Everything has a lighter side. And now, the lighter side of The Smiths. (If MAD was still running The Lighter Side strip, that would be a great one. Or are they? Do they still exist?) The root causes of Morrissey songs are most often debatable, but this one is pretty clearly inspired by his short-lived flirtation with gainful employment. He’d labored briefly as a clerk in a tax office, hated it and spent most of his pre-fame life mooching off the government. It’s also thought to be partly inspired by The Smiths’ by-then strained relationship with their handlers at the Rough Trade record label, a relationship that would continue, in animosity, until the band’s demise in 1987. The legend goes that label boss Geoff Travis did indeed attempt to write ‘bloody awful’ poetry, thus earning Morrissey’s eternal contempt.
All these interesting facts I got perusing my brand new Mozipedia, which I have just purchased after a lengthy search. Author Simon Goddard is widely accepted as the world’s leading expert on all things Morrissey, which isn’t yet something you can get a PhD in, but probably will be within my lifetime, if not Morrissey’s. Goddard has written the self-explanatory Mozipedia, and Songs That Saved Your Life an exhaustive compendium of the when, where, how and why behind every song The Smiths ever recorded. Therein, according to Goddard, Frankly Mr. Shankly is “The Smiths at their most vaudevillian extreme” because “The manifest music-hall wit of its lyrics transpose even to Marr’s complementary, tongue-in-cheek score…” And so on in a similar spirit. If that seems overwhelmingly academic for a pop song, it’s nothing compared to Gavin Hopps’s treatise Morrissey: The Pageant of His Bleeding Heart, which is highfalutin to the point of being unreadable. Hopps has filled his book with mind-straining lines like (regarding Reel Around the Fountain):
“Morrissey’s use of ‘half,’ which is foregrounded by the parallelism with the previous section, quietly complicates everything and encourages speculation by tantalizingly telling us much less than it appears to [...] we remain outside the narrative, and are left to read backwards from effect to cause across a comical aporetic boundary.”
I was left in some doubt whether Hopps has in fact written an honest-to-God PhD level assessment of the works of Morrissey if read as literature, or if the whole thing is a massive joke satirizing the self-seriousness, willful obscurity and incomprehensible jargon of academic writing. For being filled with footnotes in minuscule type and the contorted, syllable-heavy vocabulary of academia, Hopps’s book is nonetheless useless as research material, for not having an index (though a ten-page bibliography is handily present.) One wonders at the inherent hilarity of treating Morrissey – in the end, a pop star, devilishly literate though he is – with such scholarly reverence. Though how can I judge poor Gavin Hopps? In my own meagre critical output, my longest rants and raves have been about ol’ Mozzer. He is, in his own sick way, one of pop’s great pied pipers. Just like Bowie has been someone to dress up for, Morrissey is someone to write for.