The first key to puzzling out Morrissey is to ignore Morrissey himself—that is, to separate out the artist not only from the man but from the “Moz,” the elaborately coy public construct that has helped turn the reclusive teenage whatsit into a British icon. That Morrissey—the playful, spiteful, celibate, fourth-gender Morrissey—is a lot of fun, and in three decades, he has scarcely given a dull interview. (“You haven’t got any evidence of that,” he once snapped at a journalist who dared call him human. “I’m actually 40 percent papier-mâché.”) Set aside the rejoinders and innuendo, entertaining as they are, and then go one step further and ignore his lyrics. Heresy, I know; Morrissey is the most yearbook-quotable lyricist in the history of the form. (“I dreamt about you last night/ Nearly fell out of bed twice/ You can pin and mount me/ Like a butterfly …”) Don’t allow yourself to be beguiled, however, or you will find yourself wandering down a flyblown alley filled with child murder, militant vegetarianism, gender-bending, and Tory-baiting. The man cherishes his obsessions, but it is possible to imagine him without them. It is not possible to imagine Morrissey minus one thing: the suffering once inflicted on him by obscurity.

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