Screw the Clash. The jocks and popular kids had already ruined "the only band that matters" by playing Combat Rock to death before I could even get my learner's permit. It fell to a different gang of British lads to soundtrack my teens: The Smiths.
Thanks to Morrissey, half-naked men adorned my suburban Virginia bedroom. Not in the flesh, alas, but the sleeve art for "Hand in Glove" and the band's self-titled 1984 debut stimulated my imagination nevertheless. The union of Morrissey's words and Johnny Marr's guitars could effervesce my adolescent heart as surely as a shot of Willy Wonka's Fizzy Lifting Drink. My first boyfriend quickly learned to croon "throw your homework onto the fire/Come out and find the one that you love" when he wanted to interrupt an all-nighter to celebrate our eternal love.
"This must be what it felt like to see the Beatles." A terrible cliché, yes, but that's what I thought as excitement rippled across the George Washington University campus the night of The Smiths' second Washington D.C. show, on August 8, 1986. The summer before they'd played a small theater, but tonight our tribe numbered 5,000 strong. These were my people. I've never felt that way at an arena show since.
Maybe that's why it took so long to acknowledge the widening distance between Morrissey and me following his initial flush of solo success. After the giddy heights of "November Spawned A Monster" and "The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get," trawling through patchy albums like Southpaw Grammar and Maladjusted made me worry that I'd inadvertently matured into just the sort of judgmental grownup that Morrissey mocked and taunted.
The breakup occurred at a 1997 live show in Seattle. Morrissey remains one of the greatest live performers I've ever seen, pouring his heart into the music. But even a virtuoso can't redeem lackluster material, and halfway through the concert, I'd tired of pretending otherwise. As yet another breathless young man threw a bouquet onstage to a tune I didn't recognize, I headed for the exits.
Yet seven years later, hearing a new Morrissey song ("First of the Gang to Die") on the radio inspired me to momentarily swan along a city sidewalk, arms outstretched a la Kill Uncle. Morrissey still mattered ... just not as much. Now selections from You Are the Quarry (2004) and Years of Refusal (2007) pepper my playlists, but judiciously. If I can't muster the exuberance of yore just because Morrissey occasionally deigns to write a catchy song, neither do I feel ashamed to have become something that once seemed impossible: a casual fan.
So I give him the benefit of the doubt. And why not? Even when the music disappoints, he can still toss off bon mots that land like A-bombs. And what a treat to witness how certain attitudes that once made him an outlier now position him as a thought leader. With the USDA taking down online records relating to the Animal Welfare Act at President Trump's insistence, Morrissey's outspoken animal rights advocacy seems increasingly important.
I'm also thrilled that the world has learned to accept that a pop star—even one who articulated myriad shades of desire for a generation of young romantics—doesn't have to conform to traditional notions of sexuality and gender. Morrissey's professed celibacy and noncommittal attitude towards both sexes baffled me as a hormone-addled youth, but it's since helped me appreciate why new letters continue to expand the LGBTQ+ acronym, and it cleared a path for non-binary, gender-fluid, and gender-queer young musicians like Shamir, Ezra Furman, and PWR BTTM to enter my life.
The periodic allegations of racism, dating back to Morrissey's mid-'80s condemnations of reggae music and Whitney Houston, are harder to reconcile. Last month, a new Morrissey tour shirt was unveiled online and the world groaned. Did Morrissey honestly think it was okay to encircle a portrait of James "I Am Not Your Negro" Baldwin with the lyric "I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside?"
Probably. As a white man born in 1967, there was a time when I would've thought that T-shirt pretty clever. I still wrestle with the notion that if I'm not being vocally, visibly anti-racist, I'm condoning racism. But I understand now why Morrissey's tone-deaf marketing fail deserved every angry outcry it inspired. Maybe it's time to get that hearing aid out of the mothballs, Moz.
Ah, the joys of growing older. While exercising last week, trying to postpone a milestone birthday with some vigorous cardio, "All You Need Is Me" popped up on my Spotify shuffle. I grinned as Morrissey lambasted the persistence of those who would pin all things good and evil on him: "You hiss and groan/And you constantly moan/But you don't ever go away/And that's because all you need is me."
But you know what, Morrissey? You're wrong. We do go away, especially when you disappoint us. Contemporary music industry wisdom holds that "legacy" acts should cater to specifically to longtime fans, and give us more of the same. But that directly contradicts the spirit of creativity and individualism upon which you built that legacy. To quote your old friend Pete Burns of Dead or Alive, I want surprises.
There weren't many of them on 2014's World Peace Is None of Your Business. Best described by Alexis Petridis of The Guardian as "not as great as you might have hoped, but far better than you might have feared," the record brimmed with defiance, yet shortchanged melodic precision and lyrical élan; it's hard to imagine the Morrissey of "Interesting Drug" settling for "Brazil and Bahrain/Oh, Egypt, Ukraine/So many people in pain" as an effective jibe at world leaders.
Yet amidst the busy production, flashes of brass and flamenco guitar pointed in a direction that might rejuvenate Morrissey's music yet again. Fans in Mexico and Los Angeles' Latino/a/x community remain some of his most ardent supporters. Last year, Mexico City combo Mexrrissey scored kudos for its Morrissey covers set No Manchester. What's stopping the great man himself from diving in headfirst into Latin music for his next album? Please?
Morrissey once said "age shouldn't affect you ... you're either marvelous or you're boring, regardless of your age." Agreed. Live long enough and you'll accept that life's too short for music you don't love wholeheartedly—even if you admire the artist. I'd rather spend precious time listening to something that makes me feel marvelous. If that's Morrissey, great. If it's not, that's okay, too. Because I've also learned that Morrissey will always find a way to get my attention again. I just hope next time he does it with something better than a stupid T-shirt.