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.

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain