Life's a bitch, and then you interview Morrissey. He is a journalist's nightmare: infinitely quotable, but endlessly press-wary. A month before the release of his fourth solo LP, Your Arsenal, his most striking, diverse, and commercial collection of songs since he and The Smiths parted company in 1987, I petition for an audience. Folks at his record company wish me luck and laugh about the time they arranged a Morrissey press junket to London in 1984. He never appeared, so visiting journalists interview Andy Partridge, giving XTC their best press in years.
Still, I persist. Morrissey visits New York on a cross-country promotional tour. We make a date. It is broken. He's simply exhausted. He does not travel well, I am told. A fine whine. So I fly to London to interview him and see him perform. Midway through Glamorous Glue he sings "London is dead, London is dead..." Boink! An orange juice carton hits Morrissey in the head. He goes home to recuperate. I sit by the phone anxiously. Two days later it becomes apparent that the interview and photo shoot are on hold when a cellular phone call comes from Morrissey's people: In the background there is the sound of someone banging on Morrissey's front door, pleading with him to open up.
Weeks pass. Morrissey returns to New York and one fine day I am ushered into his hotel suite. I pinch myself. He gives me a firm handshake and tells me to take a seat. "No, not there," he says, as I attempt to. "That's my favorite chair." He goes to the window. "There's no use jumping," I say. "I've got you now."
As he sits down I study his face. He is handsome in an intelligent way, though he doesn't always think so. Recently he told a British magazine that one of the few times he took Ecstasy, "I looked in the mirror and saw somebody very, very attractive. Now, of course, this was the delusion of the drug." Today his hair is cropped close on the sides, making it look like it's graying. His sideburns are indecisive in length, his eyes are a dazzling blue. He has a remarkably jutting jaw like Dudley Do-Rigit's, and during the interview he frequently pinches his chin to form a cleft. Then he strokes the cleft.
We caught you smiling in these photos.
"Well, I can smile, you know." (half-smiles) "I have mastered the art."
What is this thing with your tongue, sir? You stick it out rather a lot.
(making a raspberry noise) "My mouth doesn't close properly, it never did, and I suppose my tongue just falls out. "(laughs) "It's like leaving the garden gate open."
You've got your tongue out all over the cover of your new album. Any reason?
"If you're asking me if I'm trying to pass in a darkened room as a sex symbol, the answer is definitely no. I'm not trying to excite anybody in Illinois, if that's your question."
But you do. What about those people who jump onstage and kiss you?
"That's more romantic than sexual. I think it is love, not rock stardom. It is quite personal. I just love that. Wouldn't you?"
That would depend on the kisser.
What is the source of this love?
"Trust. I think admiring me, shall we say, is quite a task. Because if you say you like Morrissey, then you have to explain why."
What is wrong with youth today?
"I think the question is what's wrong with people today. I think these are very hard times. There is a lot of pressure, financial and otherwise, and people are suffocated by isolation. A lot of people feel very, very lonely, which is very confusing to them."
Do people confess their loneliness to you?
"Yes, and I am honestly moved, because I know it's very unusual to be allowed to speak on intimate terms with anybody."
Do you feel loneliness even though you could easily be surrounded by people?
"Yes I do, because loneliness has nothing to do with how many people are in the room with you. I'm now thirty-three, which is not young, and I feel I'm just a very lonely person, and I will remain so."
Is unhappiness epidemic these days?
"I think it was probably always there, but never addressed. People never used the term "depression" until the '70s. Before then it was always the least important illness, something for which one just took medication."
Do you suffer depression?
"Yes, I do. I am depressed most of the time. And when you're depressed it is so enveloping that it actually does control your life, you cannot overcome it, and you can't take advice. People trying to cheer you up become infuriating and almost insulting. It's all a part of that "pull-yourself-together" approach, isn't it? Depression is very, very powerful. You can't simply go to a nightclub and have a quick Miller draft light, or whatever you call it, and come out of it."
Have you sought any kind of help for it?
"Yes, I have in the distant past, but to absolutely no effect."
You're not a believer in Prozac or lithium?
"I've tried them. A lot of extreme things happen to you on them, which sometimes cannot seem to be worth it, because I don't want something that's going to effect me in any way other than to perhaps cure me. I don't want anything that's going to make me different. But having said all this, I function very well. I'm a reasonably well balanced person." (laughs) "I'm as strong as 90 percent of the people I know who would never, ever admit to depression. I think admitting it and talking about it is a strength."
How often does the seriousness end and the irony begin in your work?
"Many times. I have a grand and endless capacity to find myself slightly ridiculous. I'm not pretending to be some wallowing prophet, for heaven's sake. I think we all have to sit down and look in the mirror and think, What is that absurd monstrosity?"
By way of example, is there a particular line that screams out from the repertoire?
"The repertoire itself really."
Some people say depression is your art.
"I think it makes me extraordinarily unique. Who on earth would want to be Van Halen?"
How do you define evil?
"Well, if I said McDonald's you'd yawn and sit on a chair over there and read a book. But I do see McDonald's as the core of modern evil, because it is the death industry. I just feel rage that they will promote themselves from every possible angle but they will not show the process by which the hamburger is made, they will not show the cow's throats being slit, the bull trying to commit suicide by banging his head against the stone floor."
Are those leather shoes you're wearing?
"Yes, and this is a leather belt."
Explain, please. Don't you feel complicit?
"I don't recall at any time asking people to stop eating dead animals or to stop wearing leather. I think if you ask people to do everything, they become so confused that they do absolutely nothing."
Do you ever feel guilt?
"No, I don't. It's absolutely useless. And I don't understand people who feel guilt about sexual matters, but then I don't know people who have extreme sex lives; most people I know do very standard things."
Morrissey has different standards when it comes to questions of gender roles and sex. "It's hard to be a man," he says. "It's made to be hard and I don't know why. I think it's easier to be a woman. The women's movement has been so successful; the men's movement has never been accepted. I think it's not wanted. I think the expectation that men be stoic and strong is so enormous that finally they decide that this is the attractive way to be. There's more to life than being macho - such an ugly word - which is something that I realized at the age of one."
I ask him about the men's movement. He read The Liberated Man by Warren Farrell when he was fifteen, he says, "so you can't tell me anything about it." Has he read Iron John? Never heard of it. He doesn't believe the Lollapalooza generation is reinventing masculinity or pop culture. "It could just be a fashion, but I think it's a good one. I think Henry Rollins looks very, very good. His poetry I'm not very sure about."
In his own quiet way, Morrissey has redefined manhood. His songs have captured the angst of male adolescence and turned his sensitivity into strength, he has stirred an affection in men of every sexual orientation, and, despite his protests to the contrary, he has become a new kind of sex symbol. He speaks of love and sex in pronoun-free abstractions, but he is not so much sexually ambiguous as ambivalent.
I read that you had your first sexual urge at twenty-eight. How is that possible?
"I made it so. It was just an aspect of my life that was never triggered or required. It's very strange and unusual, but I'm not the only person on earth who's like this. A lot of people never get asked."
So you had an urge. What did you do?
"Well . . .I responded to it."
So you had a shag, as they say.
"No, I didn't." (laughs) "Something less than that. But even if it may help other people, it doesn't help me to talk about it."
Could it hurt you?
"Yeah, it could. It does hurt me that the absurd issue called my sex life has been so pathetic. I do feel like the strangest living oddity or whatever those circus folk in the '20s were called. I've never, ever had what one might lazily call a sex life."
Are you too shy to ask?
"No. And those whom I have asked have always, always said no, which is very hard to live with. And I've always felt that I was cursed, that I was never meant to have a sex life. And that is as true today as it was when I was seventeen and wondering why."
You've never enjoyed physical sensation?
"Once I did, and it caught me unawares. But if you're asking me if I've ever spent the night with someone in a loving way, the answer is no, I never have."
Have you fallen in love?
"Yes, I have, but the association is with pain, because it's never been reciprocated. Desire is extremely excruciating to me, and as far as I know, that's all there is. I can't imagine response, and I can't imagine being loved by somebody whom one loves."
But people must hit on you.
"No, that never happens to me."
Even amongst your legions of fans?
"To be honest, I don't meet them very often. I wouldn't waste time standing around for gracious slaps on the back. I don't take to praise and fawning, because I feel that if you accept that, you have to accept it when someone calls you a pile of shit, which I also don't accept. The moment is the performance, and when it's over the communication is over as well, because all that you ever want to say to people is in that one hour and fifteen minutes."
What is harder for you to say, "I'm sorry" or "I love you"?
"I love you."
Thank you. But to return to the question, why is it so hard to say "I love you"?
"A lot of people don't want you to say it, because it's almost the final moment, the death knell of intimacy. A lot of people don't want to carry around with them the notion that you care that much."
Are you still friendly with Michael Stipe?
"Yes. He's a very genuine person. He wrote to me for a while and I didn't reply, and then I decided to and we met. We walked around Hyde Park, and that was the beginning."
He wrote you a fan letter?
"Not a fan letter, an interested letter. The pop industry is full of people who are quite isolated. It's not some great community where everybody gets together at night and sticks custard pies in each other's face. It's unusual to get a letter, and more unusual to get a supportive letter, because even if other singers feel supportive they do so in private."
Morrissey is not an R.E.M. fan. That figures. His taste is shaped by an intense Anglophilia (bar the New York Dolls and selected rockabilly) and a strict indie-rock orthodoxy. Morrissey's favorite groups at any given moment are invariably English and sound much like his own, but aside from New Order's bassist, he does not endorse any musician that has come out of his native Manchester since The Smiths. Music, he says, is not the food of life, "It's better than food." As a man who feeds on potatoes, bread, dry cakes, and the odd orange, his menu is rather limited.
Do you like jazz?
"It's boring. I like something spirited."
Something like gospel?
"'Oh Happy Day' sung by hundreds of people who are living in dire poverty in Birmingham, Alabama? No thank you."
"Even soft metal I find repulsive, because it completely bypasses the cranium for the loins. The loincloths. I don't like anything that insults the intelligence."
Have you ever been to a rave?
"Rave is the refuge of the mentally deficient. It's made by dull people for dull people."
"I have a lot, but I don't understand a great deal of it. I don't understand the musical terms, but I'm learning. I think it's something I'll manage to perfect over the next thirty years. Right now I like Jaqueline Dupré - she's a cellist. But I like anything that's basically sad." (laughs) "I don't like marches."
We talk about literature. He is now deep into Dickens and is looking for his obscure novel called Our Mutual Friend. He likes Anne Sexton, Joan Didion, and Truman Capote ("Conversations With . . .rather than In Cold Blood.") He has never read Lolita. I tell him I nearly brought him a copy; he suggests that I changed my mind because of the price. No, I reply, it's because you've stood me up a few times. Morrissey looks at his fingernails, says nothing.
We press on to the theater. He bemoans the lack of good plays: "I'm not part of the clique who's excited to be on the seventh row. I still demand quality, even from Vanessa Redgrave."
Seen any good films lately?
"No. I don't watch anything post-1970. I refuse, on the grounds that I'm completely caught in a time warp! And happily so."
So you've never seen E.T.?
"I saw it once on television. That doesn't count. It's completely different, because you just flick and there it is. You don't just flick and find yourself in a cinema, do you?"
No, not unless you're a . . .
"Well I'm not."
Clearly, although you have been called one.
"Only very quietly, in whispered terms."
Do you have a daily routine?
"It's a very quiet, very private life. It doesn't involve that many people. I usually rise quite early, have a leisurely breakfast, and go out walking or visit somebody. Most of the band live within walking proximity."
Do you have a car for longer journeys?
"I always walk."
You don't drive?
"I always walk."
So you don't have a car.
"I have two."
"One is a very old car, and one is a very snazzy sports car. But I can't describe them because certain people where I live ..."
Will start looking for them?
"Well that's point A, but point B is finding them and running off with aerials and number plates and my wig ..."
Your wig? You keep your wigs in the car?
"On the backseat. It's nice and airy."
Do you give money to charity?
"No, not at all. I gave some money to Greenpeace a couple of years ago, and they never sent me a slip back saying "We got it." I thought perhaps someone could have acknowledged that it had arrived."
Do you write thank you notes?
People you'd like to thank.
Morrissey is not a pop star blown about by the winds of fashion. Today, he is wearing wheat-colored jeans, burgundy socks, black leather shoes and belt, and a black-and-white shirt with silver snaps (possibly Thierry Mugler). Onstage, however, he favors more alarming shirts, from lack chiffon to gold and, recently, blue lamé. He does not favor their buttons. Typically, Morrissey will begin a performance with his shirt neatly tucked into his jeans. Then, as though it was lined with leeches, he will tug and pull the shirt from his body, finally tearing it off and tossing it into the audience.
Why do you dislike your shirts so?
"I don't, but they have to go. It's like giving them the shirt off my back. Although many times I recall what Chrissie Hynde said: 'People may want to take the skin and leave you with the shirt.'"
Let's stay with fashion. You've introduced quite a few accessories ...
Yes, I invented the refrigerator, I invented Lucille Ball, let's be honest ..."
Eyeglasses and hearing aids ...
"Well, I can't see very well ..."
So only the hearing aid was artifice?
"It was purely sexual, part of the disability-chic movement that I created in 1983."
And your hair, often imitated and never equalled. Does that give you any pleasure?
"Enormous pleasure. To look at the audience and see almost a mirror image is extraordinary. People will shave their hairline back and dye their hair. That's commitment."
Is it true you sleep in the nude?
"Yes I do. I like the freedom of movement, especially in the event of a fire."
Does that mean boxer shorts for day?
"Are you asking me what type of underwear I wear? I didn't until about a month ago."
Did you have some untoward incident?
"No, I just suddenly decided that I wanted to. No reason. I wasn't involved in any political royal scandal. So I tried Calvin Klein. The briefs. White."
It's of compelling interest.
"I wouldn't doubt it for a split second.
Morrissey has to leave. Sound check. It is time to say goodbye. "Well," I say, "see you onstage."
"That," he replies, "is by invitation only."
On my way home I pick up a copy of Lolita and have it delivered to Morrissey's hotel. The thank you note has not yet arrived.