There is a tendency to romanticise the past, but looking back on it, I got into Morrissey at precisely the wrong time. The Smiths split before I was 12 so passed me by, but in August 1992 I belatedly discovered their music. This was because I’d got tickets for Madstock! in Finsbury Park and wanted to know more about the support acts – Ian Dury, Flowered Up and Morrissey.
Ah Morrissey, what a terrible moment to fall for his charms.
I bought July’s Your Arsenal and loved it. Reviews in the NME and Select noted one song title, “National Front Disco”, and alluded to other questionable views he’d expressed. But I shrugged that off. At Finsbury Park, Morrissey waved a Union Jack and was bottled off stage by Madness fans, leading to further questions about his political beliefs, but I was now diving headlong into the Smiths’ delicious back catalogue, helped by the release a week after Madstock of Best… I. Like so many teenagers, I became obsessed, buying and absorbing every Smiths record I could find. Morrissey understood me. He felt my angst and expressed it wittily, with sardonic melodrama and waspish sensitivity. He was exactly like me, only funnier.
Plus, unlike every other pop star in the world, he wasn’t having any sex either.
There was much here that I could identify with.
There were other bands and singers I loved deeply, but none with whom I felt such kinship. He was like an external manifestation of my id, an embodiment of my core being, an expression of my soul.
But. But But. Journalists continued to query his attitude towards race. And while I wrote stern, painfully alliterative, pseudonymous letters to the NME in his defence, I knew. Deep down, I always knew.
“Reggae is vile”. “Life is hard enough when you belong here”. “Obviously to get on Top Of The Pops these days, one has to be, by law, black.”
As soon as I read those quotes, I knew.
This was a man whose lyrical sharpness was his everything. He was never lazy or clumsy. The idea he was saying these things accidentally or without forethought was ludicrous. Yet I continued to ignore what was in front of my eyes. Right through (the frankly magnificent) Vauxhall & I and even after (the frankly abysmal) Maladjusted, at which point I stopped buying his records. A long, very detailed, critical feature in Uncut gave me momentary pause, but I was still excited enough by his comeback at the Royal Albert Hall in 2002 to write an enthusiastic preview in Time Out – albeit not excited enough to actually attend.
I still listened to to the Smiths. I even bought Autobiography, bristling briefly, for old time’s sake, at the criticism it received.
But always, deep down, I knew. I knew.
Now, it’s all out the open. Although some would say it always was, and they’d be right.
Why did I refuse to see what had been obvious from the very start? The human capacity for self-deception as a survival instinct is extraordinary powerful. Add the obsessive love of fandom, that cultish need to identify, and you have something that is very hard to step away from. So much is invested in this person that the truth about them becomes impossible to process.
Love takes a lot, but it gives a lot back too. Through Morrissey, I discovered amazing music, films, books and plays. My adolescence was enlightened. My teenage pain was soothed. But was it worth it?
All I know is that I can’t listen to the Smiths now without feeling a huge loss, an emptiness, a sadness. That might seem like an excessive response but the initial love was excessive too. That’s how it works.
I am now too old to have heroes, but I wish as a teenager I had picked Bruce Springsteen.