by Francesca Nottola
The last time Morrissey played in Manchester it was 2012, same venue. I have been to a few Morrissey gigs, and, despite loving being close to the stage, I prefer being able to breathe and not hearing my ribcage crack. The arena is overflowing with people tonight, it is a magnificent spectacle. While the stage is being set up, a series of videos get played, some of them already seen in the 2015 tour. Among them, some performances of Ramones and New York Dolls, a fantastic excerpt from a screen test of James Dean and Paul Newman in which Dean tells Newman ‘Kiss me!’, some films I don’t recognise, one with Alain Delon, one with Lou Reed’s music in the background and Rex Jameson in his crossdressing persona Mrs Shufflewick.
As soon as Morrissey and the band get on stage, a terrifying vision of a human wave pushing towards the front forms in front of my eyes, making me understand why I had feared dying the last time. After the Pearl Jam gig in Roskilde in 2000, I can’t understand how venue managers allow this to happen. I’m not surprised when I see the body of an unconscious person dragged away to the emergency services at 9pm already.
For those not familiar with Morrissey’s band, they are: on guitars, Boz Boorer from London, Jesse Tobias and Gustavo Manzur from Austin, Texas (Manzur plays flamenco guitar, keyboards and sings the parts in Spanish); Mando Lopez from East Los Angeles is the bassist and Matt Walker from Chicago plays the drums. As per tradition, they are all wearing the same outfit tonight: white shirts and braces. The atmosphere is electric, so much anticipation around me. You can see fans of various generations, with many teens accompanying their parents, who have clearly been followers of the Divine from the early days.
Morrissey opens the ceremony with ‘Suedehead’, followed by ‘Alma Matters’. I’m not the only one who sees the whole The Smiths and Morrissey experience as a religious one. Loving The Smiths and Morrissey involves sharing principles, first of all, and a sense of belonging and community that it’s rare to experience in the arts. The Morrissey experience is something that transcends entertainment. In fact, to classify a Morrissey show as ‘entertainment’ is almost offensive: it is an all-round cultural and emotional experience.
Morrissey is in wonderful shape: energetic, amusing and elegant as always in a dark blue blazer. ‘Basta! Basta! Basta!’ (‘enough’ in Spanish and Italian) he shouts, smiling, to stop people from screaming and let him sing. He is visibly happy to be welcomed by such a raving ocean of human beings. Like many of us, he’ll probably never be able to solve the mystery of ‘people’: how can ‘people’ be so wonderfully full of love and also so horribly sadistic? ‘I’m the new Mayor of Manchester’, he announces, before ‘All You Need Is Me’. The setlist is varied tonight, with quite a few songs from World Peace is None of Your Business, some from the early solo albums and a few Smiths songs. Next up is ‘You Have Killed Me’, which references ground-breaking Italian journalist, novelist and director Pier Paolo Pasolini, brutally murdered in 1975, officially by suburbian thugs in a prostitution ride, unofficially for his extremely courageous political editorials published on the most important Italian newspapers of the time. In a very appropriate fashion, given the recent recrudescence of police abuse everywhere in the world, and particularly in the United States where Morrissey is usually based, the artist has chosen to screen some images of police brutality in the background while singing the very politically charged ‘Ganglord’. ‘Get yourself back to the ghetto!’ the lyrics recite. The issue has been a particularly burning one this year, following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the uncountable appalling cases of police abuse against people of colour. If it is obvious that all lives should matter equally, the Black Lives Matter movement, with the hostility it receives, shows that a huge amount of work still needs to be done to undermine and dismantle a system of institutionalised racism that is particularly pervasive in the United States. Morrissey’s choice to bring it up during the concert is further evidence that he does not shy away from openly denouncing all sorts of injustice and cruelty, as he has always done.
It’s 9.15pm, time for ‘Speedway’, which gets a Spanish spin through Gustavo Manzur, who sings ‘Yo siempre he sido fiel a ti’, the lyrics that give the title to Morrissey’s only trusted website TrueToYou.net, managed by loyal fan Julia Riley, to whom Morrissey entrusts his official statements. The next song is ‘Istanbul’, from the last album, during which we witness a brief stage invasion by a young man who hugs Morrissey and is then carried away by security. ‘He was a member of the crew’, Morrissey comments. Bruce Lee is featured on the backdrop, while boxer Rocky Graziano, Pier Paolo Pasolini and actors Albert Finney and Renée Jeanne Falconetti appear in the background (and on Walker’s bass drum) in various moments during the gig. Falconetti, in her intense interpretation of Joan of Arc in Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), will also appear on the cover of the reissue of World Peace is None of Your Business to be released in November 2016 by mysterious label Étienne. The title track ‘World Peace Is None of Your Business’ is thus introduced: ‘Sportsmen do not start wars. Neither do hairdressers, badgers or cows. Politicians do, and they love it.’ Gustavo Manzur plays a didgeridoo and Morrissey thanks us in Spanish (‘Gracias’) for most of the night. While I disagree with his argument against voting, it is impossible not to agree with the general sense of the song and the observation that democracy is partially a fantasy. Marilyn Monroe provides a charming background for the catchy trumpet-powered ‘Kiss Me A Lot’, famous for its perplexing official video decorated with sad women in underwear, the work of Morrissey’s nephew Sam Esty Rayner, star, in turn, of the much more creative Suedehead video of 1988. He is also the author of this photomontage, based on this photo of David Johansen of New York Dolls.
Morrissey seems satisfied, he seems to feel the love, although it can’t be denied that his hometown keeps dismissing his legacy while the entire world celebrates it. The band too is giving us a fantastic show: powerful and cohesive. Jesse Tobias’ electric guitar shares dominance of the scene with Matt Walker’s majestic drums, while Boz Boorer impresses with his versatility (from guitars to clarinet tonight). Mando Lopez does his solid bass job keeping a discreet profile on stage and multi-instrumentalist Gustavo Manzur embroiders the concert with beautiful melodies on guitar and singing in Spanish. A French flag is projected on the backdrop for ‘I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris’, while a beautiful bunch of orange gladioli is bravely held for the whole concert by somebody in the front rows. ‘I apologise to those who look at the big screen: I usually don’t look this bad, much worse’, Morrissey says. We know he’s lying, but we love him anyway. He then throws us a nostalgic ‘Ouija Board, Ouija Board’, of which you should all watch the video solely to admire Morrissey’s imperial quiff. At this point, Morrissey gets back to the Manchester Mayor issue and criticises the fact that a man from Liverpool has been appointed as Mayor of Manchester without anyone’s opinion being asked. In fact, no new Manchester mayor has been appointed and the first direct elections will be held in 2017, while the current mayor ad interim – former Labour MP Tony Lloyd – was appointed last year. Morrissey was probably referring to Liverpool-born Labour MP Andy Burnham, who has just been selected as the Labour candidate to run for the post next year.
It’s 9.40pm and it’s time for the song that usually concludes Morrissey’s gigs and triggers stage invasions, ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’, surprisingly mixed with 1962 hit ‘Quando Quando Quando’, by Italian singer and producer Tony Renis. It looks like Morrissey’s Italian connection is still strong, despite dating back to roughly a decade ago. It’s change of guitar for Boz Boorer and time for ‘The Bullfighter Dies’, a song about the revenge of the brutalised bull against a torero, which the singer introduces as ‘the shame of Spain’, followed by ‘Meat is Murder’. While screening the sickening images from a documentary about slaughterhouses in the background, Morrissey introduces the anti-cruelty anthem with this sequence: ‘The lamb looks at the farmer; the farmer feeds the lamb; the lamb trusts the farmer; the lamb follows the farmer; the farmer slaughters the lamb; the farmer gets the money. Fuck the farmer! KFC is murder, but you’re too fat to care. They’re not human beings, why should I care? They are not me, why should I care?’. I observe the crowd at the arena. While I have to look away from the screen because I know what eating animals means, I notice that most people in the venue are interested and are watching the documentary. I think about the teenagers here tonight and I’m glad they have a chance to watch this: they have to be aware of the immense cruelty involved in eating animals. Most meat-eaters (‘beefaroonies’, in Morrissey’s lyrics) do not want to think about what they are doing, so it is admirable that Morrissey, at every gig, reminds them. I respect him very much for including this extremely anti-commercial part in his shows. He always receives bitter criticism for it. After the gig, I read a comment on Facebook: ‘who is he to tell me what I have to eat?’ a woman asks when she discovers that the venue is meat-free for one night. One night, two hours, one meal. The woman complains that she cannot eat meat for two hours. Why are you here, madam? Have you ever heard of Morrissey? Matt Walker’s drums are perfect, dramatic: this is a very powerful moment in the gig. I bow to Morrissey’s consistency. His status as possibly the most influential artist of the late 20th century is entirely justified. Whatever the pop press writes, he’s undoubtedly one of the most loved songwriters in history.
A dramatic keyboard introduction by Gustavo Manzur leads into the unexpected ‘It’s Hard to Walk Tall When You’re Small’. Morrissey reappears now wrapped in a light blue shirt. It’s almost 10pm, Morrissey’s voice is absolutely perfect throughout the concert and this is ‘Jack The Ripper’. Jesse Tobias’ guitar is wonderfully distorted here. An image of young men carrying a coffin provides the background to ‘One of Our Own’. Morrissey says that he’d like to express his love for his support act Damien Hempsey, whom he calls a genius. Images of royals Kate and William adorn the background for ‘The World Is Full of Crashing Bores’. Morrissey’s contempt towards the royal family has remained unchanged, not only for their anachronistic existence as an institution, but also for their equally anachronistic and gruesome leisure activities such as hunting and shooting. While any other modern country would welcome a healthy debate about the appropriateness of preserving a monarchy in 2016 and funding much of its expenses with taxpayers’ money, in the United Kingdom it is still illegal to call for the abolition of the monarchy and, theoretically, you can get a life sentence if you declare yourself a republican in writing.
Morrissey tells us that he ‘assumes we might be tired now, so – he says – we’ll stay to wake you up’. What a heavenly way to wake up, with another unusual setlist choice: ‘I Will See You in Far-Off Places’, presented with a backdrop image of Pasolini’s magnificent Virgin Mary, Margherita Caruso, a non-professional actor chosen for his sublime, unforgettable version of The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo, 1964, which I strongly recommend). We are then gifted a Smiths’ jewel: ‘What She Said’, which drives the crowd mad (here’s a video). Before introducing ‘Oboe Concerto’ (Is that Marc Bolan in the background?) Morrissey remembers those we have lost in ‘the year of the reaper’: Victoria Wood, Caroline Aherne, Muhammad Ali, Prince. ‘Too soon’, he repeats three times. I’m not the only one who notices the loud absence of David Bowie in the list.
It’s almost 10.30pm, the band leaves the stage for a few minutes and our Boz trips and falls near the amplifiers, without any serious consequences, thankfully. They come back, they bow to each other and they say goodbye with ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’. ‘I wrote this song a long time ago’, Morrissey says, ‘and now we are in 2016 and nothing has changed: people are still sick of Labour and Tories.’ So true. Following the ritual, the last shirt he wears on stage, a blood red one, gets thrown in the crowd. Actor Maxine Peake will be among the lucky ones to get a few atoms of the holy shroud. The Divine leaves the stage, shirtless, and at 10.30pm sharp the lights are on and we are out.
Not having had enough, I decide to go to the Star & Garter, headquarters of one of the most famous Smiths and Morrissey club nights in the country and perhaps in the world. All the regulars are there, we’re all high with post-gig ecstasy. Soon there will be no room to breathe there too. The highlight of the evening is a lovely lady contorting herself on the floor Morrissey-style for ‘November Spawned A Monster’, the video of which features a hypersexy Moz who triggered the ire of machoman Henry Rollins’ documented in this vitriolic video.
The following day, among the most nonsensical comments on social media, two stand out: one about ‘Meat Is Murder’ ruining the otherwise perfect atmosphere and one about Morrissey not playing enough Smiths songs. Clearly some have missed that moment in history when The Smiths disbanded in 1987, that’s only 29 years ago; they ignore that Morrissey has released ten solo albums and also that the split was not particularly amicable.
To conclude, having been to a few of Morrissey’s shows in the past few years, I find it fascinating to observe how this artist has not lost a single drop of his energy and enthusiasm on stage. Even though many people still nostalgically cling to the marvellous image, body language and references of the young Morrissey of the 1980s, it seems like a cultural crime to bypass and ignore the equally important, dense and highly enjoyable work that he has produced after The Smiths. I love a ridiculous amount of musicians, but no one compares to Morrissey for the unique way he has changed the history of music, performance, songwriting and for the way he has affected, with his lyrics, the lives of so many people all over the world. It is a miracle.
- Alma Matters
- All You Need Is Me
- You Have Killed Me
- World Peace Is None Of Your Business
- Kiss Me A Lot
- I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris
- Ouija Board, Ouija Board,
- Everyday Is Like Sunday
- The Bullfighter Dies
- Meat Is Murder
- It’s Hard To Walk Tall When You’re Small
- Jack The Ripper
- One Of Our Own
- The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores
- I Will See You In Far-Off Places
- What She Said
- Oboe Concerto
- Irish Blood, English Heart