Sunday March 19, 2006
Early in January I flew from Vancouver via Frankfurt to Rome. By the time I reached the hotel on Piazza del Popolo, my nervous system was shutting down on a blend of angry little sleeping pills and bad logistical planning. It was going to be a two-day cross-polar trip - insanity - all to interview Morrissey. In 15 years of media life I've never once conducted an interview. My thinking was that if I'm going to do one, it ought to be with someone I'd truly like to interview. I'd come close once before, with Martin Amis, who'd been in Canada at the tail end of a massive book tour. We met at a Japanese restaurant where he took one look at me and said: 'You're not really going to go through with this, are you?' That snapped me to my senses, I said no, and we spent the afternoon sightseeing.
But Morrissey? I'll confess that I'm a fan - not quite at the concealed shrine in the basement stage - but the title of one of my novels came from the title of one of his songs. So meeting the man, coupled with a freakishly long trip to Rome coupled with the novelty of the interview process, might be just the thing to scrub clean the post-Christmas blues and yank me out of myself. And like anyone my age, I've followed Morrissey's press across the decades and of course knew he was maybe a more complex subject than most.
My own experience with being interviewed is mixed. I suppose they're a part of my job, and as I would like readers to connect with my books, I do them. I've also made many lifelong friends whom I first encountered as interviewers - as a writer, they're a terrific way to meet and add smart new people to one's life. But in recent years I've come to question the process. It's too artificial and, in 2006, oddly archaic. And mostly, it involves too many levels of disbelief suspension: Hi. I'm your interviewer. I have this magic totem called a Sony, and I'm going to put it on the table here, and as long as the Sony is there I possess whatever power over you that you allow me to have. If you grant me no power, I will turn on you and brand you an asshole in print and trash your work. If you give me too much power, I will be contemptuous of you and also trash you and your work. If you're too nice, I will despise you. If you're too bland, I'll just phone this interview in and we'll both have wasted valuable time.
To me, interviews are mostly about trying not to make the interviewer think I'm too much of an asshole. I think that's the experience with most interviews these days, mine and most everybody else's. Let's face it, pretty much any info you need is already out there on Google. Interviews never go away any longer. They just pile up and up and up for the rest of time. If people want to know something about a subject, they can just find it themselves. All that remains is control of the asshole yes/no switch. Do you want an interviewer to flip it? Remember - if you don't want people thinking you're an asshole, it means you allow your interviewer to torture you. It all boils down to how strongly you believe in the totemic Sony.
Pre-Google, a writer preparing for an interview had to do genuine research involving paper, libraries, legwork and some dimension of vim. The accumulation of prior interviews was difficult, yet research effort, when made, was always apparent during the interview. This research went a long way to making said subject try harder to be responsive. These days, one merely Googles and goes to the 137th page of results to give the illusion of in-depth investigation.
Is the interview dead? Well, it's certainly not having triplets and running marathons. (The online Q&A interview, unlikely as it seems, has breathed new life and magic into the form. Both questions and answers tend to be far more considered, illuminating and smart - and as a bonus, the writer doesn't have to write anything.) But if we can no longer demand a certain strain of insight to emerge from the interview process, we can at least expect a bit of entertainment or ... or perhaps - well, perhaps nothing. That's the new reality.
I'd gone into this interview planning not to torture Morrissey, rather to discuss the interview process and our feelings about it. And I knew from the first moment we met that the tape recorder wasn't going to come out, and that I wasn't going to ... well ... do this interview. It felt nonsensical.
So I'll leave it at that, but here are some impressions of Morrissey that I came away from after my 105 minutes spent with him.
... He's 46 and makes no attempt to 'young himself up'. Admirable.
... He doesn't mind being recognised in public but doesn't like the notion that he has to look 'good' or a certain way.
... His head (this is really weird, and I hope it doesn't go outside the boundaries of taste) is enormous. It's like a huge Charlie Brown parade float head. I walked into the bar to meet him and I saw this guy across the room with this massive head and I thought to myself, 'Man, that's one massive head', and it was Morrissey.
... He uses a soft voice during interviews because soft voices don't record well. This is because he knows that interview tapes from the Eighties and Nineties circulate among fans, and that it's only a matter of time before they all appear on the internet until the end of time. Soft speech will make this process harder.
... He's friends with Nancy Sinatra.
... He's becoming increasingly more Catholic these days. 'Those Catholics, they really nab you when you're young.' [Makes gesture of cowpoke searing calf with branding iron.] 'They sear you. They sear you, they do.'
... He's looked himself up on eBay and says all of the autographed stuff there is fake. I called a friend of mine who's also in celebrity autograph on eBay league, and rampant eBay fakery was confirmed.
... I think (and this is based on meeting him and having read much of his press over the years) he has an almost clinical, Tourette's-like need to blurt out thoughtless things to people, and he's not even aware he's doing it, so when people retaliate, he genuinely has no idea why. When, as a joke, I removed the tape recorder from my attaché case, he looked at it and said: 'Oh. It's plastic.'
(Gee, I left my vintage Bang & Olufsen uranium-plated recorder purchased from the estate of Ella Fitzgerald back home.)
... He doesn't like celebrity culture or pop culture - disdains it really - and yet he obsesses on obscure pop stars from other eras such as Sacha Distel (French; 1960s) and seems to perceive no similarity between worshipping what's happening now versus what was once worshipped in other times.
... He's pretty scarred by decades of yo-yoing worship and antagonism in the music press. Music writers are the most passionate and evil and adoring of all writers. I don't think Morrissey's ever been interviewed by non-music press. He's really had to retreat into a shell because of it. The intensity of so many interviews has really gotten to him.
... It's not my job to develop a therapeutic analysis of the man, but I think that he's pulled so far into his shell that, save whatever friends and family he has, he's genuinely become what he once pretended to be - that reclusive glumster we all fell in love with - cranky and restless in his bedsit, mooning about obscure stars from distant eras. Which is to say, it's his myth, and he's very happy with it, thank you, and if you don't like it, piss off. And it's also why we Morrissey fans love Morrissey. Everybody wins.
And maybe what all this further boils down to is the fact that Morrissey is interview-proof. Don't bother. He's not an asshole and he's not the Dalai Lama, but you could interview him for a thousand years and you'd learn nothing. And this is just fine. Interviewing Morrissey pinpoints the bankruptcy of interviewing as a form of expression: if you don't believe in it, it can't happen. I don't much believe in interviews, and I don't think Morrissey does either. I believe that the only way to learn about an artist is to examine their work. Be realistic: people paint the flowers, not the stem of the plant. People are remembered by their flowers and seeds, not their mulch. Fuck interviews.
Thus we come to his new album. The first thing you need to know about it is that you must go out right now and buy it. Just do it. It's going to happen sooner or later, so it might as well be sooner. That way you'll be able to spend more of your life enjoying it.
Ringleader of the Tormentors is dripping with sex and death and pleading and moaning and blood and muttering and the songs all sound genuinely different from each other - instead of the Morrissey uni-song that's plagued his last few albums. It was produced by Tony Visconti who seems to have bitch-slapped Morrissey out of his LA-induced trance and said to him, 'Boy, you need to write songs people will enjoy listening to over and over and over. They must all sound different, and they must be produced with subtle layers that make each listening reveal something new. You are not allowed to paste everything over with noisy guitar nonsense. And a listener must feel like you're actually revealing something to them, because if you're not doing that, then you're not making art.'
Thank you, Tony.
The most revealing thing on this album is that, if one is to believe the thread of all of his lyrics, Morrissey is having sex these days - which sounds kind of nuts to someone who doesn't know about him. 'Let me get this straight: you have a 46-year-old man who only now is admitting to having sex?' Well, that pretty much sums it up. The celibacy thing was getting a bit stale, and good for you, Morrissey, for taking the plunge. It's made a big difference to your work. You even used revealing pronouns and the universe didn't implode. Two sizzling lines from his song 'Dear God, Please Help Me' come to mind:
'There are explosive kegs
between my legs
Dear God, please help me'
Segueing into ...
'Then he motions to me
with his hand on my knee
Dear God, did this kind of thing
happen to you?
Now I'm spreading your legs
with mine in between ... '
It helps that the melody and the arrangements supporting this song are dazzling and endlessly listenable. I heard the album for the first time the morning after I arrived in Rome. Owing to the music industry's near-paralysing fear of pirating, none of the many watermarked CDs sent to me in Canada worked on any system I could find - my own, those of friends and neighbours - and I finally ended up listening to it for the first time while lying on my Roman bed with three-quarters of a hangover and a white plastic battery-powered Logitech portable minispeaker resting on my rib cage. It was connected to an iPod that shifted between mono and stereo at whim. Even with all of this ridiculousness, the album worked perfectly. I was told I could have four hours with the album and machine, except I got a phone call from a handler at the two and a half-hour mark saying that Morrissey was bored and wanted to do the interview earlier. OK. Whatever.
It's strange writing about this album here. It's almost as if with Morrissey, one needs to do two reviews. One for people who know him and his past, and one for those who don't know a thing about him. For those who don't know him, on this album, Morrissey writes standard length love songs that have little in common with what anybody else is doing in 2006. He comes from an experimental rock background and the new-wave strand of the 1980s. His songs are generally quite melodic and can get quite sonically raunchy, but his slow songs are the opposite of raunch. His work from the 1980s also possessed a haunting quality unobtainable in almost all other music of the time - instrumentation that shored up lyrics that often dealt with rejection and alienation. And meat.
I'd like to compare his sound to a mixture of other performers, but that's not quite possible, for he's unique. His persona, though, honed over two decades, is mixture of the best parts of Quentin Crisp, Engelbert Humperdinck, the New York Dolls and a patient dressed in a white terry cloth robe in a Swiss tuberculosis sanatorium waiting to die. OK, maybe the robe is black. And maybe it's not Switzerland, either - it's Manchester in 1983. But you get the picture.
Maybe the death part isn't quite true any more. You see, for those people who do follow Morrissey and his history, as mentioned a bit earlier, much of what he's all about is death, being miserable, being lonely, and being shunned by the popular people - glum.
This new album certainly delivers some hallmark glumness. One song, called 'Life is a Pigsty', has a refrain that says as much, over and over. It's also one of the best songs for driving in your car ever written. When you listen to it, you feel, contrary to the lyrics, like you're off to start an affair, or driving home from just having had one.
In another song, 'To Me You Are a Work of Art', a repeating lyric says:
'I see the world,
It makes me puke.'
Viva crabbiness! Pure Morrissey.
But again, as for the death stuff, I don't think life is a deathfest for Morrissey any longer. After spending six years living in Los Angeles, Morrissey moved to Rome a bit over a year ago. Why Rome? 'I fell in love with the city.' Hmmm. One can only spend so much time being in love with a city. One would like to hope that there were other things, and perhaps a human being to love there, too. And I suspect there is a human being in the picture, but as I said, that's just speculation, and should this theoretically possible person exist, thank you for snapping Morrissey out of an old life and into a new one. Because to hear the album's song list, and to read the lyrics, it's pretty obvious that there have been massive continental shifts occurring inside the man's soul, and they appear to have been the result of bonding with ... another human being
In fact there's almost a faint whiff of the therapist's couch that permeates the album, although it never sounds overtly so. There seems to be an acceptance that Morrissey is finally cool with who he is and what he does and where he comes from. In one song destined to become a single, 'The Youngest Was the Most Loved', there is a chant, with Morrissey singing along with a chorus of schoolchildren (à la the 'hang the DJ' refrain of the Smiths' 'Panic'): 'There is no such thing in life as normal'.
You can feel liberation shooting out from Morrissey's body like lightning bolts, but it's also funny to think that for 46 years in his head he's been trying to pass himself off as normal. Huh? The man defines eccentricity. Oscar Wilde is correct: the last thing we ever understand in life truly is the way that others perceive us.
The analysis could go on for a while, but every listener should have their own, so I don't want to pre-colour things too much. Let it suffice to say that there's not a lazy moment on the album, that it bears endless re-listening, that there were many decisions to be made, and all were made correctly, and mostly, that in finally deciding to break his old mould, he has become musically reborn, and for longtime fans, this is cause for rejoicing.
Douglas Coupland has published nine novels and several non-fiction books in 35 languages and most countries on earth. One of those novels is Girlfriend in a Coma (1997), which takes its title from the Smiths' song of that name.
He is a Canadian, born on a Canadian Air Force base near Baden-Baden, Germany, on 30 December 1961. In 1965 his family moved to Vancouver, where he continues to live and work. This information is gleaned from his website, coupland.com, where he writes: ' In general, most biographical material about me on the Internet is seriously flawed, if not outright wrong, and I know other writers are experiencing the same problem with their own data - so it must be something to do with the way Google and Yahoo squeeze information and make it do odd tricks. Sometimes I'll be introduced onstage at book events by a speaker saying, "Mr Coupland is German and once did an advertisement for Smirnoff vodka. He collects meteorites and lives in Scotland in a house with no furniture."
'I know. What are you supposed to say when you hear something like this?'
Morrissey has recorded eight albums with the Smiths and 11 as a solo artist. He has the distinction of having had British top 10 singles in three separate decades.
He was born Steven Patrick Morrissey in Manchester on 22 May 1959. He was UK president of the New York Dolls fan club and published the book James Dean Isn't Dead before he met Johnny Marr and formed the Smiths in 1982 with Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce. Manchester and the north of England provided the background to many of his songs, so he surprised his fans in 1999 when he moved to LA. 'I normally live in Los Angeles,' he later said, 'if you can call it normally living.
He moved to Rome just over a year ago because he heard a voice in his head telling him to do so: 'You hear that voice and it's clear.'
He has a long-standing love-hate relationship with the press: 'It's very annoying, I always appear to have an extreme reaction to something that is completely fabricated.' He's finally planning to tell his side in an autobiography: 'I've agreed with myself to do it ... [but] I've never had any dialogue with a publisher.'
Stop me if you've heard this one before: infamous quotes
'Reggae is vile'
'I always thought my genitals were the result of some crude practical joke.'
(NME, June 1986)
'If Prince came from Wigan he would have been slaughtered by now.'
'Long hair is an unpardonable offence which should be punishable by death.'
(Star Hits, 1986)
'I'm capable of looking on the bright side. I just don't do it very often.'
(Melody Maker, September 1987)
'My sense of humour is still completely misunderstood. I feel much as I ever did: untapped. I'm the strangest living oddity.'
(The Times, February 1995)
This charming man
How others see him
'I think the Smiths were the only group whose falling apart really affected me personally. I was very sad.'
'I used to love the Smiths; they were the best thing that happened in the Eighties. I just thought he was hilarious.'
'Whatever you put down in a lyric, he'll do it better. He's the best lyricist I've ever read.'
'In London he came to my hotel to see me. The thing that sticks with me most is the hug that he gave me. He is a great hugger.'
Morrissey sometimes brings out records with the greatest titles in the world which, somewhere along the line, he neglects to write songs for.'
· Douglas Coupland's latest novel, 'JPod', will be published by Bloomsbury on 8 June. Morrissey's new album Ringleader of the Tormentors (Sanctuary) is released on 3 April