Decades after the Smiths, Morrissey still makes waves
Former Smiths’ front man, openly gay British rocker Steven Patrick Morrissey, is no stranger to controversy. He was open about his sexual orientation even before the British band the Smiths broke up in 1987, and is known for his narrative-style punk ballads that tackle issues of race, class and gender. Last June, he made waves during a concert when he announced that former Pres. Ronald Reagan had passed away—then added that he wished it was George Bush who had died instead.
In fact, Morrissey seems to revel in being anti-establishment and stirring up controversy. One thing that is certain, however, is that there is no controversy around his continued success as a solo artist.
His first solo project in 1988, “Viva Hate,” went to the top of the charts, and his 1992 release “Your Arsenal” cemented his popularity in the United States. New albums followed every year or so, and this month, Morrissey released a CD/DVD pair chronicling some of the best performances of his 2004 tour.
The CD, “Live At Earl’s Court,” was actually recorded during the final five sold-out tour dates in London, Glasgow, Birmingham, Brighton and Dublin last December. The DVD, “Who Put the ‘M’ In Manchester?” was filmed on May 22, 2004, at his now-legendary birthday show in Manchester, England. It profiles the singers’ performances and includes DVD extras such as five live performances from the Move Festival, in 2004 and his three music videos for the album.
The song list for “Live at Earl’s Court” differs from the DVD concert song list, but both contain Morrissey classics such as “First of the Gang to Die,” “Irish Blood, English Heart” and “Let Me Kiss You.” Morrissey breaks all molds in his ability to take the fodder of traditional punk music and marry it to a lyrical ballad style usually reserved for renditions of “Danny Boy” over a pint of ale at the local pub.
In “First of the Gang to Die,” Morrissey tells the story of anti-hero Hector, “the first of the gang with a gun in his hand and the first to do time, the first of the gang to die,” who “stole from the rich/ and the poor/ and the not very rich/ and the very poor.”
In “Irish Blood, English Heart,” Morrissey points a finger at politicians, Oliver Cromwell and the Queen of England herself, and dreams of a day when he can be “standing by the flag not feeling shameful, racist or partial.”
In “Let Me Kiss You,” he turns the microscope on himself, singing “There’s a place in the sun for anyone who has the will to chase one….So close your eyes and think of someone you physically admire/ and let me kiss you.” The slow, trumpet-punctuated anti-love song is beautiful in all its self-deprecating ugliness.
The same goes for “November Spawned a Monster,” the tale of a “poor, twisted child,” too ugly to be loved. “Sleep, and dream of love. Why? Because it’s the closest you will ever get to love,” he sings, later identifying himself as this “freak.” In “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” Morrissey only barely keeps his disgust in check, as he sings, “Sweetness, I was only joking when I said I’d like to smash every tooth in your head/ Sweetness, I wasn’t joking when I said by rights you should be bludgeoned in your bed.” Morrissey is brutal and to the point, and he knows it, as he sings, “Bigmouth strikes again/ I’ve got no right to take my place with the human race.”
Despite his comically gruesome lyrics, there is something very soft, raw and endearing about Morrissey’s tunes. Even his cover of “Redondo Beach” can make a tale of suicide sound like a love song. In this version, slower and sweeter than Patti Smith’s take, Morrissey sings, “Desk clerk told me girl was washed up on Redondo Beach, and everyone is so sad/ I was looking for you, are you gone?”
He bemoans the dead in “Subway Train/Munich Air Disaster 1958,” pardons Jesus for filling him with desire in “I Have Forgiven Jesus” and chastises uniformed civil servants in “The World is Full of Crashing Bores.”
If Morrissey’s unique personality comes out in his music, it is even more apparent when watching his stage personality, as in the DVD “Who Put the ‘M’ In Manchester?” As the crowd chants, “Mozzy, Mozzy,” the singer good-naturedly plays to his fans, rocking in his button-down dress shirts and dungarees just as hard as if he were thrashing around stage in plaid bondage pants and a ripped-up T-shirt. In the liner notes, he even directs fans to raise their awareness of animal cruelty in a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals video “Meet Your Meat.” The videographer even interviews fans about their hero, one saying, “Liverpool had John Lennon, and Manchester has Morrissey.” The footage of the Salford Lads Club especially gives local color to the DVD.
Taken together, this CD/DVD combo will give a Morrissey fan everything he could ask for.