MORRISSEY AND VIOLENCE

 

The problem for Morrissey's critics is not that Morrissey supports a far-right party. Rather, the problem for them is that he doesn't support a far-right party. Let me explain: the critics' inability to successfully reconcile the history of Morrissey's lyrics and persona with the far-right creates an unbearable tension. Running alongside Marr's rise in popularity amongst liberals in recent years, this tension seems to spring from attempts to understand Morrissey's current actions and views in the context of his Smiths persona: a post-Radical fan of Wilde in NHS glasses riding a bicycle decorated in gladioli and sporting a nostalgic grimace; in this epic scenario, Morrissey wishes to somehow bring about your happiness, thus appealing to a teenage idealism bent on existential fulfillment and refracted through a dire hopelessness not borne of Thatcher's 80's but instead of a provincial Mancunian 60's flavor and replayed again through pop-infused post-punk a la "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before."

With the onset of Morrissey's solo years, the focus of his work shifted, however: now Morrissey has become the Wildean figure, post-Scandal and "veering cliffwards" on a "Speedway" towards Reading Gaol with more "Ammunition" than he can spend. He no longer wishes to make you happy; now he wants to ruin your happiness with what he perceives to be the truth amid a needless persecution by temporal authority: the ultimate martyr. With Richard Allen's "Suedehead" in grasp and "Viva Hate" onwards, Morrissey takes on a more assertive stance. "Why do you come here?" "Life is hard enough when you belong here." "When will you die?" This new position does not care about existential fulfillment, indeed it trashes it; it experiments with point-of-view in order to harness a myriad reactions and attempt to change minds, by force if it has to. Ultimately, the mechanism of experimentation has its limits and Morrissey returns to himself and the fragility of individual perspective. From dramatic images of a beloved son lost to the "National Front Disco" and soccer hooligans who, upon being asked about their raucous behaviour, reply ominously "We'll Let You Know", through the nightmarish existence of "Ambitious Outsiders" plotting your downfall, Morrissey paints haunting lyrical tunnels echoing vicious cries of "This Is Not Your Country" after which he returns to himself and pronounces to his enemy (an ex-Smith in this case), "Sorrow will come to you in the end," adding, "This is my life to ruin my own way" in "Alma Matters".

Onto the 21st century: a key lyric is written and sung which is curiously ignored by Morrissey's critics but begins to explain everything: "You have never been in love until you've seen sunlight thrown over smashed human bone." Morrissey yearns for violence; as a poet, this violence he yearns for is poetic, of course, not physical; the lyrics present an existential position that seems to state you cannot know love and Life without some exposure to darkness and Decay, all the while maintaining a variable distance from them that could be or is not reciprocal, thus bypassing fulfillment, alluded to in the question "Do you hate me?" of "I Have Forgiven Jesus" but then complicated again with "I will die with both of my hands untied" in "Irish Blood, English Heart" in which the ridiculous distances of partisanship are heavily criticized; clearly his attempt at an explanation of his cultural heritage bristling in the heat of middle-age conflict. We see that Morrissey's late-20's assertive stance of "Come, come, Nuclear Bomb," has now evolved through dark years of "losing in front of your home crowd", remembering when he "Used To Be A Sweet Boy" and exploring treacherous terrain where "The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils" and come out the other side with the seductive yet pleading "Let Me Kiss You" followed by the lush but menacing siren calls of the "Ringleader of the Tormentors" album where Morrissey states "You Have Killed Me" and then remarks dryly, "Life Is A Pigsty."

Morrissey's assertive position in his solo albums, the starting-pistol of which was "Were you and he lovers?", then can be seen to have migrated over the decades to the confidence of "You're gonna miss me when I'm gone" in "All You Need Is Me", thus paving the way for a "post-Radical revisited" position in "World Peace Is None of Your Business". Marr ascending in prominence meanwhile via his own merits, the Smiths songs in Morrissey's live repertoire begin to take on an increased significance with their return to a ghost of the cynicism of his 80's persona. The status of living legend is, no, must be cemented...but not without a price. Solo contributions like "Istanbul" in which its searching father says, "I lean into a box of pine, identify the kid as mine" (continuing the story arc of violence and accompanying shifts in point-of-view from himself to others and back again that includes "Margaret on the Guillotine", "Asian Rut", "Jack The Ripper" and "Spring-Heeled Jim" in its grisly parade) and "The Bullfighter Dies" take second fiddle to the Morrissey/Marr compositions in the regular live set, though the latter solo work resonates along the "Meat Is Murder" angle, satisfying the hungry Smiths fan (but not necessarily Morrissey fan). As the unforgiving years of criticism over questionable lyrics, politics, interviews and stage remarks fly by, Morrissey at last admits that he has "Spent The Day In Bed" before launching into a cover of Roy Orbison's "It's Over". He cannot escape the legacy of the Smiths: not only on account of their music, but because his critics who may or may not have once been Smiths fans continue to contextualize his creative focus as a solo artist through the lens of his Smiths persona which is gone and can never return except as a flower-swinging ghost that haunts us as well as Morrissey himself.

If Morrissey was truly ideologically ensconced in far-right views and racism, it would follow that critics could dismiss him as such and eradicate his presence from their social dialogue; the problem is that he is not historically ensconced in far-right ideology, making the For Britain alliance a blaring source of tension that intensifies his presence in the media field as a result. Thus, the problem for his critics is not that he is far-right, the problem is that he is not far-right. Viewing this situation through the context of his Smiths persona, we see an artist who is no longer willing to make us happy and has cast aside his original cynicism of the 80's for a ghost of it whilst playing dangerously with the far-right. This does not resolve the problem on account of it being Morrissey's private initiative to cast aside his former public image, of course, and satirizing and/or commenting upon uncomfortable topics is his right, no, as an artist, doing so might even constitute itself as his duty; further, the choice to ally himself with unpopular groups is also his right; criticizing an individual's right to change their public image and adjust their personal and occupational interests and alliances to suit the whims of the People's trends is problematic, but so is wearing the badge of a political party with obviously toxic beliefs for many people. So here we are inundated with problems and more problems using his Smiths persona as a model for understanding Morrissey's current behaviour...though it may be a perfect recipe for controversy, acrimonious disputes regarding alliances and increased media engagement by proxy.

Viewing it all through the context of his position as a solo artist, we see a man who wishes to share what he perceives to be the truth even if it upsets us, all the while admitting that he is only a fragile individual who has made many errors in judgement a la "I've done so very many stupid things" in "You Must Please Remember", much like the assortment of characters in the songs that make up his solo efforts to date. This may resolve the situation on account of human weakness and the inability to avoid mistakes; a public apology from Morrissey would surely resolve the evil of allying himself with the far-right and wrap up the "problem" in a neat bow and ribbon placed atop the gift it would be to "heartbroken" fans. However, Morrissey's historical position as a solo artist has always been to unapologetically point out the evil he sees in any culture he touches upon in his lyrics or interviews; for Morrissey, evil is universal. Is then an apology possible, in his mind? He receives criticism in the media for portrayals of violence perpetrated by white gangs in England yet no criticism of his tales that seem to celebrate the violence within Latino culture in the USA. This silence could potentially be explained with the notion that the media are focused more on the toxic ideology of the white gangs than they are focused on that of the Latino gangs; that violence under the flag of white supremacy is different than violence under the flag of Latino gang allegiances; that the violence of hate crimes stand in stark contrast to the horrors of sex trafficking and drug cartels, and are not interwoven or at least existing parallel under the heading Crimes Of and Against Humanity. The glaring fact is that the victims of these different forms of violence are equal in that they are still recipients of the pain that humans inflict upon each other in the guise of gang violence. Something is amiss here: certain kinds of gang violence are treated differently than other kinds of gang violence, though the results are the same for the victims.

Bearing these inconsistencies in mind, we might venture that were Morrissey to apologize for discussing or even allying himself with partisan-fueled violence perpetrated by whites and the accompanying ideologies, he would also have to apologize for discussing and/or allying himself with partisan-fueled violence perpetrated by Latinos and the accompanying ideologies; unless, that is, in the eyes of the media in contention with Morrissey, only violence perpetrated by whites is evil and worthy of apology while violence done by Latinos or other cultures is not. If this is the case, then it would appear the media may have monopolized evil as a whites-only affair while the rest of the world's suffering could only be but attributed to this whites-only evil, not being capable of doing evil on its own and within its own ideological parameters, be it racially motivated or not. Morrissey is unwilling to assume this patronising position due to his commitment to the multiculturalism of evil; not one race owns all of evil, other races get to be evil too; an empowerment of transgression not ashamed of triumph, illustrated using David, in one instance:

"But David, we wonder
We wonder if the thunder is ever really gonna begin...
Your Mum says: 'I've lost my boy'
But she should know why you've gone
Because again and again you've explained
You've gone to the National, to the National
To the National Front Disco
Because you want the day to come sooner...
When you've settled the score"

And, later on, Hector in another:

"Hector was the first of the gang
With a gun in his hand
And a bullet in his gullet
The first Lost Lad to go under the sod
And he stole from the rich and the poor
And the not-very-rich and the very poor
And he stole all hearts away
He stole all hearts away"

Thus, in view of Morrissey's historical ideology, he cannot apologize under the circumstances without risking what could only be defined as a peculiar kind of racist stance, albeit more acceptable in the social dialogue, that acquiesces to the idea that only whites are capable of evil, and thereby insinuating that whites are either inferior or superior (depending on how you feel about "evil"). This would not be in line with Morrissey's infamous lyric mentioned above, "I will die with both of my hands untied", eschewing all selectiveness and partisanship, featured so prominently on "You Are The Quarry". But then there is the For Britain badge on Fallon, signalling that he has chosen a political position and side. Trying to resolve the tension this way has its limits after all and we are left with more questions.

However, in light of Billy Bragg's recent criticisms, a third contextualization can be attempted with more satisfactory results. Amid a very Smiths-centric explanation of his views, Bragg asserts that Morrissey has changed; the Northern drives behind "Reel Around The Fountain" and Shelagh Delaney are invoked to elucidate on Morrissey's transformation since his early days in the Smiths. Choosing this song and its accompanying example of lyrical theft serve to flesh out the boundaries of Bragg's immense disappointment in Morrissey; Bragg finally asks certain people if, by demanding that the singer be separated from his songs, they are helping Morrissey to promote far-right propaganda. Despite the bitterness lurking behind Bragg's words, his pragmatism in focusing on an early track of the Smiths leads us to entertain the exploration of another early track, that of Morrissey's solo career, and in this case, the earliest track: "Suedehead". Perhaps this will give us a new perspective on the ideological origins of his solo career and current behaviour? And then something very disturbing becomes clear, that of the complex nature of how Morrissey has changed; the problem is not that Morrissey, as a solo artist, has changed, rather, it's that he hasn't changed, although he has changed significantly since his time in the Smiths. But he is a solo artist now and a Smith no longer. There is a demarcation point and "Suedehead" is the key. Borrowing the title from a book by Richard Allen rife with anti-social operatics, we see Morrissey fascinated with a new character, although the lyrics of "Suedehead" do not completely betray this yet; some of its companion tracks on "Viva Hate" express the interest more sharply. This new character is simply the "hero" of Allen's book: a working-class outsider who yearns for violence. Morrissey develops on this fascination throughout his solo career to the point of obsession. The necessary existential distance Morrissey formulates in the assessment we have above regarding "love" and "smashed human bone" in "First Of The Gang To Die" runs side-by-side or even competes with his expression of violence in poetic terms and not physical (again, a bypass of fulfillment) and we have a coherent vision of his creative drive as a solo artist, which is distinct from his drive in the Smiths. Morrissey does not want to make us happy anymore, neither does he wish it for himself; furthermore, the idea of being an entertainer and putting on an act in the style of a "greatest hits" artist is abhorrent to his nature. He wants to provoke us, no, he must provoke us and destroy our happiness with increasingly fervent reminders that "evil" is not selective, it is universal, and more or less acceptable depending on who you talk to, in its various formations that constitute the world's underlying barbarisms.

This might account for Morrissey's ascent from mere Wilde fan to a precarious but legendary Wildean status; as pop music's ultimate martyr he no longer reads De Profundis and fawns after it's emulation through the prison bars, like cover star Diana Dors on "Singles"; he is now the sole writer of De Profundis as Morrissey the solo artist, because at last he is free, whether he is caged in Reading Gaol or not. His Smiths persona was able to produce happiness and solace in its followers because everything was forbidden: the world is cruel and oppressive and contains not a sliver of justice, not for humans or for animals; "Or is life sick and cruel instead? Yes" and "There is a better world. Well, there must be" both pave the way for the idea that happiness is not possible in this life. This prohibition (along with other prohibitions, such as that of meat a la "Meat Is Murder") provides existential fulfillment for the audience. The Smiths make you happy by declaring in their work that you can't be happy. In the world of Morrissey as a solo artist, however, this prohibition is reversed: everything is allowed. Like St. Sebastian haranguing Diocletian from the staircase for Roman offenses against the Christians and thus assuring his martyrdom by the powers that be, Morrissey spoils our facade of happiness by declaring what he perceives to be the truth, calling out the impostors he feels make our world so miserable in the style of the ends justify the means: in other words, he is saying it is indeed possible for us to be happy, if we really want it. And when Morrissey sings Melanie's lyrics in "Some Say I Got Devil" on "California Son", we find this position of freedom on the physical plane ultimately (and paradoxically) barring fulfillment of the spirit: "And though I'd like to tell it exactly how I feel it, somehow the music hides it and conceals it."

The Smiths inhabit a transcendent region placed firmly within the obstructive nature of language: nothing can be expressed fully and correctly; still, something can be signalled within the harsh limits imposed upon it by a cold and unforgiving world. Morrissey as a solo artist, on the other hand, provides for us the opposite: a terrifying freedom of expression that always conceals; theoretically, everything can be communicated, however, what's being communicated will never fail to miss the point completely. Today, nothing is forbidden in Morrissey's world, but something tends to lose the plot in degrees; the poetic violence that erupts between these accounts for his actions and views, be they wearing a For Britain badge in New York (or anywhere else) and making odd assertions about the Chinese being a "sub-species" or why Berlin is "the rape capitol" of Europe. Whether Morrissey is right or wrong is not the issue; the fact is, in Morrissey's mind, it does not matter. The specter of Reading Gaol has been divided into two: it looms behind him as a reminder of the excess of his past inhibitions, and shines ahead like a marvelous beacon lighting the way to his ultimate and unattainable Goal, which is Death itself.

Portland, 2019