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Albert Hall, London
Yahoo Music (September 2002)

In the end, it takes the final song of the main set, “Speedway”, to sum up Morrissey in 2002. The man who has nothing but the adoration of an ageing audience and a long running legal grudge to cling onto cries “when you try to break my spirits, it won’t happen because there’s nothing left to break”. And then he turns for comfort to his only friends, those cheering devotees reaching out for a precious handshake, and says “I’ve always been true to you, in my own strange way.”

Tonight Morrissey seems intent on hammering home two points, one to the world and one to himself. First, that he is a greatly wronged and undervalued artist who should be clasped to the bosom of the nation forthwith. He sneers at the “thicker than pigshit” pop idols that are “so scared to show intelligence, it might smear their career” and underlines his own martyrdom with “those who wish to hurt you work within the law”.

Second, that, despite all of the above, he is still loved, he is still worshipped by the prescient few. He isn’t just here to exercise his still fine sounding vocal chords or even, as he declares at the start, “to give you a sound thrashing”. He wants vindication, proof that he was right, is right and will be right again in the future. And the only way he can measure the full depth of that vindication is through the clamour of the faithful, devotion turned straight into triumph.

Fittingly, given the context, the reality doesn’t quite measure up. “That was worth a scream,” he says, after “The Last Of The Gang To Die”, fingerclicking Moz-lite six years too late for Britpop. “Don’t overdo it,” he huffs. “I hope you’re not intimidated by the building,” he says, later, clearly trying to work out why there are so many static bodies. “Very polite applause” he mugs, ending with “You’ve shown great stamina.” If he could’ve arranged a heart attack for that precise moment, you suspect he’d have gone out in a blaze of glory.

Ironically, though, when a fan does run onto the stage to give the traditional show of affection, he’s brutally dragged off in a headlock while Morrissey does his best not to obviously recoil from full-on human contact. Were this Moz’s native Los Angeles, of course, said fan could later sue for “mental anguish and humiliation”, so you imagine the singer’s slightly out of practice. The fan, meanwhile, looks delighted, even when being manhandled away.

The real truth, needless to say, is that Morrissey without melodrama is like Eminem without persecution: he creates this emotional theatre to give his words extra resonance. This is, as he says, “a night of poetry set to music”, not of songs and songwriting. It’s also a night of pathos and pantomime, of Morrissey singing “why do you come here?” in a typically beautiful “Suedehead” only to follow it up with “only a question, no need to answer it.” It’s a hugely entertaining circus, with a needy truculent ringmaster smirking to himself centre stage.

So he has been true, in his own strange way, and being broken and dismissed but defiant still is his best way of remaining true. Of the new songs, “Mexico” is a slow and tender beauty that’s hamstrung slightly by the workmanlike band, but “Irish Blood, English Heart” is the real rallying cry, with the lines “I’m dreaming of a time when to be English is not to feel shameful, racist or racial” summing up the last fifteen years of his life in a single sentence.

As for the songs by that other group, well nothing can tarnish perfection, especially when it sings with such passion. Prefaced by “you’re a good person, you’re a kind person, you will become vegetarian”, “Meat Is Murder” is all the more chilling for being shoved back in the faces of those who adopted vegetarianism as a fashion to go along with their Smiths t-shirts, but have now lapsed back into being a carnivore. The fact that Morrissey hasn’t forgotten is one of the night’s highpoints.

The final encore of “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” is magnificent, but it does make you wonder why he doesn’t include more real classics. He’s said he feels like he owns those songs, so he should play them. But in an age when practically every last hero from the Eighties has signed up to hawk greatest hits to the office party crowds in big sheds, it’s reassuring to find one last ingrate, standing his corner, railing against mediocrity and the dying of the light.

The world still needs this man.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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