Morrissey (and his fans) return to the Ryman 

Moz Before Bros

Moz Before Bros

Sometimes Morrissey shows end early. Like at Coachella 2009, when the legendarily militant vegetarian singer left the stage complaining, "The smell of burning animals is making me sick." Or like in Liverpool later that year, when a song-and-a-half into the gig, The Pope of Mope bailed after an unruly audience member pegged him in the head with a water bottle. Or like at his 2004 Ryman debut, when during the opening strains of the encore, a few too many overzealous fans crashed the stage and tried to bear-hug the singer. Stage-crashing (typically male, middle-aged) bear-huggers are a tradition at Morrissey concerts, and a phenomenon Johnny Cash or Conway Twitty probably never experienced while performing on the Mother Church's stage.

The pantheon of rock is riddled with creatively concocted personalities. Ziggy Stardust, Buster Poindexter, Billy Shears, Chris Gaines, Marilyn Manson ... Bob Dylan — none of those invented alter egos is as temperamentally strident, idiosyncratically finicky or colorfully singular as Morrissey, an asexual, celibate rock star who hates the act of eating meat more than Bono hates the idea of impoverished Africans starving and takes on the look of an English-dandy Elvis Presley.

Melancholy, mercurial and malicious (or "devious, truculent and unreliable," as an English high court judge once adjudicated him) 30 years after busting out of Manchester and onto the world stage as singer of The Smiths, Morrissey has never stopped pathologically being Morrissey. And more so than perhaps any other artist in rock, it is impossible to separate the man from his music — music in which there are no half measures.

When it comes to cultish obsession, Morrissey fans are rivaled only by Deadheads and the KISS Army in their enthusiasm. They tattoo Smiths lyrics down their arms, hold fan conventions and run onstage to hug the man like little kids getting their pictures taken with Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. Tiny Tim was a pretty singular artist too, but never did he inspire such passions. What is it about the cult of Morrissey that drives such obsession? What is it about this profoundly alienating figure that so connects with alienated followers?

Despite their sacred cow's stance on fish consumption, Morrissey fans could be called the sardine-eaters of the music world: They revel in a salty flavor of dark bitterness that most people find assaulting to the palate. But while as a vocalist and writer, Moz crafts mopey melodies and croons uncomfortably stilted stanzas riddled with cynicism, sexual confusion and confessional depression, his solo and Smiths tunes alike temper his overwhelming persona with a spacious sonic landscape of bouncing bass lines, jangly guitars and nut-tight drums. Like a British answer to R.E.M., Morrissey makes awkward anthems for awkward listeners. But there's another more unlikely rock icon The Mozfather's persona parallels — one who, whether singing a note or stating an opinion, provokes emotional reactions of love and hate: Ted Nugent.

For the sake of argument, you could call Morrissey the Anti-Nugent. The Nuge is a noted sex addict; Morrissey is, or at least was, celibate. The Nuge is an avid hunter; The Smiths' 1985 LP is called Meat Is Murder. One wears Realtree; the other, silk shirts, dandy suits and man blouses. One has hair that's long in back; the other's is long up top. One is from Manchester, England's Detroit; the other is just from Detroit. But this pair of provocateurs has more in common with each other than either would probably like to admit. And both tend to leave a trail of offended parties in their wakes.

Over the years, Morrissey, like Nugent, has courted controversy with eye-raising politically incorrect statements. For example: In 2007 he outed himself as a British nationalist, telling NME, "England is a memory now. The gates are flooded and anybody can have access to England and join in. ... The higher the influx into England the more the British identity disappears." In 2010 he outraged China (and the rest of the world) when, in response to the country's "absolutely horrific" treatment of animals, he said, "You can't help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies."

When considering such sentiments, Morrissey may not seem like the nicest guy. But his fans sure do like him a whole lot. And if he loved them as much as they love him, The Smiths (who split in 1987) would have reunited to fans' delight years ago. But as Morrissey's publicist told Rolling Stone last year, "The Smiths are never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever going to reunite — ever."

Morrissey's steadfast refusal to bury the hatchet with Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and those other two guys is ironic, considering that the frontman was, as a teenager, famously the president of The New York Dolls' UK fan club and the linchpin behind the Dolls' 2004 reunion. You'd think he could relate to the burning desires of his own die-hards. But alas, he does not.

As a consolation, Moz chose not to go the way of the shitty in his solo career. Early solo efforts like 1988's Viva Hate and 1992's Your Arsenal are classics alongside The Smiths' self-titled debut or 1986 masterwork The Queen Is Dead. And his 2004 comeback album You Are the Quarry was a rock star's master class in latter-career vitality, kicking-off a post-Y2K winning streak that continued through 2009's characteristically witty Years of Refusal and on to his grandiose 2012 single, the Bowie-esque (Hunky Dory-era) "Action Is My Middle Name." At the same time, the singer has made peace with his Smiths output, much of which will dominate the set list at Tuesday's return to the Ryman. At least in a world where Morrissey is God, the soundtrack is pretty damn good.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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