"Can I ask you a direct question? You don't really like me, do you?"
It's a perfect Morrissey moment.
The English pop singer, detecting what he considers "cold, cynical" responses to his conversation, has set aside the protocol of the telephone interview to bare his true feelings.
Most artists would keep it to themselves and take care of business, but Morrissey has never been one to shy away from emotional display. And the question itself reinforces the classic, poignant Morrissey archetype: the insecure loner yearning for understanding but doomed to isolation.
These qualities have made the opinionated, outspoken artiste one of England's most visible and controversial figures for more than a decade--first with the Smiths, one of the most vital forces in '80s British rock, then as a solo artist after the group's 1987 breakup.
In the United States, Morrissey, 34, commands a limited but fiercely loyal core of fans who publish fanzines to share lore and opinion about their hero, and scream and swoon at concerts that take on the charged air of a messiah's visitation. The more he's ridiculed by detractors as a self-absorbed depressive, the stronger the bond between artist and audience becomes.
But, it turns out, this isn't enough for Morrissey. After all these years of watching unworthy acts climb over him to the top of the charts, he wants some real respect--from mass audience and individual interviewer.
"Well, I apologize then," he says, after being assured by his questioner that any coldness of tone is due to the awkwardness of the telephone medium and the short time allotted for the interview. This is another component of the image--he may be shy and uncomfortable with people, but he's also polite, straightforward and forthcoming when it suits him.
And, with his new album, "Vauxhall and I," just released (see review, Page 73), he definitely wants to get this out.
"I make music which I feel has been largely neglected," he says. "I have a reasonably good-sized audience, but the level of attention that I receive from the American media does not reflect that at all. I feel slightly undervalued."
A hint of wariness remains in Morrissey's voice as the interview proceeds, but he seems to get into the spirit of things when he is asked to describe his surroundings.
He says he's drinking tea in the kitchen of his five-story Victorian house in London. "How flash is that?" he interjects, trying to support his contention that he's a simple man with an utterly dull personal life.
The house is "extremely clean, reasonably sparse, very bright." There are some film posters, as well as original prints of heroes such as Billy Fury, the '50s English rock idol, and the New York Dolls. Before becoming a performer, Morrissey wrote books about that classic underground band and actor James Dean for a British publisher.
The pop music of the mid-1960s had become Stephen Patrick Morrissey's solace and obsession when he was barely 6 years old, the grand emotions of the era's hit singles assuaging his loneliness. Later, glam-rock icons David Bowie, Marc Bolan and the Dolls preoccupied him.
Bowie reached out to his followers and urgently assured them that "you're not alone." Morrissey would assume that role in the '80s after teaming with guitarist Johnny Marr and the rhythm section of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce in Manchester in 1982.
The Smiths' catchy pop-rock songs were an unusual blend of classicism and eccentricity, their bouncy tunes and ringing textures framing Morrissey's longing tone and odd, singsong phrasing.
The band released six albums on Sire Records (not counting posthumous greatest-hits collections), but didn't make much of a mark in the U.S. In England, though, fans and press elevated the band to deity status, especially its introspective, charismatic frontman.
Tim Booth, the singer for the band James, which began in Manchester about the same time, recalls those early days.
"The Smiths took us on tour, and the reaction was always, 'My God, look at this!' He's just one of those figures in history that excites that kind of reaction. . . .
"I think it was partly his vulnerability as a man. He wasn't this arrogant, stiff male who is certain about life. He's this very confused individual who made no bones about it. I think that needed voicing at the time. And he voiced it with great wit and insight, and people responded to it."
Ever since, despite a broad range of subject matter in his music, the primary image of Morrissey has remained: a suffering soul who offers comfort and community to people who don't fit in.
"I think that's something that's a constant but very dismissive description of me," Morrissey says. "I think deep down in our hearts all of us at some point feel that we don't fit in. So I don't feel that I'm singing purely for people who are on Death Row. And I don't think the songs are particularly depressing.
"I am aware (of that bond with the audience) and I'm very protective of it. . . . They know that I'm a real person, and they know that every grain of progression I've ever had within music has been authentic and has been genuine. I've never tried to fool people or rip people off or overcharge people. I've never presented myself as anything other than what I am, as a living, breathing human being."
Morrissey, whose new album title refers to an area of South London, has lived in the city's Regent's Park district for six months, enjoying both its select cachet and the "scuzziness" of nearby Camden Town, a hip, lively contrast.
"I try to make life as peaceful as possible," he says. "I'm a familiar figure in Regent's Park, which is a beautiful park full of wildlife and strange people, and I enjoy that. I enjoy just walking around London. I enjoy the architecture of London and watching it fade away, which is quite sad, and watching the city change.
"The circle of friends I have are not famous, so therefore I suppose I'm considered to be reasonably reclusive. The people that I'm with every day don't move in media circles, so any activity I do is not particularly reportable. I have a reasonably simple life. I'm not flash and have no intention of ever being so, and I don't court any degree of media attention whatsoever."
Says Arnold Stiefel, his new manager: "I always thought that he was clearly not happy, based on his lyrics. I was surprised when I first met him that he was much more up and plugged into life than I expected."
But the image doesn't completely lie. As a spiritual heir of Oscar Wilde and James Dean, among others, Morrissey has built a career on the theme of the unattainability of intimacy.
"I mean, I've never ever in my life had a 10-second relationship with man, woman or beast, and the likelihood of me ever doing so is nil today and I'm sure it will remain nil. But everybody unfortunately has a cross to bear, and you can't have everything in life.
"It's always been painful, but simply because it's painful it doesn't mean it's ever about to subside. And there's not really much I can do about it, unfortunately. I simply stand alone."
Morrissey's remedy to his perceived neglect has been to hire the Los Angeles-based Stiefel, who with his partner Randy Phillips also handles Rod Stewart's career.
"Vauxhall and I" is the vehicle for his campaign, which will be launched in earnest with three "special event" concerts--two at Carnegie Hall in New York on April 11 and 12, preceded by an April 8 show that will return rock music to downtown L.A.'s historic Olympic Auditorium, the recently reopened boxing palace.
"I want to take an artist who was selling somewhere around a half a million units here," Stiefel says, "and without betraying what was genuine about his alternative music, expose it to a more mass-market audience and infect them with the enthusiasm that the hard-core fans have for him."
Stiefel notes that the new "The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get" has already become Morrissey's first Top 100 chart single--before it's even been officially released to radio stations.
"He's totally true to himself in the new album," Stiefel says. "He won't put off any of the people who have supported him and loved him and felt they were Morrissey-ites all these years. But it's something we can all like."
"It's a little more accessible, but I don't think it's a radical departure from what he's done before," says Scott Wright, program director at WEZB in New Orleans, one of the Top 40 format stations that's playing the single.
"Maybe it's not quite as dark and brooding and miserable and suicidal and all that," he adds. "It's a little more uplifting, which may make it more palatable to a wider audience. It's getting an initially good reaction. Not overwhelming, but good."
Don't, however, expect Morrissey to bow and scrape to the American public.
"The most important part of the procedure is that regardless of what surrounds me, I remain myself," the singer says. "I'm not pliable in any way. Nobody on this planet could turn me into the perfect star. Nobody on this planet could turn me into anything other than what I am."
That became obvious a few months ago when Morrissey abruptly returned to London from Los Angeles, standing up an interviewer from Rolling Stone magazine and a crew that was ready to shoot his new video. The press loved the incident, milking it for a "so much for the kinder, gentler Morrissey" laugh.
"It's really the history of my life," Morrissey says. "In truth, in person I'm actually the most gentle and most peaceful character you could possibly come across. But for some strange reason I have this odd reputation that goes before me that I cause tantrums when tantrums are not due. . . .
"I'm a strange character, and I suffer the burden of being somewhat unique. But Arnold seems to have tapped into that instantly, and made me not feel so problematic."