Less Is Morrissey: Fans Continue to Embrace One of Pop Music's Great Enigmas

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Morrissey

Sat., Oct. 6, at 8 p.m. $42. Palace Theater, 100 East Main St., Waterbury. (203) 346-2000, palacetheaterct.org.

 

Last week, pop singer and lyricist Morrissey was in the news when he rushed to the assistance of an elderly woman who had collapsed in New York City's Strand bookstore. Morrissey reportedly helped her collect her effects and asked if she needed help. She touched his cheek and said she would be okay. Visibly rattled, he promptly exited the store just as he had come — alone.

This incident is revealing for two reasons. For one, it's an example of how the cult of Morrissey fans, eternally devoted to their idol, has penetrated our society so deeply that reports of a 50-something English man helping an older woman in distress in a popular bookstore is somehow seen as news. For another, it's basically a metaphor for Morrissey's entire career.

Many of Morrissey's passionate fans — and casual Morrissey fans are hard to come by — would tell you that in some form or another, he's been helping them after they collapse since they were 15 or 16 years old. He comes to them at their most vulnerable, with his songs that eloquently illustrate loneliness, the pains of being misunderstood and the strain of perpetual rootlessness. With his penchant for working four-syllable words and references to classic literature and films into his lyrics, those fans might as well be in a bookstore. And then, when they reach out to him in gratitude, he disappears. They've regained their footing, and he's still alone and away from their grasp.

Morrissey fans are accustomed to his particularly willful and private habits. He's known to cancel concerts on a dime, usually citing an unspecified illness, and to walk off the stage if the performance doesn't feel right. In fact, in his last Connecticut appearance, at Foxwoods in 2009, the sound cut out on one of the guitarists in his band, and the singer walked off without finishing the last song, murmuring into the mic what some attendees heard as, "The electricity is gone, and so am I." He is reticent to give interviews, which he prefers to conduct in person, and when he does, he's more inclined to speak about animal rights (he likes them a lot) or the British royal family (he doesn't like them one bit) than he is about the inspiration for his many songs about love and lust gone awry. He reveals little of his personal habits — not even as basic a detail as his sexual orientation, which has been a subject of debate since he first rose to prominence in 1983, as the singer of the iconoclastic guitar-pop band the Smiths. He communicates with his fans through statements that he issues online through a Morrissey fansite. He's also banned the webmaster of another high-profile Morrissey fansite from his concerts for life. Fittingly, one of the finest singles of his solo career was called "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get." His fans could say the same thing to him.

In an age when pop stars are expected to be wired in, media-friendly, transparent and beholden to an assembly line of fresh content, Morrissey is a holdout from that era when pop stars set the terms for how and when their fans approached them, holding those fans in thrall by being elusive and a little mysterious. He's been, at times, extremely productive and giving. The Smiths released six albums' worth of songs in their four-year recording history. Throughout his solo career, he's stockpiled recordings during creative watersheds and let it trickle out during dry periods. He toured the world extensively in the early '00s in spite of the fact that he'd been dropped by his record label. And his persona in his lyrics never changes — on each album, he's unloved, jilted, pining, misunderstood, displeased. The singer once dubbed "the Pope of Mope" seems to constantly exist in the state his fans embodied when they first sought solace in his music. And yet, we never get to know him fully. Each new single or statement promises we might learn a little more about pop's poet laureate of loneliness. He always meets us at the threshold, then closes the door… until next time.

When Morrissey walks onstage, he's pelted with flowers and notes from fans. Typically, at least one fan will jump the stage and try to embrace him. When he strips off his shirt and throws it into the crowd, that shirt is torn to bits. Whatever he's doing, it's working. He's on a 33-date tour now, though it's been three years since his last album, Years of Refusal. In the Smiths' song "Rubber Ring," he addressed fans who were "dancing and laughing and finally living" and no longer needed pop music to get by. "I'm here with the cause, I'm holding the torch in the corner of your room — can you hear me?," he sang. The answer is pretty clear.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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