Elegant Rock (Or, Impressing Posterity): The Best of Morrissey and Ringleader of the Tormentors

Steven Patrick Morrissey is now middle-age. In a culture that does not worship youth so much as pander to it—with all the contempt and desperation and envy that suggests—it is interesting to observe people who are aging well: still feeling, still thinking, still creating, still growing.

by Daniel Garrett

Morrissey
The Best of Morrissey
Warner Bros./Rhino, 2001

Morrissey
Ringleader of the Tormentors
Attack Records/Sanctuary Records, 2006

“The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get” could be read or heard as a stalker anthem, or the narrator could be speaking as love itself: the song is an elegant declaration of extremity in which Steven Patrick Morrissey sings “I bear more grudges than lonely high court judges. /When you sleep, I will creep /Into your thoughts like a bad debt.” The song, written by Morrissey with Boz Boorer, requires the discernment of the listener: does one cringe, laugh, or think in response to it? And in that way, in its requirement of thought, it is a typical Morrissey song. In “Suedehead,” co-written with Stephen Street, Morrissey is the one pursued, uncomfortably harassed by another. Yet, one wonders, is the song about a secret love that dares to pursue a relationship in public? Or about an ended relationship in which one lover won’t let go? Boredom in a small town, boredom so severe the narrator longs for destruction, for obliteration, is the subject of Morrissey and Street’s “Everyday Is Like Sunday.” Those are the songs that begin the anthology The Best of Morrissey, a fascinating and significant collection. Morrissey, who doesn’t assume or respect the usual received ideas or images, writes about private and public moments in which emotion or conflict occurs. He describes and examines experience. Many people prefer to believe in a god, or money and sex, for the deliverance of transcendence, though often the most assured transcendence—that is, freedom—comes from the disavowal of authority and desire. Morrissey, who was famously celibate for years, mostly mocks authority, and it is complex experience and thought that draw his attention.

“Everyone lies, everyone lies. /Where is the man you respect? /And where is the woman you love?” and “We look to Los Angeles /for the language we use. / London is dead, London is dead” sings Morrissey in “Glamorous Glue,” co-written with Alain Whyte. Yet, Morrissey moves beyond doubt and cynicism in the crashing rock of Morrissey and Whyte’s “Do Your Best and Don’t Worry,” in which there is eloquent insight and encouragement is given to someone who judges herself harshly: “see the best of how they look /against the worst of how you are /and again, you won’t win /with your standards so high /and your spirits so low.”

Morrissey and Clive Langer provide an unsentimental view of a crippled girl who does not want pity in “November Spawned a Monster,” a girl who is a “symbol of where mad, mad lovers must pause /and draw the line— /so sleep and dream of love /because it’s the closest you will get to love.”

Morrissey can move back and forth among the humane and the spiteful and the wise. Crime as a quick way to celebrity is the subject of “The Last of the Famous International Playboys,” a song written by Morrissey with Stephen Street that is a diagnosis of crooked social values, whereas, with writer Mark E. Nevin, Morrissey counsels someone to “sing your life /just walk up to the microphone /and name all the things that you love /all the things that you loathe.” That last song has a soft sound, though some of the words do have a sharp edge: “Your pointless life will end /but before you go /can you look at the truth?”

Personal appearance—style—as a social force that a popular (or hot) hairdresser manipulates seems the subject of Morrissey and Street’s “Hairdresser on Fire.” The song “Interesting Drug,” also by Morrissey and Street, might be about social exploitation and moral hypocrisy—and the desire for money, the fact of unhelpful government, and the distraction of pleasure—but the vague lyrics, while very suggestive, have meanings that are hard to grasp with certainty. However, the title of the next song says it all: “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful.”

Yet, friendship is an important force in society and an important subject in Morrissey’s work. Social satire is set to a country rock sound in Morrissey and Whyte’s “Certain People I Know.” There’s a slowly unraveling, methodical description of family tension amid a London scene of friends in “Now My Heart Is Full.” In Morrissey and Nevin’s “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” there’s an introduction that features different speaking German and French voices, and while the song could be advice to a wandering friend, instead it could be—I think it is—a brief message to an ideal, unmet lover: “I know it’s gonna happen someday to you /please wait /don’t lose faith.” There is sympathy—or mockery, or both—for a drug-using friend who has been in a fight in “Sunny.” And, “Alma Matters” is a derelict assertion of independence: “It’s my life to wreck my own way.” There’s an echo of E.M. Forster in the affirmation of friendship in Morrissey and Whyte’s “Hold On to Your Friends,” in which a neglectful friend who calls when sad but not happy is told, “There are more than enough to fight and oppose. /Why waste good time fighting the people you like?”

“Outside the prison gates, I love the romance of crime /and I wonder: does anybody feel the way I do? /and is Evil just something you are? Or something you do?” contains questions posed in Morrissey and Stephen Street’s “Sister I’m A Poet,” questions that are significant in social life and in philosophy, questions one rarely expects to find in popular music. In “Disappointed,” a song with a terrifically intense rhythm, a song that could be intended for personal acquaintances or public admirers, Morrissey sings, “Don’t talk to me now about people who are ‘nice’ /’cause I have spent my whole life in ruins /because of people who were ‘nice.’”

A request for an embrace seems to come from an ill person in Morrissey and Whyte’s “Tomorrow,” but that request might be also the common call for acceptance and love.The Best of Morrissey closes with a song by Morrissey and Spencer Cobrin called “Lost,” in which Morrissey sings, “And we all understand everybody’s lost /but they’re pretending they’re not lost.” What is in Morrissey’s work is interesting but also what is not there is interesting too: such as violence and vulgarity made into a daily atmosphere. There’s an assumption not of a perfect world, but of a cosmopolitan one, one that can be known by intelligence: and one’s own mind can unfold while hearing this work—can expand, can explore.

II.

Steven Patrick Morrissey is now middle-age. In a culture that does not worship youth so much as pander to it—with all the contempt and desperation and envy that suggests—it is interesting to observe people who are aging well: still feeling, still thinking, still creating, still growing. In his new recordings, those on Ringleader of the Tormentors, Morrissey acknowledges ambiguity, conflict, desire, pain, rage, stupidity, and the freedom and joy that do emerge within the human condition. On Ringleader of the Tormentors, Morrissey is joined by his band, Boz Boorer (guitar), Alain Whyte (guitar, vocal), Jesse Tobias (guitar), Gary Day (bass guitar), Michael Farrell (piano, trumpet, trombone, percussion), and by producer Tony Visconti. Morrissey’s first words on the album are “Nobody knows what human life is, /why we come, why we go, /so why then do I know /that I will see you in far-off places?” (The song could be a continuation of “It’s Gonna Happen Someday.”) Morrissey goes on to sing, “If your god bestows protection upon you /and if the USA doesn’t bomb you /I believe I will see you.” Here is intimacy and the international scene. A tender ballad about a well-intentioned solitary walker in Rome who comes to feel erotic temptation—“there are explosive kegs between my legs”—is the subject of the collection’s second song, “Dear God Please Help Me,” a song that ends with what seems erotic satisfaction and spiritual calm: “the heart feels free.”

The songs on Ringleader of the Tormentors are all by Morrissey, with his co-writers being Alain Whyte or Jesse Tobias or Michael Farrell, depending on the song. “Pasolini is me /Accatone you’ll be /I entered nothing /and nothing entered me /till you came” sings Morrissey in “You Have Killed Me,” with lyrics in which Morrissey lives with and claims Roman history and atmosphere but speaks of feeling murdered even as he breathes. Death seems to come more frequently as a judgment and an end in his new music than in the songs on The Best of Morrissey, his career retrospective. Morrissey has broadened his vision in many ways. “Visconti is me/ Magnani you’ll never be,” he sings.

In “The Youngest Was the Most Loved,” a beautiful, beloved boy goes wrong, becomes a killer, and “there is no such thing in life as normal.” Morrissey states and satirizes a cheery cliché in the song “In the Future When All’s Well,” in which he admits, “Every day I play a sad game /called ‘in the future when all’s well.’” Family conflict between a stepfather and stepchild, with pain and disgust leading to rage, and rage to violence—and this violence is not titillation but a true violation of two selves and of law.

It sounds as if it’s raining during “Life Is A Pigsty,” a song of unquiet despair and denunciation, in which Morrissey’s narrator says, “I’ve been shifting gears all of my life /but I’m still the same underneath.” Morrissey sings “life is a pigsty” over and over against the notes of a guitar, as if he were singing a love ballad, and in the end, surprisingly, there are words about falling in love again.

There is a conflation of hero and lover in “I’ll Never Be Anybody’s Hero Now,” in which Morrissey says the “haves cannot stand have-nots /and my love is under the ground.” He sings, “I’ll never be anybody’s lover now— /things I’ve heard and I’ve seen /and I’ve felt and I’ve been,” as if he has too much experience—and is tarnished by it. He adds, “it only hurts because it’s true.” Working-class stresses are given a place in “On the Streets I Ran,” one of the set’s strongest songs: “And all these streets can do /is claim to know the real you /and warn: If you don’t leave /you will kill or be killed.” That is fairly blunt. Has Morrissey been chastened by life, or by the realism—even the exaggerated realism—in the popular music that other people are making? He sings, “Here everybody’s friendly, but nobody’s friends.” That is almost too real. Some songwriters are like poets, some like playwrights, some like painters—and Morrissey is like a novelist or filmmaker—as there’s sensibility, a large view, with particular scenes and characters, with depth, movement, and texture. A glance at the collection’s official lyric sheet shows that Morrissey has revised slightly his own lyric in “To Me You Are A Work of Art,” but he does not diminish the sting of his words: “To me you are a work of art/ and I would give you my heart /that’s if I had one.” That makes a prayer for someone else before dying, “I Just Want to See the Boy Happy,” unexpected. Morrissey, a man of many moods, of many incarnations, brings together different tones in a complex and dramatic end for his album Ringleader of the Tormentors, in the closing song “At Last I Am Born.” He sings, “At last I am born, at last I am born, living the one, true, free life.” He presents a mixture of confession, mockery, and uplift, and admits, “I once was a mess of guilt /because of the flesh. /It’s remarkable what you can learn /once you are born, born, born.”


About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Lizz Wright, Sinead O’Connor and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett has also written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared inThe African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.