The ghost of nut loaves past
On Friday night I went to see something that I couldn't have ever imagined happening when I was a sensitive teenaged Smiths fan - Morrissey playing in the town where I lived.
Perversely, Morrissey has had as great an impact on what I eat as anyone I have ever actually known or met. You see, in 1985 The Smiths released an album called Meat Is Murder. I hadn't, until that point, thought that much about the fact that meat came from slaughtered animals. It was just meat. It came from the butcher or supermarket in nice, clean, clingfilm-wrapped packages. A lot of the time it had even had the bones removed, as if to suggest that it was just an amorphous lump of protein, so you didn't even have to consider that it had once been part of a living, breathing creature.
"The meat in your mouth as you savour the flavour of murder... it's not succulent, tasty or kind, the flesh you so fancifully fry... " So sang the Moz. It was polemic, sure, but it was powerful, poetic, and resonant. It made you think. It involved a buy-in.
And so, to go with my Smiths T-shirt, flat-top haircut, Oscar Wilde books and James Dean films (and later, Rickenbacker guitar and Raybans - the Johnny Marr influence taking over) - I forswore meat. My parents thought I had gone mental. That all those songs about Girlfriend in a Coma and Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now had somehow irretrievably damaged my teenaged psyche. In hindsight, they were probably quite right.
It meant I ate a lot of pasta, and cheese on toast, and chips, and eggs, and chocolate - as I later learned, this was pretty well what Moz himself was eating. This was a long time pre-Yotam Ottolenghi and the explosion of fabulous, fresh, flavourful vegetarian food. He wasn't all that keen on veges, and he liked all his food moulied - there were always lots of rumours. But still, writing a song, and making a whole bunch of people change the way they eat, or at least think about the way they eat - that's pretty extraordinary.
My slide from vegetarianism was incremental after the Smiths split in 1987. Moz made a series of incrementally less interesting solo albums (the magnificent Vauxhall & I from 1994 excepted), so I mirrored his decline by slowly reintroducing fish, then chicken, then bacon, then beef to my diet. Until, it would be quite safe and accurate to say, I was no longer remotely vegetarian.
Ironically, I probably eat more decent vege food now than I ever did when I was actually vegetarian. Back then I just ate cheese and chocolate and chips. It was almost a fear of food. These days I am far more likely to cook up a magnificent vegetarian meal with loads of fresh veges which I have spent a lot of time preparing. It might contain cheese, it might not. I make a lot more effort cooking vegetables and non-meat, probably largely thanks to the influence and ideas of the aforementioned Ottolenghi, but also Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Nigel Slater and even Jamie Oliver. I also cook a lot more ethnic vegetarian food - curries, Asian salads and the like (I generally prefer vegetarian Indian food), things I wouldn't have had a clue about when I was vegetarian. Hell, I have even partaken of an eight-course vegetarian degustation menu!
And so it was something of a nostalgic thrill to see the man who soundtracked my teenage years perform again in the flesh (I saw him once before, in London in 1999). He looks to be in pretty good nick for 52 - a testament to the benefits of a vegetarian diet - even one primarily composed of chocolate and cheese and chips. I thought it was interesting that when he performed the title track from Meat Is Murder, he had taken away the refrain "it's death for no reason, and death for no reason is murder", which doesn't really make sense, and replaced it with the far more direct "kill - eat - kill - eat - MURDER!" It was accompanied with a projected film of different animals being slaughtered. It was pretty bracing stuff.
There was one interesting moment between songs where Morrissey described seeing an ad on New Zealand television at 8.30 in the morning calling for an end to factory farming for eggs, pigs and chickens, and made the point that there is no way such an ad would be shown at any time on British or American TV. It did make me think that the old Moz wouldn't have thought it went far enough - that the whole meat industry should be brought to an end. Even he has to realise that this is never going to happen (though the banning of sow crates in NZ from 2015 cannot come soon enough), and that any steps toward improving animal welfare are steps in the right direction.
At one point he handed his mic to the crowd to say something to him or ask a question; one girl proclaimed that "you're the reason I became vegetarian!" which made me wonder how many others in that crowd he had affected. And, how many, like me, were now lapsed.
And so - I'm sorry, Moz. I know I have failed to keep up my end of the bargain, but I am grateful to you for trying to make me and countless others think about the way we eat. And, while I am not thrilled that my eating meat necessitates the slaughter of an animal, I am conscious that it is important to treat all living things well and with respect while they are alive.
And I am grateful to you for the amazing music you have made, both with and without Johnny Marr (who I met a couple of years back, and who was quite delightful - he is now a vegan!). The show itself was spectacular, and there was a generous smattering of Smiths and solo classics.
And a pointed reminder of a time in my life when the personal well and truly bled over into the political...
Are you a vegetarian, or lapsed vegetarian, thanks to the proselytising of Morrissey (or that other famed rock'n'roll vegetarian Paul McCartney?) What marked your slide from vegetarianism? And - did anyone see the show in either Auckland or Wellington? Anyone now considering a dietary switch as a result?!
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