The Last Romantic Poet?
I am the last of the famous international playboys. — Morrissey, song of the same name
Reggae music is vile. — Morrissey, 1980s interview
It began as one of those pub conversations about culture and art. You know how it is: Four or five guys (no chicks, please; they tend not to know much about music, and they are a distraction) not so much shooting the breeze as machine-gunning it. A few pints in, and the pack is baying about the best band or the best album or the best novelist or painter or anything to stay on the beer, and not to go what we call “top shelf,” which is where the spirits are kept behind the bar and is usually where the trouble starts.
This particular drunken squabble began with a discussion — if you can call several men shouting a discussion — about why there were no more Romantic poets after the blessed band of Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. I am not including Chatterton, who was a fraud and a punk and a bad poet and primarily known only for the famous 1856 portrait by Henry Wallis of the young poet’s rapidly cooling corpse, and which is on the cover of every bloody compilation of Romantic poetry ever published.
Anyway, debate had been entered into, and it’s all Eliot this and Hölderlin that, and I said, no, bollocks. No more Romantic poets? There is one still living. A couple of the lads even put down their drinks and looked at me closely. I backed up my claim. What about Morrissey? Well, that set the cat among the pigeons. We had what some would term the theme of a symposium until closing time.
I had always loved The Smiths since I saw them in 1984 in a college close to my university. They were a Marmite band (you love them or you hate them), but from the time I turned on a cranky and possibly steam-driven television set in Brighton in 1983 and saw the band perform “This Charming Man,” I was utterly hooked by the lyrics as much as the music:
Punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate.
Will nature make a man of me yet?
As I wrote of the late Mark E. Smith of The Fall (another Manchester band), who on earth writes lyrics like that? Then there was Morrissey’s haunting voice — melodically a one-trick pony, but the trick was a good one: a lisping, light baritone embellished by a genuine falsetto and unmistakable, like him or not. And his lyrics seemed to take place on a street corner where existentialism and expressionism meet and get on rather well. Wedded to the great melodic skill and virtuosity of co-writer and guitarist Johnny Marr, Morrissey and the band rode a short but effervescent wave of success.
Now, there has to be at least one Smiths aficionado reading this, and here I am concentrating on Morrissey’s lyrics as a solo artist. That said, and for the sake of the specialist, these are my ten favorite Smiths songs, in ascending order:
Reel Around the Fountain
Sweet and Tender Hooligan
How Soon is Now?
Frankly, Mr. Shankly
What Difference Does It Make?
Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want
That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore
Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me
I Know It’s Over
That’s that out of the way. Once the band had broken up acrimoniously in 1987, with litigation to follow and with one member’s heroin addiction doing what that terrible drug does to so many bands, Morrissey went solo, to simultaneous critical success and controversy. These are what I think are his ten best lyrics, again in ascending order.
“Used to be a Sweet Boy”
Morrissey writes a lot about childhood, and didn’t appear to have had a terribly happy one, if his autobiography is anything to go by. This is poignant without being schmaltzy:
Used to be a sweet boy,
Holding so tightly to Daddy’s hand.
But that was all in some distant land.
Blazer and tie,
And a big, bright, healthy smile.
Used to make all of our trials worthwhile.
Used to be a sweet boy,
And I’m not to blame,
But something went wrong.
All the grief of parental dysfunction is present in this short lyric, and Morrissey is both a great miniaturist and a teller of tales that are particularly familiar to those of our generation (at 63, he is a couple of years older than me). “Used to be a Sweet Boy” is a short lyric with repeated refrains. A bit like childhood, I suppose.
“Trouble Loves Me”
I suspect I like this song because of its familiarity in my life. It speaks to me, rather shamefully:
Trouble loves me.
Trouble needs me.
Two things more than you do.
The whole heart of the song is just that: You look for a lover, and it ends up being trouble:
Trouble loves me.
Walks beside me.
To chide me,
Not to guide me,
It’s still much more than you’ll do.
And there are those of us for whom trouble makes kin as it trots behind us through life like a puppy-dog tied to a string.
“Every Day is Like Sunday”
Possibly Morrissey’s most famous solo single, this is a perfect example of Morrissey’s (I want to say “quintessential”, but I hate that bloody word) Englishness, as we visit the beach, or the seaside, as the English call it:
Trudging slowly over wet sand
Back to the bench where your clothes were stolen.
This is the seaside town they forgot to close down . . .
Morrissey invites us to cream tea in a place where every day “is silent and grey,” a town “they forgot to bomb.”
Oh, sod it. Morrissey is quintessentially English.
“You Have Killed Me”
One thing I always liked about Morrissey was that he played the game before there was a game. The early 1980s was a strange time for the gay movement, and although it was a fairly open secret that Morrissey was gay, this was a decade or so before it practically became compulsory.
He was also open about being well-read, effete, and artistic — Oscar Wilde for the boomers. My sort of guy from the start, and here Morrissey combines his culture-vulture image with that dreadful feeling a person has when the one they so wished for, sought, and snared decides it’s time for the short goodbye;
Visconti is me.
Magnani you’ll never be.
I entered nothing and nothing entered me
‘Til you came with the key.
And you did your best but,
As I live and breathe,
You have killed me.
You have killed me.
Repetition of a line is hardly unique to Morrissey, but with some artists you get the impression that they couldn’t think of another line, whereas Morrissey repeats for emotional effect.
“Angel, Angel, Down We Go Together”
One of the great Morrissey titles — and we will visit some more later — this begins with a line that makes even seasoned fans of Mozza (his nickname in the music press) think: Oh, here we go again: sadness, depression and suicide. Same old same old.
Angel, don’t take your life tonight.
So far, so Morrissey. But then the lyric opens up alarmingly into why it is that some people become so ultimately desperate, and why you have to be able to tough out this world. Hell, as Sartre famously wrote, is other people:
I know they take it and they take it in turns,
And leave you nothing real for yourself in return.
And when they’ve used you and they’ve broken you
And wasted all your money
And cast your shell aside.
And when they’ve bought you
And they’ve sold you
And they’ve billed you for the pleasure,
And they’ve made your parents cry,
I will be here.
Oh, believe me.
Morrissey often writes from the first person, but the songs in which he addresses others — often with avuncular advice — are the most moving.
“Hold on to Your Friends”
The simplicity and honesty of this song is bracing and salutary. Friendship is a tricky thing to assess, and I am not sure there is a common denominator. A friend that one person likes may be hated by that fellow’s best friend, like a suit that fits one guy looks terrible on another. I am sure you will have had a friend who is just not another friend’s cup of tea. Our non-mutual friend. I know I have, and so have friends of mine, because it’s often me. But Morrissey pulls on the common thread of friendship:
There are more than enough
To fight and oppose.
Why waste good time
Fighting the people you like
Who will fall defending your name?
Don’t feel so ashamed to have friends.
You shouldn’t be shamed by a pop singer, but that line makes me very sorry about the times I have picked fights with those who are only trying to help me. Not that this song is just a guilty paean to the significant others in our lives; they can also hurt and irritate us:
Now you only call me
When you’re feeling depressed.
When you feel happy
I’m so far from your mind.
It is a grand reminder of the part that friends play in people’s lives. Finally, Morrissey reminds us — as though we needed reminding, which we do — that “there just might come a time when you need some friends.”
“Irish Blood, English Heart”
Morrissey’s political writing. Discuss. To me, he made an ass of himself on his first solo album with the closing track, “Margaret on the Guillotine.” It plainly referred to Margaret Thatcher — who I am still not a terrific fan of without wanting her head cut off — and possibly irritated me because my mother’s name happens to be Margaret. But by the time of “Irish Blood, English Heart,” I really felt Morrissey had politically matured.
Everyone in Britain or the United States — see Biden’s tomfoolery — claims to be part Irish, so I don’t see why I should buck this trend. My great-grandfather was a master carpenter in Dublin (a city I adore), so I guess I am part-Paddy. Maybe that’s why this lyric speaks to me:
Irish blood, English heart.
This I’m made of.
There is no one on earth I’m afraid of.
I am sure we would all like to believe that we fear no one, and Morrissey’s lyric here may “spit upon the name Oliver Cromwell” (who I have always rather liked), but the verse on Englishness has a shining relevance today:
I’ve been dreaming of a time
When to be English
Is not to be racist or hateful.
If there have been other artists who have used the word “racist” in a pop song, and weren’t whining about the whiteness of it all, please contact me at the usual address.
“Come Back to Camden”
Firstly, during my investigation of his back catalogue, so to speak, I have noticed that most of my choices are from Morrissey’s 2004 album You Are the Quarry, but I guess that just means I feel that was when he was at the height of his lyrical powers. But I have to put this song in the hit parade, because I miss London and I have had a long-standing love affair with Camden Town, that scuzzy little enclave of north London before the rich bits of St. John’s Wood, Hampstead, and Swiss Cottage begin. Camden is like that friend who phones you and suggests a drinking session — perhaps in Camden — and you think: fun or a night in jail?
Morrissey’s imagery here is evocative, and as London as Dickens or Big Ben, with his signature melancholy present and correct:
The tile yard all along the railings,
Up a discolored dark-brown staircase,
Here you’ll find despair and I . . .
The broken heart is found “drinking tea with the taste of the Thames,” and the song finishes with a plea:
Come back to Camden
And I’ll be good, I’ll be good, I’ll be good.
“The National Front Disco”
Morrissey was politically incorrect before this vague and woolly concept existed. He was criticized for various songs, the first being The Smiths’ “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” which concerns a subject which, in the United Kingdom, was thought untouchable. If you don’t know about the so-called “Moors Murderers,” Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, who were jailed for life in 1966 for the sexual murder of several children, can I ask you to look it up for yourself? It is one of the most callous and wicked murders in modern English history and some of the details are still upsetting.
Morrissey’s band — part rock and part rockabilly — deserve a mention in dispatches, and here they rev up like The Clash, as Morrissey plays the clever trick of singing about Britain’s most notorious far-Right political party (The National Front, some of whom were genuine thugs and nutters) while not appearing to endorse them. The sheer nerve of recording a song with the line “England for the English” and getting away with it is admirable. But the song is from the point of view of a father worried about his son becoming what we would call “radicalized”:
Your mum says,
I’ve lost my boy.
But she should know why you’ve gone,
Because again and again you’ve explained
You’re going to the National Front disco.
Morrissey was once trounced for playing a festival gig in front of a Union Flag. That was decades ago, and as you can imagine, the situation has not improved.
“First of the Gang to Die”
Morrissey has many obsessions — underground currents which feed the river of his work. One is gangs and gangsters, preferably teenage ones. The genius of this song is the casual (and yet classical) move from love to death as we switch from a beautiful opening line to something that reminds us of life’s horrors:
You have never been in love
Until you’ve seen the stars
Reflect in the reservoirs.
And you have never been in love
Until you’ve seen the dawn rise
Behind the home for the blind.
The scenario suddenly shifts to an atmosphere of menace and death:
We are the pretty, petty thieves.
And you’re standing on our street.
As the chorus arrives to tell us what these gangsters are up to, the brilliance of Morrissey is to choose a classical name for his young and doomed thug:
Hector was the first of the gang
With a gun in his hand.
The first to do time,
The first of the gang to die.
Such a silly boy.
I have a partly crazy drinking buddy here, a very talented Argentinian artist — he is very talented both at art and at being Argentinian — who inexplicably knows every Morrissey lyric there is. After I drank with him while watching Argentina beat Australia in the World Cup, we went into town and he got so rowdy I had to lose him. People usually do that to me. This is his particular favorite from the end of “The First of the Gang to Die”:
And he stole from the rich and the poor
And the not very rich and the very poor,
And he stole all hearts away.
This is a thread in Morrissey’s imagery: Narcissus with a gun.
Morrissey is, I think, the undisputed champion of song titles, and certainly not many songsters have written them longer. He started well in The Smiths with such ditties as “Some Girls are Bigger than Others,” “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” “Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One Before,” and “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side.” But he was just getting started. His solo career features titles that would persuade you to listen to the song just for the name: “Pregnant for the Last Time”; “There’s a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends”; “Bengali in Platforms” (a song that got him into trouble with the usual suspects, but is hilarious); “You’re the One for Me, Fatty”; “I Have Forgiven Jesus.” Even if you hate the guy, there are many more titles where those came from here.
The last line I’ll quote from the Bard of Manchester is simple, and like all such things must be placed in context;
Is this the best place to wait for a taxi?
It could come from a Morrissey song but it doesn’t, although it was said by Morrissey. In the mid-1980s, myself and a friend, drunk as lords, were looking for a taxi after a fine evening in Covent Garden’s excellent Tex-Mex restaurant Café Pacifico (well, it was excellent then, I can’t speak for it now). We lurched out of Southampton Row and onto The Strand, the spot outside the pub The Lyceum Tavern being a good one to nab a cab. There was another man waiting, and it was Stephen Patrick Morrissey, who asked me the question above. I knew from the music press that he had recently moved to London and his face was all over the papers in those days. I told him yes, it was, and he said thanks, and we offered him the first cab that arrived, which he took with a smile — a charming man. And that was the extent of our conversation.
So, I am sticking with Morrissey as belonging to the pantheon, the last of the Romantic poets. He’s outlived most of them, that’s for sure.
* * *
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What a delight! to open the browser and see this among the daily offerings. I have to say, silly as it sounds, I exulted reading this. It’s hard for non-fans to appreciate just how much the “last of the Romantic poets” means to those who love him, or even once did.
My own introduction to The Smiths was via their last album Strangeways, which still has the ability to transport me to the high-school days like almost nothing else does. (They had just broken up!)
Thoughts and emotions really bottleneck. Zeal to blurt out every random experience as a fledgling devotee in the cult of Moz … must resist!
From the oeuvre, for the “incels,” with genuine affection:
“Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” (The Smiths)
“I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” (Morrissey)
“Please wait. Don’t lose faith.”
Well, I’ve seen this happen in other people’s lives, now it’s happening in yours…
I’d have The Headmaster’s Ritual and Well I Wonder in my top ten Smiths songs.
A great post and wholeheartedly agree that Moz may be one of the greatest lyricists and storytellers of the post-modern era. One of my favorites not mentioned is “Lifeguard sleeping, Girl drowning”. Chilling, haunting. But it’s no big deal to the lifeguard because he doesn’t even know what’s happened because he was… sleeping. Anyway, she deserved it!
Moz deserves some points for rhyming “stars” with “reservoirs”.
Indeed, men and women together often makes for a touchy discussion about music and art, especially nowadays. And if one wants to make a life being around a particular woman, it’s best to have one whose taste in music is at least tolerable. Is BTK a Korean pop group or a serial killer? Both painful. The Smiths had female English majors in droves, analyzing the lyrics and oh, what is the possibility that Morrissey likes women enough that they could include him into some fantasies?
They still polarize, especially among guys made uncomfortable by Morrissey’s effete quasi-falsetto. He’s no Boy George, but a headline reads, “Morrissey finally admits he’s gay, everyone else rolls their eyes”.
Guitarist and co-songwriter Johnny Marr seems endlessly relegated to 2nd fiddle. Imaginative, lyrical, highly musical, precise but not flashy… always in service of the music. How mopey would “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” be without the Mars daydreamy counterpoint. His non-pyrotechnic style just doesn’t aspire to “this one goes to 11” volumes of what people think of in a rock guitarist.
Thanks for the article, Mark. What a prolific and consistent songwriter he has been. Don’t forget classics like ‘November Spawned a Monster,’ his stalker song ‘The More You Ignore Me’, and probably his best titled song, ‘Satan Rejected My Soul.’
Moz is one of a kind, and his recent cancellation is further testament to the quality of the man.
Great article but a top 10 list without including There Is a Light That Never Goes Out? Even though it was on a solo album November Spawned A Monster is also great
Morrissey & Smiths have titles such as “Meat Is Murder”, “The Queen Is Dead”, “Margaret [Thatcher] On The Guillotine”, he’s vegan, he said someone along the lines of being willing to push a button to dispatch away with Trump, he bashed George Bush, praised Bernie Sanders and said “God Bless Barack Obama”. And yet, he is not leftist enough for the entertainment business. Claiming to be Republican, showing some sympathy to Ronald Reagan, expressing discomfort that the rates of immigration are changing the character of England, not being against Brexit, questioning if ‘Me Too’ sometimes devolves into an Inquisition and pointing out that people call someone racists any time the question establishment wisdom on immigration. He said “Everyone ultimately prefers their own race… does this make everyone racist?” You know that one touched off a lot of nerves. In preparing this comment I tried to reach his critics. Unfortunately they were all unavailable, busy looking for that photo of them with their one black friend.
In addition to the many things he has to complain and be miserable about, Morrissey has always been something of an anti-establishment figure. It’s what appeals to many of his fans. But when the establishment turns woke… Big Mouth Strikes Again is “Persona Non Grata” per the Daily Beast. Billy Bragg said he ought shut it up and Nick Cave said free speech ought be kept separate from his musical legacy [Nick Cave is a class act].
Minor Threat were punk rather than pop, but their song ‘Guilty of being White’ is white-sympathetic and features the (non-) word ‘racist’.
“That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.”
Right after my divorce in 2000 and seeing this girl who was really into The Smiths and Morrissey. This song will always be burned into my memory.
The Smiths. Must be a British thing. I just listened to a few of their songs, very vaguely bringing back 80s memories. But, not my cup of tea, not at all.
And I’ve barely heard of this guy Morrissey, except for the occasional reference in nationalist venues. Skimming his Wiki page, he sounds like a typical celebrity in at least one way: he’s very confused, but very opinionated. Why are so many entertainers such douchebags? A true rightist trying to forge a successful career in the (((entertainment industry))) would simply keep his mouth shut about overt politics, while practicing “metapolitical cultural warfare”; eg, by crafting songs or making films celebrating ethnonational heritage in an unapologetic, “uninclusive” way. The “grammar” of film is such that you can film a scene depicting urban diversity approbatively or disapprobatively, without even dialogue. Likewise, subversive songs can be written in a way which implicitly, elegiacally, contrasts Old Britain with degenerate “Cool Britannia” – all without giving the press jackals anything directly provocative to latch on to.
Great introduction to this essay, however, though I’ve never actually witnessed a serious discussion about poetry in a pub. Maybe the Brits are still more civilized than the colonies.
‘Cool Britannia’ was a musical and cultural scene that lived and died in 1996/7. Not been around for decades now.
In the 80s, Morrissey was all over the UK music papers with his extreme leftist opinions. Of Irish parentage, he was always trying to outdo the English at being English. He is now regarded as right wing for telling modern extremist leftie halfwits a few English home truths.
In a way, he has never veered away from his 80s controversy-courting ways; it’s just now he APPEARS to bat for the other political side, and I say ‘appears’ because he is a huge troll. For instance, the quote about reggae that started this column was actually a joke from him.
He actually wrote an 80s song about his bigfoot-in-loudmouth tendencies, both mocking his ‘controversial’ rep and exalting in it (as he does, to this day):
Many artists sympathetic to the right might be assumed to be those simply not making proclamations about the joys of the new order and its newspeak. Sometimes they spotlight the past, or simply give some superficial lip service to cultural overlords (I think some are suspicious Morrissey is just playing them). The terrific film, Dunkirk, dared to notice the sacrifices of “white bodies” in WW2, and feminists were quickly there to complain they weren’t sharing top billing or something. Maybe they will put together a film showing that the women of Bletchley Park had an enormous death toll or something.
But Morrissey is exceedingly more navel gazing than a typical celebrity and the expected type of person to get some of his conservative viewpoints heard by a hungry press. I think he will weather this, but at his age pop stars are typically in decline, anyhow. But if I have mixed feelings about his music, I respect that The Smiths helped rescue 80’s pop from synthesizers and the worst traits of the new wave. An influence that can be felt (or blamed) for legions of Brit-pop. You’ve probably heard that Harry Styles song “As It Was” in an elevator by now. To me it sounds like a diluted emulation of the Smiths “This Charming Man”. I think of the Smiths and Morrissey often appealing to uptight preppy types. The music pleasant and accessible, but lyrics filled with scads of nastiness to be enjoyed by those who wouldn’t fit in with punk rebellion. The singer from Pavement has a story of being in youthful kid in a band opening for Black Flag. Henry Rollins would be backstage inflaming himself by squeezing a cue ball, leading the singer to wonder if he could ever be cut out for punk.
Getting started around the same time as the Smiths were The Wedding Present, also helping save the UK from synthesizer overdose with rock/pop played at hardcore speeds by rock’s most notable Ukrainian guitarist. Singer David Gedge is more of classic straight male, but as equally likely as Morrissey to sob and groan about impossible love but in a less heady manner. Check out the Tommy singles or Sea Monsters. The were loved by John Peel nearly as much as the Fall. Gedge apparently had a mathematics degree and also advised Peel on a way to rank his picks for a countdown.
No mention of “Sheila Take a Bow”? Johnny Marr’s best. The song swings and seems to have a link to The Faces and pub rock. I don’t know or care what the lyrics are, although Morrissey sings them fine.
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