Sunday, June 26, 2011

I love you love me love who exactly?

I swear I'm not doing this to increase my readership; I have no intention of bolstering my page-hits by picking up the pedos, but I'm afraid that I am going to discuss Gary Glitter today. But only peripherally. Those who have not followed The Hangover Epistles, volume one, volume two, volume three, and volume four, may want to do so before reading on.

So, an alert reader pointed out that Morrissey has covered Bowie ("Drive-In Saturday"), Bolan ("Cosmic Dancer") and now Reed ("Satellite of Love" - I mentioned in response that it would have meant so much to me if he had covered that particular song two decades ago); the alert reader said that all Morrissey had to do now was cover Glitter. The alert reader had no way of knowing that I had just been reading a decades-old interview with Morrissey, reproduced in NME's trashy, otherwise useless celebration of the 25th anniversary of the release of The Queen is Dead. The interview ends thus:

Together we talk about the future, the dreaded beast of Morrissey's worst dreams. You could almost say everything looks rosy. The world's favourite misery goat [eh?] seems radiant for a man in torment. He's left school, left home (almost), what next...a relationship, I suggest as a parting thought.

"I wanted to say this to you," he says slowly in a tone of confidentiality. "I always thought my genitals were the result of some crude practical joke. I remember an NME interview in the very early 1970s - it was Gary Glitter. It concluded with the remark 'the constant reminder that there's something between his legs.' And I thought it might be quite fitting to end this with...the constant reminder that there's absolutely nothing between his legs."
I'm sure you're disappointing millions!
"I doubt it...which is very disappointing to me."

[This was edited only to remove an exclamation point inserted by the author in Morrissey's quoted speech, one that I found to be intrusive; forgive my own intrusion.]

We can take this passage two ways. First, we can peer at it as a distant relic. How young Morrissey is. It still makes sense to talk of him leaving school and leaving home (almost). We can look back and wonder about the role of the closet in his refusal to indulge in romantic details and in his famed celibacy (although perhaps the celibacy and the bodily discomfort is less a function of social reproach and more Crispian in nature?) and, at the same time, relish the fact that he has come to acknowledge that there is something between his legs, although we necessarily are forced to reconcile this with the comparison to Gary Glitter whose spangled, anthemic phallic enterprise now looks less like glam hedonism and more like an offer of sweets to passing youth. Or, we can take a more Morrisseyian approach and refuse to impose a historical filter; we can reject rolling the condom of nostalgia down the shaft of our memory, and see continuity and contact. After all, in the mid-1980s Morrissey cites an NME article about Gary Glitter from the early 1970s; we can appreciate his own sense of history as something continuous and ongoing. For all his supposed wry bathos, and however revolutionary The Smiths were, Morrissey was the last original glam rocker.

It is interesting that his choice of covers of Bowie, Bolan, and Reed are so uninteresting. With his intense musical scholarship and fastidious taste, we might have expected him to dig out a real rarity to cherish; instead, he picks Drive-In Saturday, Cosmic Dancer, and Satellite of Love. These are unimpeachable covers, to be sure, and I think the reason he picks these, other than the real reason, which is that they're amazing songs he loves, is that he is refusing to indulge in the retrospective analysis that makes these songs obvious classics; there was a time when he first heard them, when they were new and fresh and had not yet been canonised, and it is in this spirit that he covers them. What makes them so uninteresting is precisely what made them interesting.

Now, we spent a lot of time last week studying penis-horror; Morrissey's notion that his genitals are a "crude practical joke" refines the horror into something palpably crude, and, as a "practical joke", both functional and dysfunctional at once (which is the key dynamic and ambiguity of a "practical joke"). And we then come to that dynamic of plenitude and emptiness, of phallic insurrection and castration: the man who is a constant reminder of what is between his legs, and the man who deems himself a constant reminder that there is nothing between his legs. This is, one might think, a somewhat mellower, somewhat more subdued version of The Hangover, but the interviewer gives Morrissey the last word. The interviewer, sweetly exposing himself as a fan and admirer, enthusiastically says, "I'm sure you're disappointing millions!" Morrissey coolly responds, "I doubt it...which is very disappointing to me." At his most snapping and casually over-articulate, Morrissey rejects the sallow presumption of the phallic, and admits to desire. And that is exactly what was lacking in The Hangover. Desire, the desire that doubts itself and yet still desires; the desire that is dangerous and as explosive as it is implosive (Gary Glitter); the desire that always disappoints. It is this amusing, surprising impinging of desire and hope where there would seem to be none (where Morrissey says, there is none) that sweetens and deepens; the mistake made by The Hangover is that it opts for disgust (in penis-horror, but elsewhere as well) without having the courage to offer desire.

Now if you'll excuse me, it looks like Beyonce's set at Glastonbury is online; I'll be busy for a while, watching a force of nature.


Daniel F said...

I really like "over-articulate". It captures a habit of his, the way for example he can't live with the heroin-flavoured Warholian passivity of Reed's magnificent line "I watched it for a little while, I like to watch things on TV". Moz just has to remind us that he "CANNOT STAND the TV".

sw said...

Thanks for pointing that out. I had actively repressed my concerns for Morrissey's lyrical annotations and deviations in Satellite of Love. Reed's lyrics in this song are, for want of any word, peculiar. And also astoundingly evocative: of, as you say, the heroin-flavoured Warholian passivity of watching tv; of a stoned or tiredly cynical alienation; and of cheerful romance, too. It's a mad little song, erotic and funny, trenchant and nonsensical. My concern was that Morrissey's amendations stripped the song of its character and imposed his own, which leaves you with a famously lovely and then bouncy pop tune accompanying not Reed's weird, modernist, even Eliotian vignette but whatever particular stick Morrissey has up his arse at that moment.

But then I listened to it again while watching the entire live performance on hd YouTube, and then again. And I think I was wrong. Musically, it's a fascinating cover; parts sound as though it must always have been a Morrissey song, and other parts, bridges so impossibly well-known they are barely even audible, are rendered tinny and second-rate (in particular, I'm thinking of the final shift into the "Satellite of Love - oh-oh-oh-oh" refrains), which are subsequently salvaged by Morrissey and the band (I suspected that Boz really wanted to do this song, and his backing vocals are lovely).

And I began to think that Morrissey didn't only change the lyrics to suit himself; he paints a very different picture, not such a vulgar one. His refusal to watch tv suggests someone leaving a house with the lights and telly on, and standing outside in the darkness, watching a distant satellite track across the sky, a patient little star inching over the horizon; the loneliness, not self-imposed or languid or stoned but the loneliness of finding oneself forced out alone by nothing more than the everyday pleasures and luxuries of what everyone else can just take for granted, is a blistering and romantic sadness that justifies switching "bold" to a pained and contemptuous "happy" (along with a fortuitous rhythmic compensation for the loss of the rhyme).

It's not true to the song, but it's true to the artist. I feel like a child in the middle of a tense divorce.

Daniel F said...

Oh Morrissey's version is certainly true to himself. He is always that.

Which I suppose is what he meant when he sang that "in my own strange way, I've always been true to you".