To some he is “the greatest living Englishman” (Guardian), to others he is the quintessential northern-England kitchen-sink poet whose work is discussed and dissected alongside that of Alan Bennett and Mike Leigh. Funny that, because when the name Morrissey is mentioned in Ireland, we simply know him as “one of us”, the second born of Patrick Morrissey and Betty Dwyer from Crumlin, two Dublin working-class dreamers who took the emigrant boat to Manchester to find work in the late 1950s.
It was there, in the trenchantly Irish community of Hulme, that the young Steven Patrick Morrissey grew up being taunted as a “Paddy” and it was there that after “walking home alone in the rain too many times” he hooked up with another bunch of first generation “Paddys” to form a band whose music can still bring a quiver to the lip of thirty- and fortysomethings everywhere.
It wasn’t just that The Smiths were a later generation’s answer to The Beatles, it was also that they were the embodiment of classic pop music and the most archly humorous outfit to ever grace our magazines, our programmes and our stages. From 1982 to 1987 The Smiths reigned supreme as awkward, diffident outsiders. They were the logical conclusion of punk rock and the first independent band to disturb the consensus of a moribund music industry.
As a solo artist Morrissey has continued to write and perform, and while the argument as to whether his work now is better than with The Smiths would only serve to set so many anoraks aflutter, he remains one of the most thoughtful and outspoken figures in a music world dominated by all-singing, all-dancing Kens and Barbies.
It’s the morning after the gig in Milan (he played Meat Is Murder: I almost wet myself) and it’s tea for two in his hotel. Morrissey is playing mother. “Bainne?” he asks before pouring the milk into the cup. Well dressed, softly spoken and trim of physique, he’s in hearty form as I mention how strange it was to hear the Milanese audience last night sing, unaccompanied, the first few verses of Now, My Heart Is Full in a Manchester accent.
“Well, that’s odd you mention that,” he says, “because I don’t think I’ve ever really had a Manchester accent. The accent is really quite broad, whereas I’ve always had a very flat accent – there’s a soft lilt in there somewhere. But then you have to remember my background. My parents are from Dublin; they met and married there.
“My mother’s family grew up in Pearse Street but later moved to Crumlin, where my father’s from. Going back even further, my mother’s father was from Cashel. Their name was McInnerny, and they used to own half of Cashel; they were wealthy land owners. There’s still a few of them down there. So with so much Irishness around us, my sister and I, growing up, never really felt we were Mancunians.
“My Irishness was never something I hid or camouflaged. I grew up in a strong Irish community. Of course, early on I’d be teased about it. I was called ‘Paddy’ from an early age. I mean, there I was, born, braised and bred in Manchester, but I was still always called ‘Paddy’. And this was back in the 1960s, when it was a bitter and malevolent slur. But that’s how Manchester people are – they’re extremely critical of everything and everybody.”
Other famous Manchester-Irish sons and daughters, such as Oasis and Caroline Aherne, speak volubly and fondly about spending their childhood summers in the “old country”. Was this also his experience? “Oh yes. I used to come back to Dublin a lot when I was younger. We’d go back to Crumlin, and of course I saw it with a child’s vision, but the people seemed happier and more carefree and Crumlin seemed so open – certainly more so than the confines of Hulme. We were quite happy to ghettoise ourselves as the Irish community in Manchester. The Irish stuck rigidly together, and there’d always be a relation living two doors down, around the back or up the passage. It always struck me as quite odd that people who had lived 20 or 30 years in Manchester still spoke with the broadest and the sharpest Pearse Street accent.”
How steeped was he in that emigrant Irish culture, which is a strange one at the best of times? “It steeped into everything I knew growing up. I was very aware of being Irish, and we were told that we were quite separate from the scruffy kids around us – we were different to them. In many ways, though, I think I had the best of both places and the best of both countries. I’m ‘one of us’ on both sides. It was always odd later on with The Smiths when I was described as being ‘extremely English’, because other people would tell me that I looked Irish, I sounded Irish and had other tell-tale signs. In fact, the new album, which I have finished writing but has yet to be recorded, is called Irish Blood, English Heart. It’s funny, because U2 are always portrayed as being famously Irish, and this is the great unsaid: aren’t half the band English? All you have to do is hear The Smiths’ surnames: Maher, Morrissey, Joyce and Rourke. It was only actually Andy Rourke’s mother who was an English parent. All the other parents were Irish. It’s an interesting story.”
Caroline Aherne has reflected her similar experiences in the series The Royle Family. Does that strike a chord? “I’m not saying it was my personal experience, but the idea of everyone squashed on the sofa, eating chocolate and watching the television, is a claustrophobically horrible one. I liked her, and there is floods of truth in the programme. Apart from the scraping, it’s the barrel. There is a sense of poking with the stick about it, and I don’t like that. I question that peering-into-the-cage mentality. The way some people live is not terribly pleasant, and although it’s okay for the BBC or wherever to make these amusing programmes, there are still people who wake up in that sort of situation. It doesn’t sit well.”
Morrissey – “I’m 40,” he says, as if he’s proud of it, the way all 40-year-olds do – now lives in Los Angeles (in a house once owned by Clarke Gable, celebrity-trivia fans), but for a few years previously he lived in Malahide, in north Co Dublin. “There’s an element of joy to living in Ireland, without trying to sound too twee or too quaint about it. They are very loving people. When you’re in somewhere like the Submarine Bar, in Crumlin, you can just step back and blend in and people realise that you are a slightly normal person after all. In Manchester, though, you tend to get ‘you’re not in Los Angeles now’ even though you’re just standing there doing nothing.
“I still keep a residence in Ireland. I think if anyone is entitled to it, then I am. I fear, though, the property boom in Dublin is in danger of destroying it as a city.”
Are you up to speed on Irish cultural and political life? “It’s as dry as it is in Britain. The politics in Ireland doesn’t reflect what’s going on with the people. It’s shocking, really, that the country hasn’t produced a politician with a sense of anger or a sense of newness. All the politicians look like your older distant relative. And the whole breakdown of the church: I can see why that’s happening. My grandfather was educated by the Christian Brothers, and there is a track of that in my own education.”
How bad was it? “Many of the teachers I had were Irish. They were incredibly brutal and in many cases very basically homosexual. It is shocking to think of what was allowed and how the kids were mistreated day after day. My education in St Mary’s secondary school in Manchester wasn’t an education. It was all violence and brutality. As soon as you’d walk into the class at 9.10am, a minute later someone would be viciously beaten. And everybody would just sit there in silence.
“It was so abysmal – and you may snigger, you may not; I’ll chance it – that I’ve considered actually suing the Manchester Education Committee, because the education I received was so basically evil and brutal. All I learned was to have no self-esteem and to feel ashamed without knowing why. It’s part of being working class, this pathetic belief that somebody else, somewhere knows better than you do and knows what’s best for you. You’re supposed to grow up blindly respecting the police and the judicial system. It’s part of keeping the working class in their place.
“A couple of years ago, when I was involved in a court case with The Smiths” – in 1994 the ex-Smiths drummer Mike Joyce sued Morrissey and his songwriting partner, Johnny Marr, for a higher percentage of royalties. Joyce won the case and Morrissey and Marr had to pay the drummer a claimed £1 million and a further £250,000 in costs. In his summing-up the judge referred to Morrissey as “devious, truculent and misleading” – “and this appalling Justice John Weeks was able to say these things about me. What he said is on record for all time, regardless of what I do in my life: if I’m ever sued in my life in the future, all people have to do is to refer to this judge’s words and I will lose all ... I was working class and I was made to feel like a peasant.”
Fired up now. Morrissey keeps the momentum going when talk turns to his biographer, Johnny Rogan, who in 1995 published a “controversial” Smiths biography called The Severed Alliance, which according to Q magazine is “one of the best books about music ever written”. Rogan is now working on volume 2, about Morrissey‘s solo career.
“The intrusion is difficult for my family, especially his investigation of the family history. I was completely raised by my mother’s family – I don ‘t know if that is the Irish way – but Rogan in his book wrote as if I was raised by my father’s side, and he spoke to people I hadn’t seen since 1972. My personal history is the Dwyer family” – his mother’s side – “not actually the Morrissey family. So that was the main thing I objected to.”
In an interview with this journalist after the book was published, Rogan claimed Morrissey was stage-managing the book from behind the scenes and used his friend Vini Reilly as an intermediary. “That’s the most incredible nonsense I’ve ever heard. I did say to people ‘What‘s his agenda?’ and ‘What’s he like?’ and people say, well, he loves you. But I had nothing at all to do with the book in any capacity, and I spoke to absolutely nobody about the book.”
Ever thought of writing an autobiography? “Yes, and I have started it. There are so many points to settle. I just don’t think it would ever make the shops – there’d be writs flying all over the place. There are so many things that I have never stated. The Morrissey story is still a half-untold story. Even though I’ve had acres and acres of press over the years, there’s still a great deal I want to say.”
He has been a solo artist twice as long as he was a Smith. Why does he continue?
“The reason I was born was to sing last night in Milan on that stage in front of those people. That really is all there is. I’m very pleased to still be a a part of it. As long as I can do it without looking too dreadful , I will want to do it.”
But he already has the respect, and his legacy is intact. “Well, that’s just it: I don’t think I have the respect. You will fossilise before you ever see me on MTV. I’m sitting here in front of you today without a record deal. I’m not desperate, and I can still pull an audience, without any support from anybody. But that’s always been the way. Everything I’ve done is in spite of a million handicaps, in spite of a million critics.
“Although I have a very dedicated audience, the drawback is you also inspire extreme dedication among your critics and detractors. And they will always be there.”
Are you in danger of turning into a character from Sunset Boulevard? “Well, you should be quite happy, because I already am.”
The curious thing about Morrissey’s current Oye, Esteban – Hey, Steven – tour around Europe and the US is that he’s doing it without any “product” to sell – there is no new album yet, although he did play a few tracks from it in Milan, including a song called Women Don’t Seem to Like Me” – and he’s doing it without any tour support because he has no record label. You wouldn’t find M People playing for the sake of playing. He’s also bringing the unsigned Dublin indie band Sack around with him as the opening act.
“I’ve always been independent in the true sense of the word, and I shall remain so. I’ve never been part of anything. I’ve never belonged to anything. Even when The Smiths were doing Top of the Pops we felt like outsiders. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been on EMI, Mercury or RCA; I’ve always maintained the true spirit that I feel.
“I feel quite sad for younger groups now. I have met with record-company people, and they will tell you quite openly that they are not interested in your career, just in what you sell. You are product. It seems now that younger bands have to sell so many copies of their first album if they want to get on. It’s all regardless of talent. Sack, who are on this tour with me, have no record deal. When I heard a song of theirs called Laughter Lines I was just staggered by it. It should be No 1 forever.”
Similarly, Morrissey seems to be reacting against received wisdom in the places he is visiting on his Irish tour. “Yes, we’re playing Derry. When was the last time Elton John did that? We were never able to play Derry with The Smiths. It will be very interesting. I never believe in taking the easy option and just playing a big city so that people from everywhere have to travel to see you.
“These days promoters only want you to play Dublin – they don’t send you to Galway, Cork and Limerick. They say if you really insist on going to these places that ‘nobody will turn up’ and ‘there are no people there’. This is what Irish promoters say to me. But I’m still a stickler. I remember The Smiths going to places like Letterkenny and Coleraine, and the crowds were fantastic.”
Like the character in the Beckett play who opines, “Perhaps my best years are gone, but I wouldn ‘t want them back, not with the fire in me now,” Morrissey has plenty of the Promethean purpose blazing away in his belly. And have the best years gone? Certainly solo work like Everyday Is Like Sunday, Late Night Maudlin’ Street, most of Your Arsenal and all of Vauxhall and I exceeds what he accomplished with Marr, Joyce and Rourke, and as a live act he remains as dynamic as ever.
He’s not going away, you know: “I remember buying David Bowie’s Starman when it was No 42 in the charts, and that was a truly extraordinary time for me. I was falling in love with the potency of the pop moment. That’s why I am here. That’s why I am involved in music, because the pop moment in my life was the only thing that ever spoke to me.
“Yes, there is literature and art, but pop music is a combination of literature, art, the photography, the words, the music, hearing the words sung, seeing the performance.
“Growing up in an Irish family in industrial Manchester, there was no colour; it was incredibly negative. I wanted to know about AE Housman and Oscar Wilde. But I was only exposed to violence and embarrassment. Pop music saved me.”
Morrissey plays the Rialto Theatre, Derry, on Wednesday; The Ulster Hall, Belfast, on Thursday; the Black Box, Galway, on Saturday, November 27th; University Concert Hall, Limerick, on Sunday 28th; Cork Opera House on Tuesday 30th; and the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on Wednesday, December 1st, and Thursday 2nd