Morrissey: Melancholy Meets the Infinite Sadness

Joni Mitchell and Morrissey hold forth on promiscuity, chain-smoking, eating meat and suffering for one's art

By |

Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 755 from March 6, 1997. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story . Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

Arriving at the Los Angeles home where this historic chat takes place, I try to offer Morrissey — our post-punk poet of misery — my two pence about potential questions for Joni Mitchell, one of the few popular artists who actually deserve the artist part of that tag. I suggest a discussion on their shared reputation for exploring downbeat themes — in other words: Who's more blue? "Why have a discussion?" Morrissey asks promisingly. "Why not a fight?"

As it happens, there were no fights, though, true to form, Morrissey did delicately chide Mitchell for smoking and eating meat — this is the man, after all, who once titled a Smiths album Meat Is Murder. And, of course, he ignored most of my suggestions and even started off by bonding with Mitchell — who was promoting her new Hits and Misses anthologies — at our expense by rubbing a little salt in old critical wounds. We expected nothing less.

I just want to say thank you and I'm very pleased to be doing this. Joni Myth No. 1:

Is it true that "Rolling Stone" voted "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" Worst Album of the Year?

I carried it in my mind that it was Worst Album, but when we researched, it was the Worst Album Title [laughs]. I think they were pretty hard on the project in general.

Also, "Rolling Stone" once printed a family tree of your conquests. Is that true?

Yeah. I never saw it. I think I was called Old Lady of the Year — some facetious thing that was hurtful.

Did you care?

Yeah, oh, I did, unfortunately.

Were you promiscuous?

In terms of the times, I guess we all were. It was a hedonistic time, you know.

Are you now promiscuous?

No, no. I've always been a serial monogamist. But there was a time when you were traveling — a traveling woman, like a traveling man — and there were some brief encounters.

Do they still refer to you as a female songwriter? It's such a ludicrous title.

It implies limitations.

It implies that it's not a real songwriter. To use the term "female songwriter" implies that the word "songwriter" belongs to men.

They tend to lump me always with groups of women. I always thought, "They don't put Dylan with the Men of Rock; why do they do that to me with women?"

Are you aware of sexist language?

I'm not a real feminist. I've become a little more so as I've gotten older.

In England, feminism is very unpopular at the moment.

It was ineffective from the beginning. I remember when the word first came up. As a matter of fact, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson and I used to go out at the time for dinner quite a bit, and they were amused that I'd never heard about the feminists. I was kind of a media dropout. I was lucky if I could name the president. I was much more inner-world oriented.

Don't you find the modern rock-pop interview has to be very confessional, otherwise the public is not very interested?

I put a lot of truth in my songs, and still they're always poking at me to ferret out hidden meanings. But there aren't any. This one guy laid into me for about 15 minutes, trying to get me to confess that "The Sire of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song)" was autobiographical. I said, "I do believe God wrote it. I plagiarized it from three different translations and put it together."

Don't you find, because your music is confessional, you have to explain yourself repeatedly in much more depth than anyone who makes nonsense, throwaway, useless music?

I don't think of myself as confessional. That's a name that was put on me. The confessional poets like [Sylvia] Plath, whom I read later when they started calling me confessional, most of their stuff seemed contrived to me and not as greatly honest as it was touted to be. I never wanted to act the part of the poet, with pearls of language and wisdom falling from my lips. The first time I met Prince, he said [at one point], "Are you tired, or are you hungry?" And I think I said, "I'm tireder than I am hungry." It was some grammatical error — still sounds right to me.

The point is not to confess. I've always used the songwriting process as a self-analysis of sorts. Like the Blue album — people were kind of shocked at the intimacy. It was peculiar in the pop arena at that time, because you were supposed to portray yourself as bigger than life. I remember thinking, "Well, if they're going to worship me, they should know who they're worshiping."

I read an interview with a big movie star where he said, "I'm the kind of guy who likes to take his dick out in public." The comment had absolutely no reference to the lines that preceded or followed it. It reaffirmed that interviews now seem useless to the public unless they're incredibly revelatory.

What the American press seems to want to do to an increasing degree reminds me of Oriental torture. It's like how Chairman Mao accomplished brainwashing: You ask more and more intimate questions.

Reading your interviews, I can sense the stifled yawns. Do you ever feel you are far too intellectual for all this messing around?

I don't think of myself as an intellectual.

Well, you are, though.

Not really. It's a nice place to visit; I wouldn't want to live there. I spend as little time there as possible.

To read the full article, you must be a subscriber to Rolling Stone Plus. Already a subscriber? Continue on to The Archives . Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

From The Archives Issue 755: March 6, 1997