This book is not for people who’ve never, even briefly, fallen under Morrissey’s spell. Don’t bother; it’ll only convince you further of the psycho-obsessive nature of Morrissey fans in general and the author in particular.
Don’t bother either if you’re looking for new facts about The Smiths or Morrissey, anything to do with music rather than image or lyrics. It’s Johnny Rogan’s Severed Alliance or Simon Goddard’s more recent Songs That Saved Your Life you’re after, both of which spell out in dry but meticulous detail most of what you might want to know. And don’t bother if you’re looking for objectivity, or if you’re turned off by riotously over the top prose that out-does even Julie Burchill in the school of forging constant rapid, rabid, contentious assertions from very few base facts. Anyone left? Then, like me, you’ll love it.
Simpson is a True Apostle of the cult of Moz, and like all his ilk found this warped love during a troubled adolescence, described with lively self mockery in a chapter here. The Smiths landed like a chemical warhead upon bored teenagers growing up in the most soulless decade of the 20th century. Here was the nihilism of punk for an even more genuinely despairing generation, with added literacy, sensitivity, wit, and tunes. It was something they would never forget.
Detractors say Morrissey appeals to “the teenager” because both he and they are contrary and self-pitying. This is of course true. But there are better qualities also at a premium in the best of the uppity adolescent and the everyday work of the Moz. A breathtakingly arrogant precociousness, a visceral impatience with the banal, the solipsistic knowing you’re not like anyone else, and the vicious world-weary wit of the damned. All satirised brilliantly in his own song “Nobody Loves Us” casting both himself and his fans in the role of spoilt children (“tuck us in/make us our favourite jam”..)
As Simpson notes; “Sickness never sounded or felt so good…I may have felt unloved or unlovable but I also derived an exquisite, narcotic satisfaction from the knowing of these things and to laugh under my breath at the perversity of this knowledge.” Laugh indeed, the faithful know there’s more laugh-out-loud humour in Smiths and Morrissey songs than in almost any of the swill lapped up by the “oh he’s sooo depressing” dimwits.
Simpson shows that bright teenagers know long after they’ve packed away their last Doctor Martens’s that Morrissey’s self obsession is anything but depressing; it’s a life-affirming blood-pact of strength against the stupidity of the world;
“In assaulting pop’s nostrums and clichés in his own image, Morrissey made it about the one thing both parents and pop music had been united against: intelligence. Forget drugs, forget promiscuity..Thinking Too Much was undoubtedly the most degenerate, most anti-social habit any teenager ever picked up.”
With the added get-out clause in the grand tradition of having your cake and eating it that, while you were vicariously living through the man’s emotions, you were never really as depressed as he quite genuinely seemed to be, even through all the wit and charm. He was doing it for you in Christlike fashion (although this particular Messiah was Mancunian, camp, quiffed, flower fixated and more inclined to call for people’s deaths than turn other cheek.). Lured pied-piper-like by the first incandescent chimes of “This Charming Man”; this is an adolescent anti-fantasy world which still has enough acolytes of all ages to sell out the Manchester Evening News Arena this May in less than an hour.
Simpson shows with aplomb the disparate influences that made the mental make-up of “this alarming man”. Pop, punk and glam rock (which “called for and for a brief moment seemed to actually offer escape from the humdrum by becoming your own glamorous creation.”) The feminine-centred northern drama of the sixties which at once embraced and damned the working-class background he came from, and its lighter modern day offshoots like the comedy of Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood. (“Morrissey’s ‘voice’ is that of the Northern Woman, a certain intensity mixed with a certain breeziness, a certain desperation mixed with a lot of self irony…strong, but touchingly vulnerable…a queer fish.”)
Morrissey’s two greatest idols were Oscar Wilde and James Dean. Wilde for his wit and, in the proper sense of the word, perversity (“an idealist, yet the Queen of Cynics, he was a romantic, but was frighteningly realistic; he was a moralist yet completely dissolute, Morrissey of course is an immoralist who is scandalously virtuous.” James Dean for personifying adolescent rebellion (“Jimmy reflected back as Morrissey would like to see himself: a creature who may have been tortured and full of self doubt but always managed to look comfortable in his own skin and to radiate an animal magnetism.”) And both, of course, for the romantic doom of their exit from this world.
Simpson goes a bit more out on a limb in proclaiming his parents break up was the biggest influence on his world outlook, totally siding with his book librarian mum against his porter dad with all the Oedipus connotations that implies. Speculation it may be, but it does convince. He’s insightful too on Morrissey’s famously enigmatic sexuality, rightly stating the unique mixture of the masculine and feminine, the fleshy exhibitionism (“A Morrissey gig is an extraordinary, epic, religious prick-tease”) entwined with the lovelorn celibacy is central to his unique appeal, particularly in bringing out the homosexual side to otherwise heterosexual men. Simpson is gay himself but happily does not try to claim him for “the cause” and is rightly contemptuous of those desperate to pigeonhole; “What these very helpful, very kind people forgot was that the law ‘what’s not one thing must be t’other’, absolutely correct and inviolable as it is, is a law which only applies to stupid people. And to journalists.”
The title of Simpson’s book is a play on Sartre’s essay “Saint Genet”, and he rightly makes the observation that Mozza has a lot in common with Jean G. Granted, Genet was a tremendously promiscuous homosexual and Morrissey a celibate introvert, but both were initially feted then rejected by liberals who found them a little too complex for their liking, both found a transcendent Rousseau-like glory in the seedier side of lumpen-proletarian life, and both glorify thugs and “rough lads.”
Many people find this both the strangest and the most distasteful side to Morrissey, (“but he seemed like such a nice boy!!”) appealing to sensitive little flowers yet celebrating criminality in a far more unnerving way than half-wits like Guy Ritchie. Yet this too is central to his allure, glorying like his hero Wilde in paradox and contradiction, squaring a circle, dancing outrageously on a tightrope of sensitivities in idiosyncratic celebration of the outsider.
And to the minds of the faithful, not falling off that tightrope. Simpson rightly dissects the fatuous music press chorus that damned Morrissey as a racist in the early 90s for singing his mockingly wry song “The National Front Disco” at the same time as genuinely flaunting the Union Jack and celebrating proper skinhead culture; “some might argue that this subtlety is dangerous because it is too artistic and not didactic (i.e. patronising) enough”.. Simpson argues brilliantly, though he could perhaps have snidely remarked in an aside the never mentioned fact that if the NME’s witch-hunt charges were true this must have been the first Nazi sympathiser in history to be a supporter of Red Wedge, Anti-Apartheid, Amnesty International, CND, feminism, gay rights…..
The final self-centred joy of Morrissey Simpson celebrates is his refusal to play the celebrity game; in an age where even Johnny Rotten parades his wares on reality TV shows, Mozza remains gloriously aloof, last year’s curious Channel 4 TV doc not withstanding. As Simpson puts with typical restraint “A churlish refusal to suck Satan’s cock.”
The hyperbole of the book can grate when running totally counter to your own thoughts. The pronouncement that the young Steven must have found Myra Hindley a “bad mother to offset his good mother” takes his speculation to offensively glib depths, and I for one can do without anyone talking up the dreadful Freud -as he does- even in passing. But then someone with Simpson’s provocative style is bound to piss off everyone at least once during a whole book, and quite rightly so.
The book’s best achievement is it mirrors its subject in being pretentious without being pompous, and taking things very very seriously while at the same time relishing its own absurdity with a constant self-lacerating wit. It is under no illusions its subject is a spiteful, dishonest, difficult sod but loves him more, not less for it.
As the man finally returns with a new album after seven long years, all those nervous fanatics praying for a new Vauxhall and I (rather than a Kill Uncle) would be well advised to have a copy of this book by your bedside to remind you of the childish stupidity and effortless brilliance of your obsession. It will prove you’re not mad after all; or if you are at least you’re in entertaining company.