There was a truly electric moment at the Morrissey gig at the Palladium in London last night. Moz was introducing his new song, “Bonfire of Teenagers.” It’s about the Manchester Arena bombing in which twenty-two people were killed. He looked out at the audience and asked us a question. How come you know the name Myra Hindley but many of you won’t know the name of the man who bombed the Manchester Arena? People looked stunned. I believe some looked a little ashamed. It is rare indeed for hush to fall at a Morrissey concert, but it did then.
It’s a question that demands an answer. Sounding a little emotional, Morrissey described the 2017 arena bombing as one of the worst things that has ever happened to Manchester, his hometown. It was an even more calamitous slaughter of Mancunian youths than that carried out by Hindley and Ian Brady. Those evil lovers murdered five. Salman Abedi — for that is his name, now strangely faded from many people’s minds — killed four times that number. The youngest was an eight-year-old girl, Saffie Roussos. Younger even than Hindley and Brady’s youngest victim, Lesley Ann Downey. Downey’s name is also better known than Roussos’s, of course.
Five years after the bombing, Morrissey is still furious about it. And about the culture of amnesia that surrounds it, to such an extent that the names of both the killer and his victims rarely trip off the tongue. The stark, disturbing title of his new song — “Bonfire of Teenagers” — means it is likely to induce much Moz-bashing in the tabloids and maybe even the Guardian if it is ever released as a single. But it’s an incredibly haunting and moving song. Morrissey sings about society’s weirdly passive response to the barbarism in the arena: “And the silly people sing: ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ / And the morons swing and say: ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ / I can assure you I will look back in anger ’till the day I die.”
The song ends with a line that is repeated over and over and which brilliantly captures the odd moral cowardice behind our reluctance to speak frankly and openly about Islamist terrorism: “Go easy on the killer…”
Watching two thousand people sway along to this line, and to Morrissey’s reprimand of modern Britain for failing to keep the arena atrocity in its collective conscious, was strange and unsettling, but uplifting too. Finally, tribute was being paid to the dead of Manchester. Finally, anger was being expressed on their behalf.
It struck me that “Bonfire of Teenagers” is a great protest song. It’s exactly the protest song we need right now. No doubt the fact that Moz has dared to sing about an act of Islamist-inspired mass murder will be held up by his haters as further proof that he’s now “hard right.” Apparently it’s right-wing, and possibly Islamophobic, to be concerned about radical Islam. Once, secularist leftists would have been at the forefront of condemning murderous acts of religious hysteria. Now, these same folk are more likely to tut-tut at those who talk too much about Islamic extremism. “Move on — don’t look back in anger.” In putting his anger about the slaughter in the arena to music, Morrissey is not only standing up for the memory of that terrible day — he is also taking aim at the chilling, censorious climate that too often surrounds the issue of Islamist violence.
Don’t worry, though, if you have a ticket for any of the upcoming Morrissey shows. It’s a gig, not a lecture! It’s not all about Manchester Arena. Indeed, Morrissey has never sounded better. He played both Smiths and solo classics and the audience went wild. It feels as though the chattering classes’ bitter attempts to cancel Moz in recent years — for being pro-Brexit, for apparently being right-wing, for his comments about immigration — have given him a renewed sense of self-possession and vigor. Cancel culture has backfired in this case. It hasn’t tamed its target — it’s given him a shot of moral adrenaline, making him perform at his best since the days of the Smiths.
Morrissey is the rock ’n’ roll rebel we need today. Where too many pop and rock stars sing from the same, soul-zapping political script, Moz goes against the grain. He describes Brexit as “magnificent,” wears a vest that says “Fuck the Guardian” and loathes what is widely referred to as “wokeness,” especially for its intolerance of freedom of speech and alternative ways of thinking. “I’m a stern believer in free speech, but in my case I actually mean free speech for everyone, not just for those who agree with me,” Morrissey has said.
Good man. That’s the spirit of cultural liberty we need back in the world of pop. Glassy-eyed cancelers can hound Morrissey all they like but they won’t turn us against him. We know a national treasure when we see one.