The chain of events that follows an objectionable statement by Morrissey has become a ritual. First the news stories – usually headlined “Bigmouth Strikes Again” or “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” – with their long tail of previous offences. Then the anguished think pieces asking whether it’s possible to separate the art from the artist. There’s the witty merchandise from enterprising designers (a T-shirt reading “Gutted About Morrissey”) and the latest wave of disillusioned fans declaring they’ve had enough.
Morrissey has exhausted more goodwill than you would have thought possible without actually committing a crime. Yet his extraordinary work with the Smiths, the band he led with guitarist Johnny Marr between 1982 and 1987, and the best of his solo catalogue, is so deeply embedded in the hearts of millions of music fans that many of them seek any excuse to ignore what he has become. The 58-year-old singer’s latest interview – in which he attacks Sadiq Khan and halal butchery, demonises the EU, claims that Hitler was left-wing, and champions For Britain, the new party founded by Anne Marie Waters, a woman too Islamophobic even for Ukip – feels unusually decisive, leaving no room for ambiguity.
Morrissey’s opinions on race and immigration have been troubling fans since at least the early Nineties, when the meaning of his songs “Asian Rut”, “Bengali in Platforms” and “National Front Disco” was fiercely debated, but there were long gaps between controversies, allowing his defenders to claim that his worst comments were in-the-moment missteps, ripped out of context by malicious journalists. These days, however, they come thick and fast.
In 2016, he attacked Khan for the first time, comparing him adversely to “liberal educators” George Galloway and Nigel Farage. Promoting his 11th album, Low in High School, during a concert for BBC 6 Music last October, he claimed that Waters had lost the Ukip leadership contest because “the voting was rigged”. During the same kamikaze promotional campaign, he disparaged many alleged rape victims as “merely disappointed”, described Berlin as the “rape capital” of Europe thanks to open borders, and attacked multiculturalism on the basis that “millions of people have died for German identity”, perhaps referring to the rule of that famous left-wing leader Adolf Hitler.
Morrissey accused Germany’s Der Spiegel of misquoting him until the publication posted the unedited audio on its website. Then came his latest interview, conducted by a sycophant (“Your recent tour was magnificent. You seemed very happy”), published on his own Morrissey Central website, and followed by a full-throated endorsement of For Britain.
Morrissey continues to insist that the press is out to get him but in fact his albums and concerts are still well-reviewed (his recent opinions have yet to infiltrate his lyrics) and a recent reissue of the Smiths’ 1986 masterpiece The Queen Is Dead was universally acclaimed. Most journalists would be happier if he didn’t keep voicing beliefs that drew plaudits from Breitbart and Infowars.
What exactly are those beliefs? Bluntly labelling Morrissey a racist plays into his hands. He will adamantly (and litigiously) deny it. In his endorsement of For Britain, he insists, “I despise racism. I despise fascism.” Well he would, wouldn’t he? Even labelling him right-wing is simplistic: he respects Bernie Sanders while loathing Donald Trump and Theresa May. But his opinions are clear enough. He is sympathetic towards Farage, Waters, Brexit and celebrities accused of sexual assault. He dislikes immigration, multiculturalism, the EU, political correctness and “the loony left”. He has a particular obsession with Islam. Such positions are not uncommon in Britain but they do jar with Morrissey’s original reputation as a sensitive, humane champion of the marginalised and vulnerable.
Morrissey’s unsettling new clarity does at least explode two fallacies. One is the idea that an artist’s politics can be neatly located on a left-right axis. The old assumption that a sexually ambiguous, working-class vegan who hated the Tories and the monarchy must be left-wing in all respects was a crude misreading of his idiosyncratic constellation of beliefs. The second, which has somehow survived centuries of evidence to the contrary, is the delusion that a writer capable of enormous beauty, wit and compassion cannot also be crudely intolerant.
Yet it is still startling how proudly Morrissey advertises that intolerance. You could say his self-image as an outspoken maverick undaunted by received wisdom is consistent; it’s just that the received wisdom he’s challenging now includes ideas such as “immigrants aren’t terrorists and rapists”.
Asked, in the latest interview, if he still listens to the Smiths, Morrissey says: “No. It was beautiful, but it’s gone.” Many ex-fans, for very different reasons, would agree with that, and a man with more self-awareness would understand why.