In April/May, we’ll be publishing Gavin Hopps’ brilliant study of Morrissey’s career: Morrissey: The Pageant of His Bleeding Heart. Here’s a lovely endorsement we’ve had from Michael Bracewell…
“Finally, Morrissey’s astonishing career as a writer and singer is treated with the scholarship it deserves. This is an outstanding, elegant book, of interest not only to Morrissey’s fans, but to anyone interested in the literary capacity of pop music, as well as its power to enchant, seduce and unnerve.”
And here’s an extract from the start of the book…
A Taste of Honey — the film to which Morrissey’s lyrics most frequently allude — begins with a game of netball in which a harried and inept Rita Tushingham struggles to join in, followed by a sympathetically hectic camera and ironised by a cartoon musical score. The opening dialogue, afterwards in the girls’ changing-room, runs as follows:
— You’re not much good at netball, are you, Jo? [Tushingham’s character]
— No—I’m bad on purpose.
— Are you going dancing tonight?
— I can’t.
— You never go anywhere, do you?
— I haven’t got any clothes to wear, for one thing. And for another . . .
— We might be moving home again.
— Like a couple of gypsies, you and your mother.
— So what!
It’s remarkable how many features of Morrissey’s art are prefigured in this short exchange. The notion of being ‘bad on purpose’ — of turning ineptitude into a virtue — lies at the centre of the singer’s early persona. The series of negations — ‘No,’ ‘can’t,’ ‘never,’ ‘haven’t got’ — calls to mind the singer’s incorrigible no-saying, whilst the pause after ‘I can’t’ gives a sense of a paralysing force invisibly in play and puts one in mind of the unspeakable, ‘excessive’ and ingenious darkness that makes itself felt throughout his work. And finally — leaving aside the more explicit allusions — the notion of being a ‘gypsy,’ a wanderer, of ‘moving home again,’ which strangely coexists with a sense of ‘never going anywhere,’ is one of the most recurrent themes in Morrissey’s lyrics.
Let us consider another exchange, this time involving Morrissey himself. On Later with Jools Holland, in May 2004, in a last-ditch attempt to get the profoundly embarrassed and awkward Morrissey to play the game and take part in the interview, Holland falls back on the apparently foolproof conventions of the participatory joke:
Holland: Knock, knock!
Morrissey: I’m not joining in.
Holland: Oh go on, please!
Morrissey: [to laughing audience] You can join in. [laughter] No, Jools, I refuse to open the door.
Holland: That’s very good, that’s very clever. You don’t even know who it is!
Morrissey: I’m not curious.
This short exchange reveals a lot about Morrissey. It reveals, for instance, that he’s witty, slippery, and remains in character even when he’s off stage. It also suggests that central to this ‘character’ is a not-joining-in or a refusal to make friends with everyday experience — a being ‘bad on purpose,’ one is tempted to say. Perhaps most interestingly of all, though, what it reveals is that his not-joining-in is a double gesture which subverts and paradoxically takes part in the game. That is to say, in making a joke of the joke — which lays bare but nonetheless relies upon its conventions — his refusal is itself a sort of ‘knock, knock’ joke and a continuation of its tradition. These two snippets of awkward dialogue illustrate some of the central subjects considered in this book.
Awkwardness, refusal, and not-joining-in are hardly a promising basis for an artist. However, it was by standing in its midst and yet refusing to take part that Morrissey thrust a wedge into the spokes of the complacently turning wheel of popular music, and out of this disturbance fashioned his art. It is likewise his awkwardness — his not-fitting-in — that resuscitates the very tradition it subverts. This is partly because his refusal of the escapist morphine of 1980s New Pop was based upon a conviction that popular music could be a space where one might reflect upon the most urgent realities, irrespective of whether they were messy, embarrassing, or unwieldy—as of course most urgent realities are. (The space doesn’t need to be large — think of the Psalms — but it needs to be open.) And it was partly because in speaking ‘ec-centrically’ — from a de-centred space of non-belonging — Morrissey’s art of awkwardness reclaimed popular music as a genuinely countercultural force and the voice of dysfunction and alienation.
The underlying claim of this study, then, is that Morrissey is a superlatively ‘disturbing’ artist, whose greatest virtue is his awkwardness. This appears to be consonant with the singer’s view of himself as ‘ringleader of the tormentors.’ When asked, for instance, how he would like to be remembered, he replied: as ‘Manchester’s answer to the H-bomb.’ When the subject of his career came up in another interview, he interjected: ‘Is that what I’ve had? A career? You make it sound like I went down to the Job Centre and asked if they had any vacancies for “dire troublemaker.” ’ And when asked if he had thought about life after fame, he said: ‘One way or another, I will always be somewhere just skating about the edges of global fame, pestering people and throwing glasses.’