Searching for Morrissey

Morrissey - Photo: Mushroom Group Promotions.
There is no such thing in life as normal.
Morrissey - Photo: Mushroom Group Promotions.

I’VE absorbed Morrissey’s musical musings for the past quarter of a century but never fully understood his political or social views, including those on animal rights.

The same can be also said about my digestions of the multiple meanings and interpretations, contained within his songs.

So, when the former front-man of The Smiths returned to Australia this month after a long absence, it seemed like a unique opportunity to watch him perform live and maybe also gain a deeper insight into why he really thinks meat is murder.

The British rocker is regarded one of the world’s most enigmatic musicians, with an icy reputation for morbid lyrics about doomed relationships and deepening depressions.

He can surgically summarise the brooding heart of humanity’s metaphysical woes in a few short scathing lyrics, capped off by a dribbling groan, as if he’d only just discovered that his cat’s been lawlessly decapitated by his best friend’s mum.

But despite Morrissey’s perceived joyless nature and the funeral like tensions of his murky music, he also has a pointed sense of humour which helps spark and garner ongoing intrigue.

His global reach of his music also generates a powerful force of social enlightenment for animal welfare around the planet.

Fans of Morrissey will proudly declare that, more than anyone else, he’s had a profound impact on converting people to become vegetarians.

How or why does that large veggie conversion rate happen?

It’s no doubt fuelled by the chronic guilt a carnivore would experience from soaking up The Smith’s quintessential vegetarian track, “Meat is Murder” released about 25 years ago.

So off I ventured to Brisbane for Morrissey’s return performance with an open mind and just a glimmer of hope for an opportunity to dissect his views on animal rights issues, like live exports, which have dominated the nation’s political and social agenda over the past few years.

But knowing he was somewhat of a mystery man, making only rare public appearances in the media spotlight, I wasn’t holding any great hope of achieving an exclusive interview with Captain Miserable.

On arrival at the Brisbane Convention Centre it came as no surprise to see PETA displaying various items of promotional propaganda on animal rights issues, with Morrissey one of the group’s leading advocates.

Gazing nervously across the counter, I found one pamphlet urging people to stop drinking cows’ milk or eating dairy products because it was designed for feeding calves and therefore cruel to steal milk away from their mothers.

Incidentally, the PETA display was adjacent to the counter selling Morrissey cotton t-shirts and other tour paraphernalia at prices well above anyone’s decent concept of humane value for money.

Inside the show, I was aching to hear Morrissey’s long list of classic hits and he didn’t disappoint by delivering a superb entrée with his opening number, “Shoplifters of the World Unite” (and takeover….hand it over, hand it over, hand it over).

The modest theatre pulsated like a tropical thunder storm, trapped inside a small night club, amid frenzied lights and pounding speakers accompanying the haunting strains of, “How Soon is Now?”

His fans almost forgot their approaching woes and the planet’s inevitable demise as the room frolicked along as one to, “You’re the one for me fatty” (You're the one I really, really love).

And with Morrissey’s poetic masterpiece “Every Day is Like Sunday” (Armageddon - come Armageddon - come, come, come - nuclear bomb) came more spine tingling adoration and no sign of spite anywhere.

But the ‘joy’ for me really started mid-way through the show when Morrissey strutted up to the microphone and paused, with hands at his side like a gun-slinging cowboy, itching to draw his weapon at an approaching foe.

After the screaming calmed, the lip curling singer expressed how he was impressed by Australia’s strong movement against factory farming and in his view, until factory farming is gone, “humans aren’t humane”.

And then with typical irreverence, as the crowd screamed louder again, he aggressively blurted out “William and Kate; bag of shit” - whatever that really means?

And so it was, Morrissey’s theatrical gloom and distaste for popular conventions peaked with a deathly stare during his emotion charged guilt attack on factory farming.

Using his vocal and lyrical scalpels, Morrissey did his best to slaughter ambivalence towards meat consumption, while bleating out his vegetarian anthem, “Meat is Murder”.

“And the flesh you so fancifully fry. Is not succulent, tasty or kind. It's death for no reason. And death for no reason is murder”.

The musical onslaught was accompanied by gut wrenching images of animals marching towards death in slaughterhouses, projected in black and white film onto the big screen towards the rear of the stage.

Those depressing images were also accompanied by deathly bellowing from the animals which sounded just like those tense, drooling vocal groans which regularly surface when Morrissey's angelic voice arrives at the many junctures of emotional strain in his songs.

At times the performance caused the senses to rampage as if one was watching an expose on live cattle or sheep exports by the ABC TV’s Four Corners program or awaiting the outcome of an ALP Caucus meeting.

But overall, it was a truly iconoclastic moment for meat lovers that would have surely made Con the Fruitier stand and bristle with pride.

Two minutes after the show finished, I asked a security man guarding the stage if the star was returning to sign autographs for his loyal fans or to shake some hands and share some trivial conversation.

Now, surely that would be a humane way to act with kindness towards his long-suffering fans?

As I wandered through my thoughts, I realised that Morrissey and trivial conversation probably didn’t align - kind of like serving meat with his beloved vegetables.

I also wondered why, only minutes before, these same security guards had been aggressively handling young men and women, who’d rushed onto the stage to hug or embrace their idol, as if they were unwanted scraps being thrown into the trash.

The contrasting images of burly muscle-men showing little regard for the humanity of Morrissey’s fans, to protect the rock star from love, was surely a strange moment, of ambiguous meaning generation, that perhaps even Morrissey himself would have paused and appreciated.

The guard’s response to my inquiry was that Morrissey had already left the building (insert poor man’s Elvis here) and jumped straight into an awaiting vehicle (insert mini-cab here) that sped off into the night, perhaps far, far away to a safer place, like an all-night library or yoga session.

I soon realised that interviewing Morrissey one on one during this visit to Australia was highly unlikely and the over zealous protection of his precious time or public profile would prevail under heavy guard.

But that’s kind of like protecting summer from reaching winter.

So to try and unravel the ambiguous mystery man a little more I conducted further research, to see if any of my burning questions had already been answered somewhere else, at another time, like does he own a pet, what type of animal and what's its name.

Thanks to serendipity, I discovered Morrissey says very little in public that doesn’t upset other high profile targets, especially rival musicians, by way of poking a callous verbal stick deep into their eyes.

For example he once asked for the head of Elton John, which he doesn’t think would be a case of meat is murder, if served on a plate.

For someone who claims to love animals with such depth, it seems only right that his despise of popular celebrities who are celebrity for the sake of celebrity, and a similar distaste for politicians, knows almost no limits.

I eventually found some lines on animal welfare in an ‘interview’ (the result of heavily guarded factory media) on the PETA website which said the musician’s turning point came 30 years ago after watching a documentary about abattoirs on British television that “horrified me”.

“If you love animals, obviously it doesn’t make sense to hurt them,” he says in declaring his mantra.

“I always looked at animals and thought they were very much like children and they looked to us always to help them and save them and protect them.”

It may seem unusual to discover that early on in his musical career Morrissey dropped his first two names Stephen and Patrick.

But while he may have just the one single stage name now which starts with M (just like Meatloaf or Madonna) his public persona is anything but singular.

Ambiguity and ambivalence are the critical pillars that hold Morrissey’s personality firmly in position, and so too his music.

Let’s not even start trying to analyse his sexuality, which by all reports can only be described as indeterminate and lacking normal definitions, while being lethargically embraced.

So to put this all simply - to engage with anything that’s Morrissey is to know you’re playing an elaborate game of hide and seek, almost surely designed to avoid any accountable definitions or singular conclusions, but one underpinned by real purpose.

And perhaps the song that summarises the experience more than any other and speaks loudest is, “The youngest was the most loved”, which he sang with booming gusto in Brisbane.

“There is no such thing in life as normal. There is no such thing in life as normal”.

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Canberra CommentFairfax Agricultural Media Canberra correspondent Colin Bettles tackles the big national rural and agricultural issues which will impact regional and rural Australians.


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