A Conversation With Morrissey, 1994
(Might be appropriate now to post this, my second conversation with Morrissey, which took place on January 10, 1994 in Los Angeles. Did it for a piece that would end up being the cover story for Raygun mag. Once again, great fun to speak with the man.-dd)
I wrote a list of things I want to discuss with you, because you’re very difficult to get to these days.
I try my best.
Vauxhall is place in South London in much the same way that Brixton is.
And what do “you” have to do with it?
(laughs) Oh, well, that’s actually my little secret. We can’t talk about that.
What did Steve Lillywhite bring to the project?
Working with him was extraordinary. I don’t really know how interested readers/people generally are in hearing about producers; I think it’s always considered to be such a vague, uninteresting part of the procedure. But working with him was fascinating. He is incredibly skilled, and he helped me in so many ways. For me, at this stage of the game, it was hugely enjoyable. He’s an astonishingly gifted person.
I noticed there’s also, for the first time, some songs written from the fellow Boz from your band. How did that take place? Are you still writing songs in the same manner in which you used to?
Yes. Nothing has changed. I am not a musician; I cannot play any musical instruments whatsoever. But I seem to have a very good notion of identity for songs–which is actually quite difficult. Reasonably easy, I suppose, if you’re a musician to stick a tune together, but to give a song an identity is quite difficult, I think. And I think that’s always been my secret knack throughout the years. Because it’s not really good enough just to have a straight-ahead pop song or a straight-ahead rock song–there has to be something else. It has to go slightly beyond basic dull, acceptable talent.
I’ve always felt–as have many–that your song titles alone are more interesting than other people’s records.
Well, I actually agree. (laughs)
Do you still write songs to music that’s already been recorded or demoed?
Yes, I do. Mostly we shape the songs, because of the vocal melody and because, obviously, of the amount of words I want to use. So they do get drastically reshaped, and the vocal melody itself–obviously the voice is an instrument, and the key, really, to most of the songs. So once the voice is put down, the musical instruments follow in a very, very different way.
Why the new rhythm section?
The original rhythm section had a couple of things to do, but on the forthcoming tour, which begins in March, it will be the line-up on the Your Arsenal album, who toured here the previous year, so it will be the old rhythm section.
I’d heard you’d planned on working with Mick Ronson again.
Well, he spoke to me a few days before he died. And he was very happy, very enthusiastic about writing songs with me and getting back into the studio, and he was very positive about his health, and positive about his future. And it was astonishing, because a few days later, Suzy Fussey, who was his wife, telephoned me and she said, “My baby’s gone.” It was incredibly painful. It was so painful and so sad for me, because I had become so attached to him that I couldn’t actually attend the funeral. And the year began with the death of my manager [Nigel Thomas] and also the death of a close friend, Tim Broad, with whom I’d made some 13 videos. The three deaths were quite literally on top of each other. And it was an astonishingly depressing time. With Nigel, my manager, he died suddenly–but with Mick and Tim, they both knew that they were dying. So it was a very, very stressful year. I would just really like to say that Mick Ronson was one of the most astonishingly human and attractive people that I’ve ever met–and uplifting. A very, very uplifting person.
Do you think he got the respect he deserved?
I don’t think so. And I don’t know whether that’s really rooted in his years with Bowie; he is obviously connected with the best time of Bowie’s career. And I know, obviously, apart from guitar, Mick’s backing vocal on the many early Bowie records were astonishing, But no, I don’t think he
ever really had the respect he deserved–and, of course, it’s too late now.
Shifting to you, do you feel your solo work is received with the critical respect with which it is deserved?
No, not at all. Not at all, I’m persistently short-changed in every direction. And I find in a way it’s very respectable–because the people who know about me or attend the concerts do so merely because they’ve heard the record. Nobody has ever, ever discovered me on MTV/ Very few people have ever discovered me on radio. It’s all–as it ever was with the Smiths–word of mouth. Nobody’s ever helped me. Which might sound like Tina Turner in ’68, but it’s actually quite true.
Speaking about MTV, I watched a collection of your videos last night that was put together commercially here in the States. On the one in which you’re lolling around on the beach, is that the word “fat” at the very end?
Yes. Yes it is.
OK. I had to stop that one.
You look like you have a good time in your videos. Do you feel your lyrics are becoming more or less inspired by personal experience; are you becoming more of a storyteller?
No, not really. Because I’ve never considered it to be a profession. I’ve never sat down and pretended to create scenarios. It is all, basically, simply me and my life and however I feel–and whether I feel up or whether I feel down, I document it. So for me it’s no great effort; it’s that I have to force myself to create. It’s just simply my life. And that I suppose is why I will never be a huge, megastar in this country. Because people like me don’t become so–my life and the songs I sing are too real. I’m not as malleable–is that the word?
Is it the word? Or do neither of us know?
You say that, but one of the biggest stories out here last year was your capacity to fill the Hollywood Bowl. You sound like you’re deliberately undercutting yourself.
Well, yes, those things do happen���but they’re under-documented, really. And I often feel that it were another artist, it would receive great global recognition. Certainly no one mentioned it in England at all, which I found quite unbelievable. But I never feel that I’m censored–or that there’s a group of people trying to hold me back or pin me down. It’s common knowledge, of course, that Sire have never really put any money toward me at all. And I don’t say that with bitterness. I think they’d actually stand good and admit that themselves. But I do feel that, shall we say, I’m not overexposed in any way.
Except for your album covers���
That’s purely intentional. (laughs)
It’s funny, I was explaining to the magazine’s publisher a while ago that when we first spoke, you’d spent some time complaining about Sire’s treatment of the Smiths in the States, and yet here you were, still signed to Sire.
(laughs) Well, I’m very realistic. Some things don’t change,
There was a sense of personal isolation in your earliest songs that I wonder might even be enhanced by your increased fame.
Yes, it does, because I as a person haven’t really changed that much. And I’ve always suffered from depression also, which is something that isn’t allowed to be said.
Yes, I always have. So I think that’s also a key aspect of the songs.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I get the impression that you didn’t have a lot of friends when your career began, and I would imagine with your increased fame, real “true” friends must be even more difficult to come by.
Yes. As I get older now–I’m 34–I do realize the importance of holding on to people whom I become close to. Because there are so many thousands upon thousands of people we meet throughout life who mean nothing to us, that when we do occasionally meet someone who is special, we shouldn’t take it too lightly. I fi
nd that people often do.
As one of the most recognizable faces in Britain, are you more insulated from real life than you were then? Can you have a drink at a normal bar?
Yes. Yes, I can. I can, very freely. And I think that comes from within you. If you act like a star ��� which I never, ever, ever do–you attract attention and create some terrible scene and so forth. But I just slide along with everybody else, so nothing affects me, really.
Was it your idea to have that concert in which people were only allowed in only if they were wearing a t-shirt bearing your picture?
(thinks) Umm. Yes. The concert was free.
it must have been one of the most enjoyable stage experiences of a lifetime.
It was very, very enjoyable
Do you have any bad habits?
Not really, no. Not recognizable bad habits–like, for instance, smoking. No. I don’t eat very well; I’ll have some tea with some toast and jam.
Do you weight lift?
Do I do weightlifting? I certainly do not (laughs). No, no, no, no, I eat very badly, which is something that disturbs me slightly. I have a terrible intake. I’m obviously a vegetarian, but a very bad vegetarian–there are so many vegetables I don’t eat.
Again, when we first spoke, I was talking about the sound effects on “Meat Is Murder,” and I said kind of obnoxiously, “Gee, I wonder if people will think you were listening to Pink Floyd.” And I applaud you for having the balls to say, “I’ve never heard Pink Floyd in my life.”
(laughs loudly) It wasn’t a lie, it wasn’t a lie.
Good. Songs like “Used To Be A Sweet Boy” seem to suggest that people are often blank slates and have no control over their own destiny. Do you believe this is so?
The song really is from the parents’ point of view. When things do go wrong with children, parents never accept the blame. And they always try to wash their hands of it, and assume that their children have gone out of control because of forces beyond their natural understanding. But parents do raise children; children don’t raise parents.
Except in my house.
(laughs) Maybe yours is different.
With the slight exception of Bona Drag, your solo records have charted higher in the American charts than any of the Smiths’. Why?
Why? Should I know the answer?
Are they better?
I’ve got no idea, really. I think all of the records, whether it’s the Smiths or solo, are inescapably, unavoidably me. It’s not as if somebody else were singing within the Smiths, or someone else was writing the words or fronting the Smiths. They’re all basically me. I can’t answer that question. I certainly think Vauxhall And I is the best record I’ve ever been involved in, shall we say.
Do you think you’re taken for granted in England?
Yes, most certainly, I’m almost entirely ignored. The music press persistently writes about me–but it’s always negative. Otherwise, throughout the country on television or radio, I don’t exist at all. But as I said earlier, I think if you are really too intelligent, the nation can’t grasp you really. It’s only the very simple things and the very simple artists who just breeze straight through and find life very easy. If you’re agreeable to anything that’s put before you–if you’re desperate to do anything in order to be famous, which I most certainly am not, then life is relatively easy.
What did you think of David Bowie’s covering “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”?
I felt, when he brought me into the studio in New York for the first playback, I really couldn’t find words. Because I have loved him for so many, many years. And I had first seen him at the age of 12, which was in 1972; being present with 300 people was extraordinary for me. So really, it’s quite indescribable. I thought the rendition of the song was truly beautiful, and respectful, so it was really one of the highlights of my career.
Have many other artists covered your material?
Annie Lennox has covered one song which has never been released, and Chrissie Hynde has covered a little song called “Every Day Is Like Sunday,” which will be released this year, which is truly exceptional. If it’s released here as a single, I think it will be enormous.
What song did Lennox do?
She has done a Smiths song called “Last. Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me,” which is truly astonishing.
With song titles like that, it just drives home how much you’re like a natural-born headline writer. It often seems like your song titles alone can be easily parodied, they’re so unique. It hasn’t happened so much of late, but I thought there was some sense of ominousness in the early Smiths material that around the time of “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” seemed to suddenly give way to some degree of humor.
Yes. It certainly seemed like a different language. It wasn’t the same old fodder, and if you consider what was around at the time–it was a stiflingly dull period in pop music, and we’re in yet another of those periods. Somehow it just seemed like a different language.
Bowie is at that stage of celebrityhood where his albums have almost become inconsequential; he himself overshadows his work. Do you think that may be happening to you?
I don’t know. He in my view is one of the five artists in the entire history of music who has not perhaps inspired everybody, but everybody likes a David Bowie song, just as everybody likes a Beatles song perhaps, so I think he’s up there in the Top 5 artists of all time. I don’t think I am. If I ever am, and there are problems attached to it, I’ll begin to deal with it.
Who are the other four?
Oh, you choose.
The story about the Smiths in the last issue of Q magazine flatly called you and Johnny Marr the Lennon and McCartney of your generation. Does that sound right to you?
Well, it’s something I read quite repeatedly, and obviously it sits very comfortably with me. (laughs)
You used to write songs that were deliberately genderless; you used to swear you’d never do music videos. You’ve changed. Is it artistic growth?
Well, the passing of time, really. I’m surely allowed to change in much the same way that everybody else is.
And video as well?
Video I don’t think has ever particularly worked for me, because I don’t really have that much interest. But it is one of the final pressures of a record company. They claim that nothing can really happen without a video, I’ve found that in my case it’s that nothing happens with video, but they have been made nonetheless.
Watching them last night, I thought they were fun…
Well, they’re quaint.
They show people who maybe haven’t been drawn to see you live that Morrissey is a guy who knows how to have a good time. Anyway, are you as enthused by your work as you were from the start?
Yes. Enormously, I am enthused. I am less enthused by the prospect of fame, or the dealings with fame–and it would be reasonably ideal if I could simply make a record and then disappear into the bushes, basically, which isn’t allowed, really. But music, the music I make, does excite me enormously—but music generally does not excite me.
What was the last record you bought?
The last record I bought was by a group called Echobelly, who are English, and by the Blaggers, who are English.
What does “blagger” mean���someone who talks a lot or drinks a lot?
In their case, probably both. (laughs)
Do you know who Momus is? What do you think of him?
Momus. Well, initially when he began to make records he
was constantly compared to me. An inferior version, I might add. But now, I don’t know, I’ve not heard his last record, so I don’t really know. Is he known here?
No, not at all. In fact his first American record is just coming out later this year. He’s obscure, but I think he’s interesting. Do you think it’s true your solo work will always be held in comparison with your Smiths material? And do you resent it?
Yes, it always will be. Unavoidably. But it doesn’t really matter–it doesn’t really matter to me very much. Because as I said, it was always me, basically; there wasn’t somebody else with instruments who was standing in the forefront, it was always me. And I understand that many people think one’s earlier records are the best of you. And in many cases that’s true. But I don’t really believe it’s true in my case–and when people say it, I accept it, but surely it’s a slag.
How is it better? Your voice? The music? Your lyrics going places they’ve never been?
I certainly sing much better now than I ever did���and I’m sure that that plays a great part in it.
You really do.
Yes, I think I do. I think there has been a real constant progression–if you can truly put everything into perspective, from the Smiths’ very first record to Vauxhall And I, there has been a very real progression. Now that the Smiths no longer exist and so forth, it’s always very easy to romanticize, but being rational and being honest, I feel stronger now in every way.
Is it fair to say that the material doesn’t has as strong an organic unity because you’re used so many co-writers?
I do openly admit that some of the songs, some of the solo songs have been substandard–and when it occurred to me, around the period of the Kill Uncle album, it was a great shock to me to actually make a few records which I didn’t really think were exceptional for me. But I think I’m through that time now. It was actually a very bad time for me privately, also. But if we’re talking about Johnny–well, maybe we’re not–obviously he is a great talent. But I think when you consider that I as a solo individual who cannot play an instrument, who is not a musician, came from the Smiths and has continued and has held an audience very, very well–I think I’ve done extraordinarily well.
[END TAPE SIDE I]
Rather than shifting from songs with Alain and Boz and Mark Nevin and Stephen Street, would you prefer to have only one collaborator?
Well, it would be horrible for me now to say whom I like the best and whom I like the least. I don’t really think at this stage of the game it matters that much for me. It doesn’t really matter. When it’s good, it’s good; when its not good, its not good.
If Joe Blow from down the street said, ‘Morrissey, I’ve got some great songs,’ and you liked them, would you be naturally inclined to want to begin a permanent partnership with him? Are you looking to do that with someone?
Well, I think I’ve proven that I can do it with almost anybody. I think I’ve proven that I’m not attracted or attached to one person. So yes, I’d feel very open for any future input from anybody,
What are the prospects of you two writing again? Have you received massive reunion offers?
I think it’s simply that Johnny and I have become very good friends again, and the British music press tend to run away with the situation. And if there was a reformation, I’m sure they’d be the first to decry or try to break it apart. It’s just an absurd situation–wanting what doesn’t exist, and not wanting what exists. It’s just so typical of the British music press.
Do you think you ever will collaborate with him anyway?
Well, we both feel it unnecessary, we don’t see the point.
Is it the sort of situation where it would be too much of a big thing now to actually do?
Yes. In a way. It’s been done. And it’s been done to the. best of our abilities, really–and that’s it, really.
It would be a shame if you were inclined for it to happen, but that it didn’t because of conditions that were imposed on people other than yourselves.
But do reunions ever work? Can you think of any which has worked?
Well, I didn’t expect much from the Velvet Underground reunion, but I must say there are one or two things on the live album which I feel are extraordinary. Don’t tell me���you didn’t like it.
Well, even though I loved the original records, it never occurred to me to go and see them. Similarly with the Who. And the Who’s earlier records I love.
The Who getting back together would seem inevitably a money-making gesture, whereas I don’t think the Velvet Underground reunion was perceived that way. But I guess, considering the Smiths’ fame in England, it would perceived in the same way as a Who reunion.
(laughs) Well, as long as I’m not Roger Daltrey, I don’t mind .
Has there been a major disappointment in your career?
Yes, in a small sense I was very disappointed that the song “Every Day Is Like Sunday” was not a hit here. I fail to see how it could not make the Top 100, especially when you consider that most of the records that do are awful–and there were other English groups at the time that were zooming straight into the Top 40, and I couldn’t understand why, when they were playing miniscule clubs and I went on to play reasonably large venues. So yes, I am frustrated with the lack of promotion.
Were you getting any feedback? Were they saying, “Hey, sorry Morrissey, but it’s your voice”?
Well, there’s always an absurd reason why, but you reach the point where you’re no longer interested. It either happens, or the moment has passed.
Without getting specific in terms of real numbers, are your solo albums selling internationally at a level rate?
I think Kill Uncle dipped everywhere, and Your Arsenal raised the profile once again, And entered at No. 21, which is reasonably high –which still leaves me suspiciously alternative. I don’t know why. Nonetheless, it had presence.
Do you think pop is becoming less literate?
It certainly is. I think every aspect of it is simply grinding down, and the past is more important. And all I seem to see in new modern American groups is Creedence Clearwater Revival—that’s all I see, I can’t see anything truly new. Even with the Seattle groups and so forth. I think pop music is basically finished, Everything is regurgitation, nothing at all is new.
What’s the most recent “new” thing you can recall?
From here? I can’t think of anything. Within England, certainly groups like the Blaggers and Gallon Drunk and Echobelly sound new to me–it sounds as if I’m actually hearing something new. Which seems to be an impossible occurrence in America.
Do you think that’s the state of pop, or the state of you?
Of me? No, I think it’s got nothing to do with me. I think it’s really the basic ground rules within American record companies–it’s not possible to break through with anything that’s challenging. It just isn’t possible. And when something like the Red Hot Chill Peppers becomes successful, the nation is aghast that it just isn’t the same old tawdry regurgitation.
What’s the most distasteful aspect of current pop?
Predictably, it’s rap–which continues in the same old way which has never, ever, ever, ever changed. I mean, there is only one rap song in the entire universe–which is frightening when you consider how many rap records have been made.
Who have you been listening to lately? Has your taste in music changed?
No, not at all. I still listen repeatedly to Nico, to the early Ramones, the Marvelettes–who I was playing before I left for the studio today.
You really were listening to the Marvelettes?
Yes, I was.
You really are consistent–it shows in your music and your listening.
No, it’s not me–it’s the Marvelettes. And the music they made is everlasting,
Do you think pop stars have a shorter shelf life than they used to?
I think there’s a huge musical audience in America who do not want their artists to be daily fodder on MTV; they do not want to see their artists overexposed and repeatedly ra
mmed in their faces. And that audience, I think, is never catered for. It’s always assumed that everybody likes everything in the same old way; everybody likes their music, sleeves and general promotion done in the same old way. But it’s not true–there is a huge listening audience in America who are actually very, very intelligent and are never catered for. I have a good part of them.
Has it come to the point yet where a new group of listeners���say the 10-13 year olds���have come up and felt, “Oh, Morrissey–he’s been around forever. He’s my big sister’s favorite–but this new group is my favorite?”
No, I don’t think so. And there may be a parallel with Lou Reed’s career, really–because he was never over-utilized, shall we say, he was always there to be discovered. Even though he was, is, very well known, and in some ways legendary. So I think that perhaps I would be compared to that situation.
For the longest time, when I was trying to rationalize your fame���
Is it so unbelievable? (laughs)
No. (laughs) And I wondered if some of the emotions that you explored lyrically–loneliness and alienation–might be something that fans could possibly grow out of as they got older and perhaps changed. I wondered if that would happen, but your sales don’t seem to indicate that. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Yes, I do. But I think I was always branded with the adolescence tag initially–and I don’t think loneliness or a sense of isolation is restricted to youth. For some people, unfortunately, it lasts for their entire lives. They remain alone, or they remain very reflective, looking inwards. So I don’t ever feel that I was initially simply writing for 13-year olds. I also don’t think once you’re beyond 21 everything magically falls into place. I don’t think that’s true,
Aside from music, is there anything extra-musical dominating your thoughts now that you’re 34?
Not particularly. I still wait and I still hope that something new will happen within music and that things will change.
Have you said anything recently that’s gotten you in any trouble?
I always seem to be in trouble for some reason. I don’t know why, I don’t know why. But no, nothing else–I think I’ve covered most ground recently.
Are there any more rewards to be had from working in pop music?
Yes, but they’re all very private, really. I have no interest in the Grammy nomination, and I have no interest in any aspects of whoredom. I will always stubbornly remain me, and nothing will change me. All the rewards that I have–the success is in the completion of the record, and my personal enjoyment of the record. I’m not really looking for anybody to hand me a small gold statue.
Do you think there are others whom you admire that carry on in the same manner?
Not particularly. I think everybody eventually falls into the same old traps, unfortunately.
Who’s the most admirable person in pop music?
There isn’t one person who has everything, but there are several people who have a little bit. I like to listen to Pete Townshend talk; I wish he could make a really great record. The collection of the works of the Crystals which was released last year was the most astounding thing, the most overplayed record that I think I’ve ever had. I can’t ever get away from the first New York Dolls album, or the early Nico albums, or the first Ramones album. So really there isn’t one person who stands alone, where I can say, “Yes, you’ve said it all, you’ve had everything.” I think there’s never been somebody who–even Elvis Presley, who, footage of Elvis Presley still astonishes me, but we know of course that he did lots of very embarrassing, blunderous things. I think that, because of the nature of human life and human infallibilities, nobody can be everything to all people.
You mentioned the Nico albums; have you ever pursued working with John Cale?
Yes, yes I did, I did initially ask him to produce Vauxhall And I, but he was busy with the Velvet Underground. He expressed mammoth interest. It’s something to bear in mind.
Who’s the most despicable person in the music business?
Do we have time? There are so many.
And you’re famous for plopping them down regularly.
Yes, but that can so easily seem like routine, to constantly denounce–so easy to sit back and say everybody’s basically crap, and everybody looks cr
ap–that’s very, very, easy, even though in many instances it may be true. And if one goes from John Lennon to Johnny Rotten, it seems also like the British thing to do–to come here and stampede over everybody. But nonetheless, I do it privately.
Do you perceive a difference in American fans than those in other countries? It seems your fame here is really snowballing.
Yes, it is. A lot of them I’ve known for a long, long time–and they’ve been with me, if I can say that, for a long, long time. And I’ve also watched them grow older and change and so forth. And that’s really gratifying, to still meet the same people that I met in 1984 and 1985. It’s very, very gratifying.
Finally���a great American live television question���what’s the major inspiration you have for getting out of bed in the morning?
What gets me out of bed? Simply a sense of duty. Nothing else. I don’t spring from the bed, I’m afraid. A very unsatisfactory answer, I know, but at least this isn’t live television,
(laughs) OK, great. Thanks for your time again.
It was very, very enjoyable. Thank you.