Morrissey's miserable no more
Imagine getting an interview with Sir Paul McCartney, but with one condition: do not ask any questions about the Beatles.
Well, it happened with another great British musician and songwriter, Morrissey, who performs in Wellington tonight. I knew that Morrissey was prickly on questions about the Smiths, where he made his name in arguably the world's most influential indie band. But it would be ridiculous not to ask one or two, even if the Smiths split 25 years ago.
It's not that I've ignored Morrissey since 1987. He has produced a very strong body of solo work - his first few post-Smiths albums are brilliant, those in the middle are good, and his last three have been even better.
But I was especially keen to find out how many times he must get asked about the possibility of a Smiths reunion.
It was not to be. The promoter stressed that asking Morrissey about the Smiths was a no-go area. He simply would not answer. Only I found that Morrissey wasn't entirely adverse to discussing the Smiths.
Just don't start with the band.
So can he remember when he last played Wellington, back in 1991 at the St James Theatre?
''Of course,'' he says. ''I especially recall a huge gang of Morrissey lookalikes, and this confused me because since I didn't want to look like me, I couldn't work out why anybody else would.''
I tell Morrissey that I was at that gig, and can clearly remember walking past the St James about noon and seeing a large number of fans crowded into a side alley, in silence, hoping to get a glimpse of their hero during a soundcheck. Did this happen often?
''Possibly my own intensity leads the way,'' he answers. ''Your audience is a reflection of whatever you are, the good bits and the bad. If you are a passionate and devotional singer - which, God help me, I am - then you're unlikely to attract hairy metal freaks.''
One thing that many of the 1991 audience remembered was that Morrissey didn't sing a single Smiths song. But this time it will be different, he promises.
''I generally please myself, and I feel blessed with a fantastic back catalogue. I sing bits of every period, and yes, Smiths songs also, because they are me as much as songs of recent years.''
Since his 2004 album You Are the Quarry, some critics have described the past eight years as his ''comeback''. Does he find that laughable?
''Yes, it's laughable. It usually means that it is they who are coming back ... either coming back to listen once again to the music, or allowing themselves to be open to it. I've been in and out of favour 9000 times. Everything depends upon whichever way the wind blows. Needless to say, I've never deserted my post, so I haven't technically been 'away'.''
Even Morrissey detractors - who are as common as Morrissey devotees - grudgingly admit that when it comes to songwriting, he remains one of music's best lyricists (not to mention his song titles). But has the process changed for him over the years? Is it harder or easier to write a song he's happy with?
''The process and the need have not shifted at all. Songs are constantly sloshing around in my head. As a teenager, depression was the best thing that ever happened to me. It provided a wealth of what's neatly known as 'material'. Singing is still the best therapy I've ever known, and I would suggest to anyone whose life is rapidly decomposing to open their mouths and sing. But that wasn't your question, was it? Never mind.''
Outside his songs, ''enigmatic'' is a word that continues to pop up with writers trying to describe him. In other words, people struggle to accurately describe him. In some ways, he's forthright - including his views on animal welfare and support for vegetarianism. Some of his other views are hard to pin down. Does he love or hate black music? What is his sexuality? There have been reports that he's working on his autobiography. Why?
''Writing it has been such a stimulant, and once again, I thought to myself, why let all those dark afternoons go to waste? The trouble is that you can't write your autobiography and hold back, otherwise you might as well just write Harry Potter and the Temple of Soot.''
So is autobiography a way of dispelling the hearsay and rumour that have surrounded Morrissey over the years? ''Yes, it is. The British press only write about me in relation to the Smiths era. It's as if I boarded a Scandinavian tanker in 1987 and was swept out to sea beyond radio contact.
''However, there have been many appalling books about the Smiths, and a constant slew of magazines offering 'The Smiths: The Untold Story'. The story that's untold is that this small cast of 1983 characters who repeatedly give evidence know absolutely nothing about me or the Smiths.
''There is, even this year, a new Smiths book, and needless to say it says nothing to me about my life. On the other hand, no British music publication has written about my solo albums. It's as if somebody cut the telegraph wires after The Queen is Dead.''
At the same time, American audiences have been among the biggest embracers of Morrissey post-Smiths. He even has a strong following among Hispanics.
''America is fantastic for me. I was predictably snotty about it at first ... yes, hard to believe. But America has been so very generous.
''My first US tour was huge venues and incredible sellouts, but the band were quite poor and I lost a lot of my audience, who quite rightly said, 'The Smiths were better'. But I've worked hard at America, and these amount to the very best of days for me.
''Wherever I tour, it's terrific, and nowhere as great as Jakarta and Singapore and Istanbul. I'd say I was happy, but who would ever believe me? Exactly - no-one.'
Morrissey plays Wellington Town Hall tonight and at Auckland's Vector Arena tomorrow.
The Dominion Post