Morrissey's voice is beautiful and haunting, qualities that are somehow only multiplied when you hear him live. At Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, his words filled the arena, casting their spell even on those for whom the 56-year-old singer was a blurry speck in a black-and-gold V-neck. During the angriest, most painful songs, it was almost like he was giving something up to his fans as he hit each note. Kind of like Ariel singing to Ursula in exchange for fresh set of legs -- only more maudlin.
The set was complete with the political backdrops Morrissey has become known for in recent years. During "Ganglord," a montage of police brutality played overhead. As per usual, the vegan anthem "Meat Is Murder" was set to slaughterhouse footage. The stream of sheep squirming in their own blood shook the crowd. One middle-aged woman broke down in tears. She was still shaking in the arms of her girlfriend, mascara streaming down her cheeks long after the encore was over.
If such a stunt was executed by any other artist, it might seem as though he was trying to get attention. Except this is Morrissey's modus operandi. The crowd's fixation made MSG feel more like a church than an arena. There were cell phone screens standing in for candles, but also an eerie sense of reverence.
The venue was allegedly vegetarian for the night, with one stand cooking vegan hot dogs to fill the void.
"Let's hope he doesn't see that," said one man walking past the edible rotating cylinders, not realizing they were made of plants. Indeed, it wouldn't have been the first time Morrissey canceled a show for meat-related reasons. (On that note, this could be the last of his sets at MSG, as the venue reportedly served hamburgers in the corporate lounges during the show on Saturday night.)
If your views threaten any form of establishment interests, you are usually ignored or silenced or said to be 'ranting.' I have never ranted in my life.' Morrissey
In his fight for animal rights, Morrissey has said some rather controversial things, most notoriously comparing eating meat to pedophilia. As he sees it, he's just saying what he feels.
"I don't think I'm outspoken at all," he wrote to The Huffington Post in an email. "I'm just one of the people, and this is what we think. If your views threaten any form of establishment interests, you are usually ignored or silenced or said to be 'ranting.' I have never ranted in my life."
Is that sarcasm? A genuine feeling that he has actually never ranted? It's hard to read cues via email. It's hard to read Morrissey in general. How you read into almost any of his statements, all of his lyrics and, most recently, his poetically melodramatic "Autobiography," speaks to how you regard him as an entity. There's a level of understanding required of his fans, an adoring acceptance which appreciates rather than forgives his often ornery, enigmatic nature.
To love Morrissey is more like being in a semidysfunctional relationship than obsessing over a rock star. It requires a willingness to forgive his canceled shows and parse out his intent, so easily convoluted by a media that often paints him as a cranky old man. That does not detract from the level of devotion seen in his fans.
A callout for fan testimonials on Twitter garnered a range of responses via email, from those confidently explaining how Morrissey is misunderstood to those refusing to deal with the people who misunderstand him.
"The best side of Morrissey is his character and the constant defending of the defenseless," Olivia Cockerill wrote to HuffPost. "His views can appear controversial, mainly because many have never had the logic to think what is cruel and what isn't."
One Glaswegian man said he broke up with his girlfriend after she read a Morrissey concert all wrong. "[During] 'Meat Is Murder,' he reached his climax he ripped off his shirt in true Morrissey style. It was too much for my girl. She laughed. LAUGHED!" William Maxwell said. "As soon as we got home I took my 'Queen Is Dead' shirt she wore to bed and went to my mother's [house]. Blasphemy!"
I am me all day. It's quite a responsibility. Morrissey
There was also an outpouring of love, members of the so-called Moz Army mirroring (or at least trying to mirror) the poeticism of their beloved leader in hopes of conveying their connection to him.
"Every step of my life there is a Morrissey lyric that charges to the forefront of my mind, every day of my life I listen to his music, and celebrate his lyrics; he is there with me at all times," said Nick Snowfinder. "Even my funeral is frequently planned with a Morrissey playlist."
Another woman who asked to be called only "Ada" shared a love letter she had written exclusively using Morrissey lyrics. "My dearest love," it begins. "So, the choice I have made may seem strange to you; whether you care or do not, don't make fun of me later."
Roberto Ferdenzi, an active member of the fan community, responded with an acrostic poem. "The reason I admire him so much is because he's M - Mischievous, O - Outspoken, R - Rumbustious, R - Rebellious, I - Irrepressible, S - Sarcastic, S - Straightforward, E - Enigmatic, Y - YWCA Lover lol," he wrote.
In the two "S's," the duality of his presence is clear. There are many modes of understanding Morrissey. His songs are nuanced, and a true fan's reception to them is an ever-shifting reflection of what they need. Almost every song can be seen as sarcastic and wry or straightforward and tragic, or all those things at once.
"When you're feeling bad, the songs feel sympathetic," Edward Salazar said in his response. "You have someone there with you. When you're feeling good the songs seem humorous. You're laughing at how bad things were."
There's a mix of the arch and the melodramatic in the few interviews he's given as well -- allowing the same mix of possible interpretations.
"I am me all day. It's quite a responsibility," he said before describing his writing process to HuffPost. "I couldn't imagine looking after a child. The child would end up feeding me."
Amidst the moments he is in "character" or toying with expectations, there are a number of his intentions that are up for debate. That is, except for the fact that he takes his music seriously. It is a consistently a genuine, often painful extension of himself -- his depressive tendencies are no less excruciating when repackaged into the sardonic.
"The true artists in music were who they were because there wasn't a point in their day when they became something else," Morrissey wrote to HuffPost. "You fully marry your craft or your ambition, and, if it works, then there's nothing else in life worth being or doing. Your songs are your offspring."
"People who schedule their writing and refer to it as 'work' amuse me, because they imply that it does not come naturally. So, what do they do it for ... money?," he added. "If you are a natural writer, you should be able to write in the eye of a tornado, and you should write not in order to present to others, but just to do it for your private self."
Morrissey hasn't changed much in the past 30 years, as if The Smiths' 1987 breakup only preserved him, pickling the King of Sadness for posterity. Both original fans and those born after the split appreciate that. It's the media's approach that has shifted. As the headlines would have it, in his 20s he was an asexual icon, in his 50s he's a grouchy vegetarian who won't admit he's gay. But maybe his sexuality, or lack thereof, is what has allowed him to endure so long past the end of his iconic union with Johnny Marr.
When his "Autobiography" was published in the fall of 2013, a section (conspicuously missing from U.S. editions) led to a resurfacing of rumors surrounding his relationship with Jake Owen Walters.
The whole point about sexuality, it seems to me, is to hold the world back. Morrissey
Following the release of the book, Morrissey issued a statement clarifying his sexuality. "Unfortunately, I am not homosexual. In technical fact, I am humasexual," he wrote on the fansite True to You. "I am attracted to humans. But, of course ... not many."
That Morrissey's proclivities are still such a matter of interest is more telling of our enduring cultural obsession with labels than his place as a pop-culture figure.
"Musically, personally, sexually I don't want to be categorized because you [are] then accepting a certain fierce limitation to whatever it is you are," he wrote to HuffPost. "You are considered to be heterosexual and therefore you are not expected to do or think anything else."
"The whole point about sexuality, it seems to me, is to hold the world back," Morrissey continued. "No investigation is permissable! Sexuality is never presented as a vast and variable world to luxuriate in, but only as something to be immediately shut down as soon as you reach 12 years old."
Morrissey's understanding of the way we process sexuality applies in a very important way for his fans. It endows his work with a rare universality which allows meaning to blossom on a unique level.
Perhaps the most niche section of Moz army members is the Mexican and Mexican-American community. Morrissey tips his hat to them often, in the form of the song "Mexico" and in the Mexican flag emblazoned on his equipment at the MSG show. The green, white and red were a constant as the images above shifted from the queen flipping the bird or Will and Kate under a banner reading "United King Dumb."
That one of the most quintessentially British artists has come to be a Mexican cultural icon is perhaps the most obvious testament to his versatility, the way his messages are lit up with meaning depending on who is listening.
During the "Mexrissey: Mexico Loves Morrissey" tribute concert now on tour, that connection emerges as the band performs Morrissey songs translated into both the Spanish language and Mexican culture. The group is not a cover band so much as artists in their own right. They deconstruct the Morrissey canon, adding Flamenco and Mariachi elements, sprinkling "Girlfriend in a Coma" with "cha cha chas."
Each song is imbued with a vibrancy highlighting the band's ties to his sly wit, sense of humor and ability to toy with gender. "We love playing with sexuality," band leader Camilo Lara told the crowd at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House back in May. He grinned coyly under his massive black sombrero before cuing "El Chico de la Espina Clavada" ("Boy With a Thorn in His Side"). "We love so many things that Morrissey has that 'Mexicality' has."
Morrissey is a difficult figure. To like him you must reconcile the fact that he'd rather see Elton John killed than a cow or wouldn't mind much if Prince Charles was shot. Fans stomach the more absurd aspects of his presence -- the canceled shows and abattoir footage -- because they understand that Morrissey is giving himself to them with each tour and album. The universalized brilliance of his music, freed of constricting labels, allows each song to be whatever they need.
And it's there, on stage, in singing about his oft tortured existence, that Morrissey, too, finds a bit of relief.
"That 90 minutes on stage has always saved my life," he wrote, when asked what truly makes him happy, "To open the lungs and to fully release everything. No $500-per-hour therapy can equal it, and, as far as my limited knowledge goes, it is better than sex."
"I also enjoy tea with milk -- never cow's milk, of course, but I still have the irritating habit of referring to oat and rice drinks as milk," he added. "It's annoying, I know, but nobody's perfect."