Steven Patrick Morrissey is best known as frontman for influential 80s band The Smiths yet many people know little else about the singer. He inspired a generation of disaffected youth with his literate and black humored lyrics and the way in which he reconstructed the image of the masculine singer in a rock band. Looking behind that persona gives some clues as to who the real Morrissey is.
Just like the song ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’, Morrissey grew up primarily in Manchester after his parents emigrated to England from Ireland shortly before he was born. As a child his passions for music and film set him aside from other boys and he became fascinated with James Dean, Oscar Wilde and female singers such as Sandie Shaw and Dusty Springfield. In 1991 Morrissey told the New York Times “Pop music was all I ever had, and it was completely entwined with the image of the pop star. I remember feeling that the person singing was actually with me and understood me and my predicament.” As he entered his teen years those musical fascinations began to expand to the likes of T-Rex and the New York Dolls, bands with a decidedly glam and theatrical bent. Through the 70s he was even president of the New York Dolls fan club in the UK.
Morrissey’s rise to fame came of course as lyricist and singer for The Smiths. He had tried his hand in a number of punk bands but it was his partnership with guitarist Johnny Marr in 1982 that brought Morrissey well and truly into the public eye. A string of hits followed their signing to Rough Trade Records and from the start he was putting his quirky stamp on the charts with songs like ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ and ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’. He cultivated a stage image that was built on the sensitive masculinity of his hero James Dean and fey mannerisms that harked back to the Oscar Wilde influence. Flowing shirts, hippie beads, national health glasses and a hearing aid all became part of the complex imagery that Morrissey constructed in an attempt to set himself aside from his post punk and pop peers.
Amongst personal differences and growing tension The Smiths came to a crashing end five years later after four albums and two compilations that all reached the UK top ten. Within a year of the split he began his solo career with the release of Viva Hate which continued on from the chart success of The Smiths.
A long standing point of interest for the public and the media has been Morrissey’s sexuality. His gender neutral lyrics often touch on the torture of romance and doomed relationships which only contributes to the conjecture about his own personal preference. Over the decades Morrissey has hinted at being bi-sexual as well as pursuing celibacy as a kind of fourth sexuality; though many contend that homosexuality holds the greater place in his life. All this can only be supposed as he has constantly evaded and manipulated questions on the subject which in turn adds to the mystique and ambiguity of Morrissey the poet and ‘rock star’. As a teenager he worshipped iconic figures and in the public eye he has successfully created himself as a composite idol of those heroes.
Looking back on his career to date it is clear that Morrissey is a extremely intelligent man. He has used the media and his music to cultivate a myth and image that is unique and sufficiently vague in its intention. Since those teen years of obsessive worship of his own idols he has ensured that his notoriety is guaranteed and that his enigma in the cult of personality will continue to burn bright.
Morrissey’s latest album Years Of Refusal is out now.