How soon was then?

 

Morrissey is incontrovertibly strange. Everybody says so, including the man himself. "God forbid that I should be normal." The form his strangeness takes is harder to fathom. The entire time I was with him, he tittered away at his own jokes, one plentiful eyebrow raised; stared out of the bright, blue, combative eyes - full of things he's not going to tell you, should you ever dare to ask; and exuded a surface impatience not that distinct from outright hostility.

I left feeling I'd been in the presence of an arch ironist - and a bitch to boot.

Strange, then, a few days later, listening to the tape of our conversation, to discover another Morrissey - more placid, less manipulative and, if not kind, at least not cruel. A Morrissey more of a mixture. Portentous. "I've been called many things, but no one has ever called me light." But able to send himself up. "So we drill through life pretending to be poets." Evasive still, but not discourteous. Far funnier than I'd remembered. As if, out of reach of his looming dark physical presence, another Morrissey comes into view, the mask of amused indifference slips, and the elegiac tone - so self-conscious when you're with him - now assumes an air of bewilderment. "All one wants, all one can ever want, is to know oneself." This Morrissey is far closer to the man we know from lyrics of his songs.

It is Morrissey's favourite pose to effect the certainty of the doomed. Life is a misery, he says. And the greatest of all life's miseries is that you can never be surprised. But the guitarist Johnny Marr surprised him - twice. First, on the occasion when they met. "At a Patti Smith concert in 1979, and not, as most pop historians record, in 1982" - he loves this self-mythologising pop trivia. Marr impressed him on sight. Not as someone he could like, "in fact I did not like him then, we were continents apart" - but as someone he could trust. An interesting distinction. Morrissey is on record as saying over and over again that his main instinct towards his fellow human beings is "basic mistrust".

"Most people I find light. I don't lean towards humanity much." What compassion he has, he says, "is for myself alone". But Marr moved him. Meeting Johnny Marr might have been the first good thing that had happened to him. He was Stephen Patrick Morrissey, 22, "no spring chicken". A frustrated, brooding man, still living at home with his mother "on and off", suffused with ambition, "desperate to succeed". Firing off letters to NME, sending tapes of his songs to music managements with a polite accompanying letter explaining that if his voice sounded a bit soft he was sorry but that was because his mother was asleep in the next room. He'd had a few jobs that he hated. "Grotesque jobs. I cringe looking back." Some not very good sex. "I don't remember shivering with delight." And he was stuck in what he calls "the satanic, drizzly, miserable north - Manfester".

And now here was Marr. Unequivocally beautiful, an extraordinarily talented musician, gregarious and surrounded by people. He was already with Angie, the childhood sweetheart he'd fallen in love with at 14 and whom he married in 1986. Everybody loved Marr, and Morrissey was no different. Loved him "not physically", he says, but as his music partner and friend. "In the beginning it was always Angie, Johnny and I." Morrissey describes their meeting now as destiny. "An astonishing twist of fate, an astonishing turn in the proceedings." He knew they would make something work when together they formed The Smiths in 1982. It was a partnership of equals, Morrissey says. Marr wrote the music; Morrissey sang and wrote the lyrics. Whenever he speaks of The Smiths, it is himself and Marr that he means (despite last autumn's court case taken by one of the other two group members, Mike Joyce).

"The Smiths were our success, mine and Johnny's. Completely . . . For a long time Johnny and I were intertwined - and that's unusual in pop music - in his life and certainly in mine." But then The Smiths were unusual.

The Smiths were lads, their very name said it all. "Tough as old boots. Not a name to mess around with." And Morrissey and Marr seemed able to do things with songs that you'd never heard before.

Songs such as Panic, Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now. Lines such as: "I would go out tonight, but I haven't got a stitch to wear" spoke directly to their audience - disaffected youth, kids in bedsits who previously had no voice. They weren't the tired old love songs of yore. Morrissey's gift is to catch the intensity of a feeling and at the same time to convey an irony about that intensity. His songs spoke of people's common history, and in an incredibly evocative way. Funny and sad, The Smiths sounded simply like what pop music should be.

In May 1987, Marr announced his intention to quit the group. The second surprise. He told Morrissey it was pressure of work. "But I was under pressure too, only I refused to give in to it." By September, Morrissey was in the studio recording his first solo album and The Smiths were over. Maybe they couldn't go on forever. "But then nothing does," he says.

He felt abandoned, hurt and dismayed. "I don't resent him at all, but I was angry then and I wondered what it was in his life he was replacing The Smiths with. Or, more importantly, replacing me with. I still don't know. To this day, I don't know." To an outsider, it seems obvious. Marr had a wife, he wanted a family - he now has two children. He wanted a life outside The Smiths. But probably, more than anything, he didn't want to confine himself to being one thing. Morrissey's impulse is the exact opposite. The consummate individualist, he insists he is a unified being, in control. The splitting of Morrissey into aspects of himself, different voices, is something he resists utterly. If he cannot be one thing, then he is nothing.

He didn't argue with Marr, he didn't plead, he didn't cry. "I don't argue with people, I never, never plead and I never cry. What's the point?" he says. He simply sacked everyone around him, all the doom merchants who were predicting this was the end - asking him if he had enough money. Ravelled himself up into himself, went out on his own - a familiar place to be - continued to write his songs. About life, its trivialities and its compromises. The frustrations and failings of the modern world. Became more Morrissey than Morrissey even.

It would be easy to cast Morrissey as a sad figure. In terms of relationships, his adult life has been largely uneventful. He lives alone, says he has few friends and at the moment he is homeless, though he likes the idea of Kent. And he loves Los Angeles. "Which most people don't." He idealises originality, cultivates mystery, thinks "mediocrity is a terminal illness". And pays no lip-service at all to the view that genuine originality consists in trying to behave like everyone else without succeeding. "I am extraordinary," he says.

It is now more than 10 years since The Smiths split up, and though old scars fade, he says they never completely go. "Some things stay with you." He doesn't see Johnny Marr. Doesn't know where he is or what he's doing. This month, he releases Maladjusted, his ninth solo album and his first in two years. And what a relief. For here he is, still sounding like nobody else, still investigating those same odd corners of his mind, writing it all down - all the anguish and the very real boredom.