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POP MUSIC : Morrissey, the Ever Marketable : Feeling neglected in the U.S., the uncompromising singer courts a larger audience but vows to stay true to himself--and those who've deified him

March 27, 1994|RICHARD CROMELIN | Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for Calendar

"Can I ask you a direct question? You don't really like me, do you?"

It's a perfect Morrissey moment.

The English pop singer, detecting what he considers "cold, cynical" responses to his conversation, has set aside the protocol of the telephone interview to bare his true feelings.

Most artists would keep it to themselves and take care of business, but Morrissey has never been one to shy away from emotional display. And the question itself reinforces the classic, poignant Morrissey archetype: the insecure loner yearning for understanding but doomed to isolation.

These qualities have made the opinionated, outspoken artiste one of England's most visible and controversial figures for more than a decade--first with the Smiths, one of the most vital forces in '80s British rock, then as a solo artist after the group's 1987 breakup.

In the United States, Morrissey, 34, commands a limited but fiercely loyal core of fans who publish fanzines to share lore and opinion about their hero, and scream and swoon at concerts that take on the charged air of a messiah's visitation. The more he's ridiculed by detractors as a self-absorbed depressive, the stronger the bond between artist and audience becomes.

But, it turns out, this isn't enough for Morrissey. After all these years of watching unworthy acts climb over him to the top of the charts, he wants some real respect--from mass audience and individual interviewer.

"Well, I apologize then," he says, after being assured by his questioner that any coldness of tone is due to the awkwardness of the telephone medium and the short time allotted for the interview. This is another component of the image--he may be shy and uncomfortable with people, but he's also polite, straightforward and forthcoming when it suits him.

And, with his new album, "Vauxhall and I," just released (see review, Page 73), he definitely wants to get this out.

"I make music which I feel has been largely neglected," he says. "I have a reasonably good-sized audience, but the level of attention that I receive from the American media does not reflect that at all. I feel slightly undervalued."

*

A hint of wariness remains in Morrissey's voice as the interview proceeds, but he seems to get into the spirit of things when he is asked to describe his surroundings.

He says he's drinking tea in the kitchen of his five-story Victorian house in London. "How flash is that?" he interjects, trying to support his contention that he's a simple man with an utterly dull personal life.

The house is "extremely clean, reasonably sparse, very bright." There are some film posters, as well as original prints of heroes such as Billy Fury, the '50s English rock idol, and the New York Dolls. Before becoming a performer, Morrissey wrote books about that classic underground band and actor James Dean for a British publisher.

The pop music of the mid-1960s had become Stephen Patrick Morrissey's solace and obsession when he was barely 6 years old, the grand emotions of the era's hit singles assuaging his loneliness. Later, glam-rock icons David Bowie, Marc Bolan and the Dolls preoccupied him.

Bowie reached out to his followers and urgently assured them that "you're not alone." Morrissey would assume that role in the '80s after teaming with guitarist Johnny Marr and the rhythm section of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce in Manchester in 1982.

The Smiths' catchy pop-rock songs were an unusual blend of classicism and eccentricity, their bouncy tunes and ringing textures framing Morrissey's longing tone and odd, singsong phrasing.

The band released six albums on Sire Records (not counting posthumous greatest-hits collections), but didn't make much of a mark in the U.S. In England, though, fans and press elevated the band to deity status, especially its introspective, charismatic frontman.

Tim Booth, the singer for the band James, which began in Manchester about the same time, recalls those early days.

"The Smiths took us on tour, and the reaction was always, 'My God, look at this!' He's just one of those figures in history that excites that kind of reaction. . . .

"I think it was partly his vulnerability as a man. He wasn't this arrogant, stiff male who is certain about life. He's this very confused individual who made no bones about it. I think that needed voicing at the time. And he voiced it with great wit and insight, and people responded to it."

Ever since, despite a broad range of subject matter in his music, the primary image of Morrissey has remained: a suffering soul who offers comfort and community to people who don't fit in.

"I think that's something that's a constant but very dismissive description of me," Morrissey says. "I think deep down in our hearts all of us at some point feel that we don't fit in. So I don't feel that I'm singing purely for people who are on Death Row. And I don't think the songs are particularly depressing.

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