Morrissey (Sunday Times Magazine, Nov. 26, 2017)
I’m inside Morrissey’s hotel room at the Sunset Marquis, West Hollywood. It smells incensey, a church of Oud, instantly exotic and at the same time cosy, rather like the man himself. Mmm I hear myself say, not realising behind the door lurks Morrissey. “What’s hmmmm?” The smell. What is it? “It’s my sweat.”
I sniff his navy sweatshirt with a skull on it – the best sweat I’ve ever smelt. He’s in LA because he’s performing at the Hollywood Bowl and because Friday November 10th has been declared Morrissey Day by the Mayor of Los Angeles.
He lived here, next door to Johnny Depp until a few years ago and now he’s just visiting. Where does he actually live? A sigh. “I’m in a different place all the time. I’m not sure why everyone wants to know where I live, what that says about me. It means my credit card is permanently blocked for security reasons. They think I’m an anonymous person if I’m never in the same place.”
“I never ask people where they live but they always ask me as if it would reveal anything about me. I’m here now as you can see.”
Because he’s performing. “Well…I don’t perform but I’m occasionally on a stage but I don’t EVER perform.” How so very Morrissey. How delicious. I laugh and a little sparkle flashes across his intense eyes, all feeling eyes, eyes that never want to look directly at you. It’s as if he never wants to be really seen, except by tens of thousands every time he is on a stage.
So Morrissey Day in LA. What does that actually mean?
“I’m not sure how Morrissey Day came about. Lots of things happen and I don’t know where they spring from or why. I think it’ll be exciting and I’ll be handed something by the Mayor and that will be very pleasing.”
Will it be like National Cat Day where people post Instagrams of their cats? You raise money for cats and you adopt a cat. “Yes it’ll be exactly like that.” So people will try to adopt him? “I hope so but there’s not money required I can assure you. This city has been good to me. Many exciting things have happened here.”
He no longer lives in the house next to Johnny Depp? “No, he bought it from me to put his argumentative relatives in when they came to stay and since then I have been homeless which is very interesting. I just move around the world as much as I can which is a fascinating way to live. People say but surely you need your own kitchen but I’ve managed for many years doing without.” Does he cook? “Yes I do and it’s a very nice idea to have a kitchen…” And room service will provide? “It tries but it’s difficult sometimes. We don’t like to wait do we, really for anything?”
This is a moment where I want to tell him about the first time I ever heard his voice. So soul curdling and deep reaching when he sang ‘How Soon Is Now?’
The Smiths are remembered with a giant amount of romanticism. It seems that they were around forever but in fact it was only 5 years and 4 studio albums, but so many songs, such poetry that spoke for a generation about love and loss and waiting.
Post Smiths there were a series of solo albums starting with Viva Hate, some of which were less loved and some of which were less loveable. There was a well received and darkly funny autobiography and a strange foray into novel writing – List of the Lost was reviewed as “turgid” and received the Bad Sex Award for a sex scene described as a giggling snowball of full figured copulation. It’s not that he ever went away but with the release of the new album Low In High School he seems back in the forefront of our imagination. Back on the radio, back on the television, his voice strangely more fluid and more poignant than ever. His passion, his politics speak again to a new generation.
He has said that he thought Brexit was magnificent and the new single Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage ends with a haunting chorus of ‘exit exit’ which some people have translated as ‘Brexit Brexit’.
There’s a sight raise of an eyebrow which is already raised on a permanent basis. “No, it’s not a Brexit song. The words are exit exit exit. There’s no Brexit in it. The line is ‘all the audience head for the exit when she’s onstage’ so it’s nothing to do with Brexit. People just rush to stupid conclusions and create facts and create their own truths and slaughter the issue.”
OK it’s not a Brexit song but he did say that Brexit was a magnificent thing right? “I thought it was a fascinating strike for democracy because the people said the opposite to Westminster and I thought that was extraordinary. David Cameron didn’t imagine the result could be as it was but at least he did the honourable thing and slid away. The unfortunate thing is that politicians only speak to other politicians. They don’t speak to the people so on that day their bubble burst. And now I don’t think Brexit has taken place or even will because Westminster don’t want it. It’s not that difficult. They’re just finding a way to not make it Brexit.”
Was it true that he banned David Cameron from ever listening to a Morrissey penned song? “No that was never true but these are the things I have to live with.” Big sigh. “I didn’t say it and it’s nice if everybody listens. It really is.”
There’s nobody he wants to ban? “Well, only the obvious – the obvious international pest.” The orange one? “Yes.” Perhaps he would benefit from listening to the latest album.
“He’s beyond salvation. Beyond any help. The biggest security threat to America and the world. He’s like a two year old constantly reaching for something. Damaging it and then moving on to something else and destroying it.”
Indeed the next day when I go to his show at the Hollywood Bowl, one of the backdrops is Morrissey in a blue Fred Perry holding a toddler with Trump’s head imposed on it. A tiny tyrant. It goes down very well.
The show itself is an extraordinary experience. Morrissey is a mesmerising figure onstage as he lashes and whips his microphone chord. It’s as if he’s sending himself and his audience into a semi religious trance. The audience – a diverse collection black, white, brown, young, old and very young, men, women, gay, straight – have a unification of belief. They believe in political change. They believe meat is murder and nobody objects one bit that the only food sold on the premises is vegetarian/vegan. They believe in Morrissey. He stands for them and they stand for him.
He gives us the songs that still speak to us even though they’re decades old. He gives us the new songs and he gives us his voice which soars as dextrous as ever. At 58 he is a man on top of his game.
I’ve been to that same stadium and seen artists of similar years with pretentious trousers and hair plugs. I’ve seen them sing their old songs and look into a crowd of middle aged spread. The only grey on this stage is Morrissey’s suit. OK, I could have done without the bit where he threw the jacket into the crowd and flaunted his unworked out torso but he did it so unselfconsciously it was admirable. Interesting, Morrissey is totally at one with himself half naked on stage but sitting beside him on the couch in his hotel room he’s not comfortable with being looked at and he very rarely looks you directly in the face.
Living nowhere and everywhere gives him an interesting grip on world politics. Does he travel light? “I have a sickening volume of possessions. They’re all stored away in different parts of the world waiting for that moment when I stop and buy a house and relax.” Does he ever relax? “No.”
We sip our room service bottled water and he asks me if would like anything more dangerous. I suggest maybe a coffee. He shrugs in despair. “That’s not what I meant.”
The new record is being heaped with praise. “It feels good. People always want their latest offspring to be the cutest I believe.” Morrissey doesn’t have children. He has songs. He doesn’t have a lover. He has the stage.
Does he have a particular track that’s more important than the others? “No. I mean if you gave birth to quads you wouldn’t say which quad is the best one, would you? You would love all your quads equally for different reasons.”
He looks at me and assesses that maybe I could never love quads at all. I tell him I’ve got four cats. “There. I rest my case. I best you don’t pick one out and say you’re the one I love and boot the others in the linen cupboard.”
I show him the pictures of my cats and we agree that Slut is my best cat. “That’s a beautiful name for a beautiful cat.”
He doesn’t have any cats himself at the moment because of travelling but Russell Brand’s cat is called Morrissey. “Yes and he’s still alive. I don’t mean Russell – I mean the cat. He’s getting on now. I do mean Russell. I don’t mean the cat.”
I read that he’s called Morrissey because he’s an awkward bugger. “There you go. You should have guessed that one straight away. Cats don’t last and we’re always so shocked and surprised when they don’t last.” Morrissey the cat is well and Morrissey the man is surpassing himself. His time has come again.
“It’s certainly a moment which might annoy many people but here I am and I offer no apologies and no excuses.” The first single Spent The Day in Bed had more airplay than any Morrissey track ever has in the US. “I don’t spend the day in bed often but people love their beds.”
He advises several times that people shouldn’t stay in bed and watch the news because that’s too extraordinarily depressing.
Morrissey has spent much of his life depressed. Surely that’s where quite a few of the hits came from. “Years ago I sang a song called Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and it’s like an old school uniform. People insist I wear it but I’m really not that miserable. I’m not an unhappy person. Not in the least. I’m certainly very surprised and very pleased to still be here and to be in one vaguely acceptable piece. Very pleased about that and I’m very pleased that the music I’ve made appears to mean a great deal to people.”
I’m wondering if his new resolution to appreciate life had anything to do with it nearly being taken away. He is in remission from oesophagus cancer. “I’d had quite a few scares and was on a lot of extreme medication. I lost a lot of hair. Something gets us all eventually, whether it’s religion or alcohol. Something brings us crashing down. You can be as healthy as possible but something will always get you in the end. I thought here we go. Just accept it, but I’ve done very well. I’m not on any medication now.”
And his hair is back – greying and the Morrissey super quiff is perhaps not as super as it once was. “It’s real. A lot of people my age don’t have hair. They don’t have teeth so I feel quite blessed really. He was diagnosed with oesophagus cancer in 2014. “If we must go into it I had a lot of scrapings but they weren’t all painful.”
Wasn’t he worried a procedure involving the scraping of his oesophagus would affect his voice? “No incredibly,” he laughs. “In fact my voice is better, absolutely better than it was. I had to give up 150 things from red wine and beyond but that was OK because I don’t really like red wine. When you sit before a doctor and they use the C word you hear it but you don’t hear it. You just say ‘ah yes’ as if it’s something you hear every day. Your mind goes into this funny little somewhere and you say ‘ah yes’ as if you knew it all along.”
I’m not sure that’s how I would react but that’s how he reacted. He’s always been one of these people who seem to be able to dislocate himself from his own being.
“Giving up red wine was meaningless to me anyway.” Doesn’t he drink alcohol? “Just not red wine. I think you drink tequila.” Yes I like tequila. I wonder if this is some kind of psychic reading where he’s looking into my soul and seeing tequila in my veins. “Tequila frightens me. I don’t drink it but I see people drinking it and it shocks me. As soon as they neck it they are just completely off their doodas. What about gin?” Gin makes you miserable. “It’s supposed to.” Also mushrooms depress me. “Oh they are horrific. Fungus, truffles make me cry. I say to people what are you doing eating fungus? Truffles shock me and the smell. Ewwww. Garlic is also horrific.”
Morrissey has his very own blend of vegetarianism. His super food is potatoes. “I’ve never had a curry and I’ve never had a coffee. I’ve never wanted one and I’ve never been handed one. I have Ceylon tea, very very weak with an alternative milk. Cashew milk is beautiful. Dairy farms all over England are collapsing. Non-dairy milk is now 51% of the market which is fantastic.”
32 years ago when he first sang Meat is Murder, veganism was rare and largely only a handful of popstars were vegan. And a vegan diet was difficult to maintain. Now vegan food is in supermarkets, vegan restaurants springing everywhere and a 20% rise in vegan based beauty products.
“What about champagne?” he says. I’m not sure if he’s offering to crack open a bottle but I hate champagne. “I’ve never met anybody that hated champagne.” I’ve never met anybody that hasn’t been offered a coffee or taken out for a curry. “I’ve never asked. I don’t like any food where the following day you can still taste it or you smell of it or your clothes smell of it. I’m very very bland as far as food is concerned. I don’t like anything that’s potent or anything if you’ve had it, everybody in the room is aware of it and you have to run to the dry cleaners. Curry is like that.”
It’s almost as if the psyche of Morrissey is so piquant, so spicy, to make the alchemy of Morrissey function he needs to balance it with food that tastes of nothing. Not only has he never had an onion bhaji, “I’ve never had an onion. That would make me cry. It’s just too eye crossing. I’m strictly bread and potatoes. People around us are obsessed with killing things to eat them.”
People are obsessed with so many things that he isn’t. “Mmm,” he says savouringly “yes, yes.” Sometimes when you interview a person it’s a strict question then answer. No flow. Sometimes they’ll ask you about yourself in a way of avoiding talking about themselves. Very rarely does it feel like a proper conversation. Very rarely does it feel like we already know each other. So we can drift back to talking politics like two people in a conversation might.
Does he think Trump will be impeached? “It’s a long time coming and there have been multiple reasons and it hasn’t happened. It’s a shocking reflection on American politics. I understand people wanting somebody who is non-political, who is not part of a system. But not him. They thought that he was something he absolutely is not. Surely people realise it now.”
“Everything he says is divisive. It’s meant to be. It’s meant to distract you. And Theresa May. She won’t answer questions put to her. She’s not leadership. She can barely get to the end of her own sentence. Her face quakes. She’s hanging on by the skin of her teeth so she doesn’t become the shortest serving British Prime Minister in history. She has negotiations about negotiations about negotiations about the EU. I’m not a Conservative but I can see she’s actually blocking the Conservative Party from moving on and becoming strong. But as we know politicians do not care about public opinion. And she wants to bring back fox hunting.”
And this is not only “cruel and disgraceful” but signifies that May is “out of step and not of the modern world.”
Morrissey loves talking about politics, onstage and off there’s always an opinion. Then he says, “I’m non-political. I always have been. I’ve never voted in my life.”
At the last election there was a story going round that Morrissey voted UKIP. This too seems to have been simply made up just because he’s totally opposed to the Halal slaughterhouse it doesn’t mean he wants to slaughter every Muslim.
He is the most political, non-political person on the planet but there again what you think you see is never what you really see. Morrissey is the place where extremes meet. He’s shy except in front of thousands. He write about love but only admits to one proper relationship with Jake Walters, a boxer from East London. They lived together from 1994 to 1996. When he was in The Smiths he declared himself celibate and added that he hated sex.
After Walters he discussed having a baby with Tina Dehghani and in his autobiography he refers to a relationship with an Italian who he calls Gelato. He’s said in the past he’s only attracted to people who aren’t interested in him. He’s never been on a date. He only writes about wanting to be loved. Many contradictions.
“Well I’m human. I’m not interested in being part of anything. I don’t see a party that speaks to me and I haven’t ever. My vote is very precious. I won’t use it just to get rid of somebody I don’t like because they’re all absolutely the same.”
Does he think Corbyn is the same? “He has had many opportunities to take a strike against Theresa May and he has resisted. It’s hard to believe that this is the best England can produce at this stage of the game. We survived Thatcher by the skin of our teeth and somehow we’re all still alive and we are presented with Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.”
I laugh. He corrects, “It’s a tragedy. The UK is in a state of cultural tragedy, dominated by political correctness. Nobody tells the truth about anything. If you tell the truth in England you’ll lose your job.”
In this post Weinstein and #metoo era people are less afraid and there’s a lot of speaking out. “Yes but you must be careful as far as sexual harassment is concerned because often it can be just as a pathetic attempt at courtship. I have never been sexually harassed I might add. I’m sure it’s horrific but we have to keep everything in proportion. Do you not agree?”
Is it also true that he said he didn’t like labels so didn’t identify as heterosexual or bisexual but humoursexual? “No, humasexual as in we’re all humans.” Oh I thought it was only about sleeping with people that you had a laugh with as in humour. “That would dramatically limit things but certainly I think we are obsessed with labels, obsessed with knowing where we stand with other people, what we can expect them to do and it doesn’t make any difference really.”
Just like veganism being gender fluid if not sexually fluid is now much more accepted. “I know. It’s extraordinary. People seem to be very relaxed by it.”
But when Morrissey was announcing his homosexuality he was very lonely. “Yes I was. I spearheaded the movement. I know no other way so nothing has changed or me but the rest of the world leaps on. I am pleased because I want people to be happy. There is an expiration date on our lives and on this planet. You have to be yourself and hopefully get some happiness from it. It seems that everybody in every respect of their lives is coming out of their cupboard saying this is the person I’d like to be. I want to wear these clothes, not the clothes that have been imposed on me and as long as nobody’s harmed I think it’s good.”
Is it true that he’s never been on a date? “Yes I’ve never been on a traditional date. I’m not that kind of person I don’t instigate those responses in people.” Does he mean no one’s ever said I’d like to take you to dinner? “No ever never. But I’m happy with my vocation.” There’s something very nun like about him.
What does he consider his vocation? “I’m very interested in the singing voice. I’m very interested in making a difference in music, not simply being successful.”
Does he think it’s not possible to make a difference and at the same time have a date? “No. I’ve never found it to be so.” It’s one or the other? “Well, life leads me. Does it lead you? Are you successful at the cost of something else?” I’m quite shocked by the enormity of his question that not even my closest friends have ever asked me. I stammer it’s not valid because I’m not really successful.
He says “Well you’re not working at KFC are you? What were you aiming for in your life when you cycled out of Durham or Morecambe or wherever it was? You’re writing for the Sunday Times. Do you enjoy interviewing people because you like them or because you don’t like them? You might want to interview somebody in order to let the world know how disgusting they are.” He laughs, a conspiratorial laugh.
He’s interested in the way journalism works. “The Guardian you can’t even meet them half way. They are like The Sun in 1972. So obstinate. They don’t want to talk to you. They want to correct you. You can’t simply say this is how I feel because they’ll say ‘how you feel is wrong.’ And they’ll say ‘he’s racist. He should be shot, he should be drowned. And this is how journalism has changed in that it’s very difficult to sit down with somebody and simply convey your feelings. In a democracy you should be able to give your opinion about anything. We must have debate but that doesn’t happen anymore. Free speech has died. Isn’t modern journalism about exposing people?
When I was young I saw a documentary accidentally about the abattoir and I fell into an almost lifelong depression. I couldn’t believe that I lived in a society that allowed this. The abattoir is no different to Auschwitz.
He was voted the second most important cultural icon after David Attenborough. “It was beautiful but I don’t know about Attenborough’s regard for animals. He often uses terms like seafood and there’s no such thing as seafood. It’s sea life and he talks about wildlife and it’s free life. Animals are not wild simply because we pathetic humans haven’t shoved them in a cage so his terminology is often up the pole.”
Well he is old. “We all are.” Not as old as him.
One of my favourite songs on the album is the Israel. It’s a romantic hymn to
Israel. How did that come about? “I have made many trips there and I was given the keys to Tel Aviv by the Mayor. Everybody was so very nice to me and I’m aware that there’s a constant backlash against the country that I could never quite understand. I feel people are judging the country by its government which you shouldn’t do. You can’t blame the people for the rulership. Israel is beautiful.”
“Do you like Australia? You should go. It isn’t as far as you think. 22 hours on a plane goes incredibly quickly. I do like LA. London is very congested.”
Morrissey, a lapsed Catholic raised in Manchester. He went to a religious school. It was Manchester in the 60s and 70s. It was damp. It’s somewhere he wanted to escape from. Part of that escape was television and in particular soap operas. He was once offered a part in Eastenders but turned it down.
“I was invited to be Dot Cotton’s other son, a mysterious son that no one had ever spoken about who returns to the Square, doesn’t get involved with anybody and doesn’t immediately have sex with anybody as most characters who come into the Square does.”
So basically he’d play himself. “Yes.” Surely he regrets turning it down now? “Nobody in Eastenders ever says ‘No I don’t think I’m going to sleep with you so it would have been challenging for the script writers to write a character that didn’t get involved with anybody. But I didn’t do it.”
Is it too late? “For many things, yes…I was also offered a part in Emmerdale – they had a family called the King family. And I was to play an intruder in jodphurs – which I had longed to be of course – I had waited years to be an intruder in jodphurs – an intruder at Home Farm but I refused to wear the jodphurs. As they say it’s nice to be asked.”
He has no ambitions for further acting. His time being very occupied with the release of the new album and a world tour which will include China, Australia and then Europe.
“You can’t simply fold your arms and sit in your armchair and say I’m not going to China because of the cat and dog trade which is absolutely tearful but hopefully your presence can make a difference. I know many people who’ve seen me about 350 times and I’m grateful for them.”
What’s interesting now is the new generation who are searching for answers or at least to identify with the questions. The new generation who don’t want to be labelled by a political party or their sexuality. A whole generation of more dislocated souls.
“I’m grateful for them too. His only problem with not living anywhere is he has no animal companion. “I like the idea of rescue missions, especially for cats. It appeals to me greatly. I’d go from city to city and do everything I possibly could for cats.”
“I have many cat stories but there’s no happy ending because they must go onto their next adventure or we have to sit with them as they get the needle and they purr as they get the needle because it’s enough that you’re holding them. My best friends were cats throughout my life. I had one cat for 23 years and one for 22. They just walked into the house. One when I was a small child and one when I was slightly older. I won’t say they were like children because I don’t know any children that are actually nice. They were called Buster and Tibby. They were black and white. Tibby had been kicked in the face and his face was squished sideways so he’d have to be fed by hand. He couldn’t eat from a plate. He required a lot of patience but he cured himself and became a healthy, incredibly happy cat. They certainly enriched my life.”
It’s been hours now. Morrissey is too polite to end our meeting and I feel if I don’t end it now I may never leave so I do, enriched from the experience. Meeting Morrissey was like meeting a wise, battered, black and white alley cat which is the highest compliment I could ever give anyone although Morrissey is the only one who could recognise it as such.