Stephen Seigel: You and I don't know each other's whole take on The Smiths and Morrissey. Are you a big fan?
Gene Armstrong: Well, sure, I was a pretty big Smiths fan after the band's first couple of albums. I think "How Soon Is Now" is one of the greatest pop songs ever, with one of the greatest guitar riffs ever, but I guess that should be credited to (former Smiths guitarist) Johnny Marr. I remember when the first Smiths album came out (in 1984), it was on the turntable--and they had turntables back then--at every party I went to.
SS: In my high school, that would have been the first Violent Femmes album.
GA: Yeah, we loved that, too!
SS: But my close-knit group of friends pretty much worshipped The Smiths across the board. I remember the first time I heard them, I was in a hotel room with my best friend at the time, and I couldn't even tell you where the hotel was and what city we were in, but I can tell you that the song was "Reel Around the Fountain" (from The Smiths' debut). We both thought it was amazing, and as soon as we got back from wherever we were, we bought it.
GA: So it was the music that was more important to you than the place you heard it? Isn't that always the way the really important stuff affects us?
SS: I've also got a really funny but un-p.c. story about that first record.
GA: OK, shoot.
SS: I've got a mildly retarded uncle--he's my mother's brother. One time, when I was in high school, I was sitting in my room, reading a book, listening to that album. It was one of those songs where he goes into that attempted falsetto he does. And my mom stopped in the doorway, poked her head in, and said, "What the hell is that you're listening to? It sounds like your uncle Allen singing."
GA: He does sort of lose it when he's swooning. I think Morrissey might take that as a compliment. It always seemed to me that his lyrics were exploring extreme emotions, despite a publicly milquetoast persona. He's king of the mopes.
SS: I guess I was never sure whether that stuff was coming from the heart, or if it was pure irony. That's one of the things I love best about The Smiths and Morrissey--if you listen to him when you're depressed or in a similar state of mind, it's like he's speaking directly to you. But if you're in a good mood, it's downright hilarious. I mean: "I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside"? That's hysterical!
GA: I think Morrissey is always ironic and always sincere. He's a freak of nature in that he can express both at the same time. And, God, is he pithy! One of my favorites of his solo songs is "You're the One for Me, Fatty."
SS: For some reason, I knew you were gonna say that one. We should talk about his gift of pith!
GA: He wears the original pith helmet. Sorry. You can pull a line from just about any song he's written and it works on its own.
GA: Going back to "How Soon is Now," he sounds so achingly sincere, but, like you said, if you're listening to it in the right mood, it sounds ridiculous. "I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does." That sounds like Up With People or something, but when he wails that I'm totally convinced. I think his lyrics are like a mirror, you see yourself in them the way you want to see yourself.
SS: Wow, that's pretty profound.
GA: Thanks, man. He's also sort of a cultural trendsetter, too; isn't he?
SS: Yeah, actually, so much so that when I was in high school, along with half of my friends, I became a vegetarian largely due to Morrissey's influence. Y'know, that whole "Meat is Murder" thing.
GA: So do you think he's still a vegetarian? Oh, who cares? Are you still a vegetarian?
SS: I'm not. I'm not an inventive enough cook to maintain it. I think he's probably a lifer.
GA: He's also been influential for the amorphous sexual stance that he's known for. On a fan Web site is his famous quote: "I refuse to recognize the terms hetero-, bi- and homo-sexual. Everybody has exactly the same sexual needs. People are just sexual, the prefix is immaterial." I get the feeling that he's saying it doesn't really matter.
SS: I think what he means by that is "take love where you find it." Sort of like the way Michael Stipe (of R.E.M.) was always equally vague about his sexuality, and then he came out as bi. Think about it: When those bands (R.E.M. and the Smiths) first started, bisexuality was a really foreign concept to most people. Now ...
GA: It's much more accepted?
SS: Definitely. For example, now a fairly good percentage of the people that I meet consider themselves bisexual.
GA: And where exactly would one go to meet these people? Seriously, though, are you saying bisexuality now is closer to the mainstream or it's less ostracized?
SS: Both. And I think that's a good thing.
GA: I think Morrissey draws a certain type of fan who isn't afraid of letting themselves remain uncategorized. You were telling me about a Morrissey fan convention that takes place yearly in Los Angeles?
SS: There's an article in the most recent issue of Spin that says roughly 75 percent of the people that attended that convention this year are Latino, which I thought was really strange. But as it turns out, it's that whole outsider aspect that appeals to them.
GA: If you don't feel accepted anywhere else, you often will in Morrissey's music.
SS: You mentioned you saw his last Tucson show at the New West in 1997, which I missed. I got out there just after it ended.
GA: Yes, indeed. His band rocked pretty well and he was surprisingly engaging in his performance. At least, he wasn't aloof. As I remember, he gave a good performance, although it seemed relatively short.
SS: In the concert footage I've seen of the Smiths, fans would always get up on stage and hug him while he was singing, and he'd remain sort of detached and carry on singing. Did he do that at the New West?
GA: I don't remember. But in that old footage, he also wasn't having someone drag them off him, either. So, are you going to see him perform at the Rialto?
SS: Fo'shizzle. I was so bummed out that I missed him last time. I'm not going make the same mistake again.
GA: I'll see you there.