Born Steven Patrick Morrissey on May 22, 1959, in Manchester, England; son of Peter Aloysius (a security guard) and Elizabeth (Betty) Ann (a librarian; maiden name, Dwyer) Morrissey. Education: Attended Stretford Technical School, Stretford, England, 1975-76. Addresses: Record company--Attack/Sanctuary Records Group, Sanctuary House, 43-53 Sinclair Rd., London W14 ONS, England, website: http://www.sanctuaryrecordsgroup.com. Website--Morrissey Official Website: http://www.morrisseymusic.com.
From his debut as lead singer of the Smiths in 1983, Morrissey has been--to critics and fans alike--an enigma. Although his hearing is fine, he often wears a hearing aid; his eyesight, on the other hand, is poor, but he can't stand wearing his contact lenses on stage. This self-proclaimed "prophet for the fourth gender" has hinted at being gay, but prefers to discuss his celibacy, dismissing strictly defined sexual orientation as too limiting of people's potential. Morrissey's subtle, sardonic wit constantly confuses those interviewers who probe too far, making it particularly difficult to tell who the real Morrissey is: the morose and lonely lyricist or the passionate and engaging performer.
Steven Patrick Morrissey was born on May 22, 1959, in Manchester, England. Son of Peter Aloysius Morrissey, a night security guard, and Elizabeth Ann (Betty) Dwyer, a librarian, Morrissey recalls his childhood as being morbid, with undercurrents of violence, elements later reflected in his often humorously black lyrics. His parents divorced when he was 17. "I literally never, ever met people," he told James Henke in Rolling Stone. "I wouldn't set foot outside of the house for three weeks on a run." To Spin magazine, Morrissey admitted, "There was no sense of frivolity in my young life at all, ever. There was no such thing as going crazy, or getting drunk, or falling over, or going to a beach.... Everything in my life was just hopelessly premeditated."
Morrissey passed the days reading, writing pages of poetry, and listening to music. "The power of the written word really stung me, and I was also entirely immersed in popular music.... [Actor James Dean and nineteenth-century Irish wit Oscar Wilde] were the only two companions I had as a distraught teenager. Every line that Wilde ever wrote affected me so enormously. And James Dean's lifestyle was always terribly important. It was almost as if I knew these people quite intimately and they provided quite a refuge from everyday slovenly life," he revealed to Henke. Morrissey also found refuge in the feminist writings of Susan Brownmiller and Molly Haskell, as well as the "terribly gloomy" and "terribly embittered" English novelist Charles Dickens. Where music was concerned, Morrissey lost himself in mid-1960s British pop hits and later, the androgynous glitter rock of the New York Dolls and David Bowie.
The Debut of the Smiths
Morrissey left school at 17. Jobs as civil-service clerk, hospital porter, and record-store salesman didn't interest him past the first paycheck. It was guitarist Johnny Marr's 1982 invitation to join a band that finally got him out of the house. Within months, the Smiths burst onto the British music scene. Several BBC radio broadcasts landed the band a contract with Rough Trade Records along with an impressive and enthusiastic following--this even before the release of their debut album, The Smiths. Stereo Review's Steve Simels referred to the album as "mostly midtempo love ballads with a not-so-subtle homoerotic ambiguity.... Morrissey has a vocal style that manages to walk the tightrope between being affectingly plaintive and cloyingly sensitive." With their second album, Meat Is Murder, entering the British charts at number one and going gold within a week, the Smiths had made their mark. Writing for the Nation, Frank Rose described their sound as "a difficult but strangely compelling amalgam of American blues and British folk set to a spinning beat.... Morrissey doesn't sing with the tune, he sings all around it, and the resulting tension is as hypnotic as it is disorienting." The release of The Queen Is Dead further deepened their impression on the music world. Johnny Rogan, author of Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance, hailed them as the most critically acclaimed and musically accomplished ensemble of the decade.
Yet, by the time Strangeways, Here We Come was released, in 1988, the Smiths had disbanded; Johnny Marr had decided to work with various other artists, and the group simply dissolved. What would become of Morrissey was a mystery to critics who assumed he'd be nothing without Marr. "The general opinion was that once Johnny Marr unplugged that umbilical cord I would just kind of deflate like a paddling pool," Morrissey told Spin's Steven Daly. Mark Peel, for example, declared in Stereo Review, "Morrissey seemed headed over the abyss."
Went Solo with Viva Hate
Morrissey defied them with his first solo release, Viva Hate. Melody Maker called the album "implausibly fresh: the music's breathing again, free of a certain stuffiness and laboriousness that had set in seemingly irreversibly in the Smith's twilight period." "Morrissey's band may have deserted him," wrote Peel of the singer's triumph over the abyss, "but fortunately for us, his muse didn't." Rachel Felder of Rolling Stone characterized his second release, Bona Drag, as "a choppy compilation of British B sides." Although critics on both sides of the Atlantic appeared to dismiss this collection, in a not-so-favorable Melody Maker review, Dave Jennings did concede that "Morrissey still asks awkward questions, gets under skins, touches nerves."
Critics seemed to lose faith in Morrissey with the 1991 release of Kill Uncle. Excerpts from several Melody Maker reviews clearly define their position: "devoid of magic, melodies and memorability"; "Morrissey revelling in mundanity"; "such a tragic, turgid pathetic record one can only assume it's an act of spite"; and finally, "Morrissey's future probably lies in America.... Over there, [it] was critically acclaimed, his gigs were received rapturously and he even made it onto the Johnny Carson Show." And although a bigger American audience was discovering Morrissey through Kill Uncle, Rolling Stone felt it "only hints at the achievement of the earlier album.... What Kill Uncle lacks is the musical coherence, let alone the stick-in-your head charisma, that would lend the album the consistency of the singer's previous work ... it plays more like a fragmented collection of polished studio outtakes than a finished album."
Melody Maker was correct in noting that reception of Morrissey in Britain and the United States diverged. The most notable example of this being--no matter how critics and fans rave--Morrissey just can't get a hit in America. "As far as I can tell, any fool can have a hit record in America--except me," he lamented to David Browne in Entertainment Weekly. "I don't want to be the biggest star in the universe, but I do feel deliberately slighted." He could sell out New York City's Madison Square Garden, but he couldn't get a spot on MTV. "Everything I've achieved, I've earned, and nobody has handed it to me, and that kind of existence is hard to understand for the music industry. They don't understand the language of being your own person. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't change it. But I just feel anger, because when you repeatedly do things against what seems like all the odds there comes a time when the size of your audience should be recognized and you should be treated accordingly," he complained to Spin's David Thomas.
Rapturous Reception Worldwide
Morrissey's fans would certainly be the first to point out this glaring omission on the pop charts; they are an almost unnervingly ardent group. The singer's love of Oscar Wilde had prompted him to carry flowers in concert, which in turn inspired fans to heap the stage with his favorite, gladiolus. Dozens of fanzines devote their pages to "Mozz," as they call him, and fans regularly almost crush him when they practice the traditional concert group hug. Describing a Morrissey concert, Bill Flanagan of Musician called it "strange, the wimpy kids stood on their chairs and pumped their fists in the air and screamed and the wimpy singer ripped off his shirt. All the people who usually mock the big hairy-chested rock show had a big hairy-chested rock show of their own. It was touching. Like the Special Olympics." When Morrissey does meet his fans outside the concert hall, wrote Spin's Thomas, "he treats them with kindness and consideration. He talks to them, hugs them, and bashfully accepts the flowers, books, and little presents that they always want to give him."
"So why is Morrissey held a rock hero in the hearts of half the population of England's disaffected bohos and America's freshman dorms?" asks Flanagan. Partly because of his overwhelming fan identification and partly because "Morrissey, who in his lyrics, on his albums and in his interviews shows self-immolating weariness with the insensitivity of the world, comes alive in concert as a stomping, rocking, posing, sweating, handsome and scream-inducing star."
Mozz's fans were at last vindicated in 1992 with the release of Your Arsenal; although they had never given up hope in his ability, his critics were beginning to. "But on Your Arsenal," wrote Jeremey Helligar in People, "he pulls back from the brink of self-parody and delivers some of his strongest tunes yet ... bless his bummed-out soul." Mark Coleman of Rolling Stone called Arsenal "the most direct--and outwardly directed--statement he's made since disbanding the Smiths. Buoyed by the conversational grace of his lyric writing, Morrissey rides high atop this album's rip-roaring guitar tide.... His penchant for maudlin balladry held firmly in check by taut arrangements and riff-driven melodies... Your Arsenal is stockpiled with the rock and roll equivalent of smart bombs: compact missives that zoom in on their targets with devastating precision. The repercussions last long after the rubble is cleared." "The band can also strut and stomp with the brawn and moxie of a rockabilly band," wrote New York Times contributor Jon Pareles. "The contrast between the introversion of Morrissey's smooth, vibrato-rounded croon and rock's brashest tradition only heightens the piquancy, and Morrissey knows it."
Morrissey continued releasing a steady stream of material through the mid-nineties, but only 1994's Vauxhall and I elicited the same excitement as Your Arsenal. Oddly, a single from Vauxhall and I--"The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get"--played on MTV and reached the top 50 singles chart, introducing the singer to an American audience. Bolstered by his success in the United States, Morrissey moved from Dublin to Los Angeles where he began work on a new album for Mercury in 1996.
If fans had greeted Morrissey's Kill Uncle with anger, they greeted 1997's Maladjusted with indifference. "The last album was not a showstopper," Morrissey recalled to Marc Spitz in Spin. "The sleeve was dreadful. I look like a mushroom or a leprechaun. It was designed by the record company, and they were collapsing." Following the album, the singer dropped out of public view (with the exception of sightings at Libertines and Sex Pistols' concerts) for the next seven years. During this period he devoted a great deal of time to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and working in coordination with the Los Angeles Animal Police.
A Return to Form
In 2004 Morrissey returned to the music scene with the release of You Are the Quarry. Speaking of his long absence, he told Spitz: "It was very frustrating. But I absolutely believe in fate and I knew that it would end. I felt like I was being carried along by something, and perhaps it's all the better that there was a gap." Critics and fans, meanwhile, warmly embraced the new album, calling it a return to form. "At its best," wrote Allison Stewart in the Washington Post, "it pulls off the near-impossible trick of being both a good wallow and a sharp stick in the eye. Even at its worst, it's simply irreproducible, the rare record that's actually about something."
Morrissey claims to know a lot; he is notorious for his forthright opinions: "Michael Jackson has outlived his usefulness," he said in People, "Prince and Madonna are of no earthly value whatsoever." While he's fond of English singer-songwriter Paul Weller and Prefab Sprout's Paddy McAloon, he told Entertainment Weekly that "I certainly think Britney Spears is ... the devil. The way she projects herself and the fact that she is so obviously vacuous. I think it's such a shame that she became so influential to very small children. Most of the faces I see on the covers of American music magazines are just dreadful--people with nothing to offer the world at all."
"Many people underestimate [rock] as a force; this is dramatically wrong," Morrissey told People. "It is the last refuge for young people; no other platform has so much exposure." It is a platform on which Morrissey will more than likely remain. Life, as well, will apparently continue much as it has before; he told Thomas, "The day always ends the same way, with exactly the same scenario. I'm closing the door and putting the lights out and fumbling for a book. And that's it. I find that very unfortunate, but then, I could have a wooden leg."
by Joanna Rubiner and Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr
Worked as civil-service clerk, hospital porter (flesh remover), record-store salesman, c. 1976; singer, songwriter with the Smiths, 1982-88; solo artist, 1988-; released solo debut Viva Hate, 1988; released solo albums throughout 1990s; released You Are the Quarry, 2004.
O2 Silver Clef Award, 2004; Mojo Icon Award, 2004.
- Selected discography
- Solo albums
- Viva Hate Sire/Reprise, 1988.
- Bona Drag Sire/Reprise, 1990.
- Kill Uncle Sire/Reprise, 1991.
- Your Arsenal Sire/Reprise, 1992.
- Beethoven Was Deaf EMI, 1993.
- (Contributor) Alternative Energy Hollywood/Greenpeace, 1993.
- Vauxhall and I Sire/Reprise, 1994.
- Southpaw Grammar Sire/Reprise, 1995.
- Maladjusted Mercury, 1997.
- You Are the Quarry Attack/Sanctuary, 2004.
- With the Smiths
- The Smiths Rough Trade, 1984.
- Hatful of Hollow Rough Trade, 1984.
- Meat Is Murder Sire, 1985.
- The Queen Is Dead Sire, 1986.
- The World Won't Listen Sire, 1987.
- Louder Than Bombs Sire, 1987.
- Strangeways, Here We Come Sire, 1988.
- "Rank," Sire, 1988.
- Rogan, Johnny, Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance, Omnibus Press, 1992.
- Advocate, July 16, 1991.
- Billboard, May 7, 1988; June 22, 1991.
- Cash Box, November 16, 1991.
- Entertainment Weekly, August 14, 1992; October 16, 1992; May 21, 2004.
- GQ, April 2004.
- Los Angeles Times, November 3, 1991.
- New York Times, July 15, 1991; July 21, 1991; July 17, 1991; February 23, 1992; September 22, 1992.
- Melody Maker, September 12, 1987; February 20, 1988; January 7, 1989; February 4, 1989; April 15, 1989; April 22, 1989; May 26, 1990; November 3, 1990; May 4, 1991; October 5, 1991; December 21, 1991.
- Musician, May 1988; June 1991; December 1992.
- Nation, August 3, 1985.
- People, June 24, 1985; August 19, 1991; October 5, 1992.
- Playboy, August 1991.
- Pulse!, April 1993.
- Rolling Stone, June 7, 1984; October 9, 1986; May 19, 1988; December 15, 1988; August 23, 1990; August 22, 1991; October 29, 1992; January 21, 1993.
- Spin, April 1990; July 1990; February 1991; April 1991; November 1992; April 2004.
- Stereo Review, October 1986; July 1984; July 1985; July 1988; October 1988.
- Time, May 31, 2004.
- Village Voice, April 5, 1988; May 3, 1988; July 12, 1988; July 18, 1989; April 2, 1991.
- Washington Post, May 19, 2004, p. C05.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from a Sire/Reprise Records press release on Kill Uncle, 1991.