Music » Music Review

Misery loves Morrissey



Johnny Marr discovered Morrissey--sometime after, one assumes, Morrissey invented himself--in 1982. Within a couple of years, Morrissey's strangled romanticism and Marr's extremely pragmatic guitar playing made the Smiths one of England's most celebrated bands. Besides the press's absolute infatuation with the enigmatic Morrissey--heightened by his refusal to cop to being either gay or straight, claiming, indeed, to be celibate--the group racked up hit after hit, each single powered by the kaleidoscopic musicality of the young Marr and by Morrissey's extravagant voice. Aside from the similarly inventive but musically broader Mick Jones, of the Clash, you have to go back quite a ways in English rock 'n' roll--back perhaps to the days in the mid-60s when Keith Richards and Brian Jones shared stages--to find as primal a set of guitar expositions as those proffered by Marr in the Smiths. "What Difference Does It Make?," the band's morbid first hit, was an almost obsessively propulsive workout; another early song, "Handsome Devil," contains a guitar line of almost lethal clarity. "How Soon Is Now?" (splendidly sampled, recently, on Soho's "Hippychick") is a Jimmy Page tribute that drips reverb like lava; and there are nearly a dozen others ("Still Ill," "This Charming Man," "Hand in Glove") whose riffs vibrate with the same headlong rush. It's funny--Marr wasn't influential in the least (the Smiths were an inspiration to absolutely nobody), but in retrospect he was an important bulwark against the steady erosion of serious guitar rock during the 1980s.

Marr split in 1988--since then he's become a noted session player, most spectacularly on Billy Bragg's "Greetings to the New Brunette" and the Talking Heads' "(Nothing But) Flowers," but including stints with Chrissie Hynde in the Pretenders, Matt Johnson in the The, and (currently) New Order's Bernard Sumner in Electronic, as well. Morrissey's dependence on Marr was not exactly like that of Andrew Ridgeley's on George Michael, but their relationship seemed unbalanced enough to warrant worry when Marr left about how the delicate singer would fare without him. While the honeymoon is well over as far as the British music press is concerned, Morrissey has far from disappeared in England, and while the Smiths never had any major hits here (though one of the band's last singles, "Girlfriend in a Coma," got some MTV play), America seems to have taken Morrissey to heart. His videos are regularly aired, and his show last month at the World brought out more than 10,000 ecstatic fans, which is not bad for a guy who makes Peter Pan look like John Gotti.

The only way to appreciate Steven Patrick Morrissey is by coming to terms with the Voice, as it was always billed on Smiths records. Morrissey's vocal style is informed primarily by a melange of lounge-lizard excesses and hysterical adolescent histrionics: he draws out vowels, clips consonants, yodels, yowls, drawls like a sot, and projects from the chest in that fakey way that kids do when they're trying to imitate an opera singer. It can be unpleasant, particularly if you're not prepared for it, but eventually you recognize that its very unpleasantness serves a purpose. Morrissey takes himself rather too seriously, but he also seems to know that the subjects of his songs--which tend to be made up of equal parts love unrequited, desire unfulfilled, and self-absorption untrammeled--are not exactly sexually or even socially appealing. In other words, he plays the part he sings in order to reinforce the characters' unattractiveness--in real life the characters are unattractive, because their sentiments make them--him, us--feel unattractive. None of this is new, of course (as Albert Brooks moaned in Broadcast News, "Why can't need be sexy?"), but Morrissey has to be given credit for the baroque extremes to which he takes his maudlin tales: "I Know It's Over," from the Smiths' The Queen Is Dead, concludes with Morrissey intoning the line "Oh, Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head" about two dozen times--a major downer. The lines between sex and death are always blurry: Morrissey's the first person to equate not having sex with death.

All of this is part of what makes Morrissey one of the fabulous talents working in rock 'n' roll these days: yes, all of his songs are miserable, pathetic, and weepy--the guy works in misery the way Pollock worked in paint. It's his medium. I grant you that it's a bit limited, but what he does with it is something to hear. If you were like me, your introduction to the Smiths was that grandiose, overwrought first line of "What Difference Does It Make?": "All men have secrets and here is mine / So let it be known." The big secret? A sordid desire met only rejection, something Morrissey tends to respond to physically: "I'm feeling very sick and ill today." In the Smiths' first year or so of recording, Morrissey took on happy loving couples ("Hand in glove / The sun shines out of our behinds"), the repulsive pathos of the unloved ("All the streets are crammed with things / Eager to be held"), the grossness of desire ("Let me get my hands / On your mammary glands"), and, over and over again, himself ("The hills are alive with celibate cries"; "I am a man of means [of slender means]").

The sensibility--acid, knowing, unsparing of both author and subject--is of course Wildean (Oscar Wilde is a major Morrissey hero) though you have to turn to Swinburne for some of the language, and no farther than a schoolgirl's notebook for the exclamation points, capital letters, and italics that populate his lyrics (if they were handwritten, there'd be little circles over the is): "No it's NOT like any other love / This one is different / Because it's us!"

The first two Smiths records were uneven--both The Smiths and Meat Is Murder are erratic, even a bit nerve-racking, despite Marr's playful, scintillating playing. (The must-own record from this period is "Hatful of Hollow", a British-only compilation of some live radio appearances, notably the John Peel BBC show, and a couple of early singles. For a long time, it was the only place you could get the unrelenting "Handsome Devil" on album; recently, however, Strange Fruit records has begun an American release of its well-known Peel Sessions series. The Smiths' compelling four-song session includes both "Handsome Devil" and "What Difference Does It Make?") The band's third record, The Queen Is Dead, is a sui generis masterpiece, from its luxurious cover photo (of French actor and mob dilettante Alain Delon), to it's Roxy Music-ish, utterly scandalous title track (in it, Morrissey meets Herself, who says, "I know you, and you cannot sing"), to Morrissey's utterly personal take-this-job-and-shove-it workout "Frankly Mr. Shankly," to his supreme statement of philosophical heritage:

So let's go where we're wanted

And I meet you at the cemetry [sic] gates

Keats and Yeats are on your side

but you lose

Because Wilde is on mine.

The pair followed that up in the U.S. with "Louder Than Bombs", a dizzyingly diverse and immensely listenable two-record set of uncollected singles and B-sides, and the disappointing "Strangeways, Here We Come", a rather tepid swan song (though it does contain the amusing "Girlfriend in a Coma"). Marr freaked out in the summer of 1988--he'd shouldered far too much of the psychic burden of the group's fame, and got tired of it--and the Smiths were no more.

Morrissey's surprisingly lively show at the World, part of his first visit to the U.S. since the Smiths' last tour, five years ago, was nonetheless rigidly constructed: no Smiths songs, not even a reference to his former group; he hardly uttered a word to his adoring fans. Aside from two covers, the show was a straight string of Morrissey songs, both hits and an unerring selection of the best cuts from his newest album, "Kill Uncle". (Morrissey tends to put everything--song titles, album titles, video titles--in quotes.) His band is a rockabilly foursome, the same ones who accompanied him on his dramatic recent appearance on Johnny Carson--on the show, Morrissey romped through "Sing Your Life" and a hopped-up version of "There's a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends," as Carson completely lost his cool in the face of the unrelenting din from the Morrissey heads who'd packed the audience.

Despite his ambiguous sexuality, Morrissey's appeal--and image-making--leans to the homoerotic, though his songs are cheerfully noncommittal. His fans tend to share his slender build and slightly encephalitic profile; at the World both boys and girls pressed close to the stage, screaming, crying, and tossing wave after wave of bouquets up to their hero. Often, Morrissey would lean off the stage just to stroke the buds of the blooms stretched out in his direction. In front of the band, all ducktails and rockabilly cool, Morrissey lolled spastically about the stage. He perched on monitors and tore at his sheer shirt, overemoting generally and looking roughly like a physics honors student on his first binge.

While the World wasn't a great venue for him--his command of the pavilion was fine, but his presence was nil up on the lawn--up close, the show was direct and to the point. He began with two of his best songs, "Interesting Drug," and "The Last of the Famous International Playboys," both from his recent singles collection, "Bona Drag". "Interesting Drug" is one of his infrequent forays into social comment (the most noted was "Margaret on the Guillotine" from "Viva Hate"); the narcotic in question puts young people in debt and kills their dreams. (Morrissey's the type who's going to spend his dotage writing letters to the Times about rudeness on the part of bus drivers.) "The Last of the Famous International Playboys" is a meditation on gangster idolatry (about the infamous Kray brothers) set to a pulsing guitar line, courtesy of Mark Nevin. Live, during the lugubrious, thoroughly gorgeous chorus, Morrissey stood on tiptoe on a monitor, his arms stretched out wide in a blare of white light. It was a great moment, and the crowd went nuts.

The early cover was a take on the New York Dolls' "Trash," turning the song's energy inward and reducing the speeding guitar line into a Smiths-like lilt. If you'd asked me before the show what would happen when Morrissey went eye-to-eye with the New York Dolls, I would've said Morrissey would blink; but as he enunciated the line, "Please don't ask me if I love you / Because I don't know if I do," he made the song surprisingly his own. Besides "Playboys," the show's highlight was the band's bloody take-no-prisoners assault on Morrissey's complex and tricky "November Spawned a Monster," which is a little bit about the birth of a deformed child and a lot of speculation about how dreary the kid's sex life is going to be. It sounds tasteless, and probably is, but over the years Morrissey has so effectively set himself up as an emotional cripple that you figure he knows whereof he speaks, and the song's urgent instrumentation does the rest.

The other cover was the Jam's "That's Entertainment," Paul Weller's supremely sarcastic essay on modern urban life ("A freezing cold flat and damp on the walls / That's entertainment"). Morrissey closed with the beautiful "Everyday Is Like Sunday," a vicious attack on, well, vacation--

Trudging slowly over wet sand

Back to the bench where your clothes

Were stolen

This is the coastal town

That they forgot to close down

--and finally, the last song on "Bona Drag", "Disappointed," with its unmistakable reverbed reference to Johnny Marr's famous "How Soon Is Now?" riff. Whether the line about "our unsleepable friend" is a reference to Marr's busywork since the end of the Smiths is hard to assess, but perhaps the song is Morrissey's good-bye to the band. "TO SAY THE LEAST / I'm truly disappointed," Morrissey sang. But of course he is: if he wasn't, he wouldn't be Morrissey.

Whether or not the Replacements show at WXRT's Fourth of July concert was the group's last, it sure sounded like it. The band's hour or so onstage was desultory and sad--not sad pathetic, just sad sad. The songs--nearly all of them woeful tales from the rock 'n' roll front--tumbled out one after the other, the band's attitude throughout one of thorough self-disgust. It was difficult to hear the offhand comments from either Paul Westerberg or Tommy Stinson, but they sounded cynical and hostile. At one point, Stinson asked the crowd how it was doing: he wasn't clear, the response was tepid, so he then replied something to the effect of "Yeah, well, that's why we're not going to be doing this anymore." Paul Westerberg, his youthful, defiant exuberance depleted, seemed particularly humorless. (His one great line was "Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck," a tip of the hat to 'XRT, which was broadcasting the show). But his apathy was understandable: his worst nightmare--his career being reduced to going through the motions onstage--came true right before his (and, worse, our) very eyes.

Westerberg and Stinson were the last holdovers of the violent quartet who ruined themselves trying to transfer Westerberg's jittery genius onto records and stages throughout the last half of the 80s. They succeeded only intermittently, but it's worth noting that when they did--on songs like "Within Your Reach," "Unsatisfied," "Left of the Dial," "Alex Chilton," maybe half-a-dozen others, and as often as not in their live shows--the magic that came out of Westerberg's scruffy self-deprecation ("We ain't much to look at so / Close your eyes and here we go") and the band's sociopathic attack was as wondrous to them as it was to us; no less-Olympian pretenders will ever aspire to the crown Westerberg chased. Since Westerberg so plainly was capable of capturing the imagination of an audience (it's not that easy), the Replacements' commercial lack of success does indeed seem tragic. If the group is now kaput--people around the band are being very close-mouthed and the official word from management is that this was merely the last show of 1991--Westerberg will of course continue solo, which will either open up his songwriting or demonstrate how much he needed the authenticity of a little terrorist like Stinson to keep him on track. At the end of the show, there was in fact no ending--the members of the band just straggled offstage, passing their instruments off to roadies, who then continued playing. You could practically see Westerberg roll his eyes as he left the stage, enervated and weary.

There's no sin in not being an expert on the subject of popular music, but why would a newspaper--particularly a struggling one--pay a decided nonexpert full-time wages to regularly embarrass herself, and the paper, in public in a crucial, high-profile position? Jae-ha Kim has been the Sun-Times's de facto rock critic since Don McLeese split for Austin and Dave Hoekstra stood up Jimmy Buffett for Michael Jordan. Her litany of factual mistakes (the folksinger Phranc opened for Morrissey; in her review, Kim called her "Thranc" throughout) are one thing, but somewhat excusable when you allow for late-night deadlines. Conceptual unfamiliarity with wide swaths of contemporary music is another matter.

A recent major Sunday piece was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek "rock glossary" designed to guide the uninitiated through some of the terms and concepts of today's rock 'n' roll. A lot of it was tepid humor ("Covers: Songs previously recorded by musicians, re-done by people who usually aren't"). Then came this series of definitions:

"House Music: Invented in Chicago but popularized in Europe, house basically is an outgrowth of disco, although no one really rallies to that dreaded "D' word. Heavy on the bass, house music got national recognition when Madonna bastardized it in 'Vogue.'"

"Rap: Similar to house but less melodic. Real rappers don't sing. Fake rappers nickname themselves Vanilla Ice."

"Hip-hop: Virtually identical to house music with bass-heavy grooves. Hip-hop is dance music for the coordinated."

"Sampling: Fancier version of 'covering.' Basically stealing other musicians' already recorded work. Jesus Jones' samples are deft and almost unrecognizable from the originals. M.C. Hammer's samples sound uncannily like Rick James."

Leaving aside the leaden writing and suicide-inducing attempts at humor, Kim displays so much ignorance of contemporary music in those few short paragraphs that it's hard to know where to begin correcting her misimpressions. House music came out of some Chicago dance clubs in the mid-1980s; its spacious, heavily mechanized sound is defined less by the bass than by drum machines and samples. (Describing a form of rock music as "heavy on the bass" is like saying it's played through amplifiers.) House has been popular--not "popularized"--in the European and New York club scenes, but it remains fairly subcultural. House's national hit was the noveltyesque "Pump Up the Jam" by Technotronic, not "Vogue."

Rap and hip-hop are roughly synonymous, with hip-hop being more the umbrella term--rap, you'd say, is an element of hip-hop culture. That culture, of course, doesn't have anything to do with house music; it started on the east coast ten years before, with the key early hits out of Sugar Hill records, home of "Rapper's Delight" and Grandmaster Flash. Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" was the national breakthrough hit, in 1980. Rap's influence and popularity grew throughout the 80s, to the point that "Yo! MTV Raps" is now one of the channel's most popular shows and Vanilla Ice and M.C. Hammer spent most of 1990 at the top of the charts. Defining one of the dominant musical styles on both sides of the Atlantic over the last decade and a half in terms of a sort of underground club music founded in a midwest warehouse seven or eight years ago is a little like defining the British Invasion in terms of the singer-songwriter movement. ("The Liverpool Sound: Basically acoustic rock, a la James Taylor. Sounds uncannily like Bob Dylan.") This is the sort of advanced critical thinking that has replaced McLeese, one of the better and most respected daily critics in the U.S.

Vanilla Ice is not a fake rapper: he's just a rather lame one. Kim has already demonstrated that she doesn't know what rap is; it's a bit presumptuous for her to start drawing lines like that. Her take on sampling is funny too. Sampling has nothing to do with "covering." It's recording a part of some other song--a beat, a riff, a vocal--putting it in a computer, and using it as a rhythmic element in a new song. I don't get the reference to the marginal Jesus Jones. When they played here last May, Kim wrote, "Some of the sampling . . . sounded inspired by George Harrison's sitar playing on 'Tomorrow Never Knows.'" I think she's talking about the group's "Broken Bones." The sample is not "inspired by" the sound: it is the sound. It's a recording of it.

These misapprehensions come up regularly in the Sun-Times. After a recent show by Deee-Lite, Kim wrote, "One fault with Deee-Lite is that some of its songs began sounding like covers of any number of songs from the 1970s. . . . For example, the moaning intro to 'Who Was That?' sounded an awful lot like David Bowie's 'Golden Years.' But Dmitry's sampling quickly laid down the foundation for [singer Lady Miss] Kier's vocal . . ."

Again, they aren't covers, they are samples; they sound like other songs because they are recordings of them. "Who Was That?" uses a recurring second-and-a-half snatch of the guitar riff from "Golden Years" (more noticeably, it also uses the pulsing organ sound from the Spencer Davis Group's "I'm a Man"). Having demonstrated that she hasn't the faintest idea what a sample is, Kim in the next sentence tosses off the word as if she knows what it means.

Back to her glossary: M.C. Hammer's samples don't "sound uncannily like Rick James." There's only one, and it is Rick James--the riff from "Superfreak" on "U Can't Touch This."

This is all less Jae-Ha Kim's problem than it is the Sun-Times's--newspapers are supposedly obsessed these days with staying in touch with younger readers; regular errors on this scale don't exactly boost credibility. The sad part of the whole affair is that two years ago the paper had both McLeese and Dave Hoekstra, both of them serious writers with a thorough commitment to popular music. At the same time, the Tribune had an in-over-his-head former intern named David Silverman doing its rock coverage, and performing on about Kim's level. Since then, the Trib has reassigned Silverman and now has Greg Kot, who's able, smart, and hardworking. (I've free-lanced at both the Sun-Times and the Trib and know most of these people personally, incidentally.) With the exception of Michael Corcoran's first-rate and frequently hilarious free-lance submissions, the Sun-Times's pop coverage is now pathetic. The situation between the two papers, in other words, has precisely reversed--a trenchant sign of decay at the Sun-Times.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eamonn J. McCabe.

Add a comment