Since he broke from The Smiths I’ve done my best to ignore all the stupid things Morrissey has said over the years. It’s sad when an artist you loved so much is still around when you sometimes wish they weren’t. But it’s easier to blame the creep you fell in love with than to take responsibility for your own decisions. And a hard lesson in what makes for great art and good people, when they’re not one and the same.
And so it goes when word got out that The Simpsons did a parody of Morrissey with Benedict Cumberbatch playing the lead part. But the premise was more entertaining than the delivery and we found ourselves wincing at the singer’s unflattering portrayal as “Quilloughby.”
I went back through the footage of Morrissey to catch up with the racial slurs and far-right BS. Was it even true or just a ploy? Was he being calculated in saying such things, a Trumpist? How could he have turned out this way?
I went down the internet gutter looking for clues but the real Morrissey was better left alone, where he belonged. Instead I pulled up an interview with Johnny Marr and a group of students at Oxford university. And it was like washing myself clean to hear the other half of The Smiths talk about what a privilege it is to be well known, the responsibility that comes with it. Him saying, “I’d rather be known for what I play than for what I say.”
I went after the writers at The Simpsons too, feeling they’d gone too far. I came to the defense of Morrissey, I wanted to protect him because the songs he wrote were a part of me, rooted in my past. I was in love with him as much as I was with myself and my memories. And how screwed up that was to admit.
But I’ve made the same mistake before and it never ends well. You assume the artists you love are good people and then feel betrayed when they’re not. Like Mark Kozelek from Red House Painters, like Mark E. Smith from The Fall. Drunks, pre-madonnas. You make the mistake of falling in love with them but they don’t love you back. You feel betrayed but they never promised you a thing.
I talked it over with my wife and we tried to pinpoint why the show wasn’t funny. Were the writers on The Simpsons now dried up like Morrissey? And this whole thing about artists and how they act in real life, off stage: we saw an acting friend of my wife’s in a film with Phillip Seymour-Hoffman and Laura Dern. They studied together in the same MFA program, she called him “luminous” on stage: any choice he made he committed to fully. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. But off stage what a mess, dull and dysfunctional. Banal. Maybe being a great actor was just a talent like anything else, like carpentry or gardening. It didn’t make you a luminous person. It just meant you were a great actor.
The thing I’ve learned about art is that it’s not yours after you make it. It doesn’t belong to you anymore. But on the flip side, the artist doesn’t belong to the people who consume their work either. The artist is like an empty vessel. If you like the idea of where they’re going climb in, but check your expectations when the ride is over.
Maybe for some artists the best part of themselves is in their work. Morrissey and Marr put that into their songs, that’s why they call it a record. It’s a moment in time, same as on film or on stage. And once it’s out in the universe it’s a memory, perfect in how you remember it, perfectly flawed too.
In the interview with Johnny Marr one of the students asked what his favorite Smiths song was, which had the most sentimental value? And he said There is a Light That Never Goes Out, and described what it was like after he left The Smiths and played it for the first time at a concert in New Zealand. How everyone went nuts, how people really loved that song. And how he realized then the song really wasn’t his, he owed it to his fans because it was more theirs in a sense, he was just the messenger.
And so with that, the funny paradox in the mystery of art: how one can put so much of themselves into a thing, how so many can then claim that thing as their own, how the artist tries to hold on to who they are with everyone expecting them to be someone they never can be. It must be really, really hard.
Still I’d rather be famous than righteous or holy
any day, any day, any day…
Photo copyright 20th Television, 2021