The moper in chief
For a gathering that’s mostly about new music, this weekend’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival will see performances from many key figures from rock history. Paul McCartney still stands as a symbol of the glories of ‘60s rock, Leonard Cohen is the elusive and legendary god of singer-songwriters and shoe-gaze outfit My Bloody Valentine is among the most influential guitar bands of the last three decades.
Sometime Los Angeles resident Morrissey, who is due to perform in the desert Friday, fits squarely in their company. His legacy stands as one of the key inspirations of the alternative-rock and do-it-yourself movements that came out of, and transcended, the 1980s. In so many ways, the English icon patented the template for modern indie rock, first as the frontman for seminal mope-pop band the Smiths and then during his ongoing, though sometimes creatively uneven, solo career.
Morrissey’s contributions are particularly striking when glancing through the Coachella lineup. Many of the younger bands on the bill would not be there -- or at least, would not sound the same -- were it not for him.
“They were my whole introduction to a world of smart, literate, coy people,” said Mikel Jollet, whose L.A.-based band the Airborne Toxic Event also will play the festival Friday, referring to the Smiths.
Jollet sees the band’s influence as “enormous,” marking “entire subgenres,” and in truth, he’s right. Almost any British band that picked up a guitar in the ‘80s and banished synthesizers from its sound was marked by the Smiths, a quartet that favored street clothes to haute couture and played ringing, hook-rich songs sung by the always eccentric and outspoken vocalist.
The ‘90s Britpop movement -- the way groups including Blur and Oasis and Pulp placed emphasis on a specifically English lineage -- grew from the Smiths, and bands that upend traditional notions about gender and sexuality -- Suede, Antony and the Johnsons, Bloc Party, Of Montreal, the Magnetic Fields -- come from the same place.
“Their sound founded the indie movement,” said Wendy Fonarow, an anthropologist and author of “Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music.” “The values they represented keep getting reproduced.”
The Smiths formed at a time when England was firmly in the throes of the post-punk era and New Romantic swoon and synth pop ruled the day. To borrow girl group-era song structures, adopt a utilitarian name, seek out a small label and wear ordinary duds was almost revolutionary.
But the Smiths’ most important quality might have been their intellectualism, especially in Morrissey’s lyrics, which resembled the drizzly anti-romantic poetry of Philip Larkin (“there’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more”) and included references to Keats and Yeats. Mozz’s passion for oversized glasses further underscored that stance.
After punk’s machismo and extroversion, this was gentle, often introspective music that reached across the bedrooms of disaffected teens and young adults across Europe and beyond. It wasn’t hard to imagine Morrissey dreaming up songs like “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” alone in his book-lined bedroom festooned with posters of the New York Dolls and Oscar Wilde.
“The Smiths is seen as a hugely influential and important band here and have a lot of die-hard fans, including a lot of musicians,” said Scandinavian Peter Moren of Peter Bjorn and John, who are set to play Coachella on Sunday. “I think their influence and status continues to grow with every new generation and it also crosses over a lot to people that wouldn’t normally be into indie.”
Moren, who’s especially fond of Morrissey’s solo album “Vauxhall and I,” remembers hearing the Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma” on Swedish radio as an 11-year-old. “The lyrics are always amazing and I love the ever-present self-irony and humor that a lot of people, especially the obsessed teens, don’t get at first.”
Of course, much of the criticism hurled at indie rock dates to the Smiths as well: Its preciousness, its self-referentialism, its “whiteness,” its Puritanical rejection of artifice for simple “rockism.” These too were elements the Manchester foursome, which broke up in 1987 after just five years together, passed down to indie’s next generations.
Not long ago, Morrissey’s artistry seemed to be at a low ebb. The ‘90s, generally, were not good to him, and he was routinely savaged in the British music press. But things started to change in late 1999 and 2000. Mozz led an “Oye Esteban” tour that reinforced his connection to his considerable Latino audience (a bond that can be seen at any performance by local tribute band the Sweet and Tender Hooligans). In 2002, British mag NME called the Smiths “the most influential band of the last 50 years.”
After a string of disappointing albums and a devastating lawsuit by former bandmate Mike Joyce and a seven-year hiatus from recording, Morrissey released “You Are the Quarry” in 2004. Arguably his best work since the Smiths’ “The Queen Is Dead” album, its lead single, “Irish Blood, English Heart,” became his highest charting as a solo artist.
His ensuing tours and a hometown show on his 45th birthday in 2004, which was captured on DVD as “Who Put the M in Manchester,” proved that he was back in form. His latest album, “Years of Refusal,” was described in The Times not only as “the loudest thing Morrissey has done in the ‘00s,” but also the best.
Many of the song titles on the new record -- “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore,” “All You Need Is Me,” “I’m OK by Myself” -- have that familiar mix of boast, sneer and Wildean wit. His lyrics have gotten more triumphant, his imagery drawn more often from boxing and gang culture, and he’s gotten more comfortable with a sexuality that seems some variation on chaste, if stylized, homosexuality.
With a milestone birthday just around the corner -- he’ll celebrate turning 50 next month with a sold-out concert in Manchester, England -- he might be nearing the end of his career.
Admittedly, Mozz has a long history, dating to his leadership of the Smiths, of provocative and outlandish statements to reporters, but when asked recently by Filter magazine about his plans for the future, Morrissey replied: “I don’t want to go on much longer, really. I think that would suggest a lack of imagination. A certain lack of dignity also. There has to reach a point where you’ve said enough, I think.”
Even if that point arrives soon, he’s achieved a kind of cultural relevance by being, like his idols Wilde, Nancy Sinatra and James Dean, boldly, at times unfashionably, himself.