Cartwheels over Broken Glass

Andrew O’Hagan

  • Saint Morrissey by Mark Simpson
    SAF, 224 pp, £16.99, December 2003, ISBN 0 946719 65 9
  • The Smiths: Songs that Saved Your Life by Simon Goddard
    Reynolds/Hearn, 272 pp, £14.99, December 2002, ISBN 1 903111 47 1

I used to know a girl called Fiona who kept a joint diary with her friend Katherine. They wrote it most evenings in the desolate hours between the end of John Craven’s Newsround and the arrival of the ice-cream van on their housing estate, a period marked by the combustion of chip pans in the kitchens of the negligent, pans then carried hurriedly onto doorsteps and thrown into the air like torches at a Viking funeral. Fiona’s favourite book was Wuthering Heights and Katherine was always trying to grow her hair: their genius they put into the diary, which was all about how much they wanted to kill their fathers, and, more violently, how much they loved the heavily lipglossed singer in a band called Japan.

David Sylvian was his name. The girls called him David. So far as I remember, the diary was a pretty spectacular fantasia of adolescent lusts and local hatreds:

Dear Katherine, David came and took me out of my bed last night and we went for a long walk in McGavin Park and he kissed me in the carpark but I didn’t let him go all the way, not like that Morag McGregor in 104 who does it with anyone.

Dear Fiona, I wasn’t going to tell you this, but David borrowed some of my Toyah make-up last night and I told him he was a two-timing bastard and then we both cried and made up. We decided the three of us might have to run away to London Town before the summer.

My friends had never met David Sylvian, but that didn’t prevent them from inventing a planet where they all could live happily together, in a distant universe just for David and Fiona and Katherine, where the words Duran Duran would be banned by intergalactic law. Fiona knew I was turning into a literary type, so she told me to publish the diaries one day if the Beautiful Trio were abducted (as hotly anticipated) by aliens made anxious by the force of their love. I promised I would: fandom depends on the commitment of believers, and sometimes, even yet, I find myself looking into the night sky and wondering if David and Fiona and Katherine are still living out their perfect lives on the planet Canton Mist.

Readers who find the foregoing facts a bit irregular – that’s to say, untypical – may never have had the pleasure of Fred and Judy Vermorel’s excellent Starlust: The Secret Life of Fans, a book which has no trouble persuading you that the desires and preoccupations of fans are the most beautiful and worrying things about modern pop. Here’s ‘Jane’:

There was a programme on TV about what would happen if there was a nuclear war. And I think if a nuclear war did happen I’d be thinking: Is Boy George safe? . . . I remember when ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?’ first came out. I saw him leaving a club one night and I ran up to meet him. I bent down in front of the car to talk to him and as he talked he held my hand for a little while.

Afterwards I kept dreaming about horrible things happening to hands. Weird things like being in a bed and hands coming up from nowhere. And hands on their own, like in a horror movie.

And here’s ‘Marnie’:

‘Bowie,’ I said. ‘Call me David,’ he replied. ‘David, is this real life?’ He replied: ‘Oh, yes, my lovely, it is all so real.’ I was a bit puzzled at his expression, he looked so sad as he said this . . . A rope came down with ‘I need you’ written on it. I grasped the rope and it whisked me up to Bowie and we both smiled. Then we were in an airport and Bowie totally vanished. I began to get very upset and wept. I went inside a photo booth and all in a fantastic spark Bowie’s hands grabbed me (I knew they were his. I know them like I know my face in the mirror in the mornings). He snatched me inside the camera and it was hysterical. We observed all the radical changes in the appearance of people as they fiddled about with themselves waiting for the camera to flash. Then the maddest thing of all happened. Bowie and I saw ourselves in the photo machine, fiddling with our hair, eyes, face, lips etc. Then we saw ourselves leave. It was so confusing but, great!

The singer Morrissey grew up in the Stretford area of Manchester. His mother was a librarian. (‘I was born in Manchester Central Library,’ he later said. ‘The crime section.’) His father is the usual mystery: he liked football and appears not to have been close to his football-ignoring son. He got divorced from Morrissey’s mother when the singer was 17 and was later rumoured to ring radio stations insisting on his estranged son’s Irishness. Morrissey was a lovelorn fan of Oscar Wilde and James Dean, Elsie Tanner and the New York Dolls, and he appears to have made something of an art out of moping around the house in a melancholy, jobless, big-cardiganed way, dreaming of a wonderful romance involving himself and every image he ever cared about, dispensing epigrams over the bannister while his mother got busy with the Findus Crispy Pancakes. Morrissey wallowed in thoughts of Northern oppressiveness and delighted in ambitions of escaping it: he was every character in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, including the city, including the baby. If you take his word for it (and one tends to), his mission had already begun when a musician called Johnny Marr came knocking on his door asking him if he wanted to form a band. Marr was an angelic guitar player and he was able to write tunes which had energy and delicacy at the same time. Morrissey had already written some lyrics: a song about someone’s admiration for a person in a blazer. ‘A boy in the bush is worth two in the hand,’ the song declared. ‘I think I can help you get through your exams.’ There was also a second song, a ghostly number about Saddleworth Moor and the murders of children by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, a song which seemed to bring place and personality together in a way that nobody had done in British pop before. Morrissey and Marr were a couple of arch-fans, a conglomeration of good influences and proper hungers, and their band, The Smiths, would go on to be the most admired pop band of the last twenty years.

I first clapped eyes on Morrissey on 22 September 1985. It was a cold night on the West Coast of Scotland at the Magnum Leisure Centre in Irvine, and The Smiths were brewing up a humongous storm on the converted badminton courts. The audience contained a fair number of what in that part of the world are called neds[1] – razor-cropped hooligans with a happy average of one O-grade in woodwork between them – and I found myself surprised to see these ruffians tearing at their Fred Perry shirts before climbing up the amplifiers to drape themselves around Morrissey’s neck, while the singer went about his business with a giant bunch of gladioli, swinging them round his head and narrowing his eyes like Edith Sitwell. There was one devotee in particular, a young man who spent his recreational periods at our school thumping first-years and selling single cigarettes, and I watched as he paid homage to this camp bedazzler onstage and danced around with unfettered joy wearing his mother’s beads. I had no choice but to recognise that the world was suddenly making itself available for improvement, and it was all Morrissey’s fault.

I saw The Smiths again the following summer in Manchester at the city’s G-Mex complex. It was a festival to commemorate the tenth anniversary of punk and there were several more thousand neds in the audience than it would take to disfigure the National Curriculum for ever. Morrissey came onstage waving a banner bearing the words ‘The Queen Is Dead’ – more improvement, I thought – and every person present seemed simultaneously to lose all native sense of proportion. I was a Smiths fan, a position, I’d discover, only slightly less involving than being a Moonie, and the thing that made it so eminently sensible was that the person before us was a Smiths fan too – the ultimate fan – and his self-disgust and neuroses seemed to puncture the ethos of the 1980s rather nicely. The fans were outfanned by the object of their fanaticism: here was a pop phenomenon made up of pop phenomena – Morrissey’s influences were the whole point of him, it seemed, and he understood hero-worship in such a manner as to make him a new sort of hero. He also knew how to hate Margaret Thatcher and the royal family, and he sent them up with an intoxicating vaudevillian glee:

So I broke into the palace,
With a sponge and a rusty spanner.
She said: ‘Eh I know you and you cannot sing.’
I said: ‘That’s nothing, you should hear me play piano.’

‘The Queen Is Dead’

Fame, fame, fatal fame.
It can play hideous tricks on the brain.
But still I’d rather be famous than
righteous, or holy,
Any day, any day, any day.
But sometimes I’d feel more fulfilled
Making Christmas cards with the mentally ill.
I want to live and I want to love.
I want to catch something that I might be
ashamed of.

‘Frankly Mr Shankly’

That’s the sort of thing you paid your money to hear, and those are just two adjacent songs from one album. Morrissey’s entire career has pivoted on his interest in the facts of being lonely and hopeless and not very nice next to the demands of being adored and given life by people he can never quite know. All love is illicit if you don’t know where to find it, and Morrissey has built a career encountering and dramatising his own maladjustment: not the usual rock kind involving drug overdoses and blowjobs in jacuzzis,[2] but a Jack Daniels-free personal universe of irony and embarrassment, English seaside humour, fairground grotesquerie and Virginia Woolf. Like the best pop stars, Morrissey has ordained a common ground for his fans and given them a way of feeling, including a capacity to feel special for having the wit to admire him.

But don’t forget the songs
That made you cry
And the songs that saved your life.
Yes, you’re older now
And you’re a clever swine
But they were the only ones
Who ever stood by you.

‘Rubber Ring’

D.J. Enright offered a nicely disgruntled definition of postmodernism in Injury Time, his posthumously published memoir: ‘All it suggests,’ he writes, ‘if that isn’t putting it too strongly, is that something comes after something else – as indeed most things do.’ What Morrissey does as a lyric-writer and a singer is to make this coming-after a matter of homage and nostalgia, as well as a matter of self-revelation, for him and then for his audience. From the beginning of his career he has understood, as few others have, that pop eats itself: a truly adored pop star is like the greatest fan, only more so, and no one plays the part of the gushing, awkward, anguished admirer more than Morrissey. In The Smiths, he would put the people he adored on the covers of the records – Terence Stamp, Shelagh Delaney, Pat Phoenix, Truman Capote, Candy Darling, Alain Delon, Viv Nicholson, Jean Marais, James Dean – and his songs are glittering with cribs from everything he ever loved, from A Taste of Honey, from Elizabeth Smart, from Karel Reisz’s films, everything, including (especially) the Kitchen Sink, jokes nipped from Oscar Wilde, Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood. He loved to do versions of his favourite songs by Twinkle and Cilla Black and even by brand new bands (like the Manchester outfit James) who barely had any fans yet. He so yearned to be his favourite movie star that he wrote a book called James Dean Is Not Dead.

Great pop acts open up a new channel of worship. Before he was famous, Morrissey was Britain’s loudest spokesman for the New York Dolls, a one-man fan club for Sandie Shaw, and a serial scribbler of letters to the press about the people he wished he could be more like. His bedroom was festooned with pictures of James Dean, and he would turn cartwheels over broken glass for a kind word from his heroes. I remember Alan Bennett phoning the London Review in 1992 to ask if any of us knew about this singer called Morrissey, who’d just been round to his house and dropped a CD through the letterbox with a note suggesting tea. We told him Morrissey was just the bee’s knees. ‘Oh,’ said Bennett. ‘Is that right?’ And when they finally got the teapot out Morrissey wanted to spend the afternoon talking about the forgotten British comedian Jimmy Clitheroe and a host of old Ealing actresses whom Bennett had barely heard of. Alan liked Morrissey and got the point of him and soon the singer was saying in interviews that he could retire happy because he’d had tea with Alan Bennett.

That is the essence of Morrissey: his brand of loneliness and longing and hopelessness (all the stuff he sings about) is that of a person who finds it natural to have relationships with the unreachable – that’s to say, with images and works rather than people. Nostalgia is the be-all-and-end-all of pop, and Morrissey is the king of all that, so when he became a star himself (and began featuring his own mug on his record sleeves) he had succeeded in creating an audience literally after his own image, a tribe inured to the modes and manners of heightened fandom. It therefore seems perfectly reasonable that books about Morrissey and The Smiths are always by dedicated fans – people who would go round in a jiffy to Morrissey’s door with a scrawled note suggesting tea – and the work they produce tends to be written with slightly damp palms, by people who seem permanently discombobulated with admiration, a sense of betrayal keeping constant guard over their earnestness.

The author of Saint Morrissey, Mark Simpson, is an über-admirer in this style, and it follows, quite naturally, that he is also a writer with disciples of his own, having been described in reviews of his previous books as a ‘beauhunk’, ‘the gay antichrist’, and ‘the male gay Camille Paglia’, the last a duplicitous kiss if ever there was one. Simpson invented the term ‘metrosexual’ – something about men using moisturiser and being the new narcissists and a bit unfussed about who they snog, which is a concept friendly and banal enough to have been instantly taken up by American advertising executives keen to make the overwhelming popularity of Will & Grace comprehensible from a marketing point of view. For Simpson, Morrissey is the God of Ambiguity, and he prefers to call his book not a biography (or a hagiography) but a ‘psycho-bio’, though it’s never entirely clear exactly which psycho’s life we’re being invited to examine. Simpson has the fan’s brio down by heart, by turns covering his hero in glory and in spittle, and his book amounts to a happy defence of mummy’s boys everywhere:

Morrissey was a wannabe. Just like his literary role model, that other Anglo-Irish wannabe, Wilde, he was determined to become more English than the English – partly because he ached to belong, to be loved, to be accepted by England, to wrap himself up in her green hills and satanic mills, and partly because he ached to destroy her. As the lover-destroyer of 19th-century polite society put it himself: each man kills the thing he loves, the brave man with a sword, the smart man with a pop single.

‘I am only attracted to the things I can never become or get. My pop career would be finished if I found total harmony,’ Morrissey said in 1997.

Morrissey’s relationship to Englishness is, next to his relationship to fame itself, perhaps the most contradictory of all his contradictory relationships. How can such a radical be such a patriot? How can such an anarchist be such a nationalist? How can someone who wanted to drop his trousers to the Queen, who went one step further than the Sex Pistols and named an album The Queen Is Dead, who sang ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’ and openly regretted that the IRA bomb which exploded at the 1984 Tory conference in Brighton failed to assassinate the prime minister, be so fiercely loyal to the country of his birth which has tormented him so? How, in other words, can such a cynic be such an idealist?’

Saint Morrissey lunges forward in this way, less biography than critique, less critique than treatise, less treatise than pub argument, and less pub argument than doting fan letter to the one person in the world in whose company Simpson would like to be. People tend not just to like Morrissey or not like him: they either get involved with him or they don’t. Simpson has done no original work for his book – no interviews, no visits, no excavations – but he does thoroughly interrogate the feelings of the one person that matters in all of this: himself. I don’t mean this facetiously. Simpson embodies something that paper research cannot: as a dyed-in-the-wool fan, he is an embodiment of Morrissey’s impact and true meaning. Morrissey was right not to speak to him, because he has already spoken to him, and every line he wrote and every word he sang or said is now firmly invested in people like Mark Simpson, who display their allegiance as part of their character. This is what James Dean and Oscar Wilde did for Morrissey and it is what Morrissey has now done for Mark Simpson, whose opinions and locutions in Saint Morrissey say more about the nature of his devotions than a thousand fresh interviews with cousins and primary teachers ever could.

The best thing about writing by fans is that it really matters to them: nobody wants to read a measured assessment of life on the road with the Rolling Stones. Fans must be capable of hating people who don’t agree with them – they have to have the mentality of a teenager, in other words, as well as the acquisitive beakiness of the train-spotter. But despite occasional enjoyment of one another’s company, fans never really get on, and that’s because it’s in the fan’s essential make-up to imagine that they are The Only One. Morrissey, by the same token, seems to have lived his life imagining he’s the only person ever to get the point of Shelagh Delaney or Charles Hawtrey – the fan’s conceit, the fan’s unaccountable belief in the secret and singular nature of their love.[3]

Therefore it comes as no great surprise to find that Mark Simpson’s entertaining kiss-me-quick production is not much admired by Simon Goddard, another fan to write a book about Morrissey and The Smiths. ‘This is fawning hagiography posing as highbrow criticism,’ Goddard writes in Uncut magazine. ‘A strangely boring read (considering its endlessly fascinating subject) which reveals nothing about Morrissey that hasn’t been suggested more eloquently before.’ This is a rather shaming position to take, given that the ink is barely dry on Goddard’s own effort, but I suppose it would require an unusual degree of self-possession for one fan to allow himself to be caught touting the virtues of a rival. The idea is to murder your rival and take your place as The Only One. Still, what Goddard lacks in generosity he makes up for in sheer attentiveness, finding something more or less monumental in Morrissey’s every murmur, and there’s no faulting his determination to grapple with the detail. Here he is describing The Smiths’ first single, ‘Hand in Glove’, the song which took The Smiths out of their Manchester bedrooms into the arms of the faithful:

If his designs on the actual record were retro, the sleeve itself was provocatively modern with its Jim French photograph sourced from Margaret Walters’s history of The Nude Male which reinforced the single’s ‘sun shines out of our behinds’ refrain in its three-quarter-length portrait of a man’s naked rear. The overt homoerotic overtones, coupled with the lyrics of its B-side, ‘Handsome Devil’, struck exactly the kind of perplexed, outraged and uneasy response Morrissey had intended when the single was finally released in May. Such unease stretched to the families of The Smiths themselves. ‘I remember showing a copy to my dad,’ Rourke reminisces, ‘saying: "This is my first record.” He was mortified. He said to me, "That’s a bloke’s bum” and I said, "Yeah,” but when he asked me why I just didn’t have an answer for him.’

Fortunately, when it comes to matters of cover-art, as well as matters of discography, psychology, genealogy and hermeneutics, Goddard has an answer for everything. ‘Morrissey’s first words on vinyl are those of the title, his inimitable voice trembling upon each syllable with the force of a dormant human volcano suddenly erupting in a white-hot supernova of embryonic passion.’ Crikey. But Goddard manages to balance his spiritedness with a good deal of quasi-objective investigation into his subject: he goes through the lyrics with a metal comb, teasing away at the nits of influence and autobiography, the mess of emotions, longing and meaning. The book pays worthwhile attention to the question of how the songs came to sound the way they did and how that sound was influenced by producers. He also shows you the wonderful chaos at the centre of the band and its maladjusted frontman, the factor which took them from bedsit glory to implosion in five years. He does it song by song, concert by concert, and fails to miss so much as a pirouette on television that might be found revealing. Goddard would appear to be a fan in the more scholastic mode: he doesn’t say very much about himself, yet, like the more quietly devout of his pop-biographical forebears, he leaves an unmistakeable account of himself between the lines of his book. The Smiths split up in 1987, but Morrissey has continued his self-drama as a solo artist, and the nostalgia has only deepened. He now lives in Los Angeles, where new generations of unexpectedly sensitive neds (including a great number of Hispanic neds) are said to be busy finding him irresistible.

What happens to pop fans as they grow older? As with other religions, some find it impossible to leave behind: at the Star and Garter pub near the railway station in Manchester, hundreds of Morrissey clones come every month to spend an evening comparing quiffs and dancing to his master’s voice. They are armed with secret knowledge; not only can they tell you what is scratched into the run-out groove of every Smiths single ever pressed, but they can tell you what Morrissey might have had for lunch yesterday afternoon, and what his next album will be called (You Are the Quarry). But the ex-fan’s life is often less glamorous, if no less sad. It can involve drunken, late-night encounters with the old record collection, or the discovery of old school jotters, the covers of which lie emblazoned with the deadly truth of 1985, declarations of undying love trapped inside a series of smudgy arrowed hearts.

Pop music is nostalgic in its bones – it is part of Morrissey’s gift always to have known this – and fans who adhere to its magic are in love with something that was passing as soon as it was made. True fans live in exile: that is their nature, their glory and their tragedy. People who love Elvis actually love a time when it was possible to be defined by your love of Elvis; people who continue to admire The Undertones want to believe they recognise an essence that defies the present. That is the meaning of nostalgia, and pop music carries it better than books. John Peel, the Radio One DJ, said recently that he can’t hear The Undertones’ song ‘Teenage Kicks’ without bursting into tears. Every fan knows instantly what he means, for every fan must live an awkward life, forever strung between former loves and current preoccupations, dreading the moment when he goes to Curry’s and buys a karaoke machine.

Morrissey is the fan’s fan: he bears the same relation to his heroes as his hero-worshippers bear to him, and his wonderful posturings and rages have seemed to offer a way of life to people who are more or less like that. The question of integrity may simply be a sick and unhelpful one when it comes to pop. What can be said? You spend your teenage years thinking you have the answers when the truth is you haven’t even heard the questions. Yet Morrissey always seems to take pains. He has embraced his failures as well as his successes, sticking with his own sense of style, refusing to throw in the towel, as if he always knew that time would work out just like this. Meanwhile, the past goes on handsomely, giving him and his fans some kind of larger life while Johnny Rotten has just finished appearing on a nightly TV show called I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. Like millions of others around the world who think they’re The Only One, I find myself polishing Morrissey’s records with the sleeve of my best cardigan, while tossing Rotten’s into a cauldron of boiling oil.

[1] There are a couple of comical new websites devoted to the genus: www.chavscum.co.uk.

[2] People who prefer that less tender brand of rock excess should turn immediately to The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band (HarperCollins, 431 pp., £15.99, 2002, 0 06 098915 7), a book to be enjoyed strictly without recourse to the band’s music. Its pages contain a host of dramatic detail: on every other page a member of the band is being wheeled along on a gurney having his heart massaged – and it would be worth reading just for the image of Ozzy Osbourne snorting a line of live ants for want of cocaine. Motley Crüe’s tour plane had a giant cock painted on it, ‘because every time we landed in a new place it was like we were coming to fuck the city’. Here’s your average paragraph, spoken by Nikki Sixx:

‘Tommy and I began breaking bottles over each other’s head and twisting the lightbulbs out of make-up mirrors and swallowing them whole just for fun. When Vince was in a bathroom with some groupie or waitress, we’d sneak in, not because we wanted to double-team her but because we wanted to sneak the drugs out of Vince’s pants pocket while he was preoccupied. As singer, Vince had the hardest time recuperating from all the partying: he was usually so thrashed that the only way he could make it through most shows was if we called a doctor to shoot his ass full of cortisone before going onstage.’

[3] Fiona and Katherine invented a very neat way round this problem: on the imaginary planet of Canton Mist everyone got to be David Sylvian and so nobody could be jealous of anybody.