For an artist who has widely shared his heroes, his obsessions, and his occasional anger, Morrissey remains an enigma, retaining a certain aura of mystery one normally associates with a different era. He is a rock original who has no rock and roll habits. He doesn't do drugs or drink to excess. A vocal vegetarian and a man who has a way with words, he is the ultimate iconic ironic. A man who lives in the heads of his fans, but remains myth-like and remote. A familiar stranger.
Morrissey is the perfect fan turned perfect star. Even before fame came calling, he was championing the New York Dolls, James Dean, and a sundry collection of obscure girls, suicides, and failures. An advocate and patron of the lost and ignored. After fame arrived, he continued to do so, a rare example of compassion in a business where everyone is out to talk, and talk, and talk even more, about themselves. He has become the bard of coy wit and playful ridicule, his recent success eclipsing the seven-year silence in which he released nothing. Contentious and mocking, he manages to render his interior world a source of pleasure for his adoring public.
Few stars are as loved as Morrissey, but then few stars are like him. He has remained consistently the same, a touchstone of familiarity in the fickle world of Pop. The crown prince of indie, he has rendered his Englishness a commodity that has worldwide appeal, dragging such British oddities as the comedians Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Williams into rather unfamiliar and foreign limelight.
Quotable and sharp, he is something of a throwback in a cheap world of disposability and the fleetingly cruel fame of "reality" and "talent" television. Unlike Bowie, he hasn't been a trend chameleon trying to catch terribly inappropriate passing bandwagons. An enigma with a Pandora's Box of obsessions, he is a unique character, but what informed the creation of this charming man? His librarian mother certainly fostered his interest in books.
As a child he took refuge in the stories of Oscar Wilde, and a passion evolved for the martyred dandy, a fervor he still retains; this fixation is the basis for Len Brown's wonderfully readable Meetings with Morrissey. Brown attempts to slip behind Morrissey's facade by attempting to deconstruct him via his eclectic interests. As a premise it initially works, but in the end it fails to reveal the inner workings of a complex personality.
It begins with the author and his subject meeting at the Cadogan Hotel in the room where Wilde was arrested for his homosexual dalliances, before his vilification and sentence to two years hard labor. He spent his final years in Parisian exile, dying in poverty, deprived of his children, at the age of forty-six. This tragic, almost Christ-like persecution resonated with the shy boy from Manchester, who had few friends and was always something of a loner.
Over the years Brown has become a reluctant Boswell to Morrissey's rather elusive Dr. Johnson. Recognizing the veiled nature of much of his conversation, he delves and dives, and creates a figure that is both honest and elusive. Any effort to pigeonhole the former Smith fails, but what emerges is a likable man, who draws comfort from former times when Britain seemed to be a better place because life moved a slower pace, and things had their place.
Morrissey appears to be essentially an outsider who is attracted to the bashed, broken and vilified. A singing Statue of Liberty, he gathers up these poor wretched creatures, and tries to repair their lives, even if posthumously, as in the case of the late Jobriath, the maligned American Glam star who succumbed to AIDS in 1983, whom he has single-handedly championed in recent years. Brown's idea works, but the enigma retains that intoxicating air of mystery.
Brown's investigations don't crack the illusion; by his meditations he enhances it. Morrissey remains the Garbo of rock that speaks, but coyly, in aphorisms, and with conviction. It gets him in trouble, but that is precisely why he is interesting. His long-maintained celebration of the celibate life has whetted many a curious hack's appetite. In Brown's book it would seem that he is just as he claims.
Perhaps he hasn't got as far as Gore Vidal, who advocates that we should only have sex with people who we really don't like, but it remains a spurious topic for the curious. It matters little. Few other artists have emotionally triggered and emotionally liberated their audience in the way Morrissey can and does. George Michael is no more interesting than k.d. lang. In fact, knowledge of the flesh they prefer adds nothing to the appreciation, or indeed the content, of their work.
Rufus Wainwright, Pete Burns, and the Antony are entirely different because their gender orientation fires and informs their art. I guess it depends on the gay one is discussing, or in Morrissey's case, the celibate.
Wainwright has encapsulated the problem thus:
"Whether he's gay or not, he is the gay Elvis. He is among the greatest entertainers of our time. The banter, the dancing, the stage-craft, it all conspires and you know exactly what Morrissey is. He is heroic. He is a total package, like Dean Martin or Prince."
In the final chapter Brown over eggs the Oscar Wilde thing, which is rather a shame. There's Wilde in the woodwork, behind the chair, in whispers misheard. Morrissey makes no secret of his passion for the Irish wit, but Brown makes too many connections that really don't hold water, and does Morrissey something of a disservice in the process. He is more than his major influence, despite having borrowed and stolen from him for all of his creative life. Where Morrissey has succeeded is in his ability to harness his interior world by drawing upon it for his own art. By so doing he has created a shared experience for his audience, which is where genius arrives.
He loves old British black-and-white movies such as A Taste of Honey, Carry On campers like Hawtrey and Williams, deathly drunks like Yootha Joyce, and Coronation Street vixens like Elsie Tanner. He brings them on as ushers to his world. Whilst in The Smiths, he draped his heroic divas and deviants over his record sleeves; being a fan became educational, and indeed Brown in the final pages lists many of Morrissey's figures of fascination. It is an assortment of strong women, effete men, drug addicts, and transvestites. In this collage of oddities, what does it reflect of the man in question? They are all components of himself, which he has honed into aspects of his audience like tiny arrows.
Len Brown has written an entertaining and informative work. It isn't a biography as such, but it does make Morrissey a more flesh and blood reality. If you don't like him, it might just convert you. If you do, it will divert you. Love him or loathe him, you cannot dismiss him.
Morrissey once referred to the passing of Charles Hawtrey as "the last death wheeze of the real England." He could easily have been penning his own obituary. By his desires you shall know him, but never completely. There lie the mechanics of enigma. We are all composites of our earthly desires, but some make better jobs of hiding the stitches than others. Morrissey, the master tailor of words and gestures, wears his influences terribly well.