Monthly Archives: April 2014
Morrissey has been much on my mind. (This piece is a continuation of its preceding post, called Flight.)
He’s re-booked Lincoln’s beautiful Rococo Theatre and I am happy to report that we have a table and seats reserved for the upcoming May show. While anticipating the concert and having just finished his book, I decided to share a few thoughts in review.
Okay – a deep breath…
Criticism comes naturally to some. Probably because I am thin-skinned, it does not come to me so easily. I tend to think of myself this way: I am loyal. When I am IN, I am ALL IN. For example, I bristle at the lukewarm, “What have you done for me lately?” attitudes that people take about their once-revered entertainers and athletes. In fact, I despise that. But after only short reflection, I fear that in this regard I am as guilty as anyone else – regularly discarding my favored stars of music and film once I judge them to have overreached or to have become too popular.
This is a confession, and not an easy one. It is difficult because in these moments of painful recognition – when we realize that we are thinking and behaving in ways that we dislike – to paraphrase my old friend Brent, “we cast the darkest shadows on ourselves.” It is when we hate most intensely within ourselves those outward qualities that we have come to hate in other people.
Morrissey, Autobiography (New York: Penguin, 2013) 454 pages.
I love this artist, and I wanted to love his book, so writing anything even remotely negative about Morrissey’s long, dense, and poetic Autobiography feels a bit like betrayal. But here goes…
One of my idols is a man who, throughout his life, has come to feel so consistently let down and unsatisfied, (perceived as a “spectacle of misfortune,”) that his book was difficult to penetrate and somewhat harder to enjoy. I knew better than to expect a bright warm jaunt through the life of an international pop icon, but the clouds cannot always be greyest over Morrissey, can they? Sometimes the sun must shine, and I really had hoped for more joy and more good times.
Vain hope. The book is generally rather dull – it casts the pervasive unwelcoming and perturbed vibe of misanthropy. Besides the fact of being ALWAYS misunderstood, it seems there are only a few things about which he is certain. Among these are his perfect taste, strong opinions, and his vast talent. Everyone else mostly falls short.
About many people and situations he is sometimes merely bitchy:
“… Siouxsie [Sioux] is wearing reflective sunglasses so that her eyes are not visible to anyone, and instantly her demands are barked out with a voice of punished ferocity. Within eight seconds she seems to have alienated everyone in the room…”
Often he is completely savage. During a “life-giving” festival appearance by the Smiths, Morrissey writes of Factory Records founder and the festival’s organizer, Tony Wilson:
“…[Wilson] flutters and fumes backstage … and he spends the remainder of his life with a Morrissey–Smiths wasting disease of the lower limbs, whilst oddly admitting that his big mistake in life was that he didn’t sign the Smiths to Factory…”
Adding to the book’s difficulty was the stylistic lack of clear breaks for chapters, stories, or themes. Other than some occasional double spacing, the episodes run into one another. The book’s only real pattern is chronology – so besides things being laid out more or less in order, we don’t have much in the way of signals about how to read, for instance, when has one bit stopped and another is about to begin.
Another stylistic source of annoyance, (and here, writes the wee blogging pot to the mega-star kettle,) the prose of Autobiography is mostly overwrought. It is well done in bits and pieces, but to read at any length, it is swampy:
“The post-volcanic black worn by the school nuns and their monastic sheepish priests shapes the subtle effects of oppression; they know their time has gone, and the spinster-faced have seen the door close for the last time.”
In many ways the contents of his book are put together like the lyrics of his songs – remarkably observed pieces of a life that make the ordinary seem extraordinary – partly because the observations are relatable. But in the assembly the contents run and mush together. I wonder what kind of book Morrissey may have come up with if he’d structured it differently. For instance, what if he’d broken it into manageable and defined episodes or chapters? He may have presented the world with a series of beautiful, cohesive, and coherent chapters – think of The Beatles’ songs Norwegian Wood flowing into You Won’t See Me on Rubber Soul; nearly perfect songs that one can relate to, and that are two or three minutes long. Instead we find Freebird running into Truck Drivin’ Man by Lynyrd Skynyrd (Skynyrd’s Innyrds) a couple of tortuous messes that clock at ten and five minutes respectively.
To be fair, there were some lovely, sunny pages in Autobiography. It was fun and familiar to read of his youthful thrall to poets, music, and musicians. He gives favorable impressions of other pop stars: he mostly worships New York Dolls; he vacillates in affection for but mainly respects the artistry of David Bowie and Bryan Ferry; he adores Chrissie Hynde and Nancy Sinatra. And there are heartbreaking losses, friendships, and artistic triumphs – for example there is genuine warmth and closeness that he sometimes felt with his Smiths co-founder, Johnny Marr. But the demeanor of Morrissey’s cloudy public persona, made for far more gloomy pages than bright ones.
I do love this artist – few have meant so much to me. It is a bad mistake sometimes to meet one’s idols – and often dangerous to learn too much about them. It’s a mistake I continue to make.
His book was a miss for me, but I can’t wait to see him perform again soon. By then I will have forgiven Morrissey.
His lyrical genius, wonderfully distinct voice, and peerless commitment to material have made Morrissey a huge international star, and one of my favorites for all-time. Ranging from early to recent, here are a few examples of his mastery:
http://bit.ly/1nuquqH – The Headmaster Ritual by the Smiths, from Meat is Murder, (Rough Trade/Sire 1985).
http://bit.ly/QGdBMK – Half a Person by the Smiths, from Louder Than Bombs, (Rough Trade/Sire 1987).
http://bit.ly/1ijMv8Q – Dial-a-cliché by Morrissey, from Viva Hate (HMV/Sire 1988).
http://bit.ly/1iWyrBH – Black Cloud by Morrissey, from Years of Refusal, (Polydor Records 2009).
I think his chart numbers are surprising: http://bit.ly/1fbfyvW
– 25 april 2014
Like anyone who ever has been young you probably shared with me the natural adolescent aches of isolation. Real or imagined, isolation could make us feel anxious, acutely misunderstood, and put upon. It’s damned confusing to grow up – one wants so much and sometimes so little seems available.
We knew that there were cool things out there somewhere, and we were busy learning the terrible lesson that we would not get to be in on all of those cool things.
Not all the time, but sometimes the psychic and emotional yearnings that accompany youth were compounded for me by what felt like actual isolation. Real or imagined, a gargantuan physical distance seemed to lay between me, being in the center of Nebraska, and those places where anything existed that was actually cool. The proximity itself was painful.
Fortunately I was paying attention when the gods sent me the clues to climb through a portal out. I was given access to a passageway that would lead from our desert of cultural blandness to a mind-nourishing oasis dripping with cool stuff.
The portal was Night Flight, a four-hour show that ran on the USA Network on Friday and Saturday nights from 1981-1988. I devoured it.
During high school and college this pop culture late-show was always eye opening. Most formative and memorable to me were the odd mixtures of film and music videos that were unavailable to me elsewhere. They overshadowed the forgettable comedy and topical commentary which acted as filler.
Each week would bring a movie to surprise and feed a hungry mind. Eras and genres were jumbled. Camp classics in the vein of Reefer Madness mixed it up with sci-fi or classic horror like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Foreign films shared the screen from week to week with the cult features Breaking Glass; Rude Boy; and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. We were presented with art films of Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol, such as the graphic Flesh for Frankenstein, alongside mind-expanding experiments like Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool and David Lynch’s Eraserhead.
There was also a good chance that you could catch a music video that you wouldn’t see anywhere else. Along with MTV’s 120 Minutes, Night Flight was a treasured TV venue for hearing some great songs for the first time.
Sometime early in 1985, (probably between mid-February and mid-March,) Night Flight aired a music video that would shake me roughly awake. I was 19. The video featured dizzying, bleak shots of a cityscape – smokestacks pumping polluted black clouds into a grimy sky; panoramic shots of anonymous looking buildings and of towering, arched train bridges. There were mysterious, dark, nighttime shots of a very plain, very pretty girl dancing wildly in a spotlight against the background of a plain, stone wall – she wore a red sweater and a her delightfully insistent blonde bob refused to be contained in her red tam-o’shanter. Most jarring were the few jittery frames of a thin, handsome young man contorting his angular dancing body, and who spouted poetry in his hypnotic song, asking, “How soon is now?”.
My eyes flew open wide and my blood quickened. Here was flight. The brilliantly manipulated guitar music that this band conjured floated and swelled and made me want to soar, while the hypnotic, driving drumbeat created its own gravitational pulsations, forcing me to stay back on earth. My obsession with the Smiths commenced, and I embarked on an obsessive crush of fascination with Morrissey, the band’s singer.
Apparently, the Smiths were mortified by this music video that their label (Rough Trade) made as a promotion and without their consent. It is still mesmerizing: http://bit.ly/1hW3meB
My Smiths/Morrissey obsession has waxed and waned – temporally bookended by that late winter of 1985 and now, the spring of 2014. Closing in on 30 years, I strongly suppose that it will continue as I breathe on into the ever-expanding present.
Symptoms of obsession:
- Even now, at the age of 48, I recently removed the dust jacket from Morrissey’s Autobiography so that the photo on the cover would not be damaged from over-handling while I read the book. (Yes, I did.)
- A couple of years ago, with my wife Judy saving my place early one morning, anticipating a long line of fans, I waited in front of the Rococo Theatre in our hometown to buy tickets to see him sing. (Yes, we did. And in the age of online ticket sales the physical line that summer morning consisted of just her and me together.)
- Morrissey would postpone that concert twice, and finally would cancel his third intention to perform in our town. Even though each of his reasons was valid and true, obsessed, I would take each brutal postponement and the cancellation quite personally.
- When last we saw him perform in May 2007, Morrissey took the Orpheum’s stage in Omaha. Here was a man. Once wiry and athletic his body had grown unapologetically thick and his hair a bit thinner. The fluid and willowy young rock god had blossomed into regal and fuller-figured middle age. While he was still graceful and elegant, Morrissey displayed the purposeful, decisive grace of a whale and no longer the playful, agile grace of a dolphin. Wearing what appeared to be an expensive, tailored, handmade red silk shirt, at an orgiastic moment of the song (perhaps it was the gorgeous and aching I Am Hated For Loving,) just like the old days, Morrissey bared his torso, ripping open the front of the beautiful shirt, buttons sent flying. Craziness. He mopped his glistening white chest and tossed the shirt into the adoring hands of the audience. Judy’s eyes widened, her eyebrows rose immediately and so far that they nearly left her forehead. She began to laugh in disbelief.
“Who,” her laughter and eyes seemed to say, “rips off a shirt looking like that?” Obsessed and overprotective, I met Judy’s laughter with an unforgiving scowl of disapproval. “Who,” my serious look to her asked back, “chuckles at the thrilling decision of a DIETY, when he chooses to remove his shirt?”
My generation’s Oscar Wilde, our Frank Sinatra and our Elvis Presley, has re-booked the Rococo Theatre, and Morrissey will be playing Lincoln next month. Without waiting in any lines, (real or imagined,) we have a table and seats reserved. Between anticipating the upcoming concert and having just finished his book, this giant of modern entertainment and provocation has been much on my mind. Next time, I am going to share a few thoughts on his book.
This video, compiled from live performances, can give you an idea of the kind of worship that this artist inspires:
http://bit.ly/1hlvDyN “Will Never Marry” by Morrissey, from the compilation album Bona Drag (1990 HMV/ re-released 2010 EMI).
His voice is underappreciated:
http://bit.ly/1mUpD2c “I Am Hated for Loving” by Morrissey, from Vauxhall And I (Parlophone Records 1994).
11 April 2014