Getting Morrissey is an initiation in its own right. Given that it’s rare to hear his songs on the radio (whether from his solo career or from his work with The Smiths), it’s easy to attempt to peg his music on a single-surface listening. Rockers don’t think he’s heavy enough, despite the crunch of Viva Hate’s “Alsatian Cousin” or
Your Arsenal’s “Glamorous Glue.” Supposed pop fanatics think he’s too morose, even though he pens some of the funniest, most eloquent insults since William Shakespeare. And everyone thinks his lyrics are a joke. But the irony is, they are.
An ex-girlfriend introduced me to The Smiths while I was an undergraduate in college. At the time, the band’s style made no sense to me. The music ranged from heavy to silly (how does a band transition from something as edgy as “The Queen is Dead” to a song as insensibly staccato as “Frankly, Mr. Shankly”?). Yet Morrissey still crooned his way through every song. And the lyrics were so damn miserable.
Within the last few years, I heard a story that famed DJ John Peel supposedly claimed Morrissey was the only person who could make him laugh, which challenged everything I assumed about the singer. Because of this, I started listening to the Smiths again and even began paying attention to Morrissey’s solo work. And then I got it: Morrissey’s lyrics are just that tongue-in-cheek. How can someone not start laughing when hearing someone crooning, “Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head/See, the sea wants to take me/The knife wants to slit me/ Do you think you can help me?”
In addition, Morrissey’s lyrics reveal a complex understanding of human nature. He has so much to say about the off-handed approach of homophobia (“The Death of a Disco Dancer”), how people are blind to their own demises (the aforementioned “I Know It’s Over”), the tragedy of both sides of young love (“Girl Afraid”), and the breeding nature of young crime (“Sweet and Tender Hooligans”). I no longer considered Morrissey a sappy singer who was wrapped up in himself. In fact, he is more concerned with other people and, especially, the Other.
This extreme empathy reveals a history to the richness of his writing. Morrissey, along with guitarist Johnny Marr, formed the Smiths in 1982. The band only put out four studio albums during their tenure (they broke up four years later), but their cult following exceeded their initial output. As of 2011, The Smiths have ten compilation albums to their name, full of singles, B-sides, and greatest hits. Similarly prolific, Morrissey released his eleventh studio album, World Peace Is None Of Your Business, in July of last year.
Even if most punk bands have burnt out and refuse to get angry anymore, Morrissey still manages to find a credible reason to get pissed off every couple of years. This is what keeps him relevant from album to album. Even though he has ranged from the sociopolitical (his debut solo record Viva Hate featured the same anxieties of class and family issues as earlier Smiths’ songs) to the purely political (his 2014 album features songs titled “I’m Not A Man,” “Earth is the Loneliest Planet,” and “The Bullfighter Dies”), Morrissey continues to sing about things that make people tick today.
But how could all this prepare someone for Morrissey in concert? Set lists from his brief tour last year (many of those dates cancelled due to his cancer diagnosis) and clips from previous tours on YouTube, gave me a few ideas. He didn’t seem to play a lot of songs from the Smiths’ catalogue (on average, about three songs at a given venue), and he rarely played “favorites,” challenging the audience with deep cuts. In other words, don’t be surprised if he plays a random song from Swords, his 2009 singles and B-sides collection, instead of “The Last of the Famous International Playboys” or “You Have Killed Me,” two of his highest-charting singles.
As the show began, Morrissey was the first to walk onstage, before any of the supporting musicians. After everyone took their places at their instruments and the audience was done cheering, Morrissey greeted the crowd: “Ladies, gentlemen, monsieurs, mademoiselles!” This charming entrance launched into a performance of “Suedehead,” easily one of the most popular songs from his solo catalogue, to an enamored, screaming crowd. There was instantly a sense of unity in the air: I don’t know for sure, but it seemed as if everyone in the audience knew the song, and it seemed as if everyone was thrilled and excited to be at the concert for the same reasons.
Two songs later, he followed up with “Ganglord,” a song about police brutality and abuse of power, from Swords. Accompanying the performance was a resonant montage of security footage and phone-cam shots of guards and police beating up on prisoners and civilians alike. At first, the juxtaposition of this song and these particular videos might seem like a preachy charade, but the footage connected to the song on a very emotive level. The violent clips only perpetuated the industrial percussion and rising crescendo of the intertwined keyboard and guitar chords. This moment wasn’t about a rabblerousing message, per se, but about an audience experiencing pure emotion during a live music performance (which, to be honest, is rare).
Later, Morrissey paired up the pro-animal—and anti-human, depending on how cynical the listener is—“The Bullfighter Dies” and “I’m Not a Man,” both from his newest record. He continued to play pairs of songs from World Peace Is None Of Your Business while alternating with deep cuts from his other albums (he included a pleasant edition of “Speedway” from Vauxhall and I and a delicate take on “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” off of Years of Refusal). Although the arrangements were more interesting and enjoyable than the album versions on World Peace, there was a certain edge missing from the audience’s fulfillment. To a degree, this was all a part of Morrissey’s emotional tracking of the audience as he primed a strong group of songs towards the end of his set.
After another pair of songs from his newest album, he played the You Are the Quarry favorite “The World is Full of Crashing Bores,” which surprised his über-fans and pleased everyone who hadn’t even heard it before, including myself. From here, the performance became increasingly overwhelming for various reasons.
Eventually, he finally played a Smiths’ song, “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before,” which excited an audience that feared he might not play a song from his previous band’s catalogue. This surprise performance led to the second-biggest rousing of the evening as he followed with “Everyday is Like Sunday” from his debut album Viva Hate. Most people in the audience sang the song in unison as the crowd stood arm-in-arm and danced in place. And as the house lights came on for just a moment so that everyone in the audience could see each other, we all remembered why we were at a Morrissey show. A song like “Everyday is Like Sunday” allows us to relish in each other’s shared joy, pain, and haunted memories.
This necessarily led to what people after the show agreed was the “bummer” of the night. While playing videos from halal- and kosher-certified slaughterhouses, the band played the sludgiest version of The Smiths’ “Meat is Murder” that I’ve ever heard. Morrissey’s yearning of “A death for no reason/And death for no reason is murder” was never so heartbreaking as attendees averted their eyes and sobbed during the graphic slaughtering screening. It was easily one of the most riveting, if not disturbing, moments of the night.
He ended the set with the warm and sincere “Now My Heart is Full” from Vauxhall and I, which pleased everyone after the animal-cruelty atrocity they had just witnessed. But as he and his musicians walked offstage, anyone who read up on Morrissey’s previous Australia/New Zealand tour realized that he had regularly performed “Now My Heart is Full” as an encore. So what song could he bring back to the stage at the Saenger and the kickoff of his United States 2015 tour?
After Morrissey offered a silly nod to post-concert malaise (he joked, “Do you remember where you parked the car?”), the drummer started a wild, almost primal drumbeat. The audience felt it in their bones. He chose the most punk-rock, most political song that The Smiths and Morrissey have every released: “The Queen is Dead,” a celebration of an idealized end to monarchy.
Morrissey even went as far as to change a line to say, “I’m not sorry, but [the Queen’s death] sounds like a wonderful thing,” but it didn’t change anyone’s memory of the song and its place in their lives. Whether people sat in their seats and nodded, clapped in unison to the drumbeat, or danced as if the music was gospel, we all remembered why we fell in love with Morrissey in the first place. What makes his performance so special is that the experience is different and therefore, that much more personal for each person.
And that’s around the time I realized that understanding Morrissey takes an additional induction ceremony: One has to experience joy and pain in their absolute states (in effect, one has to pass through Heaven and Hell) to see from his point of view. Over the past few years (since I first heard The Smiths in college), I’ve gotten married, become a dad, become a homeowner, gotten divorced (and therefore, became a single dad), started and ended grad school, and adjusted back to a single-income household in a one-bedroom apartment.
And then I started to understand Morrissey a bit better. Life is unforgiving. And in this crazy, cock-eyed world, thank God we have him on our side.