Preview: Morrissey hits the road with new songs
Morrissey: "I survive because the songs are strong, and for no other reason. I have never once relied on a promotional campaign."
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It has been four years since the last Morrissey record, but it's not because he has been sitting around watching soap operas.
On recent tours, he's introduced a handful of good new songs, including "Action Is My Middle Name" and "People Are the Same Everywhere."
The problem is that despite being a rock icon adored by millions, The Moz doesn't have a record deal. Or at least one to his liking.
It's a curious situation as it's not like the vaunted frontman for The Smiths turned into a hack when he hit 50. His 2006 album, "Ringleader of the Tormenters," topped the British charts and the 2009 follow, "Years of Refusal," was No. 3 in Britain and No. 11 in the States.
They also were two of his most acclaimed solo albums, often described as the singer hitting new peaks. Pitchfork said of "Years of Refusal," "This is Morrissey's most venomous, score-settling album, and in a perverse way that makes it his most engaging."
At some point, either the labels or Morrissey will give in, and the new songs will get a proper release. In the meantime, he is out on tour where it's always an adventure, as Pittsburgh fans well know. He went more than 20 years without playing a show here, from a memorable 1986 appearance with The Smiths at the Fulton (now Byham) Theater to the glorious 2009 show at Carnegie Music Hall. In between, he canceled twice on the night of the show: 1991 at the I.C. Light Amphitheater, where it had just rained, and 2000 at the Palumbo, for more mysterious reasons.
His scheduled show in October was scratched when he left his tour to see to his ailing mother.
This tour coincides with a flurry of activity surrounding his former band. There are two new books about The Smiths -- the bio "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" and "Songs That Saved Your Life," which rummages through The Smiths discography for 350 pages. Coming in late February, on major label Warner Bros., is a long-awaited solo album from Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who's been more inclined to join other bands -- The Pretenders, The The, Modest Mouse, etc. -- since The Smiths breakup in 1987.
Morrissey's publicist recommended that a query about Mr. Marr be struck from the list of questions emailed to Morrissey -- along with other questions about The Smiths -- in advance of his show here.
The singer continues to be dismissive about The Smiths, which had a brilliant five-year run starting in 1982, when Mr. Marr knocked cold on the door of a shy, unknown 23-year-old intellect named Steven Patrick Morrissey who lived with his mother and had a thing for Keats and Yeats. They bonded over their love of music, going back to the '60s girl groups. With Mr. Marr's distinctively melodic guitar touch and Morrissey's croony baritone witty "woe is me" approach to songwriting, The Smiths were a truly incomparable invention.
It lasted through 70 songs over four studio albums, until 1987, when The Smiths, worn out from their production and uneasy road trips, imploded over Mr. Marr's request for a brief hiatus.
Morrissey made his solo debut in 1988 with the acclaimed "Viva Hate," sporting two of his most enduring solo "hits," "Suedehead" and "Everyday Is Like Sunday." His eight albums, the last six of which have him partnered with guitarist Boz Boorer, have doubled his production with The Smiths. Every few years a rumor will surface of a Smiths reunion, always ending with the principals scoffing at the notion, despite the millions offered them.
"The solo years have been more meaningful to the audiences than The Smiths years," Morrissey recently told Billboard, "but the press in England only write about me in relation to The Smiths era. This exhausts me."
The following is our exchange:
I hope your mother is well.
That's very kind of you!
First off, you've had an interesting non-history with Pittsburgh in that you went 20-plus years without performing here. Twice as a solo artist there were cancellations on the night of the show. Do you remember anything about those instances? And did you enjoy finally playing here again on St. Patrick's Day 2009?
I recall the first time. I arrived for the soundcheck and I was told that the night had to be "pulled" because the stage wasn't safe. There were a lot of people queuing in the rain, and backstage was abysmal -- I don't think there was even a toilet. When you're faced with such situations you feel so much anger with local promoters because they charge such high ticket prices yet they have no concern for either the comfort of the artist or the safety of the audience ... they think the night will just roll along on enthusiasm, which is wrong.
You don't want to drop all of your human standards of safety and health just because you've gone out to hear music. So, under such circumstances to continue with the night simply saves the local promoter, while everyone else is uncomfortable. It can't be done. I have absolutely no memory of the second cancellation, but I tend to always get blamed on a personal level even if generally I don't have much say in pulling the night. I thought Pittsburgh 2009 was fantastic ... because of the crowd, of course.
How different will the set list be from that last run of shows, and do you pay attention to what songs your fans may be suggesting online (or anything else they say, for that matter)?
I don't think whatever songs I sing matters that much because it's not as if any of them are actually awful. I read nothing online. There's a hateful online creche called Morrissey SoLow, which cured me of canvassing opinions many years ago.
We would all love to hear a new album from you. What is holding it back?
No major label is interested, and I have no instinct for DIY.
Has your writing of late leaned more toward the personal or political? I'm wondering if you have been moved to write about the precarious political/economic situation in America.
I don't understand American politics. I can see that people are suffering, and I wonder if the era of presidents has actually ended. Or, if not, then only a black lesbian mother should be president because all of these "macho husbands" just do not understand the human condition. It's funny how all leaderships must be given to macho husbands. How could such a type understand suffering, or want, or need?
To this day, are you surprised that a song called "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" was able to become a Top 10 hit in England?
Yes, but "Viva Hate" actually made No. 1, which was even more perverse. It's only perverse of course because everyone is so well-behaved these days.
Because of the personal nature of your songs, your fans have connected with you in ways beyond the normal rock star. You once noted that they look to you almost as a "religious character" who can help solve their problems. Have you gotten more comfortable with this as you've gotten older?
I don't think that anymore. I survive because the songs are strong, and for no other reason. I have never once relied on a promotional campaign, and even now, I can't imagine what such a feeling must be like.
As a vocalist/frontman, how would you compare the 53-year-old Morrissey to the 25-year-old version? Are you better now?
Better is an odd word, but certainly at 25 I was very difficult to know because I believed the human race to be unfailingly disgusting, and I wasn't wrong, but these days I can financially afford to avoid people, and I feel reasonably well balanced because of that.
Do you have material that doesn't feel right to sing on the other side of 50?
Rarely. I think the sentiments are timeless, which is why the early catalog still sells well. The Morrissey catalog through Universal is abysmally distributed.
What do you think when you see bands like the Stones and The Who, all near 70, performing their old songs? Do you find it inspiring, depressing or something in between?
It's good if it's well-executed. I don't want to go to a stadium and watch a mass of lights. Humans don't last, and if the Stones and the Who want to play music at 70 instead of nodding off in front of Turner Classic Movies, then I think that's a healthy decision. Plus, people absolutely love the Stones and the Who, so it's not as if they are being forced upon us.
You once said that touring (specifically "endless touring") is "soul-destroying." Have you come to enjoy it more?
Yes, I love it now. It's like going away to sea, but without the sea.
A lot of people would like to see The Smiths in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Is that at all important to you in terms of legacy?
Not really because I'm not a Smith. During the time that I was friends with David Bowie he said no to the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, and he also turned down a knighthood from Buckingham Palace. I certainly admired the latter, and I admire Boy George, who also turned down an MBE from the Queen. We're now so completely locked into prizes and awards, but none of them are authentic. The Brit Awards and Grammys are manipulated by the major record labels simply in order to push and promote their own artists. They are not sincere or genuine achievements.
Are there any pop stars/bands of the day that you particularly enjoy?
Not really. It's all as soft as putty. Kristeen Young will open at the Pittsburgh show, and she is quite incredible. She, like me, doesn't have a deal, which is ... [deep sigh] continually hard to believe.
First Published January 17, 2013 12:00 am