An Essay by Ryan Walker.
I’m trying not to make this an essay smothered in hero-worship about Morrissey, but trying to shine a freshly repaired light on, and provide some kind of journalistic entry into, what made the man many reach out for in moments akin to religious ecstasy first get excited about music. He was an adolescent in Manchester, in 1973, and it was by way of the Old Grey Whistle Test. Rarely now does a television broadcast exist on the levels of a revelation. But it changed his life, in order for him, to change (y)ours. Therefore, it is perhaps more accurate to summarise this piece before it really ends, as a way to inadvertently and indirectly relate to Morrissey, whilst exposing his initial romantic attractions to what crashed into civil life in all its backward banalities and tired assumptions about the many changing faces and new moods of youth. An elaborated way of what only requires four letters to encapsulate an entire state of mind – Punk. So, maybe this is an essay on Morrissey the punk. On Morrissey the boy. On Steven Morrissey the punk, and on Steven the boy, and all the important, historical details, essential to the completion of a human being we have all come to be haunted by, a forename for some reason carries.
Morrissey has often referred to the New York Dolls as ‘the Dolls’. The abbreviation alone provides a gateway into what the group represented to him, something close to his bones and hangs from his heart and worth protecting like one’s curious child in a busy supermarket. The New York Dolls injected something fresh and fierce into something that struck a chord with him to the point a day without that trashy, damaged glam racket, would practically force the pillars of his lonesome state of being to collapse and crush him. He confirms they provided him with a ‘uniqueness’, a sense of ‘personal discovery’, and so, they offered Morrissey, in his private world, a purpose. And in some ways, in an age where they were perhaps lost, in an era where they were exiled to the edge beyond the edge, one could argue he offered them one too.
The Dolls were punk before punk. The Stooges were punk before punk. Or The Velvet Underground were punk before punk. Suicide performed Punk music (no drums, no guitar – confrontational and dystopian, with an attitude of aloofness and broken, futurist cool) before the term started to circulate through the groups. This new, captivating energy offered artists, and anyone who tried, a sense of value – now hung up on something they could get to share a taste of, get lost in, and paradoxically, find themselves fully-formed upon experiential immersion. But as one person is distinct from the other, or so we would like to think; one kind of punk is different from the other. Despite the label of the name stapled into the forehead of each pioneer, leading the cosmic, cacophonous charge for particular, boiling swarms of erratic identities forming in the kernels of a culture being smashed to pieces and reassembled as they visualize the designs ahead. Meshing and melting and converging at this vibrant, violent, rebellious interface of 1973 and beyond, to the corners and corridors of common consciousness and relishing in the sheer volume of energy and intensity of a scene that birthed a million stars, each one shaped differently to the next, and shining at different brightness. Because it’s okay to not be like anyone else. Because it’s okay to be alone. Because it’s okay to be unlike. But equally, although empowerment is often a feature of being solitary, so too, is being with others – because, in different ways, we are the same.
Each group, each band, was compiled of misfits and heretics. The answer to everything is often in the antithesis, the pulse in the blood, the thud in the gut. The norm is a knot, and one which can be untied when someone stood on a stage embodies a beacon to other places, a wilderness beyond walls, a stretch of wonderment outside the door. Summed up by trash, a treasure to nobody except those who know how to unlock them, and in the face of so many despicable philistines, destroying themselves in different ways, doing and saying what no-one else would do or say, because things needed to be said and done and shaken up to satisfy the restless legs of a youth being led astray by an empire of institutions, blinded by their own ideological powers, but still find the time to look fantastic and belong to nobody but themselves, should their very lives depend on it.
Dads thought lads were gay by glimpsing at the album sleeve. And youth would listen to the lyrics. And youth would fall in love. And youth would look at the clothes. And youth would drop into the noise and never feel the same again. Youth, in and around punk, was stuck to just about anything which appeared out of place. Plus anyone that moved, criminalized a descendent from some extra-terrestrial hellish spectacle or foppish oddity in amongst the norm, readily, routinely immerse themselves in the venom of the melody. And they would subject their very heads to the feedback of an exploding amp which both dazzles and endangers an entire room of people who could drop dead at any given moment. Because a prayer to escape what ensnares us is nothing more than a means to get us on our knees – so why not do so whilst playing the guitar, the bass, and exorcize something like life depends on the strength of the song. To the calamitous, carnivorous ambience of bathroom cubicles, shared by one too many bathed under a cherubic neon glow; or the merciless beat howl, a frontman wrestling with a microphone stands as though it was metamorphosed into a cobra rising from the wicker basket. To the hypnotic trip of things being torn apart, heavy like defiant, giant, tribal, glamour hammers beating into the nails of society’s boffin coffin and rip the very roots up of this damn planet to begin again from the honesty of nothingness – from Ground Zero upwards, a blank slate outwards, the erasure of one’s forename as the ultimate act of sacrificing all it connotes, what it means, a memory of a history which makes your head hurt and your heart burst in a reality which offers nothing romantic and provides you with the psychological space to abscond the dogged, dross norm.
Like a shot of white-hot of voltage in both sides of the cranium, like a slap in the face or a dash of satirically-sharp sulphuric acid to sting one’s bejewelled cheek, the proto-punk, pre-Pistols cluster of bands, elaborate maximalism flattening all before it with an irrevocable attack, which earth has never really recovered from all these decades later. From New York to Detroit to Stretford and then everywhere else, is ultimately what we find firmly sedimented in the DNA of a young Steven. Who detected from the moment the lightning struck that this was not a cadaver cabaret, but this was something he could cling his life onto. Something that snapped the question in half of what was achievable for a teenager and embraces the answer which followed hereafter – that you could be anything or anyone, and that to resist temptation or refuse entry into the world of the New York Dolls was an attempt endlessly primed for abortion.
Iggy Pop was not Lou Reed, and Lou Reed was not David Johansen. Ron Ashton was not John Cale and John Cale was not Johnny Thunders. Mo Tucker was not Scott Ashton, who was not Jerry Nolan. And because of this unlikeness, because of New York City being able to be anthropomorphised as a living, breathing, storm of performance of hostility to the locus of utopian viewpoints which permeated San Francisco in the mid-’60s, whereby one altered mind there, is another mangled body there on the Lower East Side. We can say it’s in what people are, not which, Morrissey finds alluring (Nomi, Jobriath, Devoto, Vicious, Nico, Bowie, Bolan, Hell, Harry, perhaps even – the streets according to Vega). New York is a concept. An epicentre within which people are born and born again (in just over Warhol’s alleged 15-minute silkscreens and Fantasy Factory) and people are broken and rebuilt slightly differently to how they were. A concept which was represented, like a lipstick stain smeared over a tabula rasa, by the New York Dolls.
The characters who exist alongside this concept, of venom in the axiom opposed to virtuosity in the music, to be the best, and the worst, and do so on a separate plane to our own. The gods and peacocks who simply slip into our own time from elsewhere, from the cracks in the dull-coloured wallpapers that entomb the ones who wish to see things from a different angle, and therefore, are always a step ahead, a shade away. And at the age of 13, everything was changing, everything was racing against Steven, everything that was not, is what sucked him in and zapped him like opening a bolt in a bottle and suddenly the world which surrounded him; which encased him in the chains of isolation, could be escaped from – the mould could be broken and irradiate an encouraged effeminate spirit in people, an effervescent ray of bright light, in spite of what the maths teacher says, in spite of what the parents attempt to inculcate your brain and amputate your limbs with.
‘It was crucial for people to know the life behind Frankenstein’s monstrous eyes’.
One could digest a diet of Stooges, Velvets, Dolls, and be richly satiated for eternity, and not get bored, because life is just no fun without something to throw yourself against and into, hoping it swallows you and never ceases the immense hold. Yet, there is something immanent in the New York Dolls that has fascinated Morrissey in a way that wasn’t quite the same for the other two groups. It pushed him to the point of the presidency, a budding activist in favour of all things Dolls who would pin a badge on your lapel as a way to expose the Dolls and increase the cult numbers. It encouraged him to publish a book – New York Dolls, 1981, by Babylon. Like it was crucial for people to know the life behind Frankenstein’s monstrous eyes. Like if it was a sole contribution to literature, even though not a milestone, it wouldn’t matter, because if something, anything, would be chronicled, then so be it, by his hand. It enabled him to let them headline festivals – a 2004 show at the Royal Festival Hall as part of his Meltdown curation, 27 years after they broke, he assembled the pieces with an unshaken fidelity to his heroes, to provide a space for them brave a taste of modern life on the other side of entertainment in London and allow others to hear and see the songs which saved his life all those years ago.
They were riddled with symptoms of different experiences. They perceived New York and understood all it both offered and rejected in ways that draw a dividing line between what kind of drugs they took and what kind of clothes they wore, breaking down boundaries, for the genre, for gender, in ways which were so ahead of their time. Despite the size of their hair, or the inches on their platforms, or being forever in pursuit of a substance of righteous purity or preferred method of intake to conceptually confuse, convulse and shudder, the prosaic entrapments they find themselves – lost souls, wound up in; an urban purgatory between success and nothingness, between Television stickler intellect and untamed, untrained, Heartbreaker spirit, between one world and another. Every other ‘glam’ act, every other offshoot, and every other particle to this Happening – Roxy, Bowie, Hoople – ‘sensational though they are’, and situationist in their own way, could not touch upon the kind of toughness that butchered the Dolls as a group forever on the peripheries of everything in pop. Bowie and Ferry were British – a context for a different kind of style and sleaze, entwined with a different mode of intellect and mood to protrude from their idiosyncratic artistry and iconoclastic nexus. Augmenting and taking to the extremes, the clashing colours and overlapping layers of beauty abused, as some queer, electrocuted, an underground gang, opening up culture from within to reveal all it works hard to conceal, for in the eyes of the underground the civility of others is another gallon of lunacy to fuel their anarchic, arty pop fire, ambushing culture and subverting what beauty can typically be used for; because to be typical is to be tyrannical. For when the stars align, the strings are hit, the poetry recited, the bullets fired, it’s less about being in a band so much as transforming one’s entire life, one’s entire look into an art project; or a bomb about to go off at any given moment. And wholly – as doomed from the start, as dark and camp, as plighted and plagued by a succession of bad-luck beatings, but as destined to do good things as crystallized in the context of 1973/4 and rippling throughout the ages ever since – an eternal Personality Crisis: Ravaged, Beautiful, Poor, Young; which we are all perhaps, unanimously apart of.
He loved them because perhaps, nobody else did, to the levels they deserved– it was their placement inside a desolate bottom draw, somewhat marginalized and embarrassing when compared to their cultural counterpoints/parts like Lou or Patti or Iggy which all seemed to poetically, potently, explode in a way which was considered ingenious in amongst the grim, gritty concrete landscape of New York and its heroin noir film haze, traces of Chinese rocks in the surrounding supernova like shattered glass on the sidewalk. The Dolls just seemed to fail on the second album, the expectations already subsided thanks to the debut, which although a landmark in hindsight and burned with a brief, furious stab of impact to shake the studious faces into something more glamorous and grotesque, barely grazed the top 100 billboard in 1971. Such conditions provided a requisite for various stages of atrophy to occur – a drug addict here, a broken dream there, a supergroup or two, each moment, and each member, riddled porcelain and ravaged plastic objects, to be desired and destroy, by the broken mirrors and barbed wires they peeked into and were wrapped up in – their Pretty faces, were indeed, going to Hell.
Pop is an opportunity. Rock is a coffin.
The New York Dolls flashed not just like a gang, but his gang. They belonged to him. Like there’s a feeling The Smiths belong to us – as a source of empowerment, daily narration, a pathway forth through the mudded guts of each hour. And like The Smiths had never happened before. So too, The New York Dolls had never happened before. It was pop, not rock. Pop is an opportunity. Rock is a coffin. It was a breath of fresh air that beat the living shit out of the lungs of what came before it which lumbered along too long for its own good. A slice of the knife from the waistline to the armpit in society’s mannequin side and do something which repulses hundreds but speaks to hundreds more. Because society was a decomposing corpse. Encased in concrete which was simply dropped onto the soil and stayed there for a lifetime and each inhabitant of this suburbia was decorated in heavy veils of unfaltering wallpaper patterns which refused to peel, but with enough oomph, they could be torn – an analogy for the urgency within each daydreaming delinquent to rip the clothes from our backs, to remove the skin from our bones, and begin again. And because to trample the corpse, to bury the body, by the force of high-heels or steel toecap Doc Marten boots, it was a welcome gesture of not-taking-no-shit-from-no-one. The bands we have come to thank for so much, forefathers spearheading this spark in the darkness, Dolls included, shocked Morrissey in ways parallel to our should we wish to superimpose ourselves into his shoes in 1973 when watching the band rip through the eruptive, neurotic pop jolt of ‘Jet Boy’, an effusive dynamo of cadence and vehement melody fizzing to the brim, falling away again, then rebuilding itself to a mesmerizing apogee of excitement and uproar.
Like these bizarre creatures from the abyss, have either been unearthed or escaped from somewhere, our very own moments where a hole is blown in one’s mind, be it a Sex Pistols experience, imploding from behind the screens of a So It Goes broadcast in 1976 as though Lydon’s head just might pop off at any moment, rotting and corroded, and a year later, instruct culture to Never Mind The Bollocks a means to unsettle things further, staring into the cardboard landscape that was England’s pipedream. Or equally, experiencing The Smiths for the first time, in a concomitant fashion to the outrage and sublime nature of what we have just assimilated– an eponymous debut album in 1982, a Top of the Pops appearance a year later, unveiling the entire package, aesthetically, ideologically, to an audience yearning for something new to witness with their eyes wide and their jaws dropped, as ‘This Charming Man’ charges fast towards them. Over before they can really take in what has taken them. Like they were always waiting for something to happen but it was just a matter of time. To transport them, unknowingly, entirely, Elsewhere, and then the furniture starts to look quite frumpish, and the future outside starts to look like its balls can be grasped in the palms of one’s hand. And the pamphlet of rules you thumb through and follow, no longer seem to be believable or worth adhering to or possible of corresponding to what communicates with you on airwaves undetectable to the old-hacks and stale smells and stagnant, ham actors. And the bands you used to be into start to sound quite foolish and out of touch with your ultramodern outlook, and this brilliant, nasty, new noise, which fills the heart and floats to the head, an indefeasible feeling which educates in a way that textbooks fail to.
They are pieces of music which destroyed so many presumptions, so many crass and callous conventions about what pop music could say and do, stand for and look like, that at the time, a lot like Bowie, a lot like Reed, a lot like Smiths – these people, these works of art, were derided and denounced for their quizzical attitudes to life, like they were assassins of lacklustre culture, communicating to the Children of a Revelation who wanted a grain to kick against rather than some villainous axis to spin themselves around. Which now, all these years later, we consider the quintessential gimmick (eyepatch, heels, feathers, syringe, safety pin, hearing aid, NHS glasses, flowers) forever affixed to a point in history. And there’s a lineage that confirms the existence of something bigger than ourselves at work to keep things in motion from one moment in time spilling sublimely into another. A live wire from one temporal hotspot to another and igniting all those above it. From transvestitism to anarchy to celibacy, where everyone looks fabulous under red lights. From the Doll’s ‘Chatterbox’, to Too Much, Too Soon in 1974 (with its handful of thunderous drums and erratic, jagged guitar) to the dizzying 1986 ‘Bigmouth’, who will never be silenced.
In the case of the Dolls, it wasn’t an exhibition of dressing-up-box-glam according to either Stardust or Quatro and the other lightweight elements of the scene which fills enough comic frames and the strip but is of no further intelligible, delectably electric value here – but possessed an air of danger and decadence, hedonism and enchantment, a caustic warmth, an abrasive irritation, a point of provocation and anointing the extraordinary by ascending them from a death sentence at street level to the in one sleazy, street-smart, composite body. Sweeping them off their feet if they wanted to try a slice and in its wake, leaving a gaping hole in the arse-end of the earth which people are still falling through to this day. Be it when they buy the LP, or look at the photographs, or watch the footage – they fall for something like they fall in something – ‘love at first sight, or sound’. A similar grave miscalculation, more ignorance due to appearance than anything else, has always been afoot when discussing The Smiths – seen by some as a band who were effete and fey and twee but possessed enough aggression in their live shows and passion in their artistic merit to melt millions. An alien in the work of art which must have made an impression on, and appealed to, the strategies of attack and plans put into place by Morrissey years later – to not replicate; to not rest, yet to set fire to whatever should fall in one’s way, to introduce taboo in a pop song and use as the greatest weapon of all to wield. From the Lad Insane, to ‘Jet Boy’ and ‘Handsome Devil’ – we cannot underestimate what the Dolls did. For in order for Steven, to become Morrissey, in order to know, how he got his name, they just had to have happened, because he just had to have happened too.