He does test you though. Having ditched Kristeen Young (for the second time) as a support act, he’s extended the video that has been playing before his stage entrance for some years. In my recollection, it used to be about 10 minutes long and took place when the house lights were off. Most people thought it was a short intro film and when they realised it wasn’t boredom and fidgeting set in. At least now he keeps the lights up, so everyone realises they’re going to have to sit/stand through 30 minutes of what goes on inside his mind. And quite the eye-opener it is too. Some of it’s pretty normal, unsurprising: The Ramones, the New York Dolls, Ike and Tina, and, in the past, The Small Faces, Jobriath, Eno, Nico, Francoise Hardy, even Tim Buckley. But interspersed between these music clips you get some outright weird shit. From poetry – Anne Sexton reciting Wanting To Die (cheerful) and an interview with Edith Sitwell – to a grainy 70s clip of Charles Aznavour, a brief interview with novelist James Baldwin, and a bit of prog-metal from System of a Down-adjacent band Mt. Helium (highly uncharacteristic of his taste), immediately followed by a movie clip of flamenco dance pioneer José Greco. Then, just when you think it can’t get weirder, on comes 60s comic Rex Jameson, as his cross-dressing alter ego Mrs Shufflewick. And just before the brief final clip, which is always drag performer Lypsinka, we get an indescribably weird song with Leo Sayer-as-a-clown. It’s all very Morrissey. It’s all very odd. Who else could get away with this? The things you’ll endure for love.
There’s something about seeing a second night played at the same venue. Not that I was sure the setlist would differ significantly, as you can never predict this man’s moods. He could just as easily have played the same songs in the same order as he had the night before. But he’s also capable of surprising me, and to my delight he made extensive changes, which he almost never does, letting go of What She Said (and its snippet of Rubber Ring, which would have been landmark to hear), Yes I Am Blind, two new songs, plus I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris, which I’ve always found dull. I’ve got a list going on Facebook of gigs I’ve seen, and perhaps the nerdiest aspect of it is the Moz song list. Eighty-six different songs played at 16 gigs over nine years and four months. So I’m checking the list now to see how many new songs I got to hear… seven! That is remarkable. The total now sits at 93.
He opened with an acapella line “If I made you feel second best, I'm so sorry I was blind” (from Always On My Mind) then launched into You’ll Be Gone, one of only 10 songwriting credits that had the name Elvis Presley listed (I suspect he didn’t do much writing for any of those). Let’s get the new song statistics out of the way first. That Elvis tune, obviously. Super obscure song Let The Right One Slip In, a B-side leftover from the Your Arsenal sessions (more Ronson production genius), check. Boxers, a one-off single to promote a 1995 tour, shoved on a compilation (World Of Morrissey) shortly after, check. My Dearest Love, B-side of All You Need Is Me (great song), check. Alma Matters, a bad pun and the first single from Maladjusted, which I thought I’d heard before, but hadn’t, check. Oboe Concerto, from the new album, let’s face it a rewritten version of Death Of A Disco Dancer, and almost as good, check. And finally, to push our devotion to critical mass, one of his most beautiful and most Moz-like songs ever, Will Never Marry. It’s mostly swelling strings, not much to sing, but every word is meaningful:
I’m writing this to say
In a gentle way, thank you, but no
I will live my life as I will undoubtedly die, alone
I’m writing this to say
In a gentle way, thank you
I will live my life as I
For whether you stay or you stray an inbuilt guilt catches up with you
And as it comes around to your place at 5 a.m., wakes you up
And it laughs in your face
I feel like I’ve been waiting to hear that song since the second I saw the video, in which he receives heartfelt expressions of love and affection from total strangers. If that is the last new song I ever hear him sing, I can live with that. But I don’t fall for all that drama; I think the tickets under-sold (they were very expensive) and he wanted to drum up some attention. And despite his lengthy list of issues with Bowie, I also think it was a little nod to the last Ziggy show. Without getting into too much detail, it’s fairly obvious that his whole ‘no record label wants me’ tantrum is bullshit. He has been offered countless deals and is known to turn them down because they are ‘360’, meaning that, like everyone else in music who is asked to sign a record contract, a slice of touring is part of the package due to the state of record sales. But since Moz lives in 1973 in his head – obsessed with airplay and chart positions, the quicksand last quarter of his autobiography is devoted to such statistics – he does not (perhaps understandably) want to give anyone a cut of the only way he makes money. So he remains unsigned. Then says nobody is interested in signing him. It’s a classic Moz move. Ever poetic, near the end, like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard asking DeMille for her close-up, he tells the crowd, “our UK days conclude, but there is no need for me to say goodbye because we will all be close for the rest of our days” before launching into the last song of the night: a frenzied version of the ever-powerful and subversive The Queen Is Dead.
In the face of endless criticism for loving Morrissey, what is it exactly that makes me go again and again just so I can look at that square jaw and greying quiff? My gig-going companion saw him before we met at the Livid Festival in Brisbane in October 2002, 10 days no less after I saw Bowie at Hammersmith (that took some Googling!). I remember her telling me someone threw a bra onstage, which he picked up, made a disgusted face and threw back into the audience. Of course he did. He also played Meat Is Murder, bathed in red light, and that was it for her, that light-switches-on moment. I didn’t imagine when she took me to see my first show in 2006 that I’d equal the number of times I saw Bowie. She has a theory about him, which we’ve come to call ‘Morrissey is me’. I can’t do it justice but it’s about his flaws being our flaws. His imperfections and oddness and madness and anger and bitterness and vulnerability and aloneness being reflections of ours. He makes many mistakes and they are our mistakes too. And no matter how many people tell you Morrissey is a prick both online and to your face it only strengthens your adoration. Or something like that, I can’t get it right but I will never tire of hearing it. Why only this week, as I wrote this, another torrent of ridicule and humiliation has come his way, due to the release of his first, and surely last, novel List of the Lost. Nobody is taking any pleasure in reporting that it’s an unedited disaster, an unreadable mess that a renowned publisher like Penguin should hang their heads in shame over putting out in such a state. The reviews I’ve read are by wounded Moz fans who just feel let down by him (not for the first time), from Michael Hann at the Guardian to Medium’s Emily Reynolds; they seem to be in some sort of physical pain from having to report that the book is dreck. They took one for the team and read it so we don’t have to; the consensus is that it makes his Autobiography (which was brilliant until it wasn’t) look like Ulysses. But again, this only somehow strengthens everyone’s devotion. So he’s written an awful book, so what? Love can’t be extinguished by his poor judgement – if it could we’d all have abandoned him years ago.
Of course, he can go too far, even for me. I’m already a vegetarian man, because of you, what more do you want of me? He makes me sit through footage of animal slaughter, the backdrop to Meat Is Murder; usually it doesn’t get to me, but this time it really did. I was quite near the front, maybe 15 or 20 feet back, so I got hooked in for the first minute. To illustrate his point, which you know he feels he must make night after night, he has sought out the worst examples of animal cruelty, factory farming. It’s too much for a lot of people; many look away. Cows imprisoned in tiny cages. Chickens having their beaks sliced off. That kind of thing. But of course, the very worst examples of slaughter practices are the creation of halal and kosher meat, so I’m confronted with the unedifying spectacle of Hebrew and Arabic captions stating that a lot of the footage is taken from Middle Eastern slaughterhouses, which makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. This is a language I have a tattoo in (shalom: peace), below my Morrissey tattoo, and it appears on screen as writhing, distressed animals’ throats are slit and blood pours out as their lives drain away. Stunning animals (so, it’s said, they aren’t conscious as they are slaughtered) is accepted worldwide as the only humane part of this animal losing its life so someone can eat a burger but it is banned in kosher/halal processes, for spurious reasons of course, as is true of most religion-based rulings. Too complex to go into the details (Google ‘shechita’ if you’re interested) but of course it makes for a snuff film that this trapped audience must tolerate. Of course, he goes too far sometimes and in interviews has compared the daily animal slaughter to the Holocaust, which despite my passion for animal welfare I find to be way over the line. Nevertheless, when you must stand and listen (even if you look away from much of the footage, as I did) to sound clips of cows mooing, with those brutal lyrics, which he now embellishes to make the audience feel as bad as possible, well, anyone would come away feeling sick. And that’s what he wants.
Earlier in the show, not to neglect humans, during Ganglord the screen shows extreme footage of police brutality, including murders of innocent, mostly African-American, citizens by power-crazed cops. More snuff films. This is who he is. You walk into his house, where you’re held captive and confronted with the worst of humanity, the worst of human behaviours. And yet, in between songs he makes you laugh hard, he gives you every droplet of sweat from his body, he encourages fans to try to make it onto the stage to touch him, he reaches down and touches as many hands as he can. This is the dissonance that makes us go back again and again.
On the musical side, he’s finally added some nuance and subtlety to his band, who’ve been slogging on behind him for a decade or more, with occasional member changes. Mostly this comes in the form of Colombian-American Gustavo Manzur, who plays keyboards, trumpet, accordion, flamenco guitar, and even steps forward to sing the last half of Speedway in Spanish. He’s genuinely added something new, a Latino flavour which fits perfectly, to the proceedings. He joined in 2009 but his impact has grown year on year, with his influence felt in all corners of World Peace Is None Of Your Business. The new Alain Whyte is finally here.
After Meat Is Murder, which only a heartless person would be untouched by, he creates a calm after the storm as we reach the show’s end. It’s like he’s thanking you for sitting through the red light, torture and feedback by playing one of his sweetest, gentlest, most touching songs, Now My Heart Is Full. It’s the perfect five words. It’s how every fibre of my being feels during one of his concerts. That man gave me life in Hammersmith and will do so again today and the next day. He is me, I am him, and we are all together.
The gig ends in chaos of course, like all of his do. The crowd surges forward to catch his discarded shirt, with the fight for it broken up by exhausted security guards and their scissors long after the lights have come up and the venue is nearly empty. They don’t want to let go. That, I understand. Until the next time.
You'll Be Gone / Let The Right One Slip In / Suedehead / Speedway / Ganglord / Boxers / World Peace Is None Of Your Business / Kiss Me A Lot / Staircase At The University / Alma Matters / Will Never Marry / My Dearest Love / The Bullfighter Dies / The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores / Oboe Concerto / Meat Is Murder / Now My Heart Is Full / Mama Lay Softly On The Riverbed / I Will See You In Far-Off Places / Everyday Is Like Sunday // The Queen Is Dead
Photograph: Gaelle Beri/Redferns via Getty Images
I was a slightly odd teenager. I know, not a big shock. Fairly sheltered, I didn’t go to friends’ houses nor did they come to mine (they lived too far away, we had no car) and I spent the weekends with my grandparents, and from 1990 onwards just gran, who really raised me as much as my parents did. I didn’t go out partying until I was nearly 17 (which I turned in October 1993); gran would visit London and I’d be left to my own devices in her flat, where adult merriment was had. Before then, in the more innocent late 80s and very early 90s, I’d spend time watching old movies and mountains of music videos. Pop promos were the big thing in those days; they actually mattered to a career and defined bands and their songs. I taped the videos for new singles onto VHS and played them until they wore out and watched the more niche clips on TV shows (like ITV’s Raw Power) that ran well after midnight. I remember staying up late to watch the premieres of Madonna and Michael Jackson videos on Channel 4: a new pop promo was a huge deal in those days and warranted great fanfare. I didn’t have MTV, so I would tape hours of it when I went down to London to visit my aunt and uncle and their little ones. The MTV rock show Headbangers Ball was a fave, I was really into metal in those days. Anything slightly weird and/or outside of the charts caught my eye and ear, functioning alongside the musical education I was receiving from my parents. I haven’t watched MTV in years but I don’t think they put much music on now, and the videos they do put on are simple – pedestrian pop music with ladies in various states of undress. Anyway, one night I was watching 120 Minutes, their flagship alternative/indie show. It was late 1990, I was shortly about to turn 14, and this video came on.
I had never seen anything like it. It looked like what would now pass for an episode of American Horror Story. A band with big backcombed hair (and not in a Motley Crüe kind of way) and plenty of poorly applied foundation and red lipstick (men in make-up had been my thing since childhood; as I said: odd kid). It was a big dark pop tune, with an unusual voice selling it to me. The video told a tale of a carny sideshow. I had never seen anything like it. Last night, I got to hear that song, Never Enough, 24 years after I fell in love with that pop group, The Cure. I got the ticket by chance. With the closure of the essential Scarlet Mist, a face value ticket exchange, which I have benefitted from so very many times, I’ve been on the lookout for a new ticketing marketplace in order to avoid being ripped off by touts if my admittedly famed ticket-getting karma fails me. The most reliable source now is Twickets, an app (no use to me, my phone purposely has no online access) and Twitter feed. For no particular reason I was browsing my feed and a post popped up offering a ticket to see The Cure at the Hammersmith Apollo. Less than a minute had passed and I was the first to reply. I had no time to think, I just did it. Be ready to take your chances, I always say. A lovely Scouse girl had a spare, and was coming down for the show. Several excitable texts later and the ticket was mine. I met a friend at the venue and tried to prepare, for I had been warned by friends, you see, to steel myself. I already knew that they play long shows. I mean, Springsteen long. The night before they’d done a 40-song setlist. Forty songs. Ok, this is not The Grateful Dead, and their 15+ minutes of meandering solos. These are short, sharp, perfect pop songs. But still, that equated to quite the marathon, and I ain’t as young as I used to be, so my standing ticket was going to be a bit of a challenge. Wisely, I suggested we go over to one side, just behind the disabled section (where a fight nearly broke out later, due to a drunken idiot, but that’s another story) and perch by the wall, so we could lean on something. Very smart move, it turned out. For I was to get 40 songs too, and the longest gig I’ve ever seen by a single band (the previous record was Bowie, in the same venue in 2002: 33 songs and 2½ hours or so).
The support act was terrible, though the hardcore at the front seemed to like them. I didn’t realise there were still lead singers who took themselves that seriously. A bit of Ian Curtis crossed with Jim Morrison and the talent and presence of neither. A bit shoegaze-y and a bit goth, you could see why they’d been chosen. Interminable though. I remembered there’s a reason why I usually spend the minutes leading up to the headliner in the pub. They were called And Also The Trees and, as it turns out, having just researched them (they’re The Cure’s pet project, I’m unsurprised to learn), they’re ancient. That makes it worse somehow. A new band being so derivatively naïve you wouldn’t mind, you’d think it was almost sweet. Now I see they’ve been around for 30+ years – get a new act. Please. You don’t do gloomy torch songs well, move on.
The crowd seemed arranged by age: young sweet alt kids at the front; in the middle, the fans in their 20s, out of university and letting their hipster flag and luminescent hair fly. Then, in the good standing spots, the rest of us in our 30s and 40s, being sensible and not wishing to get pushed around. I’ve been each one of those groups; now and then I dip in and turn the clock back but mostly I’m the one near the bar these days, nodding and singing along; mentally, and subconsciously, noting everything. I know as much about The Cure as I do any other band from the 80s and 90s I’ve loved for years, because even though I’m certain they make new albums, I don’t pay attention to them. I’m not sure anyone outside their fanbase does. But I knew they had an august reputation as a live band, because I have a couple of friends who adore them. Strangely, I’m scooping up all the classic bands at the moment, not entirely accidentally or on purpose, and this felt like another one to tick off. See ‘em before they pop off, Leah said to me a couple of years ago, after we saw some ancient pop star I forget the name of. She’s right. It sounds a bit doomy but we’re living in an age where nearly all the great rock stars of the 50s are gone (Fats, Little Richard, Jerry Lee and Chuck are clinging on, that’s it really) and the ones of the 60s and 70s are about to start dropping like flies (the brilliant Joe Cocker left us as I was travelling to this gig). In the next decade we will lose people that… well, let’s just say I’m glad my mother won’t be here to see it. There’s a reason Lou going hit so hard, the great unspeakable truth of it is too much to contemplate... Those parts of your life since youth, those artists and iconic figures – they taught you, you made yourself out of them. They won’t be here forever.
Of course, Robert Smith is 55 and his lifelong bandmate Simon Gallup (as always, a hot tattooed quiffed rockabilly goth) is 54 so I don’t refer to them. I mention it because in 2015 I’ll be seeing a bunch of old geezers do their thing. Queen (and the terrifically entertaining Adam Lambert) in January, a band I’ve waited for a quarter of a century to properly see. The first band I loved. In March, The Who. In June, Fleetwood Mac (waited 18 years for that one). Then, ridiculously, Bette Midler in July (which will be a highly entertaining old school vaudeville throwback). Then Santana, the week after. Of all people! Rock history, right there, dad has persuaded me I must see him. In between all that, yes, I’ll see Tune-Yards and Flying Lotus and FKA Twigs and who knows who else, but I’m going on a 2015 tour of rock history (including two acts who played Woodstock, for goodness sake). So in that spirit, The Cure, as one of the favourite bands of my teen years, found themselves on that bucket list of bands to see.
And I have to say, it was one of the great pop concerts I have ever seen. Most gigs follow patterns, delineated by the material – new, old and/or obscure (deep cuts, B-sides, remember those?). The flow of a concert will be consistent with a new artist (like the aforementioned FKA Twigs, say), as everyone’s there to hear the new album. Someone with a few records under their belt (like Arcade Fire) will play half new/half old setlists, with the temperature hovering around a simmer, going up to a boil for the songs everyone loves. The Cure somehow managed to keep it at a consistent boil throughout with the occasional wild mad energy jump for the biggest hits. Even the songs of theirs I didn’t know, and there were plenty, felt familiar and were a joy to hear.
As a writer, Robert Smith knows well enough how to work incredibly hard and make it look easy. He’s so gifted as a creator of pop music; the songs are just unutterably pleasant to listen to even if they’re strangers to you. You manage to forget exactly how many, for want of a better word, ‘famous’ songs he’s written. With the exception of one of the great 90s pop tunes, Friday, I’m In Love, and Let’s Go To Bed they played everything any gig-goer could have wanted. The show was so compelling, so brilliantly executed, I forgot what hadn’t been played yet and the third and fourth encores were a blizzard of hits that genuinely surprised me. It was a special night. I made a quick exit as they played their last song and that was as the show ticked over to the three hours and ten minutes mark. I had so many moments where my brain went ‘Aw, wow, I forgot about this one!’ Like when they started the gorgeous Pictures Of You. I had simply forgotten it existed, so rapt was I by the performance. Every part of each song was delivered with care: not a note was wasted. Propulsive drumming (Jason Cooper, magnificent, drove the whole show), flawless keyboard parts (Roger O’Donnell, who has been in and out of The Cure for 27 years), Gallup’s winding, sonorous bass played like a lead guitar, and Smith’s voice sounding just like the records, strong and slightly whiny, but charming. No backing vocalists – it was all just him, though I admit I couldn’t hear a word of his between-song mumbling, though I could gather he was content and happy to be there. The chemistry between Smith and Gallup is always such a pleasure to watch, those two old stagers doing their thing for the 38th year in a row.
I also derived some amusement from the guitarist recently drafted in – our old friend Reeves Gabrels (note: their current absent long-term guitarist Porl Thompson is now a trans woman called Pearl, how wonderful). A lifetime, a century, ago (1999) he was fired by Bowie because of his coke habit. He’s obviously sorted his life out and it was quite nice to see him back, looking well, with Doc Brown-esque plug socket hair, and adding a great new sonic palate to another bunch of classic songs. Admittedly, he doesn’t seem stretched (jokes aside, he’s a gifted musician) but he’s a creditable addition, fits in nicely and kept the ridiculous guitar solos to a tolerable minimum. He gets to play legendary pop songs night after night; it’s not a bad job to have. Those songs, those towering songs… they just kept coming. They were judiciously dotted around the first 2 ½ hours of the set like gemstones sparkling at the bottom of a pool. A Night Like This, Lovesong, In Between Days, Just Like Heaven (which has one of my favourite first verses, what great writing), The Walk, A Forest, Three Imaginary Boys, Charlotte Sometimes and on and on.
It felt so good. Like a piece of my teenage years had come to meet me as I push 40 over here. I was obsessed with Lullaby in my youth. I listened to it over and over and transcribed the lyrics (with a pencil!) from the cassette tape, just because I wanted to read them (ah, the pre-internet universe!) The band were as tight as a drum, and it was a pleasure to see musicians enjoying themselves. They set about their task with great determination, stamina and style, for I can’t think of which other artist does shows like this, with such a wide scope of song choice and devotion to their audience. I suppose Springsteen is the closest, as he also plays marathons and plucks out album track obscurities for the delight of the hardcore fans and his own amusement. All pop/rock gigs are ‘a bit of what I want to play/a bit of what you want to hear’ but this one felt different, most likely because of the sheer length of the show. You felt like everyone was on this journey together, through our lives and theirs, and it built and built. People are used to 90-minute shows then schlepping home and worrying about getting up for work in the morning. Everyone just utterly lost themselves at this gig. A few filtered out, as they had trains to catch, but 99% stayed and revelled and hoped it would never end. And those songs, they kept on coming – Lullaby was extraordinary, greeted with such love. Fascination Street. Why Can’t I Be You? The Lovecats, Close To Me (incidentally, haven’t their videos aged incredibly well?!)… And of course, an oddly slowed down, but no less powerful, Boys Don’t Cry. Everything was spent, delivered, given to us. We gave our hearts back.
1. Shake Dog Shake
2. Piggy in the Mirror
3. A Night Like This
5. In Between Days
6. Just Like Heaven
8. The Caterpillar
9. The Walk
10. A Man Inside My Mouth
11. Wailing Wall
12. Three Imaginary Boys
13. Never Enough
14. Wrong Number
15. Birdmad Girl
17. Like Cockatoos
18. From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea
19. Kyoto Song
22. The Hungry Ghost
23. One Hundred Years
24. Give Me It
25. The Top
26. The Empty World
27. Charlotte Sometimes
30. Play for Today
31. A Forest
32. Pictures of You
34. Fascination Street
35. Dressing Up
36. The Lovecats
37. Close to Me
38. Why Can't I Be You?
39. Boys Don't Cry
40. Hey You!