Morrissey's quiet desperation and romantic worldview continues to connect and inspire fans
Celebrity fandom is almost always based on inaccessibility. Whether it's a rock star, an actor or a politician, desire is created when you reach out for the object of passion and come up a few inches short. So what happens when you have a fanbase that is made up of people who long to find themselves, and transfer that longing onto a man who is famous for having the most enigmatic identity in recent memory? You get Morrissey fans. While they cried for Sinatra, screamed for the Beatles and do God-knows-what for Insane Clown Posse, there are few non-religious icons who have inspired the level of personal devotion in their followers as this celibate Brit, who romanticizes getting hit by a bus and equates eating meat with child abuse.
Once the frontman of the fragrantly poetic '80s rock group, the Smiths, Morrissey has inspired two generations of pompadoured softies to either sing along to "I Know It's Over" after getting dumped, or, in the case of one young Arvada man in the late 1980s, to approach a radio station with a rifle and a pocketful of cassettes, intending to evangelize this sweet and tender music to the Top 40 philistines of Denver, Colorado. The cultish need for Morrissey albums and tours continued throughout his solo career.
The most common thing you'll hear from a devoted Morrissey fan is: He understands me in a way that nobody else does. And after a thirty-year career rife with identity crisis (Is he gay? Racist? A Latino trapped in an Irish man's body?), one of the few things we can be certain of with Morrissey is that he understands fandom, the same brand of celebrity theology that he has inspired in millions of fans once burned in the chest of young Steven Patrick Morrissey while growing up in Manchester, England.
The son of a librarian, teenage Morrissey was a hopelessly shy, yet deeply passionate young man, who devoted himself to the rare glimpses he would get of pre-MTV popstars like Twinkle, Marianne Faithfull, and eventually, Marc Bolan and the New York Dolls. "I had the glummest, dreariest childhood you could possibly imagine," he said in a 1991 interview with the New York Times. "Pop music was all I ever had, and it was completely entwined with the image of the pop star. I remember feeling that the person singing was actually with me and understood me and my predicament. A lot of times, I felt I was engaged with an absolute tangible love affair."
Fetishizing the elusive and classic past, Morrissey also devoted his agoraphobic life in his childhood bedroom to the writings of Oscar Wilde and the films of James Dean, the latter of which he once composed a loving biography. His obsessive reading and rereading of the Shelagh Delaney play A Taste of Honey -- which was first produced the year before Morrissey's birth -- would lead to an endless list of near criminal plagiarizing in his song lyrics throughout the 1980s.
For the few living heroes that existed in young Morrissey's life, he overcame an exhausting fear of the outside world in order to obsessively (yet lovingly) stalk bands like Sparks, the Sex Pistols and the New York Dolls -- the last one he also composed a biography, and was president of their U.K. fanclub.
His lifelong battle with depression, combined with his urgent devotion to the arts, created a character that, when flung onto a stage and handed a microphone, inspired a generation of pop-obsessed, self-hating outcasts who clung to his every word and gesture like driftwood to passengers of a sunken ship. The Smiths came to prominence in a decade filled with urban glamor, where a Darwinian competition for wealth and social prominence inspired synthetic music videos of yachts, fast cars and material girls in their material world.
Having a clear aesthetic vision, while having no clue how to keep himself happy, Morrissey used his discontentment to write music that spoke to those who had tried, but didn't fit into the I-am-a-demigod-on-a-silver-mountain mentality that embodied the era: "There's a club if you'd like to go/ You could meet somebody who really loves you," he sings in the emotive "How Soon Is Now," "So you go and you stand on your own/And you leave on your own/And you go home/ And you cry and you want to die."
Even more bizarre than his self-deprecating lyrics was the majestic strangeness of his physical appearance. Dressed in a baggy womens' blouse and cheap thrift store jewelry, with a giant bouquet of gladioli flowers dangling out of his back pocket and a clunky hearing aid dangling from one hear (reportedly in order to boost the confidence of a hearing impaired fan who was embarrassed at her own appendage), he was the strangest site on television since Ziggy Stardust attempted to convince the world he was gay. Yet, as weird as he looked, Morrissey moved about the stage with an unbelievable grace, exuding a Brando-like quality that gave his most casual gesture a captivating intensity.
Toward the end of a 1984 Top of the Pops appearance performing "William, It Was Really Nothing," Morrissey ripped open his silk shirt to reveal the words "Marry Me" to the world. By this time, he'd come out to the press not as gay or bi, but as asexual and celibate, leading many to see his chest-scrawled proposal as a declaration of unfiltered love and devotion to his all pop disciples out there in TV land. "When Morrissey reaches out to touch you, you no longer feel lonely," said one pompadour sporting female fan in the BBC documentary, The Importance of Being Morrissey. "You feel celebrated. You feel the love of the one common sovereign which is Morrissey."
"A lot of it has to do with the intensity of him as a person," says local Moz fan DJ Maladjusted (he prefers to be known by this moniker, which references a Morrissey solo album title), who will be hosting A Night Of Morrissey at Beauty Bar, March 6. "He's kind of a no-bullshit personality. He says what he wants and fuck all what people think of it. And his fans have carried that over into their devotion for him. I once saw a Morrissey concert in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I saw grown men fist-fighting each other for a piece of his shirt."
The garment war that Maladjusted is referring to was not an isolated incident. Since his days in the Smiths, Morrissey has had a strong proclivity toward disrobing on stage to flaunt his horribly gaunt (at least in the '80s and '90s) yet playfully arousing upper body -- and at some point began tossing his wardrobe into the audience, where they ritualistically tear the shirt to pieces like starving wolves being handed a single pork-loin. The fabrics often become both items of worship, a kind of pop shroud of turin, and a status of achievement, like a Lakota warrior collecting a scalp, or a sci-fi nerd owning The Star Wars Holiday Special on laser-disc.
If Maladjusted is right, and the lack of self-conscious censorship that Morrissey lives his life with is reflected in the shameless lengths to which his fans will go show their love, then it stands to reason that the religious rituals they've created around him are also a mirror of the singer's high-minded ideologies. Known to approach radicalism in the defense of animals, the Smiths alarmed parents with the title of their second album, Meat Is Murder, in a way not yet seen previously in rock music. To this day, no meat is served in a venue where Morrissey is performing, forcing McDonalds inside stadiums to close for the night; and once forcing him to walk off the stage at Coachella in 2009 after smelling cooked meat. "I can smell burning flesh," he said, "and I hope to God it's human."
Yet another way Morrissey baffled parents and enthused outcast teenagers was his confessions of asexuality. He would repeatedly state in interviews that he had no interest in sex with men or women, yet, at the same time, he would write lyrics and design album covers that gushed erotic desire like an open vein. He would live his days as a lone-wolf monk, yet at night, he'd enter the stage and unleash a libidinous rage on the audience, strip-teasing for them and flailing his tender skin about the air while singing lyrics of isolation like, "I've got no right to take my place in the human race," and "last night I dreamt that somebody loved me."
Whether gay, transgender, or the myriad of other ways that a young person can be sexually exiled from society, Morrissey fans saw a beacon of understanding in their repressed prophet, knowing all too well what it is to feel intense biological longing with no available action to be taken. This leads many of them to cut their hair into sycophantic pompadours, showing up to his shows with wrapped gifts, which they hurl onto the stage, along with desperately flung gladioli flowers.
Though it's not just LGBT hipsters that respond to Morrissey's enchanting body and lurid stage-presence. "Young heterosexual men -- and now old heterosexual men -- respond to him at a homoerotic level," says writer Will Self. "[His performance] speaks to the homosexual component in a lot of heterosexual men."
Like the enigma of his character, the people who call themselves Morrissey fans can be equally baffling -- not for who they are, but for who they aren't. Considering Morrissey is known for being a tender, vulnerable, intellectually effeminate singer who loves to reach those high notes, a surprising number of his fans hail from very masculine cultures, such as North England's football hooligans, or the straight-as-a-gun-barrel males of East L.A.'s Latino community.
In his 2002 essay, Viva Morrissey!, pop-culture academic Chuck Klosterman visited a Morrissey convention in Los Angeles -- expecting to find a lot of indie-rock white kids fresh from their Vespa trips to Urban Outfitters, Klosterman was surprised to be faced with a crowd estimated to be around 75 percent Latino. Interviewing a "cut like marble" twenty-year-old named Cruz Rubio, the intimidating young man confessed, "Sometimes I lay in my bedroom and listen to 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out' and I cry. I cry like a little bitch, man."
After hypothesizing on how it came to be that Morrissey found a home in the unlikely hearts of Mexican immigrants (perhaps that Morrissey's family immigrants from Ireland, or maybe it was his embracement of rockabilly and 1950s "greaser" culture), Klosterman theorizes. "Maybe it's just that Latino kids still hear what conflicted bookworms heard during the Reagan administration: the soul of a man who's tirelessly romantic, yet perpetually unloved. Assembly-line stars such as Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias simply can't touch the authenticity of Morrissey's quiet desperation."
Yet the electricity a true-believer feels while listening to "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want" on their headphones during a rainy day is not transferable. Like the title of The Smiths 1987 compilation, The World Wont Listen, fans have been preaching the gospel of Morrissey for three decades now, insisting to parents, co-workers and frustrated girlfriends that if they just sit and listen to "Reel Around The Fountain," one more time they'll understand what all the fuss is about, and how much better life will be once you've converted.
But it rarely works. If you get it, you really get it -- but if not, you most likely hate the man. This is ultimately the plight of James Kiss, the eighteen year old Arvada youth who packed his backpack full of Smiths cassettes, threw his newly purchased rifle in the car, and headed toward a Lakewood radio station with the plan of assaulting the airwaves with the urgent crooning of Morrissey's voice.
Kiss ended up surrendering his gun, perhaps with a realization that no one can be persuaded into being a Morrissey fan. It's nothing that is chosen; rather, it's in your DNA -- it chooses you. All it takes is being born with an above average eccentricity, combined with a good measure of self loathing and a cripplingly romantic worldview. That, along with a few records under your arm and some gladiolis in your back pocket, and your off.
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