September 2004

Nathaniel G. Moore

features

An Interview with Mark Simpson

British Vogue called him the Gay Anti-Christ, and in his new book, Saint Morrissey, UK’s Mark Simpson attempts to canonize British singer Morrissey. Simpson is also the author The Queen is Dead, Male Impersonators, and Sex Terror.

Simpson has probed deep into the unknown world of the male imagery that Morrissey uses. From boxers to butchers Morrissey has had a fascination with men from the day Hand in Glove appeared in record stores, be-splashed with a nude male bum for a cover.

Ambivalence n.
1. Simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action 2 a : continual fluctuation (as between one thing and its opposite) b : uncertainty as to which approach to follow.
- am.biv.a.lent /-l&nt/ adjective
- am.biv.a.lent.ly adverb

Did you feel you were writing a subjective account of Morrissey or was it partly writing about being a Morrissey fan, and did you feel torn ever between appeasing his massive cult following, the man himself or yourself?

It was always between Morrissey and me. Not the Morrissey who lives in L.A. looking for vegetarian Cheddar cheese, but the one that lives in his work - and in my bedroom. Of course, Saint Morrissey is embarrassingly subjective. But it's all true. Which is the most embarrassing part of all.

Why Saint Morrissey first of all? Does this have any ties to do with the Jean-Paul Satre book Saint Genet?

Yes, well spotted -- though I’d like to think that Saint Morrissey has a few more gags in it. There are some interesting parallels between Genet and Morrissey: the humble origins, the alienation, the determination to wreak a kind of revenge on the world through their art, their gallows humour, their fascination with young toughs, boxers and rebels, and their perverse determination not to flinch when looking at unpleasant truths about desire and human nature. Above all, both came to be symbols for a certain kind of self-willed outsider status -- which is where Mr Sartre jumps on the bandwagon of course. There are many differences as well: Morrissey has been much more influential than Genet, Genet was an open homosexual Morrissey is a frustrated "bisexual," plus he’s rather taller than Genet was and appears to have all his own teeth. And then there’s the fact that Genet was rehabilitated by France, after strenuous efforts by Mr Sartre, while England still hasn’t found itself able to forgive Morrissey, and still exiles him to their West Coast penal colony for uppity working-class types, otherwise known as L.A. Hence the book doesn’t labour the Genet comparisons. The tichtie, chippy Frenchy is only mentioned a couple of times. Ultimately, smart-alec literary references aside, I chose the title Saint Morrissey simply because it was the most appropriate.

Exactly how did this book come about? When did you start writing it?

It was written mostly in the Summer of 1999. In a straw hat. In York, Northern England. But it began back in November 1983 when I saw him perform "This Charming Man" on my parents’ telly and heard the way he used words, the way they fell out of his mouth like petals, like poison. Perversely, it was a bloody pop star that made me think that words mattered, that encouraged me to make them my profession. In Saint Morrissey I try to use them to make sense of that pop star and my ill attachment to him. A pathetic form of revenge I know, but the only kind open to me.

Can we learn from our idols?

About ourselves? Most definitely -- though most fans don’t recognize that what they see when they look at the polished icon is their own idealized reflection. About anything else? That’s much more difficult to say. I’ve tried to unpick what the strange and fantastic phenomenon of Morrissey might represent psychologically, musically, sexually, and culturally. But I might just be looking down a long well and mistaking my own reflection for his. That’s what always happened when theologians tried to discover what kind of man Jesus was. My role however is probably more that of Judas -- as Oscar Wilde put it, "Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.” By the way, I should probably mention that I’ve never met Morrissey, nor had so much as a postcard from him. This biography was written without access to its subject -- or that’s to say, without access to the actual existing Morrissey, whatever/whomever that may be, but rather with total and completely unrestricted access to his highly personal, highly individual art in which he may well be more fully present than he is in his own life. As he once put it himself: "The songs, and the album title, and the sleeve, and whatever else you might wish to investigate, are simply... me." Saint Morrissey was not researched by talking to former associates and nosey-neighbours or rummaging around in his dustbins looking for evidence of lesbianism, but by spending rather too much of my youth listening to him.

Does asexuality exist? Can someone actually be purely asexual?

If they try hard enough. I don’t think though that Morrissey was ever asexual. Just that he experienced sex as something that operated against him -- unravelling him rather than affirming him. This of course is completely in violation of all the modern maxims about sex -- that it is "who you really are," that it is the "truth" of you that you must not say "no" to. That it is as compulsorily healthy as cod liver oil. This is a con. In fact, desire is something that uses us for its own ends. Something intolerable for a (very controlling) artist who wishes to will his own destiny, however unpleasant it may be. Nonetheless, he’s stated in recent years that he’s given up on celibacy, though this, like celibacy in a young pop star, is a rather perverse thing to do in your forties. Perhaps a matured -- and probably, inevitably less sexual -- Morrissey has decided that mortality is a worse enemy than sex. Though, if the world hopes that Mozza getting a shag every now and again will solve his problems, I think they are in for a disappointment.

Do you think Morrissey using homosexual or transgendered images from pop culture (eg. Candy Darling on the sleeve of Sheila Take A Bow) obliges him to pick a stance?

What kind of stance do you have in mind? Hand on hip? Or holding a placard? Morrissey has always taken a stance. His stance. The sun shines out of his behind. Attempts to press gang him into joining the gay community are doomed to failure. Besides, most gays wouldn’t want him there. They’d say, "Well, we’ve got the Pet Shop Boys and you can dance to them so why do we need miserable old Morrissey?" (And as far as I’m concerned, they’re welcome to Neil Tennant.)

What was your goal with the book?

Ostensibly my goal was to analyse the Morrissey phenomenon, in all it’s aspects: personal, musical, lyrical, cultural, sexual, medical... In actual fact, I think it was more an attempt at personal exorcism. It didn't work of course.

Did Morrissey’s heroes help him achieve his own mythological finality in the hearts of his fans? He aligned himself with some pretty loveable folks.

Yes, but only inasmuch as they demonstrated what impeccable taste he had. Very often they were people his fans had never heard of. Very often they were people that he felt had been harshly treated and neglected by the world. People rather like him. Morrissey’s own iconic status, the one that he is criminally-heroically continuing to live up to even in his middle age, long after he should have thrown in the towel like everyone else in his line of business and become a presenter on a TV makeover show, or an agony aunt, was thoroughly researched, but was also for keeps. This was always terrifyingly clear and was part of the reason so many people who considered themselves hard to get let themselves fall for him. He’s always stayed true to them, his fans, his heroes, his promises, his threats, his neuroses, in his own strange way.