What is it about Morrissey's voice that still breaks my heart?

Reading and lounging and watching.
April 7 2009 6:40 AM

Bigmouth Strikes Again

Morrissey in middle age.

(Continued from Page 1)

The Smiths took that hop-along jaunt of the Marvelettes, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, and draped over it a lifetime—Morrissey's lifetime—of mooncalfing and Weltschmerz. The upbeat and the downbeat, Barry Gordy and Gide, somehow pressed together in the same vinyl groove. The band is urging you to burst through swinging doors; the voice is urging you to return to the safety of your bedroom. Though the singer would desperately like to join the band, he's afraid his identity—delicate and strange as it is—will never survive the transition from hothouse to open air.

Well, it did that, didn't it? Predictably, Morrissey adopted the habits of the rock 'n' roll celebrity. He was tardy, capricious, and hostile to the press. The backlash against him, however, as a diva-vampire who fed on Marr's superior talents, confuses two issues. In musical jargon, it's true, Morrissey never woodshedded—he never submitted his talents to a term of excruciating refinement, as Dylan did on returning from Greenwich Village to Hibbing, as the Beatles famously did in Hamburg. But this does nothing to minimize Morrissey's musical contribution to the Smiths, not only as a lyricist but as a singer. His technical prowess may have been minimal at first—limited to about "six notes" in the middle range, as one producer put it—but his powers of emotional insinuation were vast. These came not out of the closet, not out of the woodshed, but out of the bedroom.

The word recurs frequently in his biography. Marr rescued Morrissey from his "lonely bedroom existence," writes Paula Woods in an introduction to a collection of interviews. On the very entertaining Morrissey: From Where He Came to Where He Went, a pop journalist says, "The recyclings of his early infatuations and obsessions is the extension of the lonely kid in the bedroom. It gave him a kind of comfort as he went out into the world—somehow his bedroom was still with him." Of his legendary debut on Top of the Pops, another journalist adds, "It's almost as if you're watching someone through a keyhole, doing this in front of their bedroom mirror."

Rock stars have always told a double lie: I am a superhuman you could never hope to emulate; I am exactly like you. And Morrissey has been careful not to disturb his fans' image of him as a retiring celibate who occasionally bursts from the chrysalis of his loneliness to sing directly to them—at Wembley. But the voice earns its Dylan-esque claim on our hearts when you remember its original context. 1983, the year of "This Charming Man," is the year the '80s became the '80s. Up until that point, Thatcherism in England and Reaganism in the United States had been little more than hollow promises. Then interest rates fell, the two economies thawed, and spandex was everywhere. It was the year of Flashdance at the box office, of "Every Breath You Take" and Thriller on the Billboard 100; the year of Risky Business and The Big Chill.

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If this list doesn't make you want to crawl into your bolt hole –well, you are probably not a Smiths fan. I think the word that best captures the times is heartless, as evident in the stupid rictus of Sting's face, circa 1983, as it was in Margaret Thatcher's budget cuts. No wonder Morrissey's voice sounded so fresh, so slyly subversive. As much as he publicly avowed a hatred of Thatcher, culminating in "Margaret at the Guillotine," it was Thatcherism that made Morrissey. The Iron Lady represented a hardness of purpose, a pitilessness that would allow England once again to produce winners. But also, inevitably, losers. And here is the source of Morrissey's originality. Rock singers had blasted the trumpet of Nietzschean triumph before; they had mewed like Keatsian lambs. But before Morrissey, had anyone done both? In the same breath?

"Oh, why am I such a nobody?" asks the lamb, along with the rest of us who feel ground beneath the heel of celebrity and neo-liberalism. "Look at me! I am beautiful! I am famous!" exults the conqueror, who harnesses the energy behind the new ethos. The interplay between dominance and submission, menace and fear, flowering and rotting on the vine, runs through the Smiths' best music without ever hardening into formula. Think of Marr's harrowing guitar sounds in "How Soon Is Now," set against the naked vulnerability of Morrissey's "I am human and I need to be loved." Or the music to "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now," which could double as session-men riffs for a Sugar Ray single.

This voice, the voice of the shut-in trembling on the threshold, has moved its admirers the way Dylan's moved people 10 or 15 years older than us. Both comprehended a range of feeling newly permitted the young. What a shame, though, that the wages of our Dylan were never greater than that of the suffering egoist, pining not for peace, justice, or love but for the curative grandeurs of fame, alone in his childhood bedroom.

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