The disappointing thing about Henry Rollins — otherwise a paragon of American manhood — has always been the fact that he is, in public at least, a Moz basher. So tedious, so obvious. Think how interesting it might have been for the singer of In My Head–era Black Flag, peering ember-eyed through ropes of sweaty hair in 1986, to announce a passion for The Queen Is Dead. “Morrissey, man . . . that guy kicks ass,” Rollins could have hissed to a startled interviewer. “You think I’m joking? I’m dead fucking serious. ‘We can go for a walk where it’s quiet and dry, and talk about precious things . . . ’ That’s a heavy fucking line right there. That’s a Mack truck. That’s better than Henry Miller.”
But no. A missed opportunity. Instead there have been hog-like guffaws at Morrissey’s fancy shirts and floppy dancing, his dreary singing voice and effluvium of rained-on Englishness, blah, blah. Rollins, in other words, failed the Morrissey Test. Faced with this silken, flower-tossing, winking-nippled man, some tremor in his libido prevented him from recognizing a fellow mocker and hater, a proper ex-punk with a depression quite as muscular as his own.
In a way Rollins can be forgiven: nothing in his culture had prepared him for the Moz. Even in Britain, where industrial-strength exoticism paraded weekly for the kids on the TV show Top of the Pops, the first public sightings of Morrissey, singing “This Charming Man” with his deaf aid and his gladioli, were a shock. There was something outrageous, appalling even, in those wavy, post-erotic dance moves, the shaking-out of the long limbs as if after a protracted hibernation — it appeared to be a state of inwardness exteriorized, what the soul of a very shy person might look like. He wilted and he tumesced, all at the same time. And then the personage itself: that challenging chin, the face with its vulpine intelligence beneath the magnificent query of a quiff. “Punctured bicycle, on a hillside desolate/Will Nature make a man of me yet?” — a physical detail, earthbound misery, followed by an upward swoop into Thought and Longing, all bedded in the beautiful Marr chords. What a popstar. What a band.
Mark Simpson, for one, was in love. “Petals were raining everywhere, like fairy dust, like free drugs, like jism, like poison. . . . I was alone with this man for less time than it takes to boil an egg. But he knew what was doing all right, and he made sure it was two and a half minutes I would never get over.” So the author of Saint Morrissey (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster) describes his first exposure to the Smiths on TV. The book is subtitled, with some accuracy, A Portrait of This Charming Man by an Alarming Fan. Deflowered (in a pop sense) by the flower king, teenage Simpson became a Moz maniac. The great suffering that ensued is our good fortune, because SaintMorrissey is a cracking read, almost an instructional handbook on how to develop, deal with, and finally escape an obsession.
First lesson: don’t fight it, feel it. Abandon yourself. “Morrissey was both siren and Man Friday to me — the seductive architect of my doom and my sole, loyal companion. . . . I lay on my mattress gasping and panting as I listened . . . ” As the disease progresses and Simpson enters manhood, his Moz-inspired rejection of necessity and aristocratic embrace of squalor threaten to turn him into a character from mid-20th-century Irish literature, something out of Beckett’s Murphy or Flann O’Brien. “Essentially,” he writes, “the trick to saving money on the dole was to minimize your life functions until they could barely be measured. This meant staying in bed most of the day while wearing two layers of clothes, with your overcoat over the bed, to save fuel. In other words, you actually had to die in an economical, if not a clinical, sense.” Second lesson: never lose your sense of humor.
Third lesson: grow up. Having acquired maturity, perspective and literary skill, and armed with the power of critical thinking, Simpson writes the book. And Saint Morrissey is more or less the perfect Morrissey book, in that it spurns the biographical grind so deplored by its subject, the damp Manchester of the day-to-day, to dance among the totems and effigies of the Morrissey psyche — his Oscar Wildes and James Deans and New York Dolls and Rita Tushinghams. Don’t know who Rita Tushingham is? Neither did I. She was the lead actress in A Taste of Honey, the 1961 film and jewel of British New Realism, with lines like “Women never have young minds. They are born three thousand years old.” Honey’s author, 17-year-old Mancunian playwright Shelagh Delaney, was a sort of Morrissey-in-waiting, a renegade sensitivity with a poison pen and a series of impossible demands. Another line from the movie: “You’re nothing to me. I’m everything to myself.” The Smiths songbook, as Simpson shows, is fairly pickled in Shelagh Delaney moments.