He Just Might Die With a Smile On His Face

If you grew up in the 80's but only became aware of that decade's pop cultural significance in the 90's — just as an appreciation for jangly Britpop guitar riffs and clever songwriting was on the upswing again — then … Read More

By / December 1, 2006

If you grew up in the 80's but only became aware of that decade's pop cultural significance in the 90's — just as an appreciation for jangly Britpop guitar riffs and clever songwriting was on the upswing again — then you probably attribute the following defeatist sigh to the most-covered song by The Smiths:

I am the son And the heir Of nothing in particular.

Now try this:

Fred felt that he made a wretched figure as a fellow who bragged about expectations from a queer old miser like Featherstone, and went to beg for certificates at his bidding. But — those expectations! He really had them, and he saw no agreeable alternative if he gave them up; besides, he had lately made a debt which galled him extremely, and old Featherstone had almost bargained to pay it off. The whole affair was miserably small: his debts were small, even his expectations were not anything so very magnificent. Fred had known men to whom he would have been ashamed of confessing the smallness of his scrapes. Such ruminations naturally produced a streak of misanthropic bitterness. To be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular, while such men as Mainwaring and Vyan — certainly life was a poor business, when a spirited young fellow, with a good appetite for the best of everything, had so poor an outlook.

Disaffected and dissolute youth, a mounting boredom with the world and all who inhabit it, and an egomania to launch a thousand clinical studies. George Eliot knew what she was doing, all right, and so did Morrissey. Those expectations! They could easily give way to what Kingsley Amis once termed the "Silly Little Boys School" of English versifying, a remedial and rather "wet" class of which specializes in "Delight in the height of the night."

Part of what made Morrissey the maudlin pop poet of more than one continent, and more than one generation, is that he knew he was never cutting so terribly bold and dramatic a figure on the landscape of adolescent anomie. He was smart enough to stay conscious of the proud tradition of mopes, sulks and heavies that had gone before. Rather than go Sylvia-Plath-with-a-penis, he used wit and humor and not a little sexual "ambiguity" to get the job done. More often than not, the ambiguity shaded into jaw-droppingly obvious allusion. The album Bona Drag, for instance, was named for a gay vernacular term from swinging 60's London, and the track "Piccadilly Palare" is as much about English rent-boys as "Hairdresser on Fire" is not about a Figaro with high insurance premiums. (People who say Morrissey was always "asexual" are like those who argue that Brideshead Revisted is a lasting paean to platonic male friendship on the quadrangles.)

Indeed, if anything was proved by 2004's You Are The Quarry, it's that Morrissey has grown more heteroerotic with age. There was some chatter about a "woman of my dreams" in the song "I'm Not Sorry," even if she never made an entrance because "there never really was one." For obvious reasons.

Morrissey's politics have gotten more hamhanded and plodding, too. The harmless anti-Thatcherite/meat-is-murder stance worked well in America when he wasn't an American. Now that he lives most of the time in California, he's a broken spigot of moral comparisons between Bin Laden and Bush and Blair (the FBI even opened a case file on him for some of his shriller rhetoric.) Maybe this is overcompensation for the fact that David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party in England, is a major votary of "The Queen Is Dead." Cameron doesn't care that the title isn't exactly flattering to his "base;" he's a Tory for the new millennium and plays the song at his campaign rallies.

Which I suppose is one way of noticing that the phenomenon of Morrissey has been better defined by the audience than by the act. Depressing though all those cris de coeur may have been, some of the people who mouth them at concerts are downright creepy. Just look at all those mini-Altamonts of the heart occurring everytime someone tried to rush the stage and abscond with a hug or buss on the cheek of the least touchy-feely frontman alive. (One woman actually went so far as to make an independent film about stalking Morrissey, a level of obsession taken only few degrees higher than that of the characteristic cult follower.) While Morrissey's sincerity was never really in question — he always came off as not giving a shit in interviews, and other musicians who know him attest to his eccentricity as not even coming close to being a stage persona — there was always something contrived about his love-hate relationship with his consumers. It's not really so awful living a drafty old castle in the Midlands and having limited responsibilities (save for "Don't let the band break up") and, unlike Fred Vincy, no impending debts — at least not so awful for a working-class Irish boy from Manchester.

Nick Cave, another singer-songerwriter in thematic league with Moz, if much more "Old Testament" in his own approach, was once asked if he ever imagined, in his twenties, that he'd be where he is today. His reply was along the lines of, "I never imagined I'd be alive today." Coming from Cave, it's scary because it's true. Morrissey's low-burn death wish, on the other hand… It might not necessarily be a coincidence that he hit the peak of celebrity at 24, the same age as James Dean (an early idol) was when he inked that first-look deal with legend on a Los Angeles freeway. Weepy, sentimental Keats was also 24 when he bit it, though that's not the poet famously on Morrissey's side… “Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern; one is apt to grow old fashioned quite suddenly," wrote Oscar Wilde in a moment of extreme self-parody. He might have added that nothing grows older faster than arrested development. It was a near thing for the Pope of Mope there for a bit. Luckily, he got his De Profundis in early, the better to keep the graying imitation pompadours coming to his sold-out shows, with him ripping his shirt off at 40. "I love you all," he confessed last year, halfway through a set at Radio City Music Hall.

He seems happier now.

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