As the 22nd May, 2015 marks Morrissey’s 56th birthday as well as the same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland, we will (being I) showcase the linkage of his Irish roots, homosexual symbolism and personal sexual ambiguity to his, at times, androgynous being and to the music of The Smiths.
Not only does Moz, the mostly misanthropic, mercurial, moaner from Manchester, share the same birthday as our important referendum day, he, along with the rest of The Smiths, are proud second-generation Irishmen. Morrissey, Marr (Maher), Rourke, Joyce (fairly Irish) bared the flag for the disenfranchised for much of the 1980s and weren’t shy of their Irish roots, scrapping many a European tour for smaller gigs across Ireland during their career. They will have a keen eye on the referendum (or maybe not) as their music from 1982 to 1987 suggests a sympathetic, and maybe even at times, empathetic role in serving the homosexual side of humanity.
Morrissey – Irish Blood, English Heart
Now, as the major devotee that I am, I’m never ashamed to exhibit my affection for the group or the man, but there’s more to this article than mere fanboy-ism, and that’s the role of Manchester’s famous sons in serving the socially unequal. Morrissey, as the delicate wallflower from the mean streets of Northern England, somewhat struggled to break through the punk and post-punk barriers during his adolescent years. As a young misanthrope, he idolised the female within the male; in steps the early ’70s and “glam rock” – David Bowie, Marc Bolan and in particular the transvestite tantalisation of the New York Dolls catered for the future frontman’s ambiguous sexual and musical needs. The flaunting foundations were being laid for the 1980s indie scene – a rock star who was emotional, good looking but intelligent, baring the hard quiff but baggy blouse-like shirts, uncommon traits for the macho rockism of the early 1980s glitterati, spandex scene, and perfect for the sexually discriminated.
New York Dolls
The Smiths’ first single, 1983’s “Hand in Glove”, bared witness to the quartet’s sexual symbolism… and an arse or two. Even before the band’s ascent to local heroism, the group were construed as a “gay band” fuelling the departure of original bassist Dale Hibbert due to his conventional family orientation of wife and kids. Morrissey insisted at the time in being introduced at gigs by James Maker, a high-heel-wearing, master of ceremonies who added his lasciviousness to proceedings, leaving the local Manchester rock crowd bereft of hard-hitting rock before the band even arrived on stage. Although not a gay band per se, no qualms were dished out combatting the perceived image as this is what Morrissey wished for – a musical, social and sexual niche in the heterosexually-dominated market that he could naturally target with three gifted rock musicians and a head full of Northern “kitchen sink” realism, literature and arts.
The Smiths – Hand in Glove (7″ Single)
As writer Will Self put the music of Morrissey – “Young heterosexual men, and now older heterosexual men, respond to [it] at a homoerotic level. I think it speaks to the homosexual component in a lot of heterosexual men.” The Smiths’ art coordinator Jo Slee, when asked about the male icons embroidered on most single and album cover art, said – “You could say homoerotic if you want to, but for me there was more to it than that. It was about, perhaps, a representative of who he longed to be, what was in his heart really.”
The Irish roots can be linked through this virtuosity of homosexual awareness in many of the songs of The Smiths. The old adage of the rough, manliness in Irish and English culture has always been questioned and targeted by Morrissey, pushing forward his desire to repel against what said nations were (and still are to a certain extent) somewhat withstanding; gayness, delicacy in the male, machismo in the female, and a fearlessness in celebration of introversion. As early as their debut eponymous album, the band created an air of indie with songs of sexual ambiguity displayed first and foremost by the album cover which portrays a portion of one of the various prostitution scenes from the Warholian movie Flesh involving bisexual movie star Joe Dallesandro. Morrissey’s indelible infatuation with the sexual exertion of male-on-male contact, not through immediate physical experience himself but through artistic expression, fascinated him in his “flower-like” youth.
|The Smiths (1984)
(Debut album cover)
The (in)famous frontman’s floral fascination would pay dividends in The Smiths’ initial rise in the British music scene. “This Charming Man” mixed the Garden of Moz (literally) with the lyrical narrative of a homosexual bildungsroman, a perfect mix of the delicate flower with the delicacy of meeting that “charming man”. “What Difference Does It Make?” is the lack of social acceptance of gayness (I think) and the very conceivable reality of loss of friendship and family relationships. Take in some of that fine Johnny Marr riffery too while you’re at it. Do.
The Smiths – This Charming Man
As we all get hung up with the “same-sex” side of the vote on the 22nd, let’s take a step back (or a giant fucking leap) and take in what it truly is – equality and humane social acceptance, the rest is easily perceptible. Our parents, our parents’ parents, our parents’ parents’ parents and our pare… you get it, have had their genitals grasped by the forces of the Catholic Church for generations (take that as you may), but even in the collection-collecting world of the House of God, the tides are turning with societal acceptance of same-sex amalgamation among the clergy. The Smiths as far back as the mid-’80s were chastising religion, the church and society for their treatment of humanity – “Pass the pub that wrecks your body/And the church all they want is your money”, “We can go for a walk where it’s quiet and dry, and talk about precious things/Like love and lore and poverty/Oh, these are the things that kill me”, “Life is very long when you’re lonely”, “The monkish monsignor/With a head full of plaster/Said ‘My man, get your vile soul dry-cleaned'”.
The Smiths – Vicar in a Tutu
Love affairs were rife with the band, but never at the heart of the issue was who the stories were aimed at, or for. Many lyrics fans decoded as love letters from Morrissey to Johnny Marr thanking the guitarist for rescuing him from rotting alone in the horticultural haven of his socially suffocating bedroom in Stretford, in particular the very last track of The Smiths’ studio recorded career “I Won’t Share You”. As Marr put it himself – “I mean at that point, I would’ve been surprised if anyone would’ve found two people in the world who had more power between them because of the love they had for each other and the sort of interest they had in each other and the encouragement [they gave one another]. It was like pretty full on, and I think you can hear it in a lot of the music.” Morrissey’s sexual preferences never bothered me in the slightest, his love was with an artist’s art; Shelagh Delaney’s plays, David Johansen’s drag, John Betjemen’s poetic prose and Johnny Marr’s rolling arpeggio. Sexual ambiguity, however, is spotlighted heavily, impervious to decryption but open for discussion, among most.
(Photo in this paragraph: Eugene Adebari EA/LFI)
The Smiths – I Won’t Share You
Morrissey’s romanticism is never to be questioned, albeit unconventional in the eyes of modern sexed-up society. His “unusable heart” was very much usable during the early-to-mid-’90s in a brief relationship with a man, Jake Walters, in which the “eternal ‘I’ became ‘we'”. “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get” is a thorough nod to the lost relationship after its brief stint.
Morrissey – The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get
Always the promotional pedlar of democracy and voicing one’s opinion, here’s no different, I deplore the undemocratic bigots who rip down “No” posters and fail to listen to a fellow Irish person’s opinion. Putrid. Let’s delve into the reverse psyche shall we? It’s not all lovey-dovey, far from. Celibacy, loneliness and even at times negative portrayals of love and homosexuality, or the reverse; being homosexually-influenced by loss of faith in heterosexuality were at the heart of the music. The Smiths’ mere existence tapped into the androgynous adolescent mentality of the ’80s, and thankfully beyond, with constructive misanthropy and moroseness. Anti-love was a sexual release, maybe even more so than the aforementioned love affairs, wherein Morrissey’s, at times, sexual fickleness permeated through his discography and handed us a true poetic exegesis of the forlorn lover. “Handsome Devil” struck an ominous chord with the music press for its apparent lyrical abuse sexually towards schoolchildren which Morrissey always abhorred – “Let me get my hands, on your mammary glands/And let me get your head on the conjugal bed”, “And when we’re in your scholarly room, who will swallow whom?” – though, conceivably more homoerotic for some.
Morrissey – Will Never Marry
The pro/anti-sexual as well as Irish link to The Smiths and their frontman is palpable. Music has always been a powerful medium for expressing societal issues and how apt that a band’s formation over three decades ago still stands the test of time and remains so relevant as for me to spurt out a literary prose on an Irish referendum. How ’bout that? Disregard the “‘Yes’ extremists” with their classic “I’m not gay, but…” sham, undemocratic, “liberal” self-righteous proclamations and vote as you please. Please. Let’s bake a cake for Morrissey too… with lentils, not eggs… and soya milk, not milk…