“Humor is a very personal thing,” Morrissey said. “But I’m thankful that the people who consider me to be depressing are always in themselves very dull, whereas those who understand my humor are always very bright people.”
Morrissey’s tone and delivery is always a bit tongue-in-cheek, although there is normally a harsh truth in what he is saying. He says things most people only dream of saying in the most pompous way possible, but somehow it’s endearing. Born Steven Patrick Morrissey, The Smiths former frontman grew up in Manchester, England, where he was eventually exposed to the raw punk sounds and glam rock of the ’70s and ’80s.
“Manchester was always a great place for record shops,” Morrissey explained via an email interview. “It was second to London as the main city for all emerging bands to play, so I started going to gigs or concerts from the age of 12. I caught everyone at the right time; T.Rex, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Lou Reed, and then the Ramones first U.K. visit, Patti Smith, the Sex Pistols before they signed a deal, and so on. It was very easy for me to see just about everyone.”
At the time, the young Morrissey was obsessed with the British weekly newspaper NME and would often submit letters to the editor to offer his insights on popular music. Little did he know, an impromptu meeting between Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr would change the course of their lives forever, and consequently the lives of millions of others. The Smiths’ music transcended anything ever heard before. Q Magazine’s Simon Goddard argued in 2007 that The Smiths were “the one truly vital voice of the ’80s,” “the most influential British guitar group of the decade” and the “first indie outsiders to achieve mainstream success on their own terms.” Originally comprised of Morrissey, Marr, bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, The Smiths were solidified in 1982. Ironically, NME would eventually name Morrissey “one of the most influential artists ever.”
“When I was an NME addict, it was called the New Musical Express,” he explained. “From 1970 to 1980 I didn’t miss one single issue and I really do miss that devotion to a music magazine. I loved it unreservedly.”
Marr and Morrissey proved to be the nucleus of The Smiths. Without their undeniable chemistry, they never would have attained the kind of longevity they have today.
Morrissey’s often-melancholy lyrics have an uncanny ability to tap into the human psyche, young or old. In his musings on human behavior, he often touches on sexual and social confusion, vulnerability, violence, loneliness, power, revenge and concurring feelings of worthlessness and wanting to take over the world. His lyrics are often autobiographical and, most of the time, brutally honest. His acute insight began at a very early age when he discovered his fellow students weren’t exactly kind.
“I had no education and went to two horrific schools,” he said. “That really knocks you on the head for the rest of your life because your introduction to the world is mainly an understanding of how violent and unpleasant people are. I didn’t experience one school day where I felt safe, and this scars you forever.”
Through music, he found his catharsis. The Smiths only released four albums in their short tenure as a band, including 1984’s self-titled debut, 1985’s Meat Is Murder, 1986’s The Queen Is Dead and finally 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come. The group would break up shortly after. In 1987, their American record label, Sire Records, released Louder Than Bombs, a compilation album of The Smiths’ best work. Rolling Stone named it one of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003. From the instrumental brilliance of “Oscillate Wildly” and the irreverent “Shoplifters of the World Unite” to the sarcastic “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and the nostalgic feel of “Back to the Old House,” it captured a wide range of emotions.
“I think it’s a very loving record from start to finish, and although it’s loving, it spares no punches,” he said. “So as you listen to it you feel you’re in a caring world that just happens to be quite brutal and also completely realistic. It wasn’t rock fantasy, and it wasn’t fake, and it spoke directly, and it was unmarketable. But it sold very, very well.”
Morrissey’s penchant for genuine expression is a gift often absent in current mainstream pop music. Sentiments uttered in the lyrics often seem contrived and much of it is based on shallow pursuits such as money, fame and sex appeal. Morrissey has never had to try to have sex appeal; it came naturally.
“There are no bands or singers who become successful without overwhelming marketing,” he said. “There are no surprise success stories. Everything is stringently controlled, obvious and predictable and has exactly the same content. So, we are now in the era of marketed pop stars, which means that the labels fully control the charts, and consequently the public has lost interest. It’s very rare that a record label does something for the good of music. Thus we are force-fed such as Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith, which at least means that things can’t possibly get any worse. It is sad, though. There’s no spontaneity now, and it all seems to be unsalvageable.”
In a society lacking boundaries, positive models and a sense of morality, all ethics have seemingly gone out the window, especially in pop culture and mainstream media. However, the idea of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” is a dying concept gasping for air, something the public hasn’t quite grasped yet.
“It seems to me that the situation has reversed,” he said. “The bands now strive to stay healthy whereas the music public, especially the very young, dress and look very clichéd rock ‘n’ roll, and with that comes a careless attitude towards drugs. The positives are the rejection of fur and leather and McDonalds and even plastics, all very important no-go zones for the intelligent young people. Then you see someone wearing animal fur and they immediately register as being moronic. So, in amongst the grime, I see lots of good changes, and as soon as animals are off the menu, the world will be a great place.”
Morrissey has always been a staunch vegetarian and huge proponent for animal rights. In fact, he went vegetarian at the age of 11, when most kids are still playing with their G.I. Joes and oblivious to the process of how meat winds up on their dinner plates. He believes you cannot ignore animal suffering simply because animals are not us. He’s so passionate about this cause, no meat is allowed at any venue where he’s performing.
“I accidentally saw some slaughterhouse footage and it struck me as the most evil, disgusting and immoral practice,” he said. “A few weeks ago, I saw footage of a bull clasped in a circular trap, and as it realized that a saw was very slowly burning through its neck his eyes began to stream with tears. It took three minutes for the head to fall off. I have never seen anything so sad and it constantly confirms how repulsive the human race as a whole are. The earth would be so much better off without humans and I’m not joking. Humans destroy everything.”
When Morrissey ascends on the temporarily meat-free Red Rocks Amphitheater July 16, he’ll most likely perform a gamut of songs beginning with The Smiths and culminating with material from his latest solo album, 2014’s World Peace is None of Your Business, but he doesn’t put on a show. To him, it’s about so much more.
“I’m still as obsessive about vocal melody as I was when I was 14,” he said. “The singing voice is still, I think, the most sexual and sensual and potent power on earth. It’s my life, at the expense of everything and anything else. I am not a performer. I am not an act, and this is not a career.”
Originally written for Boulder Weekly