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How to Solve a Problem like Morrissey

It was the late nineties and, as a literature undergraduate, there were a few bands/singers that you had to like. They included Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, and the Smiths. There could be no argument, despite Dylan and Lou Reed being older than my dad and my mum quite liking that Smiths song about ‘a man in car with leather seats’.

I don’t know how I learnt to love this music. But I understood that I’d never be taken seriously, especially by the cool girls with pixie-cuts, as an English student if I didn’t own the right CDs or that Sonic Youth t-shirt that everyone used to wear. It was all part of an identity formed to protect against the popular, sporty types who didn’t really like music.

While such friends on courses like engineering and maths reeled around the student union to Mousse T ft. Tom Jones, I’d retire to my bedroom and play Belle and Sebastian, hoping against hope that a sensitive woman might be passing by the window, forced to stop and knock a tentative knuckle against the glass and enquire after the obviously very cool and in-no-way-laddish lad who lay within.

Obviously, that never happened.

Still, I have clear memories of enjoying being smothered by an excess of teenage self-pity as the Smith’s ‘Rubber Ring’ played in the corner of my room, Morrissey assuring me, just me, that ‘the most impassionate song to a lonely soul is so easily outgrown’. I’d drink my red wine and nod and try to force a tear or two out. It felt poetic.

Relationship problems, dancefloor Mousse T rejections or post-seminar ‘It’s not you’ conversations, would always have me reach again for the Smiths compilation ‘Louder than Bombs’.

I’d skip to the end of the album, ready to be warmed by the healing misery of ‘Stretch Out and Wait’, ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’, ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’, ‘Unlovable’, and ‘Asleep’.

And I wasn’t the only one to suffer from the unspeakable yearning of awkward youth. During a 21st birthday party, I was one of six guests dressed as Morrissey. And it wasn’t even fancy dress*.

*It was — the theme being eighties stars.

As the late comedian Sean Hughes said, “Everyone grows out of their Morrissey phase. Except Morrissey.”

And, as predicted, I grew out of the band. Maybe because I got a girlfriend. Or maybe because the CD was too scratched.

This year an interview with Morrissey appeared in which he showed sympathy for Tommy Robinson, a far-right extremist jailed for contempt of court.

Morrissey also expressed support for the ‘For Britain’ political party. This far-right organisation was founded by ex-UKIP member Anne-Marie Waters. In April 2017, she was banned from standing for UKIP in the general election because of her anti-Islam views. The then UKIP leader, Paul Nuttall, was described by VICE as considering her opinions on Muslims as:

“way above and beyond party policy” and making “me feel a bit uncomfortable”.

This weekend, feeling lazy, I played the NME ‘greatest songs of all time’ Spotify playlist. I didn’t have to wait long before the Smiths featured: number 4 — ‘How Soon is Now’. I skipped the track. They appeared again at number 11 with ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’. I skipped again. When Morrissey appeared, with ‘Everyday is like Sunday’, my wife caught herself singing along.

‘That’s not allowed anymore,’ I told her. ‘Morrissey’s a racist.’

“PC gone M,” came the reply.

Morrissey would dispute this label:

“I despise racism. I despise fascism. I would do anything for my Muslim friends, and I know they would do anything for me,” he said during his controversial interview.

He continued: “In view of this, there is only one British political party that can safeguard our security. That party is For Britain.”

Of course, he’s not the only artist with problematic views. Stephen King has called HP Lovecraft “the greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale”. Joyce Carol Oates describes his influence upon all writers as “incalculable”.

But, and here’s the thing, Lovecraft wasn’t a very pleasant man.

“Lovecraft’s character is fascinating in part because his values were so entirely opposite to ours. He was fundamentally racist, openly reactionary, he glorified puritanical inhibitions.” (Michel Houellebecq)

A story in the Independent describes how the World Fantasy Award “dropped their traditional prize of a bust of Lovecraft for the winner, after a campaign by authors.” The writer Nnedi Okorafor, awarded the 2011 prize, had discovered (and be warned — racist language follows) Lovecraft’s poem ‘On the Creation of Niggers’. This poem contains the lines “A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure/ Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.”

Lovecraft is one of many examples of such (white, male) figures. Walt Disney, Ezra Pound, John Wayne, and Elvis Presley have all been accused, with substance, of racism. Pound, described by TS Eliot as “more responsible for the twentieth-century revolution in poetry than is any other individual”, made broadcasts from Italy during the Second World War, supporting Mussolini and blaming Jewish bankers for the conflict.

But, for me, there seems something all the more tragic about Morrissey articulating viewpoints so distant from the lyrics of his Smiths songs. How can an individual who sings with such distinct empathy support a political party that believes it’s right to limit immigration on the basis of religion?

Morrissey is famously a vegetarian. You’d like to think him capable of showing as much compassion to his fellow humans as he does animals. You’d like to think that he would be capable of seeing individuals like Tommy Robinson for what they are: racist morons.

Still, the counter-argument might be that none of this is a surprise from a man who sang in 1988's ‘Bengali in Platforms’:

Oh, shelve your Western plans
And understand
That life is hard enough when you belong here.

(There’s an argument to be made that Trump’s unapologetic, incorrigible racism and misogyny enables closest racists to articulate views that, in the past, may very well have been left unsaid. In short: it’s the President’s fault.)

So what to do? Stewart Lee, the English comedian, describes how he decided to take his Smiths albums to the charity shop:

“Suddenly, I just didn’t want Morrissey in my home any more. And I couldn’t imagine any circumstances under which I would ever listen to him again.”

And this despite owning “vintage psychedelic vinyl by actual murderers, and books of poetry by antisemites and paedophiles, who are hard to write out of literary history.”

So why hold Morrissey to different standards than Pound, say? We mythologise the bands we love as a teenager, in the same way that we, as adults, mythologise our teenage years. They were neither as exciting nor dramatic as we like to imagine them. Listening to music, however, provides a direct link to the halcyon past that we like to fantasise. Morrissey’s transformation into everybody’s hated racist uncle (a track name for his next album maybe?) feels like a very personal betrayal.

And the easiest way of handling a betrayal, as I learned when dumped by text message at the age of 19, is to expunge the betrayer from your life. Delete their number from your phone, throw out your Smiths LPs.

Still, at least Johnny Marr seems like a decent fellow.