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.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

Morrissey has a new album, and fulfilling reviewerly protocol, Years of Refusal is nice listening, though if you don't already have Viva Hate, Your Arsenal, or the lovely Vauxhall and I, I wouldn't start your record collection here. Morrissey will always be— in excelsis mihi— Morrissey, but he is now also firmly middle-aged. The fake hearing aid and the pocketful of gladioli are long gone; the croon has audibly softened. (It has softened, truth be told, into a bit of a yodel.) Nonetheless, Years of Refusal is competent work, and its finest moments—"Shame Is the Name," "You Were Good in Your Time," and, for sheer Meat Loaf-quality lung work, "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore"—raise again the question that has vexed me since I first heard the Smiths 25 years ago. What is it about this man's voice that breaks my heart?

Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

The first key to puzzling out Morrissey is to ignore Morrissey himself—that is, to separate out the artist not only from the man but from the "Moz," the elaborately coy public construct that has helped turn the reclusive teenage whatsit into a British icon. That Morrissey—the playful, spiteful, celibate, fourth-gender Morrissey—is a lot of fun, and in three decades, he has scarcely given a dull interview. ("You haven't got any evidence of that," he once snapped at a journalist who dared call him human. "I'm actually 40 percent papier-mâché.") Set aside the rejoinders and innuendo, entertaining as they are, and then go one step further and ignore his lyrics. Heresy, I know; Morrissey is the most yearbook-quotable lyricist in the history of the form. ("I dreamt about you last night/ Nearly fell out of bed twice/ You can pin and mount me/ Like a butterfly …") Don't allow yourself to be beguiled, however, or you will find yourself wandering down a flyblown alley filled with child murder, militant vegetarianism, gender-bending, and Tory-baiting. The man cherishes his obsessions, but it is possible to imagine him without them. It is not possible to imagine Morrissey minus onething:the suffering once inflicted on him by obscurity.

"I'm sick of being the undiscovered genius," scribbled the 18-year-old Steven Morrissey. "I want fame NOW not when I'm dead." He'd have to linger in the bed-sit five more years. In the meantime, his life consisted of: the dole, writing letters to New Musical Express, reading manifestoes with titles like "Men's Liberation" and The Female Eunuch, and taking up—and abandoning—the musical instruments traditionally associated with playing rock 'n' roll. At 19, he sang twice, poorly, in a band called the Nosebleeds and, refining his skills of lonely pop adulation, published two monographs—fanzine one-offs, really—one on James Dean, the other on his beloved New York Dolls. But New Year's Eve, 1979, captures young Morrissey best: As the clock chimed midnight, alone in his bedroom, the 20-year-old Steven ushered in the 1980s by reading Pride and Prejudice.

The horror of remaining a sensitive misfit, surrounded by the drabness of Manchester, unappreciated, misunderstood—the sentiment fades quickly into yadda-yadda, doesn't it? It's been the interior Muzak of every adolescence since child labor was banned. Yet as an epicene in a tough Irish immigrant community, an obviously creative child in a school without drama, art, or dance classes of any kind, Morrissey came by his Weltschmerz honestly. And more important than its specific content is the fact that the attitude survived almost completely intact until the moment he became a star. No competency of any kind ever threatened to pull Morrissey out of his mooncalf reverie; for Morrissey, hopelessness was never a pose. "Anyone less likely to be a pop star from that scene was unimaginable," Tony Wilson, the impresario behind Manchester's Joy Division, has said of him, and who could argue?

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Each of the four great British Invasion partnerships began with a mythic encounter, ended in splitsville, and, when the parts proved less than the whole, was trailed by idle speculation. What if Lennon had never befriended McCartney? What if Jagger had taken the later train from Dartford? What if Strummer had said no? Had Johnny Marr never knocked on Steven Morrissey's door, Steven Morrissey would have made something of himself—a DIY brochurist for the local avant-garde?—but he probably would not have been a singer and definitely not a rock star. Marr was four years Morrissey's junior and everything Morrissey wasn't: musical, industrious, perseverant, shrewd. Above all, not being an egomaniac, he knew what a band needed other than himself. "I always had a comprehensive understanding of what it takes emotionally to be a really great singer," he has said. "I always felt it was more than intellect, gimmicks, and stage presence." Marr saw something in Morrissey that no one else had—a peculiar charisma that might yet transfer to the stage. So he visited Morrissey in his bedroom.

That was May of 1982. By January '83, the Smiths were gigging. At their second show, in a Manchester club called the Manhattan, Morrissey concluded the evening by reaching into his back pocket and raining confetti on a delirious crowd. The following May, the band released its first single, "Hand in Glove." It's a solid debut but nothing compared with November's "This Charming Man," one of a handful of perfect A-sides ever produced by such a freshly formed band. Marr's guitar attack is angular, like post-punk, but also graciously melodic; Morrissey's singing has fully evolved, from the nondescript droning of "Hand In Glove," into … well, into Morrissey. "I would go out tonight/ But I haven't got a stitch to we-eeear. …" No band had ever sounded so good so quickly. The song has not aged a day, and when I listen to it, neither have I. How did it come together so exquisitely?

Over the years, the emphasis has been misplaced. Yes, the Smiths were a guitar band in the age of the synthesizer; and, true, Morrissey's angst was literate and sly. But Marr's own memory is revealing. "Our very first spark was the Marvelettes," Marr has said. "We very, very consciously wore our girl group, retro, sixties influence on our sleeves. 'Girlfriend in a Coma' is 'Young, Gifted, and Black'—the music of it. You can sing 'Young, Gifted, And Black' over it."

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