Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Lifeguard, Save Me From Life: Bona Drag and the Professional Misery Of Steven Patrick Morrissey

Morrissey is a professional wallflower, who has made a career out of being painfully self-aware. Lately, though, he has started tinkering with his back catalogue in ways which are not always easily explicable. Southpaw Grammar and Maladjusted have been given the revisionist treatment, with mixed results. Now Morrissey turns his attention to Bona Drag, the singles/oddities collection which was released in the difficult period between his solo debut Viva Hate, and his second LP, Kill Uncle. On its release, 20 years ago, Bona Drag was a curiosity; Morrissey as barely established as a solo artist, and only his most ardent follower would have argued that his output matched his work with The Smiths. It was – it seemed then – characterised largely by the absence of Johnny Marr and, as a consequence, an uncertain sound.
Two decades later, what’s changed? Well, there are a few cosmetic revisions. The colour of Morrissey's shirt on the cover changes from red to black, and the record is released on the revived imprint, Major Minor, a label begun by Radio Caroline manager Phil Solomon, and previously home to ‘Gloria’ by Them and ‘Je T’Aime’ by Jane Birkin. At some level, Morrissey has always wanted to be a Golden Oldie – Johnnie Ray channelling Oscar Wilde - and now, as he curates his own myth, he can be.
Hindsight isn’t always cruel. True, there are things to regret in the production. Who would have imagined a classicist such as Morrissey  would sanction the drum and synth sounds which hang like smog over Everyday Is Like Sunday’; one of his loveliest songs? Its apocalyptic imagery updates Betjeman’s ‘Slough’, with Morrissey calling for a hard rain to fall on a drab seaside resort (“Come, come, come Nuclear Bomb!”). A shame, then, that the  indelicate production carries faint echoes of ‘The Final Countdown’. The same is true of ‘Piccadilly Palare’, with our fey narrator crooning mournfully in The Queens’ Vernacular. Was it always so obviously a song about being a rent boy? It seems blatant now – it was merely mysterious then. Whatever, the drums have far too much splash, when the tune demands a skiffle approach. And ‘He Knows I’d Love To See Him’ – another tender rumination on gay love – features a fretless bass; a transgression too far.
But let’s not nitpick. Taken as a whole, Bona Drag shows that Morrissey was still writing  great songs in the aftermath of The Smiths. ‘The Last Of The Famous International Playboys’ is an examination of celebrity (“Those who kill – the newsworld hands them stardom”), expressed through a character who identifies with the Krays. ‘Ouija Board, Ouija Board’ is a music hall ditty about a lonely man trying to get in touch with a dead friend; extract the rock guitar, and you could imagine it being sung by Arthur Askey. ‘Hairdresser on Fire’ is a sharply-observed comic vignette about fashion and loneliness in London, “home of the brash, outrageous and free”. “You are repressed,” he sings, “But you’re remarkably dressed.” An unsympathetic listener might detect a whiff self-parody, but really, it’s glorious stuff. 
There are six unreleased songs. The demo of ‘Please Help The Cause Against Loneliness’ has a delicacy that Sandie Shaw couldn’t locate. ‘Let The Right One In’ drones on. ‘Happy Lovers At Last United’ is a bitter-sweet love song. ‘Oh Phoney’ is a fragment, but is notable for the chorus “Who can make Hitler, seem like a bus conductor? You do.” ‘The Bed Took Fire’ (aka ‘At Amber’) has an interesting conceit – self-pitying narrator moans to invalid friend on the telephone – but a turgid production.
The pick of the bunch is ‘Lifeguard on Duty’. It’s wry, funny and serious, with Morrissey exhorting a lifeguard to live up to his name and “save me from life”. If the verse was by was Philip Larkin, you might interpret it as a cry of help to a God who may not exist. Since this is Morrissey, it comes across as a piece of camp whimsy, finding heroism in meekness.