Morrissey attracts next generation of bands

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

May 06, 2004|By Glen Gamboa | Glen Gamboa,Newsday

Morrissey's experiences in the late '90s would have made anyone miserable, let alone the musical king of the disenfranchised for nearly two decades.

He lost a bitter court dispute with his former bandmates in the Smiths over royalties that not only cost him millions but also had him chastised by the judge in the case. He was dropped by his record label after his sixth solo CD, Maladjusted, was a critical and commercial flop. And his style -- a heady distillation of the world's problems into four-minute chunks filled with distinctive, often melodramatic, singing of sharp, literary lyrics -- was fading from the musical landscape, replaced by the thuggish roar of rap-metal and the flash of hip-hop.

Rather than altering his style, Morrissey stuck to his guns. He entered a self-imposed, seven-year musical hiatus without a record contract, opting instead to enjoy the Los Angeles sun in his home (built by Clark Gable for Carole Lombard) and maintain his standing with a series of low-profile, low-risk tours.

A funny thing happened during his long, slow walk toward cultish oddity and Where Are They Now? obscurity, though. A new generation of bands (and their fans) came chasing after him to call him back. His hit -- "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get" -- has come true.

"The planets have aligned, and there's a weird zeitgeist -- it's the right comeback at the right time," says Marc Spitz, the author of How Soon Is Never, a fictionalized account of a rock writer's attempt to reunite the Smiths. "It was smart of him to go away for a while to remind everyone of what they were missing. It's like dying without dying, and we all know about death and rock -- even fake death is a huge buzz-generating sort of thing."

Morrissey now finds himself embraced by mainstream outlets that previously shunned him. His new video is getting played on VH1. His new single, "Irish Blood, English Heart," is getting played on alternative-rock stations. This summer, he will headline the latest incarnation of Lollapalooza -- once the domain of hard-hitters such as Metallica, Nine Inch Nails and Red Hot Chili Peppers. And his forthcoming album, You Are the Quarry, is enjoying the kind of prerelease buzz generally reserved for newcomers, the kind the Strokes and the White Stripes have cultivated in recent years.

"It's finally his time," says Anthony, lead singer of the up-and-coming emo band Bayside. "All this music he influenced is so popular right now. New Found Glory, Brand New, bands like that are all huge right now, but their fans don't know where it came from. Hopefully, the kids will get it now."

After all, that's how 21-year-old Anthony, like many in his generation, discovered the music of Morrissey and the Smiths five years ago. "I grew up in the punk-rock scene, in the indie-rock scene," he says. "I had all these older friends tell me how great the Smiths were, and I had to check them out. I had never heard anything like it. Nobody is as sincere as they were. He sings like he means every thing he's saying. You have to believe every passionate note he sings."

Though neither the Smiths nor Morrissey ever reached the sales plateaus that contemporaries such as U2 and R.E.M. did, their artistic contribution has been just as impressive. A few years ago, a readers poll by the British music magazine NME named Morrissey the most influential artist ever for the band's hits "How Soon Is Now?" and "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" and his solo material, including "Everyday Is Like Sunday" and "Tomorrow."

Spitz, who interviewed Morrissey for the cover story of Spin magazine's May issue, says that multiplatinum sales for the 44-year-old singer are still not out of the question.

"Personally, I think the music is timeless," he says. "Even a lot of the solo stuff is going to find people 20 years from now, just like the Beatles or Elton John. From every generation, there's a few timeless acts, and there's a lot of one-song wonders whose music will be played at '80s nights and 'flashback lunches' forever. One path is toward kitsch, and the other is toward beautiful, timeless music. Time does separate the men from the boys, so to speak."

Spitz says Morrissey appreciates the influence he has had in shaping emo, as well as the new crop of stylish U.K. bands like Franz Ferdinand and the Libertines. "Punk rock was pretty repressed, and so was metal," Spitz says. "In the past few years, not only did the sound change but so did the subject matter. That traces back directly to the Smiths."

Though musically emo is clearly derived from punk, lyrically the genre owes a lot to Morrissey's emotional lyrics. John Nolan, the 25-year-old lead singer of "post-emo" buzz band Straylight Run, says Morrissey's lyrics have long encouraged him to be a better writer. "If nothing else, it kind of sets a bar for me as how I want to be as a lyricist," Nolan says. "He's by far one of the best lyricists ever, and he gives me something to aspire to."

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Morrissey plays the Apollo Theater in New York City (253 W. 125th St.) tonight through Saturday. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-481-SEAT or visiting

Pop music critic Rashod D. Ollison is on vacation. His column will return next week.

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