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*****Morrissey has a strange relationship with his hometown. Though they'll sell the t-shirts, Mancunians haven’t always enjoyed the spotlight his controversial personality have shown on them. Since the very start of his musical career, Morrissey hasn't been shy about voicing his opinion on politics, the Queen, vegetarianism, or anything else. He’s been regarded as an overdramatic blowhard, borderline unbearable, even by his biggest supporters. He’s well aware of this. In Autobiography, he writes, "Whenever I'd overhear how people found me to be 'a bit much' (which is the gentle way of saying the word 'unbearable'), I understood why. To myself I would say: Well, yes of course I'm a bit much — if I weren't, I would not be lit up by so many lights." At his own admission, Morrissey has never expected to be liked. But maybe those outrageous things he occasionally says really are fanning the flames of his stardom. Though not necessarily in his hometown, he’s never been more famous. And in Manchester, this has led to a surprising side effect: “Moz Tourism”. Morrissey fans (called Mozophiles) have been coming to the city for years now to see the places that formed his impressionable youth. Familiar backdrops are available for fans to recreate iconic images from album booklets. Also available are landmarks from lyrics, like the Holy Name Church from “Vicar in a Tutu” and the Southern Cemetery from “Cemetery Gates”. HM Prison Manchester is better known as the “Strangeways” prison from the album title Strangeways, Here We Come. The city is littered with music venues, both active and retired, that once hosted shows by the Smiths or Morrissey as a solo act. These, along with former childhood homes and hangouts, have been assembled into walking excursions or bus tours for sightseers. Fans from all over the planet have come to see where it all began.
There is some horrible truthfulness to Morrissey's songs that manage to capture the zeitgeist of the young.
*****I never came across any of these pilgrims. Despite niche markets like the Mozophiles, most visitors only come around for football. A cozy silence descends when the streets aren’t full of drunken supporters flapping their colorful scarves. Things can feel sleepy, even in the city’s center. Everyday is like Sunday, provided there isn't match on. In my time in Manchester, I heard only one other American accent, and it was asking for directions to a hotel. My own accent became a point of fascination to the people I’d meet. Was I really American? Was I a student? What was I doing there? Eventually, during late nights in brick-lined basement bars, I began concocting elaborate lies. “Witness protection scheme,” I’d tell them. Or, “I’m a secret agent.” The truth was notably less interesting. I’d found an online job and I could do it from anywhere, and I’d always wanted to see England. After a few long weeks in London, I was ready for something quieter (which is the gentle way of saying the word ‘cheaper’). I may as well have thrown a dart at a map. I went to Manchester because it was another English city I could name off the top of my head. What brought me to Morrissey’s music is similarly devoid of drama. Unlike untold numbers of disaffected and misunderstood youth, I hadn’t discovered Meat is Murder or Bona Drag in a musty record shop. I’d never been that sympathetic ear to his poetic lyrics, never felt comforted by his promises of an artful, cultured, asexual world outside of my high school. Instead, I’d begun listening just weeks before I moved to his hometown. I was drawn to his vocal stylings that seemed to dare its listeners to turn it off. I loved his attitude, his ostentation. But more than that, I loved his lyrics. There is some horrible truthfulness to Morrissey's songs that manage to capture the zeitgeist of the young. The world his lyrics paint is unfeeling and unfair. Every hurt he describes is jagged and heartrending. Every joy is a stomach-churning zephyr, every love is red hot and breathless until its inevitable implosion. No one writes the way young people feel like Morrissey. He will always have admirers, imitators, and inspirees because there will always be young people reaching for understanding in their pop music and somehow, impossibly, he'll be there to take their hand. I was a Morrissey fan, I realized. I just worried I’d discovered him too late.
*****Eventually, I too had to make the ultimate Morrissey trip. I boarded a bus and traveled along Mancunian Way to the A57, disembarking a mere block's walk from the Salford Lad's Club. The club building has a long history. The organization was founded at the turn of the 20th century as a boy's club, a place of recreation in a troubled part of Greater Manchester, by Robert Baden-Powell, the man who would go on to form the Boy Scouts. Over the past 100-plus years, the Lad's Club has played a pivotal role in the lives of many famous Mancunians, from musicians and footballers to actors like Albert Finney. The Salford Lad's Club is perhaps best known for its inclusion in the artwork for The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead album. In the infamous shot, Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce pose in front of the club's doorway, with its name in plain view. This image inspires tourists to come and cross their arms like Morrissey beneath the sign. Inside is a room dedicated to pictures and memorabilia from Morrissey and The Smiths. To this day, Salford Lad's Club is considered one of the most recognizable buildings in the United Kingdom. The picture itself was added to the collection at London's National Portrait Gallery in 2004. Salford, like much of Manchester, has cleaned up over the years. That corner of Coronation Street is clean and quaint, though still not overly inviting. The BBC North complex has recently moved within walking distance, providing a welcome influx of money and attention. The club has gone through some rough times, though. In 2007, a campaign to restore the building was stalled due to vandalism. Morrissey surprised the club with a donation of £20,000, earning the rare bit of positive press from the Manchester Evening News. I came to the club on a Sunday afternoon and looked up at the blunted brick corner. The building was shuttered, the lights inside extinguished. A weathered sign on the exterior showed a thermometer, only half of it red, marking the current level of donations needed to keep the club in business. The sign didn't look like it'd been touched in a while. Come to think of it, neither did the doors or windows. I smiled for my picture but I was stricken with worry that I'd missed out again.
*****In the end, I resisted the urge to send something Morrissey-related to mother. That would've required explaining who he was, what his appeal was, which are things I'm still not confident I can properly do. I mailed her something appropriately Manchester-y: a Manchester United scarf. When I came back, though, I did burn my parents a copy of The Queen is Dead. The Salford Lad's Club is still open, thankfully. Despite a troubling announcement about Morrissey undergoing tests for cancer, he is still touring and releasing new albums. Autobiography was a hit; Moz has even stated begun he's working on a novel to follow it up. His fame is spreading wider and wider, seemingly through word of mouth and random discovery alone. As occasionally infuriating as he may be to his hometown, Morrissey plays an important role in the history of music and a pivotal part in the lives of his fans. He offers himself as a shining beacon, both someone who understands his listeners, and someone so cultured and sensitive they can strive to become. The world can be a sad, dark place to many out there. But if Morrissey has told us anything, it's that, "There is a light and it never goes out." Manchester photograph by Craig Sunter
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