The man, the myth: Morrissey

Exploring this charming man's career with Smithsonian's Bret Busch

Stop me if you've heard this one before: The artist known as Morrissey, former frontman for the short-lived '80s band the Smiths, is a wretched human being who inflicts his every grievance on anyone unfortunate enough to buy one of his albums or hear one of his songs. Or at least that's how his detractors see it. To them, Steven Patrick Morrissey is the "Pope of Mope," pathologically obsessed with his own misery, as evidenced by such despondent songs as "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" and "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now."

"I think that's really an oversimplification, and I think it's based on a few select lyrics that really speak to that," says local musician Bret Busch. "There's certainly that dark, melancholy side to Morrissey's music, but there's a lot more content to the songs than being miserable. There's actually a lot of humor in his lyrics."

Busch is in a unique position to comment on Morrissey's songwriting. As the frontman for Smithsonian, a Smiths tribute band made up of Atlanta music scene veterans, he knows a thing or two about bringing the singer's thoughts to life.

But Busch felt a connection to Morrissey long before he began covering Smiths tunes. Despite the fact that the singer, who was famously celibate during the Smiths' heyday, never explicitly announced himself as a spokesperson for gays and lesbians, "it was pretty obvious from the lyrics and his flamboyance and all that that he was gay," Busch says. "For me, growing up gay, that was something exciting to latch on to and to hear in music that was being played and heard on MTV alongside everything else."

Morrissey's sexual identity has certainly played a key part in his mystique, but it's only one element of his persona. Although his songwriting has evolved over his career, at its core it continues to reflect a deep-seated alienation, a sense of being eternally at odds with the world and everyone in it, manifested in everything from "a shyness that is criminally vulgar" to a longstanding political disaffection evidenced in the title track to his upcoming release World Peace Is None of Your Business.

What's more, despite his critics' tendency to paint him as an eternal victim, Morrissey consistently exhibits a steadfast sense of self. Even when he intones "For once in my life, let me get what I want/Lord knows it would be the first time," his baritone delivery underlines the lyrics' wistful resignation with an unyielding determination.

The singer's literate shout-outs (referencing John Keats, William Butler Yeats, and Morrissey's spiritual forebear Oscar Wilde in "Cemetery Gates") and acid-tongued barbs (whether slagging members of the British royal family or likening the cast of "Duck Dynasty" to "serial killers") testify to an unshakable understanding of who he is, what he wants, and what he believes, and a refusal to compromise those things.

"He's certainly made a career of being very polarizing, and people love him or hate him," Busch says. "He has to know that he's provoking people with some of his statements. But his political beliefs — vegetarianism and animal welfare — I think those are 100 percent genuine, and those just happen to be extreme views in many people's eyes."

Morrissey may be better known for his views, and for things he may or may not have done, than for his music these days: He's recently made headlines for collaborating with PETA for an animated video decrying factory farms; for revealing that the Twitter account in his name isn't his; and for allegedly demanding that Scottish band PAWS cancel its set opening for We are Scientists, scheduled at the same time as his show in another room at the same venue. His last album, Years of Refusal, was favorably received upon its release five years ago, but his inconsistent recording and touring schedules have diluted his influence over today's instant-gratification pop-cultural landscape.

For diehard fans, the kind who rushed the stage at his tour opener in San Jose earlier this month, none of that matters compared to the relatable impact of timeless lyrics about love, longing, and loss.

Those lyrics "continue to resonate with people," Busch says. "Especially as you grow up and you're trying to figure out love and romance and your place in the world, and feeling that you're an outsider. There will always be people who feel that way."