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Morrissey by Pat Reid

Posted 11 December 2004, 8.00 am by triple

by Pat Reid
(Absolute Press)

There are few musicians more enigmatic, or so slavishly adored, as Steven Patrick Morrissey. As frontman of The Smiths – one of the most influential bands to come out of Britain in the past three decades – then as a solo artist, Morrissey has inspired adulation, outrage, confusion and controversy in pretty equal amounts. All the while, Morrissey’s private life has remained unusually private. The UK music press, in particular, has variously lauded and lambasted the man and his music over the decades, but their opinion has become less relevant since Moz set up home in Los Angeles, and unexpectedly found the Mexican-American community the source of a new fanbase.

Pat Reid has been a fan of Morrissey and The Smiths since his student days, and penned a previous volume about him – ‘Bigmouth: Morrissey 1983-1993’ in 1997. This latest book illuminates Morrissey’s meandering career path from teenage misfit to aspiring rock writer then articulate, if not controversial, singer with The Smiths, and finally to exiled, chameleon solo artist.

Reid is an incisively perceptive writer, and his book is chatty and highly readable. It comprises a subjective though fresh look at Morrissey’s ouvre, many anecdotes and arguments about music and culture, and a discussion of the Morrissey’s sexuality, a topic which has always vexed the prurient press. Despite the singer’s claims of celibacy, and the fact that he has seemingly been single most of his life, most people who give the topic any thought – Reid included – assume him to be discreetly gay. Morrissey also has the unusual quality of eliciting a sexual response from men who aren’t gay – Reid describes him as ‘a gay icon to straight men’.

Sexual controversy has dogged Morrissey since early Smiths lyrics were suggested by music journalists to refer to child abuse. This was probably unfounded, but Morrissey went on to stir up trouble with a series of flippant though racially insensitive comments. He then compounded problems by waving the British flag onstage during a support slot to ska band Madness, whose audience at the time included a far-right nationalist contingent. Penning a song called ‘The National Front Disco’ didn’t help either (imagine an American artist singing about the KKK Klub and you can understand why this could be inflammatory) – Morrissey was deemed a racist by the UK’s most influential music paper. Like Eminem, Morrissey is an artist who uses lyrical personas, and often should be taken with a large pinch of salt – when Moz crooned “England for the English”, was he being racist, or simply poking fun?

Reid’s book doesn’t address this issue in much depth, probably due to its being written without any contact with Morrissey himself. As a seasoned music journalist, Reid could almost certainly have arranged interviews with Moz had he wanted, but chose not to, aware of the potential disappointment of meeting his idol, and wary of Morrissey’s delight in upsetting journalists. So, Reid’s assertion early on that ‘this book is about Morrissey, his life, his music and his sexuality’, is only partly true – he discusses all those things, but the book is possibly more revealing about Reid himself than about Morrissey. Nevertheless, some of the most interesting and entertaining parts of the book are nothing to do with Moz – Reid is an informed and lively guide to the politics of the UK music press, the changing currents of the music scene and the wider popular culture. Reading his book is like having a long, opinionated conversation with a wittily bitter old friend. By the conclusion of the book, Reid realizes he’s gone off topic, and acknowledges that he’s “not really writing about [Morrissey], but about the things that happen around him, and the debris that trail in his wake”. This book will speak to Morrissey fans of every denomination - Reid avoids the common journalistic assumption that readers are familiar with all the music and artists that he knows, and thorough annotations make his arguments accessible whether or not you’re conversant with the intricacies of the UK music scene. The really interesting parts of the book deal with the aspects of music and popular culture which Morrissey has variously confronted, confounded and controlled. Whether you’re a devoted Morrissey fan or just interested in how the music scene has evolved over recent decades, there’s treasure to be found in Reid’s “trailing debris”.

Buy it at amazon

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