Next week I’ll take the long walk down the quay to see Morrissey perform live for the umpteenth time. It’s more of a duty than anything else at this stage, I think: like my annual subscription to the Resident’s Association here, none of whom I really know, whose purpose I don’t really understand and yet who, one day, may spring to my rescue when I most need them. So yes, I live in hope that, maybe once more for old time’s sake, Morrissey may discover his form in front of goal, keep his gob locked shut and pull himself up off the floor. Which isn’t beyond the contrary old street slugger, even if his recent formlines are far from convincing.
Indeed the last couple of shows he’s played at The Point Theatre in Dublin have captured much of his long solo career in microcosm. Uneven and disengaged affairs, by and large, with the odd dash of brilliance: enough to help retain an interest and to ultimately frustrate you. The impotence of Earnest, if you like.
The venue itself is a real problem. With its wide-open spaces, cold concrete finish and notorious sound traps, The Point is a depressing place to see any kind of half-interesting act: subtlety and lateral thinking are simply impossible there. And it certainly hasn’t been a happy setting for Morrissey for whom, as his audiences have become more selective and older, the place has just become too big. That the venue boasts all the charm of a working abattoir brings another layer altogether to his performances there.
A few of us still well up when we remember the night, back in November 1995, when Morrissey opened for David Bowie on a doomed double-bill that, in theory, was a dream ticket. But, plugging his atrocious fifth album, ‘Southpaw Grammar’ [diehards and disciples refer to it as ‘misunderstood’], he languidly ploughed through a dozen numbers, struggling to stroke up the engine in front of a half-empty hall.
Morrissey despised that tour by all accounts – the idea that he might play second fiddle to anyone, even Bowie, was far less attractive in reality than it might have been on paper – and, from where we stood, just in front of the sound-desk, desperately trying to work up a thirst, that feeling was mutual. We lasted half an hour of Bowie’s set – he was promoting a misunderstood issue of his own, ‘Outside’, and couldn’t wait to get back up into the familiar, welcoming arms of The Stag’s Head, where the porter and the loose talk took us well into the small hours. During which we cursed both of them long and hard.
It’s no co-incidence that Morrissey’s most magnetic solo shows in Dublin, from his very first in The National Stadium in April, 1991, when he was supported by a startlingly fresh-faced Would Bes, have gone off far from the hollow blow down in the docklands. To my mind he’s been at his most dynamic in The Ambassador [October, 2002], The Olympia Theatre [December 1999 and April, 2006] and Vicar Street [July, 2011] when, in good voice and injury free – and plugging his better material – he came alive at close quarters, making light work of the fourth wall as he ploughed head first through it.
Morrissey’s appeal – and to be fair, he can still clearly mobilise a crew and inspire a mania of sorts – has long been determined by the instinctive, direct-to-the-face connection he forges from author to reader, from stage to pit. Many of his live shows in this country, as has long been routine elsewhere, have been hijacked by those fervent loyalists who see them, not merely as concerts, but as semi-private novenas. Biding their time and scoping the geography, they’ll eventually take their chances with the security detail, mounting the stage and hoping for a quick touch of Morrissey’s relic before being escorted off.
However unpredictible he can be – on record, on stage, on tape, on the printed page – Morrissey is still a formidable concern when he’s fully fit. But into the veteran stage of his career now, it’s far more difficult for him to shake the routine knocks, many of which he inflicts himself. And the more he’s been unable to keep his mouth in check, the rattier and more dislikeable he’s become.
Reading some of his more bizarre and dangerously loose political views might lead long-time watchers to conclude that, perhaps, he’s just given up the ghost. Knowing that, on another level, the ghost – the media, the music industry, the marketplace – has long since given up on him.
It wasn’t always like that, of course. I was there on Saturday night, April 27th, 1991, on Dublin’s South Circular Road for what was, in effect, Morrissey’s first full-bodied live date as a solo performer. Pre-internet, pre-smart phone and when organised ticket swindling was far less sophisticated but no less an issue than it is now, that show sold out in less than an hour, during which he was the hottest and most relevant ticket in town.
The occasion – and it was very definitely an occasion – was every bit as raucous, chaotic, sweaty and scintillating as you might imagine, on a night when the partisan home end was swelled by a noisy travelling support, most of it male and pale and almost all of which had made it over to Leonard’s Corner on the ferry from Britain. My sports analogies here are deliberate: much of the general hullabaloo that night had its origins on the football terraces and, from the off, the energy inside and outside the hall – one of the hearts of Irish amateur boxing – resembled that which you’d find at a feisty local lower-league derby or a decent card at York Hall, Bethnal Green.
As I made my way up past The Headline Bar, it was clear that Dublin 8 had been invaded. I’d certainly never before seen such a range of spectacular quiffs, turn-ups, glasses, leather brogues and floral tributes. A terrific piece here documents in no little detail the fevered hoopla that surrounded that show, before and especially during it.
Morrissey has long been a moody and crabby tourist and both Johnny Marr’s biography, ‘Set The Boy Free’ and Johnny Rogan’s ‘The Severed Alliance’ paint unattractive, odd-ball portraits from both inside and outside of The Smiths camp of a performer prone to indecision, erratic behaviour, reckless decision making and routine hissy-fitting. And yet, certainly at the beginning of his solo career, he seemed energised and re-focused – rested and finally in complete control, perhaps ? – and his good humour was reflected in many of his earliest live shows, some of which I saw at home and in Britain and most of which were electric.
Both the full-bodied quiffs – especially Morrissey’s own – and the floral tributes are long diminished now and indeed much of the singer’s charm has wilted with them. He was in his creative pomp when his Trumper’s-tended wedge had the cut of an elaborate French stick but, like the rest of us, he’s struggled clearly for any real kind of elevation this last while. And I know this because I’ve seen that head close-up. Several years back I found myself sitting immediately behind Morrissey on a delayed British Airlines flight to London, days after he’d performed in Dublin on the ‘World Peace Is None Of Your Business’ tour. And no, I didn’t reach out over the cold leather seats to touch it, much and all as I was sorely tempted to.
But he carries on regardless.
He’s back in Dublin next week to plug his most recent album, ‘Low In High School’ which, like much of his solo material, is not without it’s moments – the first four cuts and the imperious, multiple phase ‘I Bury The Living’ take the laurels – although its nowhere near his best and most cohesive work. Which, for the sake of reference, and in order of appearance, I mark as ‘Your Arsenal’ , ‘Vauxhall And I’ , ‘You Are The Quarry’  and ‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’ . And like another increasingly frequent visitor to The Point Theatre, U2 – whose audiences [customers ?] have also become far more selective – there’s trouble afoot in the writing room.
Morrissey’s sound now mirrors his own physical shape and the depth of tone in his voice: fuller, rich and scarcely recognisable from the nervy tenor he cut in 1983, when pitching up in tune was frequently beyond him. But far too often that production bulk just sounds like well-intentioned plodding around crudely-formed riff-making. Awash with keyboards and familiar lyrical tropes, too much of ‘Low in High School’ just sounds tired and incomplete, the ambitious ‘I Bury The Living’ the exception. In the anti-war lyrical tradition of Donovan’s ‘Universal Soldier’, it bedrocks the record in the middle-order and, in length and in spirit, resembles previous sinewy anchor tenants like ‘Life Is A Pigsty’ [from ‘Ringleaders’], ‘Its Not Your Birthday Anymore’ [from ‘Years of Refusal’] and ‘The Teachers Are Afraid of The Pupils’ [from ‘Southpaw Grammar’]. All of whom stretch out, over time, beyond the obvious.
With the co-writing credits now shared more loosely around various members of his backing band, cohesion is an issue too and, again like U2 over the last decade, much of ‘High School’ just sounds forced and way less than the sum of it’s parts.
Indeed Morrissey’s best and most lucid record since ‘Ringleader’ is a compilation of odds, sods, the odd cover and assembled rarities released in 2009 – and honking of contractual obligation – as ‘Swords’. Eighteen cuts long, it captures some of his lesser known tracks recorded over the previous decade, ‘Ganglord’, ‘Teenage Dad On His Estate’, ‘Munich Air Disaster, 1958’, ‘Children In Pieces’, ‘Friday Mourning’ and ‘Because Of My Poor Education’ among them, as well as a meaty live take on Bowie’s ‘Drive-In Saturday’. And it has the not inconsiderable hand of Alain Whyte all over it.
Whyte might not be the most flamboyant and creative writer in recent music history but he’s certainly been Morrissey’s most ambitious and consequential partner since Johnny Marr. His songs buttressed the spine of every one of those solo albums from ‘Your Arsenal’ to ‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’ and he was a constant in Morrissey’s live retinue from 1991 until 2004. As with many of those who’ve worked so intrinsically inside the singer’s inner circle, he left the set-up under a cloud – how else ? – and was roundly disparaged, like a myriad of others, in the singer’s 2014 book, ‘Autobiography’.
While many of Whyte’s songs are as one-dimensional as the mercurial League Of Ireland wing wizard returned from England’s lower leagues, his credits – ‘Hold Onto Your Friends’, ‘Sunny’, First Of The Gang To Die’, ‘Life Is A Pigsty’, ‘I’ll Never Be Anybody’s Hero Now’, ‘Its Not Your Birthday Anymore’, ‘Certain People I Know’ and a myriad of others – tell their own story. He may, perhaps, have been far more central to Morrissey’s machine than the singer might otherwise concede
A considerable amount of water, record company spats, quality b-sides, bass-players and unseemly aggro have passed beneath the bridges in the many years since I first fell under Morrissey’s spell – mano a boyo – feet away from the stage at The Savoy in Cork in 1984. And in that time, I suspect I’ve become one of those hopelessly forlorn suburban cases, just keeping on keeping on, head down, that so dominate many of his songs. The sickly boyfriend who went down on one knee because, well, he only had one knee. When I fetch up next week in The Point, I’ll meet many more just like me. And worse.
Morrissey has consistently entertained me, appalled me, disgusted me, humoured me and, for many years, just obsessed me: for ages he was a conversation starter and a friendship former. We’ve been thirty-five years together now and, like many other couples who first got it on in secondary school, should probably have called it quits for good years ago. With the thrill far more irregular and the unquestioning lustre long worn, we’re doing it more for the kids than for ourselves at this stage. That and the promise, unlikely as it might be, of the occasional ride for old time’s sake knowing that, back in the day, when we were good we were, if not unstoppable, at least moderately compatible.
The odd time I hear the frankly preposterous notion that The Smiths were a] over-rated and b] not half as influential as history records them. This sort of half-baked pub argument is seen off quickly: the band was together for five years during which they were prolific, consistently challenging and when they profoundly turned popular music on its head. And there was a time too, difficult as it might be to believe now, when Morrissey, the solo artist, was just as important, provocative and relevant.
A number of years ago, a friend sneaked me a copy of Morrissey’s rider from 2009’s ‘Years of Refusal’ tour and, to be fair, it certainly lived up to, and on every one of it’s 28 pages greatly exceeded, everything I expected of the old tart – of Irish blood, English heart – in respect of his general demands and back-stage considerations. From a man who name-checks The Christian Brothers in one of his songs, how could it have been any other way ?
Apart entirely from the standard guff about clean towels, chilled water, toilets and executive travel to and from venues, I was especially taken by some of Morrissey’s demands for his own dressing room. And particularly his requests for Dubliner brand ‘organic mature vegetarian cheddar cheese’ and ‘Real Irish Kerrygold salted butter.
My father turned 80 last November. With a considerable quiff of his own that I can only but marvel at, he uses a basic mobile telephone that he never answers but on which he texts me irregularly. Usually using a stream of consciousness style, with no capital letters or punctuation, he’ll often prompt me about my mother’s birthday, various hospital appointments and the inadequacies of the Cork hurling teams.
Late one Friday night last October, he sent me the following message: ‘mam says your friend Morrissey is on graham norton’. And I know that I will never, ever receive such a casually perceptive, subversive and pointed text again as long as I live.
Keeping it in the family, that’s us.