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."

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.

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.