Monday, June 09, 2003

THIS CHARMING MAN: Okay, so that might not have been the most original headline for a review of the Morrissey show, but then again 'the importance of being morrissey' was hardly a massive leap of originality on the part of Channel 4, was it?
Tucked away to the end of the a busy Sunday night for the channel - programming getting forced out the way by the force that is Big Brother - the documentary made a fairly good hand of cantering through the Moz life, paying the price for its access in spades of sycophancy. Not that Morrissey gave very much of himself in this ("first TV interview in sixteen years"), but he played ball for long enough to ensure that he didn't get a Heather Mills-style working over. Not from the filmmakers, anyway.
It's not so much that the documentary tried to duck the tricky subjects, just that it more than sugared the pills with a string of curious celeb endorsments - JK Rowling, Will Self, Kathy Burke. The music industry was represented by Bono and Noel Gallagher, which is like getting Colonel Saunders and Ronald McDonald in to pass judgement on Gordon Ramsay.
Bono trotted out the standard new-judgement on Morrissey, that, actually, you know, he's very funny. This is the thing people say when they want to dazzle us with how much deeper their insight is into the man than other people's, and I suspect it has it roots in something Peel said about fifteen years ago. Peel's judgement - that the audience tend to overlook Morrissey - has been twisted over the years into the ridiculous claim made by Bono that "people say Morrissey is miserable, but he's not. He's very funny." Mr. Vox illustrated this claim by telling us he nearly crashed his car when he heard Girlfriend In A Coma for the first time (oh, so close). The 'Actually-Morrissey-is-funny' line is the musical equivalent of the way English teachers do that false laugh when they take you to see a Shakespeare play and it gets to a jokey part: the idea is not that they find the thing humourous, but they want you to think they're clever enough to see that there is a joke there. But saying 'Morrissey is actually a funny guy' is as wrong as suggesting he's a giant gloom-octopus. The man who wrote Suffer The Children, the Headmaster Ritual, Sing Me To Sleep is not a pop version of Spike from Hi-De-Hi.
After all these years, Morrissey finally got round to addressing the taint of racism that's been with him since Madstock. He seemed bemused - "why would I be racist?" he asked, in the manner that an OAP might ask what he'd want with email. Later, he enthused about how much he likes Mexican. It was a failure to engage coupled with overcompensation. The trouble is that those of us who never set out believing those old NME worries after Madstock found his inability to defend himself while the National Front Discos and the Bengali in Platforms started to lay thick around his ankles starting to make them look like they might have a point. Back in the late 80's, a blinking 'why would I be racist?' might have been enough to defuse the situation; but after nearly twenty years it wasn't a very convincing explanation.
To give Noel Gallagher his due, he was almost the only talking head to try and consider the whole race question; but we take this more as an example of how blind Noel can be to the implications of what he's doing. And, frankly, Stephen Patrick would have been better off if his fellow Manc had passed: "They say he never defended himself - why should he? If he was racist, the News of the World would have exposed him, never mind the fucking NME." A curious line of logic, you might think, that makes absolutely no sense. Firstly, the NME never actually said Moz=Nazi, just fretted over why he wouldn't answer their questions on the subject. Second - Noel Gallagher believes a story can't be true because it wasn't covered by the News of the World? Third: why on earth would the News of the World want to investigate the political views of an indie pop star - this was the days before Suede, Pulp, Blur and, alright, Oasis made guitar rock the stuff of front page splashes. Finally, what rabbit hole is Gallagher down if he doesn't believe something because it wasn't in the News of the Screws? "We know for a fact that he isn't racist" affirmed Noel Gallagher. If anyone can explain to me a way that you can prove as a solid fact that somebody isn't racist, please contact us at the usual email address.
To be fair, Noel wasn't the only person to stick up for Morrissey. Michael Bracewell - like TMFTML, but with worse sweaters - also had a theory; the man fits into a parade of British artists who are pilloried for being what they were once celebrated for. In other words, the very cherishing of British (by which we mean English) values starts to look a bit dodgy when the cherishing turns to fetishising. Unfortunately, Bracewell blew this defence by invoking the name of PG Wodehouse. Erm, actually, Michael, Plum was pilloried not for his evoking of the villages of rural Albion, but because of the cosying up to the Nazis during the war. If you're going to weigh in on the side of an expatriate Briton living in America after some dodgy behaviour he never chose to explain, using the model of a Briton who fled to live in America rather than face prosecution over links with the Third Reich isn't perhaps the most sensitive way to go about it.
In effect, we don't think Morrissey is racist, not explicitly, anyway. He's always been obsessed with the lines between belonging and not belonging (ironically, this is what makes him popular with Latinos in the US) and walking those lines is to take an ambiguous route. He was dangerously arrogant in hoping that people would trust his heart to be in the right place.
So now he's in the states - despite (or perhaps because) "he's too english for the Yanks, and too english for most of the english" as Chrissie Hynde put it - and proving that when he sang "I bear more grudges than lonely high court judges" he wasn't using artistic licence. There are grudges from the Bowie tour he flounced off because David - apparently - fixed the handover so that the crowd couldn't say goodbye to Moz properly; grudges from the court case; grudges that still burn inside him. He's also convinced that there's some sort of conspiracy working against him to keep him out of the record stores (this was all made before he signed the deal with Trojan records, of course).
But listening to him perform a new song on a recent tour, a more likely reason for his years without a record deal presents itself: that, really, he's just not much cop any more. It's not the loss of Marr that did for his songs; more the uprooting to the States and living in F Scott Fitzergald's house has cut the ties to the world his lyrics need to keep them alive.
Bitter, twisted and still oblivious, although the crew set out to make a warm glowing portrait of Morrissey, his character kept burning through the vaseline on the lens. But it still can't take the Smiths from us.

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