Morrissey’s conversion to a racist cause highlights the dangers of falling for a charismatic figurehead, writes Euan McColm
Morrissey’s impact was profound. As a 13-year-old, dipping his toe into John Peel’s late night Radio One show, I’d heard – and loved – the music of The Smiths. Their debut single, Hand In Glove, was an instant favourite and, with the band regularly recording sessions for Peel, I soon had a makeshift compilation of their work, taped from the wireless.
But it wasn’t just the music – great though it is – that mattered. Seeing Morrissey on Channel Four’s The Tube, miming to This Charming Man and swinging a bunch of gladioli while Johnny Marr picked at the strings of a gleaming, black Rickenbacker guitar had quite the effect.
I’d read interviews with pop stars and actors in which they’d described seeing David Bowie on television a decade earlier as some kind of awakening. What they had said now made sense. Morrissey – aesthetically antithetical to Bowie – appeared every bit as alien. Amid a pop landscape of glammed-up alpha males filming videos on yachts, here was a hero for the awkward and plain, the clumsy and shy.
Within a few weeks of seeing Morrissey on TV, I owned two brown cardigans. A year later I would attend school wearing a button badge bearing a photograph of Pat Phoenix.
All youth culture is about identity but in the early 1980s things were especially tribal. A lone skinhead might tremble with fear after jumping on a night bus to find the only other passengers were four punks.
Membership of the Morrissey tribe was a gentler pursuit which – I imagined – said a lot about me. It said I was thoughtful and open-minded and creative. I may have been none of these things but that is neither here nor there. I was into The Smiths and that said I was exactly what I wanted it to.
A curious thing about The Smiths is that while becoming a, by any standards, hugely successful pop group, with record sales stretching into the millions, fans treated them as if they were uniquely theirs, as if the band was a secret. This understanding and appreciation of something that other people didn’t get was crucial to one’s identity as a fan.
What joy The Smiths brought me. The dodging school on Monday afternoons to buy their latest single or album, the gig at the Magnum Leisure Centre Irvine that I attended with Stewart, a schoolmate who’d been on a television talent show and later endured a brief and unhappy period as a holiday camp magician, the Barrowlands show when they were in all their Queen Is Dead pomp and no other band could touch them.
Gripped by the zeal of the convert, I looked to Morrissey for guidance, seeking out books and records he’d mentioned in interviews. I taped A Taste Of Honey off BBC2 and cultivated a quiff.
In 1988, a year after The Smiths spilt, Morrissey released his first solo album, Viva Hate. It might not have reached the heights, in my opinion, of his previous band, but it was pretty good and I played it over and over. The singles, Suedehead and Every Day Is Like Sunday were standouts but there were other moments to cherish.
But something jarred. The song Bengali In Platforms had Morrissey sing “life is hard enough when you belong here” and it was hard not to wonder whether he thought the protagonist of his song didn’t belong here. But no, surely Morrissey was singing in character. That had to be it.
And then, in the early 1990s, there was his fascination with the Union Flag. In popular culture, the flag had taken on sinister associations and so we Morrissey fans assured ourselves that what our hero was doing was reclaiming it from the far right. When he stood on stage, draped in the Union Flag, he was remaking it as a symbol of inclusivity. Or something.
But questions began to form. Should I have hung on his every word? Was he really in possession of a Wildean wit or was he just really unpleasantly sarcastic? Why, despite enjoying the trappings of fame and success, did he continue to talk about his career as if it has been sabotaged by dark forces?
We must try to separate the artist from the art, of course, but it as painful when, five years ago, Morrissey spoke of his admiration for Nigel Farage. How could the man who wrote such beautiful words be enamoured of a man who used language only to divide? I began to mistrust those songs that had meant so much.
How could I have wasted three perfectly good teenage years wearing f***ing cardigans for this guy?
Last week, Morrissey, now peddling an album of cover versions, appeared on the Jimmy Fallon show in the US. On his lapel, he wore a pin with the logo of anti-Islam far-right group For Britain.
The group, led by Anne Marie Walters, calls for the end of the “Islamisation of Britain” and has attracted support from racist extremists.
Walters is a hero to the cruel and the blinkered, a champion for the bigoted and even the most devout admirer of Steven Patrick Morrissey must surely think twice before trying to justify his support for her.
It’s a dangerous business throwing your lot in with a charismatic figurehead. We risk excusing the worst of a person with whom we identify. I am a good person and I like this person therefore this person must be a good person goes the entirely facile logic.
However, people – be they pop singers or anyone else – are not always what we want them to be. Sometimes, they are, in fact, the opposite of what we imagine.
As an awkward and confused teenager, I thought Morrissey had answers, I thought he was someone to admire and emulate.
But I’m older now and I’ve learned that blind loyalty has a tendency to lead to disappointment.