The Mystery Within—Morrissey, AB Brussels

It’s easy to get stuck on the outsides of things. It can almost be a reflex, to look at the surface, point to a flaw, sink into a quiet depression. This was certainly an option when we arrived at 6am outside AB, Ancienne Belgique, the music venue in Brussels where Morrissey was playing that night. We added our names to the list of people waiting. Nobody had slept out overnight—it was too cold, too rough. The street the venue was on was a pedestrianized stretch filled with bars of all kinds, interrupted by kebap shops and places selling frites. Everywhere had tables spilling out onto the street, and the noise and merriment had gone on all night, it seemed. At 6am, drunk homeless men were still in high gear, roaming up and down, hallooing and joking with each other, trying to get a rise out of us Morrissey fans who had strangely arrived on their turf.

The pre-dawn air was bone-chilling. Nora and I sat in a sheltered spot by the venue door, carefully avoiding the puddle of pee in the corner. She kept her eyes open while I closed mine. Pre-dawn is a beautiful time to meditate, and relaxing into myself, I remembered Egypt. Since I’d been there in February—on a trip that was about studying esoteric symbolism in Egyptian art and architecture—certain places rang very resonant bells on a symbolic level.

The music venue AB was oddly one of those places. I couldn’t help thinking of it as being just like a pyramid. On our Egypt trip, the marvelous culmination of our experience was an hour-long private meditation for our group inside the great pyramid. We moved from the everyday world, through the immensely massive stone layer that made up the outside, crawling and scrambling down ramps and up ladders into the smooth stone chamber inside, devoid of everything, even light. What was in there? What was in the still dark space that made up the core? 

I won’t put what I saw in that inky darkness into words because the details of my particular experience don’t matter. What endures is the model, the symbol. There is an outside and there is an inside, the place of mystery. We don’t go up to find the source, we go within. We move past the surface layers into what these layers are moved by. We drop into the depths, allowing the mystery to take us, and from there, it is easy to see that it’s all part of one thing. There is no depth without surface, no inky black magic chamber in the great pyramid without the massive outside that defines the space.

A sound in the street interrupted my meditation, and I opened my eyes to see a hunched, drunk, Belgian homeless man stagger past, groaning, “Morrissey, Morrissey.” In a way, we were all just like him. Standing on the outside, barely understanding, but knowing that there was something waiting within the walls of this space, a mystery worth crossing oceans and continents to stand before and behold. The venue had sent an email saying that Morrissey would take the stage at 8:34pm. Just thirteen and a half hours to go.

The long day passed as all these kinds of days do, with reading, eating, looking, talking, trying to find a spot—just so—under the warming sun with a pillow behind the back for a little softness on the hard street. Even though our names on the list gave us a certain measure of freedom to move around, I didn’t want to stray too far from the venue. I felt like the black chamber inside it calling to me, like I was connected to it with a rubber band that kept pulling me back.

I walked up the street to get some frites (from a place where the sign was a picture of a french fry peeing. Really? It made more sense when I learned that there is an iconic statue in Brussels of a little boy peeing, but still, really? Is it ever a good idea to depict food emitting urine?) and was drawn back quickly by the sight of fans huddled around a side door of the venue listening to the sound check. I sat and pressed my ear to the door, reaching inside to the mystery getting ready to unfold. I heard the closing bars of Reader Meet Author, a perfect song to play the week that Morrissey’s novel was released.

Security eventually lined us up behind a barrier in front of the door, we arranged ourselves according to our order on the list, and waited. There is always a frisson of anxiety as the clock ticks down to doors. Getting through security and into the inner sanctum quickly to secure a spot is a moment of great hazard. No matter how high you are on the list, things can go very wrong with a slow pat-down from security, or a new gate opening up, letting the hoards stream past you. I got stuck in a line of tickets that wouldn’t scan, but luckily, Nora got in without impediment and held a spot beside her on the barrier. We were on the right, the side where Jesse and Gustavo would be.

After the tumult of getting in, more stillness and waiting. The pre-show music and videos are always a litmus test of the sound system, and I found myself crisply hearing lyrics I’d never been able to make out before, words that had been mush through the sound systems of other venues. 

Clarity, then. The chamber was filling up with warm bodies, but as I settled in, I felt more and more space, emptiness. It is always my aim to be as present as I possibly can for each Morrissey show I attend. But especially when attending a series of shows in a short number of days, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking, Oh this one is just going to be a continuation of the other day in Paris, it’s more of the same. 

But no two shows are the same, each is a discrete event with its own trajectory. This show in this space felt like it was starting from a place of emptying out, of letting go of all the baggage, leaving the outside and coming into the still place within. 

Psychological/spiritual author JG Bennett writes beautifully about the different states and levels of selfhood a person can experience. In everyday life, we are in our material self, concerned with the world of things, or we’re in our reactional self, a slave to our sensitivities, tossed hither and yon by our likes and dislikes. But beyond all this, if we go deep enough to develop a conscious, stable sense of self, if we can stop being attached to things and our reactions to them, stop being attached even to the self who works so hard to not react, we may catch a glimpse of something extraordinary—the True Self, the mysterious source of all selfhood that can’t be defined.

The pre-show videos came to an end, the curtain hiding the stage went up, and Morrissey and the band appeared and began as usual with Suedehead. 

Every show is different. Sometimes the vibe is dark, as if Morrissey is singing from a place of pondering the imminence of his own demise, sometimes it’s playful and fun, Boz dances around with his guitar and I feel like, hey, I’m a musician too, the boys in this band could be my friends. 

On this night, even though the gap between the barrier and the stage was smaller than usual, I felt that Morrissey and the band were a different order of beings than we were, so far above us, gods of music brought in to remind our hunched selves groaning along “Morrissey, Morrissey” that True Music existed and this was what it was like. Every strand of the music was distinct, I could hear every stroke that Matthew Walker played on the high hat, every note everyone plucked on every string, all separate, and all coming together with timing so good, it went beyond mere timing and breathed the cool air of living perfection.

And the vocals? Morrissey came forward and reached across the short breach to shake hands with fans during the first few songs—Nora reached up and got a handshake!—but then he settled back and undertook the work of really singing.

It is always fun to go to shows and hear Morrissey play around with his songs, substituting lyrics or inserting unexpected pauses. Will Never Marry has been a wonderful example of this over the past year. A cry from the heart when played straight, Morrissey has turned it into a tragicomic masterpiece by stopping short after singing, “I’m writing this to say in a gentle way…” and allowing the audience to warble unaccompanied in unison at him, “Thank you but no!” The raised eyebrow in response, the “Really, I didn’t think I was that bad!” Pure comedy gold.

But tonight, he sang the song—he sang all of the songs—as if he were displaying the Platonic ideal at their core. It didn’t make the show overly-serious. When introducing the band, he attempted to do it in French.

“J’aimerais…” he began and faltered. “J’aimerais…”

He laughed and gave up, proceeding in English. And when trying to thank us later, handed the microphone to Guillaume in the front row so he could coach Morrissey in his pronunciation of “je vous remerci.” 

There was room for that playfulness, along with searingly perfect renditions of the songs. ‘I’m Not A Man’ was particularly pristine. The boys played, not as if they were on fire, more as if they were a frictionless source of all heat and light. 

As I watched Morrissey sing, the black backdrop behind him seeming to hold him and all the mysteries of the universe, I wondered if it was just me. An amateur musician, easily impressed by professional-level talent, how easy was it to bowl me over, knock me into a state of fevered adulation? Leave me standing there gaping at Jesse Tobias and Gustavo Manzur like they were gods?

But the thing is, I know they’re nothing like gods. I know they’re ordinary guys who do ordinary goofy stuff. I’m sure they have really boring stories they tell over and over again,  and leave the toilet seat up no matter how often their wives and sweethearts tell them not to. I’ve even seen enough shows to see them make mistakes in their music. Not gods at all.

And yet. The philosopher Ken Wilber talks about lines of development, how we all have areas we are more or less talented at. Some are very developed in the area of cognitive intelligence, others kinesthetically, some are interpersonally gifted, others excel at music. But all of these lines of development, when taken to the highest reaches of our potential, open us to states that could be termed spiritual.

So I know Matthew Walker is not a god. But given a drum kit, placed in the right setting, he can induce states that evoke the sublime. 

So he and the band, and Morrissey—not even Morrissey—they weren’t gods appearing to us in the inner sanctum of music. They were ordinary men who for a little while were able to evoke something of the depth of what is usually hidden. What is covered over by our groaning everyday selves. Or at least they uncovered it enough so I could catch a glimpse of it.

Am I alone? It’s so easy for us to stand together, impossible for the flesh to combine. Can these things even be communicated about? I’m sure some spiritual teachers would roll their eyes at my naïveté, writing about a passing state experienced at a show as if it could be captured in words, as if those words could convey anything real.

But just as Morrissey and the boys excel at music, my talent is to write. I may fail at evoking anything meaningful, not to mind sublime, with my words, but after coming in contact with even a hint of a symbolic token of something that points to the True Self, I have to write. The True Self is made of creative energy, and if all I can do is groan along in my clumsy way to the pristine song it sings, then that is what I will do.