Wednesday, 25 November 2009
14. Irish Blood, English Heart, Morrissey (2004)
17th September 2002. The Royal Albert Hall packed to the rafters, all reds, velvets and golds, and me in the middle of it, squirming on my seat like a schoolgirl on Viagra. I am here to see a wry old soul who has been in exile for many years, a man that I love that I've never seen before. It's been a while since his last album, and even longer since the last one I loved – the imperial, heartbreaking Vauxhall and I – but I am still in need of self-validation, and would willingly meet him in the alley by the railway station. He walks on to the strains of I Want The One I Can't Have, and I stare at my friends, either side of me, dumb-founded. IT'S MORRISSEY say my glassy eyes, and my slack, open mouth. And he seems to be a real human being, after all.
I fell in love with The Smiths when I was 16. John Peel was presenting a series of shows about cult bands after the charts every Sunday – which I listened to religiously, writing about them in a series of garish, paisley notebooks – and one week he did an hour on this four-piece from Manchester. I adored The Smiths straightaway; they seemed so deliberately strange and so oddly old-fashioned. Not long after, I realised that I'd heard the singer's dank, off-key vowels before, on Now That's What I Call Music 11, stuck between Eddie Cochran's Come On Everybody and Elton John's Candle In The Wind. At the age of 10, I'd adored Suedehead – "Ahhhh'm soooo very SICK-ened", I'd sing at nobody particular – and now, at 16, I was putting the rest of Morrissey's story together.
First, I bought The Smiths' Hatful Of Hallow, with the proceeds of two weeks of paper rounds – £9.00 for twelve shifts around Loughor with a big, neon postbag – and put my birthday pound coins toward Morrissey's latest solo record. Fifteen years on, it remains my favourite of his, mainly because there's a real heart behind the songs on Vauxhall and I – from the lovely Now My Heart Is Full to the spikiness of Speedway – and a palpable sadness that he hasn't mastered since. I loved this record so much that it didn't matter that the records that followed it, Southpaw Grammar and Maladjusted, were pretty bloody terrible. And neither did it matter on that windy, late summer evening in 2002. All that mattered then was our closeness to Morrissey, to be sharing the same space as him, breathing the same air.
In the years since that night – when, fair dos, he was wonderful, Speedway stuttering round the hall as he finished, as my throat was rubbed raw – my love for old Stephen has faded a little. This is mainly because of the unpleasant tussles in which he has landed himself, his patchy recent albums – too much bluster and muscle for me, duck, too much self-awareness – and a run of dodgy gigs that have lessened my memory of that night I first saw him.
But three special memories of Morrissey still light up this decade. Firstly, Andrew Harrison's brilliant interview with him for the fourth issue of The Word – I have never forgotten the detail about Morrissey living on cheese pizzas in LA, or those gorgeous primary-coloured pictures of him on the West Coast.
Secondly, the fantastic Irish Blood, English Heart, a song that always reminds me of Oliver Shepherd, one of my sweetest and silliest friends. It is a song that would come to us, unbidden, after big nights out in the pub, livening up 3am living rooms with impromptu karaoke. All together now: "I've been dreaming of a TIME WHEEEN / Theeee Iiiing-lish" – "and the WELSH", I'd howl, usually – "are SICK to death of LAYbour / And TOReeees / And spit upon the name, Oliver..." (At this point, we should have sung "CROM-WELLLLL", of course, after the big, throaty gasp at the end of the bar. Instead we would spit upon Oliver "SHEP-HEEEERD", and collapse in a pile of wet fags and spilt lagers, and wake up hours later feeling like Mike Joyce had written Morrissey on our foreheads and drumsticked us to death.)
The last memory comes from last year, at the playback for Years Of Refusal, probably my favourite album from Morrissey's recent glut of records. There he was again – a real human being, a few years older, a little greyer – stood up at the microphone, introducing his work. He smiled, he laughed softly, he said that he hoped that we "terrible journalists" loved it. He then turned round, locked eyes with someone in the crowd, and said, with conviction, "ESPECIALLY YOU."
The fact that he stared at me meant nothing, of course – his choice was entirely random. But at that moment in time, all Welsh blood and Welsh heart, it really didn't matter. I was sharing the same space as him, breathing the same air, and there was no one on earth I was afraid of.