True to you
Morrissey at Vivid Live, Opera House Concert Hall, Tuesday 26 May

Nobody loves Morrissey more than Morrissey does, though his fans do try their hardest. “His fans”: who am I trying to fool? There’s a man standing three paces away from me in the Concert Hall stalls, overcome by worship, and though a part of me wishes he would stop howling like a lovesick dog, the rest of me understands all too precisely how he feels. What is Morrissey to me? What isn’t he? He exasperates me, and I adore him. Oh, Morrissey, you cad, you tease, you all-too-fickle pop genius, you. Do you kiss yourself good morning in the mirror?

Tonight’s show is the first of four for Morrissey as Vivid Sydney’s musical headliner, and the first triumph is that he makes it on stage at all. He is almost better known for cancelling shows than for playing them. For half an hour beyond the advertised start Morrissey keeps us waiting, but it’s not wasted time. Clips from Morrissey icons as diverse as the Ramones, Edith Sitwell, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and the New York Dolls are projected, for our learning, onto a large screen. As Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan once observed, “Morrissey’s influences were the whole point of him,” and one of the delights – perhaps the greatest delight – of being a Morrissey fan is to witness the way in which he collapses into pop music whole worlds that would otherwise lie outside it. This is Morrissey’s generosity, which to his naysayers (and there are many) reads as an insufferable kind of preciousness. Who is Morrissey to compare himself with poets? He wants us to admire – to admire him, certainly, but also to admire what he admires, this constellation of misfits, and I duly do so, because it’s not every day that you get to hear Anne Sexton’s ‘Wanting To Die’ at a pop concert.

When the screen falls away and Morrissey at last appears (his band wear crisp white shirts and sticking plasters across their noses, like bruised boxers or recalcitrant schoolboys) he begins with ‘Suedehead’, his very first solo single, from 1988. With its lithe melody and sly lyrics (“Oh it was a good lay / A good lay”), ‘Suedehead’ is as close to the magic of The Smiths as Morrissey’s solo career has ever come. This fall from pop perfection is Morrissey’s tragedy, and we know it. He knows it, too, though he might deny it to the end. The Smiths are our lost paradise, so when Morrissey and his band pull out a few Smiths songs – ‘Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’, a rocking ‘What She Said’ – the response is rapturous.

A retread of past glories might satisfy his audience, but it would not satisfy Morrissey, who understands the exquisite pain of nostalgia better than any pop star alive, but is nevertheless determined to look forward. The majority of his set is drawn from last year’s album, World Peace Is None of Your Business, his tenth as a solo artist. It is a strong entry in a variable solo discography, and for the most part these live versions are a pleasure. Morrissey is in good voice and good humour; he parades back and forth across the stage, commanding attention as always, but allowing his band members to step forward at the right moments. Keyboardist Gustavo Manzur provides a lovely flourish of flamenco guitar on ‘Staircase at the University’, and even gets a verse to himself, sung in Spanish, during fan favourite ‘Speedway’, from the great Vauxhall And I.

“World peace is none of your business,” Morrissey sings. “Police will stun you with their stun guns / Or they’ll disable you with tasers / That’s what government’s for.” His distinctive croon, as always, works against the bile of his words, creating a strange space somewhere between deadly sincerity and deadpan absurdity. Behind him loops footage of police violence. There’s an irony here that even Morrissey might not grasp, given the fracas, a few nights before his own show, when NSW police intervened to halt another Vivid performance, by Sydney garage band Royal Headache. It’s an irony heightened again by the aggressive response of security guards to those fans who, in the best Morrissey tradition, try to rush the stage and hug their hero, only to find themselves hauled out of the venue altogether.

Morrissey has always been a political songwriter, though part of his power has been to frame political questions through his own deeply felt emotions. (Like a child, he asks “why?”, which doesn’t make him childish.) As an idealist, Morrissey is embittered by the world, and his rage against authority and cruelty has never dimmed. Towards the end of his set he leads his band through a screeching version of The Smiths’ 1985 song ‘Meat Is Murder’, and while the arrangement lacks the stately, haunting power of the original, the song’s message is more than carried home by a series of devastating videos from slaughterhouses. The footage makes me cry. Like many fans I’ve long had Morrissey to thank for a permanent conversion to vegetarianism – it might seem a small gesture in the face of all that is wrong in the world, but how many pop stars have made even that much difference? Not many.

For all the anger, for all the sorrow, the overriding emotion of a good Morrissey show is joy. Here we all are, united for an hour or two with the singer whose evocations of loneliness have helped us to each feel a little less alone. “Thank you, thank you!” wails the overexcited man in my row, and again, I understand him. If it weren’t for Morrissey, I sometimes doubt that I would still be alive. That’s what he means to me. He ends with ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’, another classic early single. “Every day is like Sunday / Every day is silent and grey,” he sings, and it’s hilarious.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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