I gave up on Mozza years ago - Morrissey: Live is proof that I was right to do it

As far as Morrissey concerts go, the one immortalised in his latest film Morrissey: Live isn't the best. It saddens me to say it, but my love affair with Mozza is well and truly over.

A few times a week, I pass the UCKG (United Church of the Kingdom of God) building on Kilburn High Road, and I usually glance up at its plump dome and feel a teensy bit nostalgic. Before it was a church, it was the National Ballroom, a thriving music venue for decades (it closed in 1999). Nirvana played there in December 1991, but the gig to which I think back when I pass the building took place a few months earlier that year.

It was Morrissey—the second time I had seen him on his 1991 Kill Uncle tour—and my companion and I had arrived in Kilburn early enough to catch a glimpse of him being chauffeured away after soundcheck. It would be factually incorrect to say that we chased his car. It was a more a moderate hotfooting than an actual chase. We made it to the side street just as he was pulling away, and snapped frantically at the vehicle’s window with our cameras. The pictures came out well. You could see clearly it was Morrissey: aloof as a queen, smug as a cat. He was smirking, as he often is. Was it at the thought of the gold foil-effect shirt he would wear later that night on stage? How I loved that shirt.

And how I loved Morrissey. This confers on me no particular distinction. “I Was a Teenage Morrissey fan” is a revelation to file alongside other popular adolescent confessions such as “I was insufferably pretentious” and “I had acne.” But—and I’m sorry to break it to you so brutally if you had not already heard—Morrissey and I are over. Finished. I’m never going back. Not after what he did to me. What did he do? Well, his music went off and so did he.

It was nice while it lasted. And it lasted 20 years. I was a shade too young to be in on the Smiths from the start but by the time The Queen is Dead was released in June 1986, I was hanging out with some cool older kids who clued me in. Morrissey and I went all the way. All the way, that is, from 1986 to 2006, when the release of his eighth solo album, Ringleader of the Tormentors, coincided with a frosting of my affection for him. I can’t say whether the feeling was mutual; you’ll just have to contact him for his side of the story.

And it wasn’t so much that album that killed off our relationship—it’s at least half-brilliant, and far more nuanced than what followed. But what he was saying and doing away from the studio began to interfere with the music. There was always a prickly arrogance about him to offset the self-flagellation in his writing; that was part of the joy of his persona. But now there was an air of social and cultural intolerance in his proclamations which was no longer about defending the outsider—it seemed to involve lashing out pointlessly at anyone whose perspective deviated even mildly from his, or slighting entire races (“You can't help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies,” he told the Guardian in 2010.) By the time he was ranting about Kate Middleton’s admission to hospital last year, insisting that she was swinging the lead, I found myself in the unusual position of feeling sympathy for a member of the Royal family. My 16-year-old self would have thrown up at that.

Then there were the pompous dispatches he had begun issuing through the uncritical portal of the fansite true-to-you.net; they were like a Private Eye pastiche of rock-star delusions. He had also become a strikingly poor writer. This, from a recent 1,500-word, single paragraphdiatribe against Thatcher, will make any sane person reach for the red pen: “The coverage by the British media of Thatcher's death has been exclusively absorbed in Thatcher's canonization to such a censorial degree that we suddenly see the modern British establishment as an uncivilized entity of delusion, giving the cold shoulder to truth, and offering indescribable disgust to anyone unimpressed by Thatcher.”(Not quite “Margaret on the Guillotine,” is it?)

I should probably confess that the blame for my cooling can’t be laid entirely at Morrissey’s feet. I think you know what I’m saying: yes, there was someone else. Another man, younger and livelier and so much more innovative than Morrissey. Ariel Pink is his name, and I realized when I heard his album Worn Copy in 2006 that he had the playfulness, wit and passion that had been missing from Morrissey for the longest time. What can I say? He’s good for me.

I didn’t leave Morrissey a goodbye note, a Dear John letter. I guess in some ways, this is that letter. But now he has left me one: his concert film Morrissey 25: Live (so named because it marks the quarter-century point in his solo career). It’s a terrible film, depressingly conservative as an example of the concert movie genre as well as a harsh indictment of its subject’s complacency and declining creativity. Helpfully, it only confirms to me how right it was that we went our separate ways. It was a hard decision. But, as he once put it, that’s how people grow up.

The film includes the full concert he played in March this year at the Hollywood High School. The set-list perversely scrapes the barrel of his solo career: the inclusion of “Alma Matters,” “Ouija Board, Ouija Board” and “You’re the One For Me, Fatty” suggest he was going in his contrarian way for a Greatest Misses effect. Any fine songs in his repertoire—from solo numbers like “Everyday is Like Sunday” to the Smiths’ “Still Ill” and “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side”—tend to be massacred by his increasingly callous band. The low-point of the movie shows Morrissey handing the microphone to a selection of front-row fans who compete to give the best impressions of lobotomy patients (“Thank you for living,” says one).

We can’t blame them, though. It’s Morrissey who disgraces himself by fishing for their compliments using an industrial trawler. His egotism can only undermine the sincerity of a song like “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want,” released in 1984 but performed here in an overwrought new arrangement. To hear him sing “For once in my life, let me get what I want” after several fans have done everything short of offering themselves up to him for sacrifice is ungrateful at best, disingenuous at worst.

I’ve seen good Morrissey gigs and bad ones. I went to more than 20 shows—one for each year of my infatuation—and I cherish the great nights (Wembley Arena 1991, Battersea Power Station 1996, Royal Albert Hall 2002, Harlem’s Apollo Theatre 2004) as much as I wince at the lacklustre ones (Bournemouth 1991, Ilford, east London, 1996). Unless the transfer from stage to screen has been especially harsh, my Moz-memory tells me that the performance we see in Morrissey 25: Live is not one that merited conserving. But at least it has helped bring closure for me to this relationship. I know I will still gaze up at the old National Ballroom building and get goosebumps. But I know also that I can move on. I only hope the same is true of Morrissey.

Morrissey 25: Live is in cinemas from Saturday.

Mozza glances down at the groundlings at the Hollywood High School. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era