There is an Anton Cobrijn photograph of Morrissey in which the former is seen exasperating over an almost-complete puzzle of the young Elvis. One likes such juxtaposition almost instinctively; it is the very stuff of Dorian Grey's lane vital, and, perhaps, Morrissey's, too. The ex-lead singer and lyricist of The Smiths (1982-87), Morrissey is condemned to have his solo work held up to the fabric of that band's opus and to the deceitful perspective of Time itself. Faced with the New Year 1996 and Morrissey's recent convalescence at Aberdeen, one wonders if his sixth and most recent record, Southpaw Grammar, stands like Janus: looking back at his best works, or ahead to his artistic apogee.
The appeal of The Smiths lay in their commercial innocence. They were unfettered by the trappings of 'Eighties rock bands, eschewing the de rigeur nonsensical band name, bizarre maquillage, and vapid lyricism that typified their contemporaries. Rather, The Smiths struck out as an archetypal "four lads against the world" set-up: Morrissey as voice, Johnny Marr on guitar, Andy Rourke on bass, and Mike Joyce on drums. Though the band existed legally only as "Morrissey/Marr" and shed producers and managers in rapid succession, they achieved deification based on the ultimate popular appeal of their records, of which The Queen is Dead was acclaimed the best of the decade by musical critics, and Strangeways Here We Come (their last) demonstrated the apotheoses of Johnny Marr's musicality and Morrissey's poetry.
It is difficult to attempt in so few words the biography of a man who has evaded classification and reduced his two major biographers, Johnny Rogan (Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance) and David Bret (Morrissey: Landscapes of the Mind), to the type of cooing and stroking one normally reserves for an angelic infant. Morrissey himself has stated that Rogan's book is "seventy percent" fictive creation and has ceaselessly lamented his record with interviewers who cannot seem to get his verbiage right. With alleged autobiography so flawed, the ill-armed biographer must retreat to the only extant "cannon" Morrissey has ordained: his music.
As a solo-artist, Morrissey continued his maturation as a lyricist, becoming, by his fifth record Vauxhall and I (1994), a writer/poet of Mallarme-an complexity and calibre. Viva Hate (1988), his first record, broke with The Smiths' "style" and reached the Top of the Pops, a pseudo-honor that demonstrated the allegiance his fans were willing to extend to his solo incarnation. Everyday is Like Sunday and Suedehead became staples of Morrissey's concerts, of which his first is captured on the widely available video Hulmerist. Those fortunate enough to have attended a Morrissey or Smiths show will immediately recognize the complete devotion shown by the fans and the singer to each other.
His second record, Bona Drag (1989), a collection of A-sides and new songs, lacked the continuity of a proper album and hinted at the most legitimate criticism offered against Morrissey's works: the inconsistency of his supporting musicians. While it can be safely said that no band will again match the chemistry found between Morrissey/Marr, Bona Drag did offer many successful singles, perhaps, even, his most legendary, The Last of the Famous International Playboys. Concert crowds continue to receive its opening riffs with wild applause, because of, or despite, their cognizance that in this one track can be found the two most long-lived tropes in the Morrissey repertoire: homoeroticism and violence viewed from the outside. It cannot be noted more strongly that "homoeroticism" is not meant to convey anything more than same-sex adoration and in no way attempts to pigeon-hole Morrissey's much ballyhooed sexuality into any one manifestation.
Kill Uncle (1991) was accompanied by a hugely successful world tour, preserved in the excellent photo-essay by Linder Sterling entitled Morrissey Shot. The statistical triumphs, fastest sell-outs or most merchandise sold, were topped only by the energy and visceral achievement of each show. The tour's importance stands, also, as the introduction of a cadre of supporting musicians with whom Morrissey was able to recapture any lost Smiths magic and go well beyond. Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer, both first-rate rockabilly guitarists, Gary Day, the tattooed wunderkind, on bass, and Spencer Cobrin on drums provided the Kill Uncle tour with such passion and evolved-nostalgia that the audience proved on many occasions of incapable of restraining itself.
The collaborative efforts of Morrissey/Whyte resulted in 1992's Your Arsenal, which was eventually nominated for a Grammy award. A 'Fifties period-piece with contemporary lyrics and an incredibly up-tempoed pace, Your Arsenal produced many excellent songs, among which Tomorrow, I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday, and You're Gonna Need Someone on Your Side can stand easily with the best of The Smiths, much less of any other band. Another world tour followed, glimpses of which can be seen on the video tape The Malady Lingers On, along with the outstanding video for Pregnant for the Last Time, filmed in Berlin. Vauxhall and I (1994) resulted in no extensive tour, but much critical acclaim. Despite some popular discontent at its slower pace and more ethereal sound, the album is a masterpiece of literary achievement. Criticism thereupon is best left to scholars more gifted than I, and to each listener in general. The most Smiths-esque of all his solo records, Vauxhall and I resumes the themes found on Meat is Murder (1984) in such songs as Now My Heart is Full, Why Don't You Find Out For Yourself, and Speedway. Lacking the single-driven feel of his earlier works, Vauxhall and I allows one to listen to each song as a chapter, although no teleology is implied or expressed. Rather, conclusions, as usual, are difficult to reach and perhaps best left so.
While the year 1995 opened with a February tour of the United Kingdom and the concomitant revival of London and Shoplifters of the World, both Smiths songs, in concert, the year was one of grief and anguish both for Morrissey and his fans: he, suffering through the deaths of close friends and a change in record labels (from Sire to RCA Victor) and they from the lack of a new record and rumours of his retirement. Happily, the year ended with the release of Southpaw Grammar. Continuing his association with Messers. Whyte and Boorer, Morrissey has produced a record which can only be compared closely with his last as a Smith, Strangeways Here We Come. Musically a combination of Vauxhall and I and Your Arsenal, it is not as lyrically accomplished as the former, but matches the intensity of the latter quite well. A U.K. tour "in support" of David Bowie allowed fans to glimpse the Morrissey of 1996 and the reviews have been excellent.