The Cult Of Steve: Morrissey Live At Wembley Arena

John Calvert is dragged by his lifelong Smiths fan girlfriend to Wembley - but will he finally see what all the fuss is about?

‘Steve’ portrait by kind courtesy of Krent Able

Smirking, self-parodic and invariably dressed like a clown, those big bovine teats – the way you’d think of God’s as big* – sway now in the great Northern winds. His art, which once spoke so perfectly to the cruel pantomime that was working class life in the 80s, scrabbles today for crumbs of fresh relevance in only the direst cultural catacombs of New Right Britain. His best days behind him, decades of self-loathing have yellowed his worldview yet further, into a narrow vista of bitter recrimination and paranoid bile. He’s the type of withered malcontent who threatens nurses online, or posts photos of Leigh Rigby’s mutilated corpse. He’s a cunt.

But enough about Roy Chubby Brown!!! What’s that Steve up to?!

Well right now he’s sashaying around the stage. That’s his safe space, where his band perform behind Steve’s special demarcation line and where he is king and the general public are close enough for adulation but far enough away that they can’t do anything horrid like actually touch him (much like the Mex-American superfans at the gates of his LA mansion). But over the last few years (20?), Steve’s been a very, very naughty boy. Probably you already know the details, because if you’re reading this then you’re either an outraged matey waiting for your friendly neighbourhood dick-doinker, tQ, to rain fire, or you’re a hate-reading Morrissey fan hanging on for dear life in the face of mounting evidence. If you’re the latter, however, put down your indignation, because I sort of get you now. Sort of. I’ll explain.

In music today, the ‘love that dare not speak its name’ is now a continued approval of our Wildean guest of honour. It’s on par with people who are secret Tories, or those who piss in the shower. How funny that the ultimate example of fanaticism in British indie is now a dirty little secret? My dirty little secret, however – as writer of the generic Morrissey feature you see before you – is that I was never a Morrissey fan. Born too late, you see. By the time I came of age, in the grunge era, self-pity had moved on. My brother ten years my senior, despite being equipped with all the necessary attributes to be a teen Morrissey fan (a precocious, almost self-defeating intelligence, a dark sense of humour and a predisposition to mood-altering bouts of glandular fever – how 80s was glandular fever?!) merely decided they were funny and became a Public Enemy fan instead.

For me though, The Smiths had too much humour in their misery; too much irony. I like my misery music men self-serious and straight-shooting. I like my misery music men like I like my 80s BBC news presenters: dour, doom-serving, ulcerous fucks more likely to a report on a ferry disaster than sneak frivolous innuendos into a jangle-y guitar song about bicycles. So when the old black bitch comes scratching at my door it’s Curtis I run to, or Cobain. If i wanted to laugh when I felt sad I’d put on Seinfeld and call my Dad about his back problem. I mean I get Morrissey. Most people do; even Noel Gallagher, whose record collection is just an photo of John Lennon and a sitar Liam pissed on when Noel thought he was only upstairs on the phone to the NME slagging him off. Just was never a ‘fan’. Perhaps it affords me some balance when assessing tonight’s show.

My girlfriend however, well she’s a huge fan. And it’s down to conversations with her the week before the gig that I understand why, despite all that’s been said in the press, people still come to see Steve; literally in their thousands.

Beautiful inside and out, Alison’s 18 years older than me (first date: “Well I moved to London just around the time of the credit crunch, how about you?” “1981”). She also grew up in Hull, classifiably a “coastal town they forgot to close down” only with less candy floss and more demob-happy Finnish navvies up to their nips in misadventure. She’s also the only person I know who can play the same single Smiths song every day for a year and enjoy it immensely every time (‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ – it’s her and her ex’s ‘special’ song she told me recently; something that could’ve been brought to my attention a year ago…). Basically, Alison is of the Smiths generation. Anyway, I tell her we got tickets, and she’s thrilled. But then I say, “But you’ve heard about what he’s being saying, yeah?” A quick Google search later and there’s some sputtering.

“But… is it a new persona?

“Is it a… comment on racism. Like, satire?”

“Is it… inverted?”

The last one didn’t even make sense. It was actually… how could the man who saved the lonely girl from Hull have become this.

The conversation was left unresolved but sure enough, later that evening, there it is again: ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”. It’s her and her ex’s ‘special’ song she told me recently; something that could’ve been brought to my attention a year ago.

The point is… of course the vast majority of Morrissey fans aren’t racist. Generally speaking the only reason they remain Morrissey fans is because most are, at best, only vaguely au fait with his recent comments. And that’s because most Morrissey fans don’t read about music, they listen to it. And if it so happens they actually have gotten wind of Steve’s new bag, why then do they still come? Well just maybe – if you have room in there for another tired Brexit analogy – it’s a little like Brexit, and Nigel: maybe most leave voters just wanted to feel a little better about life, a bit empowered, a bit understood, just for one night, and so what if the guy who gets them there is a howling ballbag? Besides anything, how many here tonight have even listened to his wank new stuff anyway, about current affairs. Most are here for the hits. Most are here for The Smiths!

And let’s be honest with ourselves. Ever got with the nasty downtown of Mr James Brown? Yeah well he clocked the wife. Lennon – believed in free love and a slap in the chops. Miles Davis – magic fingers and an easy fist; Mark E Smith – bit of wife throttling; XXXTENTACION – abuse, stabbings, homophobic beatings; R Kelly – how long you got? Sometimes bad men make good art. But it’s not just Morrissey fans who have something to feel guilty about.

Still though, there’s got to be some real racists here tonight? What’s a racist look like? Maybe that Nick Ferrari-looking goober with the tinted glasses? Maybe that Incel-ish blonde kid in the beige cargo pants with the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist (as incorrigible Nazi / painter Wyndham Lewis was once described)? I put my collar around my mouth – because it’s cold in here and because COVID-19’s not the only thing catching in modern Britain – playing that copper wire game in The Thing only instead of outrageous body-horror it’s an off-colour remark about Asian stewards I’m braced for. What’s wrong with the world Momma? People acting like they don’t have no Mommas.

Ahead of his European tour (the irony…the hypocrisy!), tonight our Faustian protagonist plays London, which he recently described as “debased”. Perhaps in mind of these comments, he begins the show with a conciliatory rendition of The Smiths’ ‘London’, but only after walking out to Skeeter Davis’ ‘The End Of The World’ (sampled on ’My Love Life’). It’s absolutely perfect – the single most disturbing love song in the entire pop canon: asexual, kitch Americana but positively haunted by psychotic obsession and tragi-gothic self-pity, beneath its calm surface of twee suburban propriety. It’s where David Lynch and Steve Morrissey meet and he wishes he wrote it.

The songs from his recent covers album are great entertainment – an array of pleasing, nicely performed pop ditties from very Moz-esque touchstones like vaguely naff 60s balladeers, gin-sad songwriters (Laura Nyro) and Jobriath, the first fully out American rock musician who would later succumb to AIDS. He also plays The Pretenders’ ‘Back On The Chain Gang’, which is the highlight of the night and warmly received. However, after the admittedly heartbreaking ‘Half A Person’ (The Smiths) and the quintessential Morrissey of ‘Seasick Yet Still Docked’, events take a turn for the decidedly shit. It appears that for at least the last ten years Steve’s been absolute pony. ‘I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris’ is a crap R.E.M. B-side but even worse than that sounds, while ‘Home Is A Question Mark’ from 2017’s detestable Low In High School is somehow at once too much and completely underwhelming. New single ‘Love Is The Way Out’ sees an old man on his last lyrical legs.

It’s all a bunch of over-arranged, rhythmically-stilted (the drummer has the easiest job in the building) mundane AOR. If ‘The End Of The World’ is Lynch then this is an ITV daytime soap about doctors, set in Peterborough; every bit as deadening as the private ownership plaza and luxury new-builds that surround the SSE Arena. And tonight, with these all-but-identical songs from various albums now placed back to back, it’s so totally monotonous. It’s like we’re always in that same smoky nightspot at love’s end, with Morrissey the doomed chanteuse singing torch songs to the criminally disinterested pond life. Fuckin’… got any Oasis mate?

Like a lot of UKIP events recently, it’s half-empty. Say what you will about the Nazis but those crazy kids put bums on seats (ever wonder about the toilets set-up at those open-air Nazi mega-rallies? There’s guys in the middle at least a mile from the nearest commode). Maybe it’s Corona the empty seats, but certainly the people in masks really enhance the feeling we live in some kind of bizarre dystopian sci-fi alternative reality where Morrissey of The Smiths is a far-right loon.

The images on the screen behind him range from rioting Gilet Jaune (a movement that’s united the far-right and the far-left), to The Busby Babes, to much more curiously… 60s-era photos of British white and black kids playing together, and a photo of a young black boy staring into camera with “RISE UP” written across his palms. (There’s also one of a cat.) It’s very, very fucking difficult to square such iconography with the ideology Steve’s favourite politicians espouse. Unless black people aren’t this season’s cardboard enemy in those circles? “He’s only doing what he’s always done” Alison says ”singing about hopelessness.” Maybe that’s true. Maybe whereas once he spoke to kids born too late for the 60s, who craved meaning in the sterile wasteland of mid-80s pop – whom the press at the time dubbed ‘the new Lost Generation’ – today it’s another lost generation he’s reaching out to: the kids in Leicester or Solihull or wherever with no jobs, no religion, no entertainment, no hope. The ones who voted leave. Just not the brown kids in Leicester or Solihull or wherever.

Whatever the truth, you just can’t shake the feeling there’s something rotten in Davyhulme.

‘Never Again Will I Be A Twin’ is plain sinister. A fatalistic, glam-rock disco stomper, accompanied tonight by howitzer guitar and some gargantuan pelvic thrusts / bad dancing on Morrissey’s part, extra relish is placed on the line, “The human race is obsolete”. I can’t help but be reminded of the juvenile, thumb-nosing of half-mad (or just bad?) eschatologists like Steve Bannon, who often tend to think of their lonely misanthropy as wounded nihilism. It’s not my fault I’m like this, Steve Morrissey is saying – it’s PEOPLE that made me so. So let’s dance as the world burns.

He implores the heavens “Do you love me supremely, physically, or not at all?”, before wailing “I don’t care!” and diving into ‘Jackie Is Only Happy When She’s On Stage’ which rest assured, is an out-an-out travesty.

Smug, triumphalist and (see the bollocks of every alt-right edgelord today) labouring under the illusion it’s provocative, fundamentally ‘Jackie’ is about how amazing post-Brexit England will be when the ‘rebels’ win the war. But truly, even if he’d tried he couldn’t have written a better song to capture the shithole England is right now. It’s like The Libertines if all their songs were about the suspicious death of Mark Blanco: revealing and somehow even more grotesque, but sort of fitting.

From its cheap-sounding production to the trebly, shallow musicianship (read: white-ish), to the basic structuring and the crowd samples that sound like fiendish Leave activists at Westminster, to the aesthetically stinking addition of those medieval trumpets of old Albion, this is the crappy Britain of old he conjures. Certainly not the good bits. Certainly not Fawlty Towers or that story about how the Chuckle Brothers got wrecked on vodka and drove the Chucklemobile into a golf club reservoir. Basically it’s the worst song he’s ever written, on every level, and never in their 30 years apart has Johnny Marr’s poetry felt more missing in action. Marr’s whirring curlicues, to me, will forever recall the sad Wurlitzer at the end of the pier, and the lonely hearts and carnival misfits who danced there – misfits like The Smiths and their fans. But this is a different carnival, like the one you walk through on the way to work, just after the business park. The one where an estate agent, still on bad coke, relieves himself into the frozen laugh of a plastic clownhead, as a dog eats at the seat of his suit trousers cause he thinks there’s chips there, only there isn’t and he gets much, much more than he bargained for. Step right up. I also think Steve’s the titular singer, who in the song is a countercultural martyr (as in both victim and saviour – how Moz!) dying on stage as the disgusted ‘liberal establishment’ and “mainnnnnstreammmmm media” head for the exit, until there’s “no audience to tell you what to do” (medieval trumpets of old Albion!)

Such proto-Emo fantasies of self-pitying victimhood were charming once, back when it was idiosyncratic and by extension about the idiosyncrasies of those forgotten freaks of Thatcherite Britain (i.e the counterculture of the day, if you think of The Smiths as the Pistols for sad people). But viewed in the context of far right politics – the politics of self-pity – with Steve now firmly part of the British establishment, he becomes just another of today’s wealthy populists.

He denies it’s a political song, but then they always do these folk, when they’re confronted in the wild. Plead innocence; play dumb. But more than that, he thinks chanting the word ‘Exit’ ad infinitum at the end is a coded and witty in-joke – at the expense of the Remainer – demonstrates just how far he’s fallen as an artist. When a musician is truly spent isn’t it always musical bombast and banal, literal lyrics they fall back on?

It’s the only time tonight his (frankly still remarkable) voice falters, with every vowel reduced to a hairball-expelling rasp. The hand gestures are all side-swipes and fly-swatting. He stamps his foot. He draws his thumb across his throat on “Everything that comes must GO!”

What’s especially noticeable in a live setting – particularly so with all of the SSE Arena’s mega-wattage amplification trained on the audience like guns – is how much more forceful Morrissey songs are than those of The Smiths. But with force the sacrifice is expressive nuance. Mo’s constant, Uncle-doing-charades gesturing tonight, while absolutely and rightfully about theatre and performance, also smacks of compensation for a lack of expressiveness in the actual music. I mean, what do Morrissey songs really express anyway, other than profound sadness; such profoundly profound sadness that to Steve nothing less than grandiosity will do as musical backdrop, which in truth is one-note. No, true emotional expression left the music of Steven Morrissey with the departure of Johnny Marr. Denied of Johnny’s unassuming, lyrical meta-narrative (those melodic and leavening kinetics conveying almost peerlessly a melancholic joy for life) Morrissey’s egomaniacal disgust at life became, musically-speaking, a laboured, plodding cycle of Sisyphean dissatisfaction. In popular music it’s the perfect case study on the difference between melancholy – what’s called the ‘sweetness of sorrow’ – and the very unsweet meat-and-potatoes sound of ill-content. And according to tonight’s set, the back beat of misanthropy is mid-tempo drudgery. For most songs the crowd in the standing area are statuesque but if this was a Smiths-heavy set tonight there’d be dancing – dancing about the joy of living even if life’s joys are rooted in sadness. Just like Johnny done it. I mean, the average age tonight can roughly be described as ‘people who still buy DVDs’, but still, the standers are sedentary.

Well at least Moz is enjoying himself. You get the feeling Steve’s only truly happy when on stage. After all he has 6000 people listening intently to his problems – it’s a narcissist’s dream. But ‘happy’ really is a side to his personality he should share more often. From this far away, in the nose bleed section, he looks a bit like Bruno Brooks with no eyes, or Alan Titchmarsh as lensed by Gordon Willis, but that’s definitely a smile I see. He’s even a little giddy! A little silly! We like Silly Steve. A lot. Before ‘Munich Air Disaster’ he gets a bit carried away and, how do I explain this, begins repeatedly screaming the word yeah: “Yeah…Yeah…Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!” And with each new “Yeah” comes a corresponding bum-pop either to left or right, synchronised with similar hand movements, only his hands are partly caught in his suit jacket. It’s not what you’d call especially ‘on brand’. There’s a kid with his mother behind me who just wanted to feel nice and sad tonight, and instead they’re getting… what? Stevie P Banter-Monkey the last pie-thrower at the booby hatch. Shortly afterwards he reveals he’s written a song called ‘Man Loses Leg In Wood Chipper’.

But it’s not too long before that miserable bastard is back. A crazed fan at the front shouts during his between-song patter, interrupting a story involving a concrete block and the M62 (inexplicably). “You spoiled my anecdote. You don’t deserve it now.” he mutters imperiously. “BOOOO!!” The crowd turn on her. I think he must joking, but no, after a long and cold ten seconds of internal rage he signals to the band to play and the story remains unfinished. He’s punished us, us naughty children. I sit with my £5 Chilli Nobby’s Nuts and £80 ticket stubs feeling throughly ashamed of my insolence. “Everyone grows out of their Morrissey stage,” Sean Hughes said once, “except Morrissey.”

The encore is ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ – for which Steve dons an Irish-green jacket – and ‘Jack The Ripper’, at the end of which he is engulfed in a massive schlock-horror cloud of dry ice, never to be seen again. It’s a fitting metaphor for his future career trajectory. His last act of the night is to caterwaul from beyond the ether, "Rats, rats, rats. Thousands of eyes!" Orson Welles once wrote of Woody Allen "He hates himself, and he loves himself. A very tense situation."

*Chuck Palahniuk

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