomorrow and always."
Roberto Ferdenzi has been a huge fan for a number of years, and like Angie, first noticed Morrissey in the days of The Smiths. “l was first introduced to Morrissey and The Smiths when l heard Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now on Janice Long's Radio 1 evening show, back in 1984,” he said. “Those three and a half minutes changed my life forever. For the first time I'd finally found someone l could identify with. He sang and said things about how I was feeling and thinking. This he has been doing, and continues to do, for the past 35 years.”
What does Roberto think of Morrissey now, with the passing of time and the approach of the artist's birthday? “Nothing's changed,” Roberto clarifies. “I still love him, not even slightly less than I used to. His lyrics and delivery are still as powerful and strong, if not stronger than ever, and continue to tug at the heartstrings like no other singers' lyrics have ever done.”
This kind of dedication to Morrissey as an artist isn't rare. I spoke to many fans during the writing of this piece – they all were filled with a deep love for the man who had so influenced their lives.
Equal to Morrissey's love of music is his unending passion for animal rights. This issue follows his career every bit as much as the honest, self-deprecating lyrics, they are as much a part of the man as the voice, the charisma, the charm. His love of them seeps into every area of his life, so much so, it cannot be separated from him or his art. It is no exaggeration to say that no other popular culture figure has had such an immense influence on animal rights, with swarms of his fans making the switch to a vegetarian/vegan diet due to the awareness he has raised through his lyrics and interviews. If it's true that there are fans who feel his music has saved them, then it is just as valid to say that the effects of his public work for animal rights has literally saved the lives of the animals that he obviously so much adores. What a fitting legacy for a man who is so deeply moved by the plight of animals across the world.
How might Morrissey feel with the approach of his birthday – is it something he even cares about? One might wonder, when he wakes up on the big day and scans over well-meaning birthday cards, how it feels to him, to know his life continues to bring so much to so many? That his actions, words and lifestyle are still poured over by media and fans alike. Does age matter in any of this madness we call life? Is it relevant at all? The passing of time has done little to dim what he brings to the music world, and age has not diffused any of his artistry or his temperament. Why would it? He still bears every sign of being a thriving artist, engulfed by a world he appears to be, at times, uncomfortable with.
Perhaps Morrissey himself has said it best: “Age shouldn't affect you. It's just like the size of your shoes - they don't determine how you live your life! You're either marvellous or you're boring, regardless of your age.”
Whatever the future holds for Morrissey, at this time when fans prepare to celebrate the life and career of one of the music world's most significant talents, it's perhaps easier to find the answer in the music than in any of our questions, analysis and musings. The music says it all – it always has done, it always will.
Happy birthday Morrissey, you absolute legend!
Photo courtesy of Marianne Price