In 2012, Morrissey reached that place he has been aiming for since, if not the start of his career, certainly by The Queen Is Dead. He joined a pantheon of English singers of the pre-rock and roll era, folks like Frankie Vaughn and Anthony Newley: big, oversized, baritone braced belters of popular English pop. Hungover from the old world of Opera singers, everything these guys huge voices dealing with big emotions,were used to batter the platitudes into the ground.
This became clear, Morrissey's intentions became clear, late in his Wednesday night set at Radio City Music Hall and not during the middle, controversial "Meat Is Murder" section. "Meat Is Murder" was very, very powerful, a beautiful (I realize that isn't the word), crafted piece of propaganda, which ended with his three piece rock band playing a saw cutter streamlined sound, as terrifying as anything as you will ever see, while the images, a bull having its testicles cut off, chicken, fish, calves being force fed, plays itself out. Yes, it was art, it was brilliant. But it wasn't the point.
Starting late in the set with his unreleased "People Are The same Everywhere", and continuing through two Smiths covers and two songs off Year Of Refusal, the set reached its apotheosis, its ultimate reason for being: four brilliant vocals and a fond adieu. Look, Morrissey has always had the deeply felt voice, the boom of opera to the ephemera of pop it is what he does. But he has grown as a singer, Thursday night he ululated, he scatted, he trilled, traversed lines, bars, through sheer brute power, he belted himself to the engine of his band and roared forth. At 53 years old, with his mane of silver and light lavender shirt and wandering jaw line, he looked the role he had become.He looked like the sepia pictures he placed on so many of the Smiths record sleeves, like he could be singing next to the Francois Hardy on a double decker during the videos that played earlier. There is no doubt he could have had the audience in the palm of his hand, if he had just manipulated his setlist with a little cunning, that became abundantly clear when "Still Ill" floored us. He dismissed cunning for a concert built to express his artistic ambitions. And his ambition…?
Think of the David Bowie who covered "Wild Is The Wind", subtract the youth and coke addled paranoia, add Tom Jones and subtract the rock, throw in Newley and subtract the dancehall… then add a layer of emotional turbulence and songs, words, that express an abiding tiredness, cynicism, disheveled glory in love and mix very hard and you have where Morrissey has found himself. And finally add to this a certain type of lyricism that takes the blowhard nonsense of English pre-rock pop and blows the erudite wisdom of Patron Saint Oscar Wild at it, and then turns up the heat to 11. "You have killed me" is a typical sentiment. Obviously he is not dead. Girlfriends are in comas, rumors prove true, the men he loves are not just men but hard cases, they are James Fox in "Performance" or Spring-Heeled Jim, who will do but never be done to. He channels himself into the man who desires the men he wants to be. It is a bizarre narcissism. And it has always been fascinating but especially as he has moved away from "well, nevermind nevermind".
The band were excellent, especially the bassist who gave every song a buzzsaw like the opening of "Meat Is Murder", and which plays in the back of your mind, through so much of the set. Before the encore, everybody leaves the stage except for the bassist who slices and dices the stage. Remember, appearance notwithstanding, this was not a rock and roll set. These were deep English pop ballads. But played as rock and roll. Very, very impressive band.
But it took Morrissey awhile to get to where he was going with this set, and it cost him a portion of his audience, who lost interest circa "Meat" and didn't come back. The first hour wasn't a wash, but it was the mediocrity that seemed to have infected his Waterbury gig last week. When Morrissey spoke, he spoke in soundbites. Before "You're The One For Me, Fatty" he warned, "Not too much excitement, careful" and near the beginning of the show advised the audience "don't let the feeling go to waste". Staring around Radio City, he provided the pun of the evening, "It is hard to create an atmosphere", he said, before a killer one liner, "Breath in, breath out". Later, "Are you still breathing? Do you feel anything? How do you know?". He changes the "nevermind" on "Shoplifters" suggesting he does mind, and he touches fingertips with fans near the front of the stage during "Throwing My Arms Around Paris". He strips off his sopping wet with sweat shirt and throws it to the audience. Worries about whether he embarrassed himself on "Colbert". Entirely taken up with the performance, still, he isn't reaching the fans the way he deserves to. If he had just thrown in a few of his bigger songs. For the casual fan, all there is is "Shoplifters" really. He skipped "Maladjusted".
At the time, sitting in the second mez, and wondering why nobody uses close circuit TV any more, I was restless at points. My pleasure in the set now doesn't reflect the pleasure I felt at the time. I was doubtful, waiting patiently for the set to ignite, and when it did ignite, because it hit fire in a way I didn't expect it to, I nearly missed it.
Why should "One Day Goodbye Will Mean Farewell" be so devastating? It isn't devastating on Year Of Refusal, why does it blow a hole through your heart here? Why doesn't that brilliant ending go on and on, and just devour your heart? Because, Morrissey was great while his set wasn't great. Morrissey got to that place where his art was transmigrated into pure feelings even on a song not among his best. Just as he always planned to.