The Morrissey Medium
The Morrissey Medium
A Q&A with Ronnissey
Of The Sons & Heirs
By Geoff Gehman
Ronnie Scott didn’t want to believe the fans and band mates who kept insisting he sang just like Morrissey. Raised as a grunge guitarist, the twentysomething Brooklyn native thought the former Smiths front man was too weirdly neat, too spookily hip. He still had bad memories of his sister’s bedroom poster of Morrissey looking like a strangely scary GQ model in his punk Presley pompadour.
Being a curious, flexible fellow, Scott decided to investigate why listeners kept asking him to sing songs that Morrissey wrote for and sang with the Smiths, the short-lived visceral, lyrical band with the long legacy. He eventually realized that Morrissey was a remarkably catchy, captivating poet/psychologist/performance artist, even when he was depressing or nasty. It was while auditioning to sing in a Smiths tribute band that he understood that Morrissey had an uncanny knack for voicing what he often felt. For him, “I Want the One I Can’t Have” and “Barbarism Begins at Home” were almost autobiographical.
Scott became more than a Morrissey fan; he became a Morrissey medium. He channels the cult figure as Ronnissey, the lead vocalist/entertainer in The Sons & Heirs, which will perform Smiths tunes, arrangements and grooves on April 18 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Expect the complete Morrissey package: the buzzed, sweeping hair; the loose blouses; the arm whirls; the gladioli whirls; the floor rolls; the charmingly disarming baritone croon. Expect fans–some tattooed with Morrissey words–to shower him with kisses, high fives and dancing hugs.
Below, in a conversation from his Long Island home, Ronnissey discusses Morrissey’s words, fashions, moves, fans, imitators and influences—a mini-Mozipedia.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely floored you?
A: The first first one was Dion and the Belmonts’ “Teenager in Love.” I listened to it over and over again and wrote down the lyrics and actually recorded myself singing it. I thought I did such a great job, but when I played it back I was horrified by what I heard. I was so horrified, in fact, I didn’t sing for years and years and years. I became a guitar player instead. It’s so weird because I’m a singer today.
Q: How extreme was your older sister’s devotion to the Smiths, a devotion you surely didn’t share?
A: Lynn had a Morrissey poster in her room. This was in the ’90s and I was into playing guitar and playing and listening to grunge bands like Alice in Chains and Nirvana. It was such a strange thing that all my idols had long hair, and here was this poster of a super clean guy. He sounded so polished, so totally different from what I listened to, which was dirty. I was so scared by the contrast. Lynn thought that what I was listening to was just horrible noise.
Grunge was so easy to play; I certainly couldn’t play what [Smiths guitarist] Johnny Marr played. Back then, anything I couldn’t play on guitar, I wrote off [laughs]. I didn’t get what was going on with the Smiths and Morrissey; I probably panned it as stupid.
It’s funny: I started to sing because I couldn’t find a singer I really liked in my band. And then I kept hearing, over and over, that “You kind of sound like that Morrissey guy.” Even my band mates said so. And I said: “No no no—pick someone better than that!” And then I checked out Morrissey songs and discovered I really liked something like “The Last of the Famous International Playboys.” Eventually it started to grow on me that there is a certain genius about this Morrissey guy.
The guys in Sons & Heirs were looking for a singer. There had been a Morrissey who had put them together and they thought he was a terrible Morrissey, so they threw him out of his own band [laughs]. I answered their ad and they sent me four or five songs. I went to an audition and even rolled around on the floor because I had seen a YouTube video of Morrissey doing that–and because I really wanted this gig. They asked me if I could do a bunch more Morrissey songs I didn’t know. I got every mix of every Morrissey song I could find and that’s when I fell in love with Morrissey and the Smiths. It’s crazy, but that’s how Ronnissey started.
Q: Why do you identify with “I Want the One I Can’t Have,” one of Morrissey’s calling cards with the Smiths?
A: Because I’ve spent a good part of my life wanting things I could not have. And because everything in that song–the title, the lyrics, the band, the tempo, the emotions, the inflection in Morrissey’s voice–everything perfectly sums up everything I’ve felt at times. To spell it out that way, in a song, in a single sentence–well, only Morrissey could get away with that. You don’t need to interpret it any other way. Everybody feels that way about something, some more passionately than others.
Q: You’ve said that you perform Morrissey rather than act Morrissey. That makes me think of a question I like to ask members of tribute bands: How do you avoid the trap of being overly devoted, when you appear more anal than authentic?
A: I have a lot of respect for the devotion of people who do the tribute thing. It takes a lot of balls. But if it’s not done properly, it turns into cheese. Other people I’ve seen who emulate Morrissey kind of go over the top by trying to force his nasally, nerdy kind of voice. Morrissey rolled around on the floor when something he was singing about overwhelmed him. People take that as a sign to roll around all the time, as if to say: This is my Morrissey move!
I’m kind of living these songs, losing myself in them, so that if I’m on the floor, flailing my arms around, it’s only because something has moved me. It’s hit a nerve with me, just like it’s hit a nerve with so many people in the audience. These songs are so important to so many fans. I hear all the time: “When I was kicked out of my house, I listened to the Smiths”; “When I bought my first house, I listened to the Smiths.” All the guys in this band don’t take that lightly at all; we all have this duty to protect this music from becoming corny. The Smiths haven’t been around for 30 years, so we let the crowd have these moments with their music with us. We let them sing, or scream, at the top of their lungs.
Q: You also let fans–female and male–kiss, hug and hang all over you. Has anyone ever made you worry for your safety and sanity?
A: Some fans don’t know their own strength. I’ve been hit really hard because they come from the opposite direction and I can’t brace myself in time. I really don’t mind; it’s all good.
I tell security before shows to never stop anybody who wants to come up. I tell people during the show that they’re free to come up. Some people come up and just dance. Some just want to give me a hug or a kiss. Some would love to touch Morrissey, but they can’t. I’m the next best thing, a suitable substitute [laughs].
Q: You know, my mother doesn’t like gladioli because they remind her of funerals. I don’t feel their connection to death; I just dig the bright colors and graceful architecture. What do you think of them as a prop?
A: Gladioli are the perfect stage flower because they don’t fall apart when you twirl them around. Hmmmm, maybe Morrissey was on to something. You know, until the whole Smiths thing I had no affiliation with flowers. Now we buy bunches of mixes at Trader Joe’s, fill the stage with them, and toss them out to the crowd. People yell out: “Throw me flowers!” and I tell them: “You wouldn’t have to do that if you brought your own!” [laughs].
Who knows, maybe one day we’ll finally get people to bring flowers to the show and throw them at us. Although I hope they don’t throw roses; those thorns can be dangerous.
Q: Did you glean any valuable tidbits from Morrissey’s 2013 autobiography? I still can’t believe he had the balls to have Penguin release it in the “classic” category, along with real classics from the 19th century.
A: This is going to shock you, but I haven’t really read it. And there’s a reason for that: I find the negativity toward the other members of the Smiths so troubling. I’m friends with [original Smiths bassist] Andy Rourke. He’s played with us; he’s such a nice guy. I’m also very good friends with [Morrissey drummer] Spencer Corbin; he’s played with us on a number of occasions. I guess I don’t want to see Morrissey in such a negative light, especially when he’s being so negative.
Q: What do you appreciate, or at least understand, about Morrissey that you didn’t before you began getting under his skin?
A: I did not get his very condescending attitude. I thought he was such a jerk. And now I completely get that it’s the Morrissey package. If you want such great, insightful songs, you have to expect the writer to be great and insightful—and outspoken and standoffish and sometimes controversial. I mean, who would ever think of writing a song like “Girlfriend in a Coma”? Or “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”? We do hate it when our friends become successful: it’s ridiculous, yet it’s so true. Some people are vague; Morrissey spells it out right there. I couldn’t put that feeling into words, and he put it in the title, the lyrics and the music.
Q: What three things have you learned about yourself while channeling Morrissey?
A: The first thing I learned was to really feel the emotions of music. Before I began channeling Morrissey, I had never felt that kind of emotion in any kind of music–ever. Music was enjoyable but it was more for listening in the background, or toe tapping. Morrissey’s music really sinks in; he puts life lessons to music.
The second thing I learned is that we spend a lot of time thinking we’re the only one who thinks: I want what I can’t have. When you go to a Smiths concert, you realize there are a lot of people who feel this way, who really rely on the Smiths and Morrissey for meaning and comfort.
The third thing I learned–and this is especially big coming from someone who loved screaming grunge guitar—is respect for Morrissey the man. Some talent comes along so easily that we think you can just step into it. I don’t think that was the case for Morrissey; I think he really worked at it. He came up in the ’80s when Wham! and Culture Club were big. The Smiths, by comparison, were really purists. They weren’t over the top or flamboyant; they were genuinely making good music. It probably would have been easier for them if they had sounded more popular, more formulaic; they probably could have sold a zillion records if that’s what they wanted at the time. Instead, their music is timeless. You’ll know a song like “Hand in Glove” a hundred years from now when you won’t even know what a Wham! song is.
Q: You had a brief disappointing meeting with Morrissey when you were delivering band equipment to David Letterman’s talk show. If you had more time with him, what’s the one question you’d be burning to ask?
A: I would ask him right off the bat, point blank, if he plans on writing and performing forever. I don’t want him to ever stop. Although if he told me he planned to stop, I’d tell him: If you ever need a replacement, I’d step right up [laughs].
Some people would consider that a lame question. They’d probably want to ask him about the meaning of one particular song. I don’t need to ask him that because every one of his songs means something personal to me.
Q: So, Ronnie/Ronnissey, what tops your Bucket List?
A: I really want to travel around the world. I’ve been around the country and to Tel Aviv and Europe, but I haven’t traveled enough. I’d like to go everywhere; I don’t think there’s a place where I should not step my foot.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: I want to see the end of religions that ruin people’s lives by controlling them. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and, like so many people, when you leave that religion the influence on you is still so strong after so many years.
Q: Would you say that you were able to exorcise some of that pain, that anger, by singing Morrissey’s often painful, angry, irreverent songs?
A: Exorcise is the perfect word. Morrissey’s songs are so forward and direct and expressive. Expressing yourself can get you in so much trouble in certain religions. So my Bucket List wish would be for that shit to go away.
Ronnissey: The Scoop
He joined The Sons & Heirs after answering an ad for a singer on Craigslist.
During his first audition for Sons & Heirs–which is named after a lyric in the Smiths song “How Soon Is Now?”–he sang “Still Ill” while writhing on the floor.
He wears women’s blouses because Morrissey wore women’s blouses during the early days of the Smiths. They’re also extremely comfortable performance clothes.
He is his own barber. “It’s a pretty easy cut. It’s just a matter of shaving the sides and letting it grow on top. It was a little tough the first time because I had really long hair. I thought: Oh man, here we go. This is a real commitment to [Morrissey’s] music.”
He shares Morrissey’s love for vegetables but not Morrissey’s hatred for meat. “I’m not a complete vegetarian, but I rarely eat meat. Maybe I shouldn’t say that; he might not like to hear that [laughs]. He does wear leather shoes and a leather belt, so there’s a little hypocrisy there. His explanation is that he hasn’t been able to find a decent substitute. Hmmmm; I’m not sure about that one.”
A fan once stuck her feet in his face, allowing him to see the tattooed title of a favorite Morrissey/Smiths song: “There Is a Light/That Never Goes Out.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He doesn’t completely understand the Morrissey cult, although he digs that punk Presley pompadour. He can be reached at email@example.com.