- 29 Mar 01
JOHNNY ROGAN didn't write just any old biography - he wrote a book about MORRISSEY which brought down a virtual pop fatwah on his head, with his subject declaring in public that he hoped the author would die a grisly death. Now, with the paperback version just published, the 'controversy' seems to have been given a new lease of life. It's not by any chance a publicity scam, is it? CATHY DILLON puts Johnny Rogan on the spot.
OK. SO it's not the same as having millions of Muslims baying for your blood, but being at the receiving end of a fatwah issued by Pop's most vehement star is not an uninteresting circumstance in which to find oneself.
Johnny Rogan, author of the Smiths biography Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance, which has just made its appearance - complete with updates - in paperback, is, it must be said, looking calm and collected when we meet in the Westbury Hotel. Just over a year since his book incurred the wrath of the big M, he remains pretty sanguine about the whole affair.
Since we last spoke, after the publication of the book in April '92, the controversy has raged on and off. Three months after Morrissey's original declaration - made in advance of publication - that he hoped Rogan would end his days in a pile up on the M3, he told Q magazine that "more than anything I hope he dies in a hotel fire." Last year he hung a huge banner from the stage during a concert at Madison Square Garden which read "Johnny Rogan Is Dead." Then he told a magazine in France "If God exists then Johnny 'the Rat' Rogan will be devoured by a pack of German Shepherd dogs."
"He also said a couple of interesting things like 'Rogan is a very, very dangerous person'." The author takes up the story. "I don't know what he was getting at there. And then in the last piece in the NME he started calling it (the book) 'The Sausage Appliance'. He accused me of being a female impersonator and said I couldn't get a gig at the Vauxhall Tavern, which is a famous gay pub in London - which he is obviously aware of . . ."
"The first statement was made without his having seen one page of the book," Rogan continues. "Therefore I always said that it was a statement based on ignorance and prejudice. End of story. At least by the hotel fire one he had looked at it."
Up to recently, Morrissey failed to make clear what exactly he found so objectionable in the book. There were accusations of inaccuracy, claims that Rogan hadn't spoken to any of his family.
"I think that's stretching it a bit," says Rogan. "There are quotes from his father in there. But the fact that there was nothing really specific in a way was frustrating. It wasn't like he said 'Well, he says this and I don't agree with it'. At least then you could go back and say 'Well, the reason I said that was because X told me about it and there's the source and there's three other sources or whatever'. Or maybe it came from something he said that he's forgotten or maybe he didn't mean it or maybe he was misquoted . . .
"But it gets more bizarre because what has never been publicised is that in January of this year, I think, he did a radio interview in Canada and he finally did pinpoint something in the book. They asked him what he thought of The Severed Alliance and Johnny Rogan and he said 'Well, Rogan said I read Science Fiction magazines and not once in my life have I ever bought a science fiction magazine or been interested in the subject and that infuriated me'.
"Well, I read that and I thought it was really weird. I mean, of all the things in the book to pull out, it should be the fact that I had the audacity to suggest that he might have read Science Fiction magazines. But it doesn't end there. The ultimate irony is that I never said he was interested in Science Fiction. There isn't one reference in the whole book to Science Fiction magazines either in regard to Morrissey or anyone else. In fact the words Science Fiction are not mentioned in the book."
"It makes you wonder what prompted that, whether it's just sloppiness on his part, which is what I suspect it is. I dunno. I mean finally I'm as perplexed by his actions as anyone else."
The more cynical, of course, have been quick to point out that all the hullabaloo earned both author and subject a great deal of extra publicity.
"Yeah, that was another school of thought," smiles Rogan. "The most extreme was that we were both in it together from the outset and still are."
And are you?
"Well," he laughs, "if we were would I blow the gaffe on it now? If you were to put me on the spot, I would say that Morrissey's reaction has to do with his conception of his own past. It's a territory which he is not only very sensitive about people treading on but he himself seems to have a genuinely disconcerting attitude towards it.
"On the one hand the past is the well of all his art. It has provided the themes for all the great songs he has ever written and yet at the same time he seems to have great problems speaking about it. For example, he won't talk about The Smiths now cos that's in the past. He said he wanted to bury The Smiths like a dead cat in a shoebox at the bottom of his garden. And even when he was in The Smiths he was sensitive about discussing his pre-Smiths life in anything but vague theatrical detail.
"Well, now it's two steps removed so arguably it's an even more sensitive area but a lot of The Severed Alliance is about that because those are the formative years and obviously as a biographer I'm endlessly fascinated by them."
Rogan is an experienced biographer; prior to tackling The Smiths, he had published respected biographies of, among others, Van Morrison and The Byrds. He takes the work very seriously indeed. He never works from commission - "If I'm going to spend that much time and energy it has to be something that I want to do myself" - and is meticulous in his research.
The jacket blurb for the hardback edition of The Severed Alliance proclaimed "Rogan lives alone, usually works through the night until 7am, sometimes fasts for days, doesn't possess a fridge, television, video or any form of credit card or insurance, changes his address every ten weeks and uses tape-recorded interviews as his primary method of social communication. This is his tenth book. It may be his last." This, none too surprisingly, earned him a mention in Private Eye's Pseud's Corner. (The paperback edition adds a qualifying "barring sequels on the same theme" to the last sentence).
When I ask him about Johnny Marr's reaction to the book he explains that he hasn't met Marr whom he had interviewed at length - since it was published.
"I try not to meet people afterwards unless I have good reason to," he says. "I think there is a danger there. I think there is always a degree of embarrassment after you've done a book because you never know what you've said about them or how they are going to react to it.
"I always assume the worst. I always assume everybody's going to hate it and I'm always pleasantly surprised when I get a positive reaction. It's dreadful enough contacting people in the first place without doing it afterwards. So I'd only be interested in doing that if to put it crudely - I wanted more information."
"I mean, it's never my intention to be friends with these people. They are the subjects of a biography. If I got close to them there would be a tremendous danger there. It would spoil my . . . objectivity for want of a better word. It would be very difficult for me to deal with the situation. I'd end up taking sides.
"A lot of people have vested interests in the books that they write. They're a friend of the bassist's so they can't say too much that's negative about him. I've always hated that. I've always liked to be the guy on the outside who dives in and then disappears and then comes back rather sheepishly when he has to."
He thinks Marr may have objected to the fact that the book dealt in detail with the financial aspects of the Smiths, which also may account at least in part for Morrissey's venom. But, as Rogan points out in the book, the actions of both in the past indicated that neither is keen on outright confrontation. Morrissey told Q for example that he had slammed down the phone on Rogan. Rogan claims this is untrue.
"When I was on the phone to him in October '91 he talked about the Smiths and talked about his attitude to the Press and was very world-weary, I felt, but very engaging. I felt very sympathetic towards him and his feelings. He did seem genuinely like he's had enough and was under great pressure but he was almost apologetic and very affable as well. And certainly there was no hint of animosity.
"But that's the key to Morrissey. I mean all these actions of Morrissey the private man, face to face, are in startling contrast to his public pronouncements. If you look at his interaction with Mike Joyce, Andy Rourke or Craig Gannon, it's all done through intermediaries. They've never had a slanging match with Morrissey. He never said to Andy Rourke face to face 'You're out of The Smiths'. He'd write him a note and pin it on his car window but that's as far as it goes. Gannon didn't even get the call or the note - he heard it through a third party.
So what would happen if you did meet him now?
Rogan laughs. "Well that's precisely it - bring him in and we'll see!"
No, seriously, how would you feel?
"If he were to show up? I'd be alright about it. It depends on the context though - if he had 20,000 fans behind him (laughs). No. I don't know. It wouldn't bother me. I mean I assume there would be some degree of embarrassment or tentativeness inevitably because of what's been said but I'd sit down with him anytime, anyplace, anywhere and talk the whole life through. Wouldn't you?"
Whatever about the 'controversy' one would in no way compare Rogan's even-handed explorations to the sensationalist approach of, say, Albert Goldman or Kitty Kelly. However, you can't help noticing that Goldman picks subjects who can't talk back. Rogan says he has a "fairly strong reaction" to him and the other "muck-raking" biographers.
"What annoys me is the sheer perversity of it," he says. "Goldman's got incredible research tools. He has a whole team working for him, which I should be envious of, but I'm not because I like to do my own research. But it does mean that he can have people running around the various continents collating this material for him and presenting it to him and he can just hone it into shape and do a few star interviews.
"I mean by doing that he does collate a tremendous amount of information, but at the end of the book you don't feel you can trust him. And that's the worrying thing. You immediately suspect that the information is loaded. That comes across again and again in the Lennon book. You know that there are numerous positive ways you could interpret Lennon's behaviour at various points but every account is slanted towards the negative interpretation. And it's very easy to slant a biography in that way.
"What I try to do when writing a book is to accurately represent what's been told to me. And that includes the positive and the negative. In ratio as well, it must be said, if possible. And it's the culmination of all the interviews you do that gives you the picture. My books are not determined by me, they are determined by the information I receive. They are a culmination of many things. With Goldman and several other biographers you get the feeling that there's an agenda. There's an angle before the first word is written. It's pre-packaged.
"Then again there's a place in the world for the pre-packaged biography I suppose," he goes on. "There are so many hagiographies around that Goldman's has a function too, that in a way it's the other extreme of hagiography - it's somebody coming in and being iconoclastic for the sake of it.
"If Goldman got hold of Morrissey's life and dealt with it . . . I mean the potential there is incredible. It's not that there is a massive load of scandals there - there isn't - it's just that Morrissey's interaction with everybody from his family to his mother and his sisters to his friends to questions about his sexuality . . .
"If you started out with the agenda that this is about Morrissey's sexuality and everything else doesn't really matter and you pushed that as far as you could in any direction . . . yeah, I think that could be done. You'd have to severely warp so much of his life to make it stick and conveniently forget 90% of the story, but it could be done. If he becomes really big it will be done one day."
He pauses to consider the matter further.
"But I don't think he'll ever become that big," he resumes. "If he was Lennon or Presley or Sinatra a book like that would come out Inevitably the publishing world would dictate that it would. But I don't think it'll happen because I don't think he'll ever be a superstar. I don't think there's any chance of that. It's already too late. He's too old and I don't think he's got the constitution for it either. There's always been a lot of playing the game that Morrissey is not going to do. He's always been too rebellious."
He laughs. "Unless I'm severely wrong and he has a string of number one hits and tops the album charts in the States for the next four years and does sixteen world tours. But I doubt it." Given that Morrissey was recently quoted as saying the album he is currently recording will be his last - and I quote - 'I don't want to be a bald-headed senile making an exhibition of myself', Rogan is probably spot on.
In the meantime Johnny Rogan - who is as painstakingly meticulous in his speech as he is in print - is working on another Morrissey-Smiths related book. Trying to determine the exact nature of the enterprise is like attempting to open a particularly stubborn oyster with a plastic fork, but he does reveal that it will not be focusing on Morrissey's solo career, as he feels it is too soon for such a project.
"People are assuming that there will be a Morrissey book on the shelves next year. And there may be - I know of at least one that is being written - but I won't be competing with it."
It's more likely that the new book will deal further with The Smiths and the pre-Smith days, using new material which he has collected since The Severed Alliance was written (Rogan admitted that his trip to Ireland was partly for the purpose of research).
"I've been working on it but not with the same earnestness one would do with a publication date looming up," he says. "I've been pottering about with it really. But it's what I intended to do and it's what I'm doing.
"But I think there will come a time when I'll just have to stop and start doing something else. There's nothing immediate on the horizon but I'll have to get my act together soon. To be truthful, I think I'm being a bit lazy . . ."
Some Not So Trivial Trivia About Morrissey
* One of Morrissey's earliest childhood heroes - and most enduring influences - was James Dean who he first encountered in 1964 when the local cinema re-ran Rebel Without A Cause.
* His first heroine was Sandie Shaw who The Smiths later went on to record 'Hand In Glove' with. A failed 1969 Shaw solo outing, 'Heaven Knows I'm Missing Him Now', also provided the inspiration for 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now'.
* Morrissey was six-years-old when the Moors Murderers were conducting their reign of terror and vividly remembers the day in October 1965 when one of his young Manchester neighbours, Edward Evans, was found battered to death. The tragedy was later recalled in 'Suffer Little Children', a track from The Smiths' debut album.
* After early flirtations with Bowie and Mott The Hoople, Morrissey finally lost his musical virginity to the New York Dolls in November 1973 when they appeared live on The Old Grey Whistle Test. The band's sexual ambivalence and outsider mentality had a profound effect on their new fan.
* Morrissey was a well known 'face' on the Mancunian punk scene - sneaking into the Buzzcocks' office when their backs were turned to make telephone calls, briefly fronting The Nosebleeds after mainman Ed Banger went solo and rehearsing with the remnants of Slaughter & The Dogs.
* Johnny Marr only met Morrissey a year before The Smiths made their chart debut. Taken round to his house by a mutual friend, Marr was immediately impressed by Mozzer's record collection and asked him to join the band he was forming.
* Marr wasn't certain he'd made the right decision until three months later when himself, Morrissey and stand-in drummer Simon Wolstencroft blagged free studio time and recorded demo versions of 'Suffer Little Children' and 'The Hand That Rocks The Cradle'.
* The Smiths' first ever gig was at The Manchester Ritz in October 1982 supporting the much hyped Blue Rondo A La Turk. Mike Joyce's snare drum split, they only played three songs but the crowd loved them and they were on their way.
* Morrissey was initially keen for The Smiths to sign to Factory but had his enthusiasm dampened when the label's head of A&R told him their demo was "shit".
* Morrissey's famed distrust of the press stems from a story that The Sun ran in August 1983 accusing the band of encouraging child abuse. The paper quoted the lyrics from 'Handsome Man' to justify their claim.
* The Smiths made their Top of the Pops debut on November 24th. 1983 performing 'This Charming Man'. Morrissey admitted afterwards that it had been one of the "most magical moments" of his life and friends agree that it prompted an obsession for celebrity.
* At the end of their first year together, Morrissey and Marr signed a deal with Rough Trade which effectively reduced The Smiths' other members, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, to the status of hired hands.
* Morrissey was first accused of racism - a charge that has come back to haunt him again and again - in 1985 when he went public about his loathing for reggae, took potshots at Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross and flippantly remarked that there was 'a pro-black conspiracy at Top of the Pops'.
* Despite a huge cult following, The Smiths never cracked the States. Their last tour there in 1986 ended in disarray with various members partying a little too hard and four gigs having to be pulled. Morrissey enjoyed the hedonistic experience, though, and vowed to return.
* Morrissey's pathological hatred of ' sterile dance music' played a prominent role in the eventual split up of The Smiths. Marr wanted to take on board different influences and experiment with new technology but the singer steadfastly refused to compromise.