“…a heavy tome, utterly devoid of insight, warmth, wisdom or likeability.” A A Gill, The Sunday Times
“… a beautifully measured prose style that combines a lilting, poetic turn of phrase and an acute quality of observation, revelling in a kind of morbid glee at life’s injustices…” Neil McCormick, The Telegraph
So which one is it? A work of poetic genius or a self indulgent waste of words? Morrissey’s Autobiography is nothing if not divisive – and I suspect the author wouldn’t have it any other way.
After many years as a writer of lyrics, Morrissey goes long form for this, his first book. Despite living a life many might view as not-so-bad-really, Moz retains the melancholy demeanour that made him as he shares his memories of growing up in Manchester before taking his music to the world.
Bleak house – the Manchester years
The artist formally known as Steven Patrick Morrissey was born in 1959, though you could be forgiven for thinking it was closer to Dickensian times based on the bleak descriptions of pre-Madchester Manchester.
The safe streets are dimly lit, the others not lit at all, but both represent danger that you’re asking for should you find yourself out there once curtains have closed for tea.
Morrissey is the child of Irish migrants, growing up in a 60s UK that’s not yet swinging – at least, not in his neighbourhood. He paints us a picture of a struggling, working class family (with heart) where strong women raise disillusioned children while disappointed men hunt and gather.
The book is long, wordy and florid, yet true personal insights remain enigmatic. Morrissey’s early home life seems harmless enough, although aspects of his school days clearly haunt him. He speaks highly of his parents, particularly his mother and grandmother, but their tall pedestal keeps them at a distance from the reader.
Snippets of the story that might edge us closer to understanding what made Morrissey so miserable (heaven knows!) are obfuscated by humour.
Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big… my sister Jackie is interrupted four times as she attempts to kill me, whether this be rivalry or visionary no one knows.
Other news of the day, like the ‘Moors Murders’ by serial killers Brady and Hindley on the Manchester outskirts, seem to be a bigger influence on Morrissey’s worldview than anything in his personal circle. One chilling ghost story, skilfully delivered, allows Morrissey (and the reader) to retrace the steps of a victim.
…everyone appears to know someone who knew Myra Hindley, and we are forced to accept a new truth: that a woman can be just as cruel and dehumanized as a man, and that all safety is an illusion.
If you’re a fan of this man and his music, however, you’ll be waiting for the author to cut to the chase: tell us about the Smiths.
The Smiths – rise and fall
The Smiths began like any other teen collaboration with lofty intentions. In the early 80s, a young Morrissey is smashing about with a guitar, getting cranky at the politics of the times (Thatcher’s Britain) and hovering on the sidelines at hip Manchester clubs like the soon-to-be-legendary Hacienda. He meets Johnny Marr, a talented and bolshie guitarist, and their differences are complementary. Together they concentrate deeply on the realization of the dream. They call their band the Smiths in an ironic simultaneous nod to fame and anonymity.
It sounded like a timeless name, unlikely to date, and unlikely to glue itself to come-and-go movements…
The Smiths went on to become an acclaimed band with devoted apostles, having created some of the most recognisable emo-pop of the 80s. At least, that’s how it seems in my memory. The reality, according to Moz, is that the band was greatly underappreciated at the time, routinely failing to garner chart success in the UK and making very little money thanks to dodgy management deals. Respect (of a sort) for Morrissey came much later, following US chart achievements and solo releases. Money came and went with the seasons; but that’s a story in itself.
Many reviewers have criticised this poignant, poetic, hilarious autobiography for the 50-odd pages it gives to the famous Morrissey vs Joyce (et al) court cases that flared up in the mid 90s. Almost ten years after the band disbanded, former drummer Mike Joyce decided he deserved a bigger cut of past, present and future royalties. Unfortunately for Morrissey there were some significant grey areas around the handshake contracts naively arranged in the early days of the band.
Having said that, the core facts stood solidly in Morrissey’s favour, had it not been for the string of miscommunications, ignorant legal advisors and general sabotage and subversion attempts that allowed Joyce to take the prize. Morrissey was required to back-pay past royalties, which in the earliest days had all been blown on expenses anyway, and promise royalties for songs that Joyce had played no part in writing. It was the nail in the coffin for the once glorious Morrissey-Marr collaboration and sent Moz into self-imposed exile for some time.
Reading through the turgid details of this utterly nasty legal wrangle highlights the tricksy trouble with autobiographies in general: that is, that they are always told from a single perspective. I suspect that other parties might have very different perspectives on the hows, whys and wherefores of the Smiths, whilst Morrissey would have us believe he was absolutely the victim in all things, at all times. As a reader, I wanted to keep a critical distance; as a fan, I was on his side.
But while Morrissey may have many (MANY) negative things to say about the music industry, it is also his lifeblood. From a purely voyeuristic fan perspective, he’s in a unique position to pass commentary on the movers and shakers who were – and are – his peers.
The Smiths are frequently associated with other 80s bands, like Joy Division – for their Manchester ties – or Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cure – for their post-punk melancholy pop. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they all hated each other. Tony Wilson, the journalist, producer and club owner known as ‘Mr Manchester’ for bringing the world bands like Joy Division and the Happy Mondays gets many particularly sharp tongue lashings from Moz.
‘You must call your next album Steven,’ says Manchester luvvie Tony Wilson, and I stare back at him – wondering if he had ever actually had a good idea in his life.
Whilst Siouxsie Sioux … looks at everyone and everything only with a sense of what is due to her, and she might stare you out as you lay dying on a zebra crossing.
The likes of Chrissie Hynde, Kirsty MacColl, David Bowie and Michael Stipe win praise – but not unconditionally. It’s hard to determine whether Morrissey finds it impossible to just plain like someone, or whether he is expressing the same niggling doubts and resentments we all do in our friendships. Maybe we’re all a bit more like Morrissey than we’d care to admit? There! Now you’re miserable!
Bowie does, however, get the gong for best celebrity anecdote in this book:
David quietly tells me, ‘You know, I’ve had so much sex and drugs that I can’t believe I’m still alive,’ and I loudly tell him, ‘You know, I’ve had SO LITTLE sex and drugs that I can’t believe I’m still alive.’
This charming man
There are some areas in which Morrissey wins the insufferable competition hands down. He is so staunch in his vegetarianism that he will simply stand and walk out of a restaurant if anyone at his table eats meat. He has lost contracts and opportunities this way – and he couldn’t care less. Admirably principled or just rude? You decide.
Of course, just like everything that’s ever been written about Morrissey, we need to take everything Morrissey writes about himself with a large grain of salt. Moz is a storyteller, a prankster and a piss taker. Like a naughty child, he thrives on lighting a firecracker then hiding behind a bush while the sparks fly.
What’s more, it doesn’t matter a whole lot what kind of ‘truth’ he tells, because the press will fill in the gaps with whatever made up silly putty it chooses. When fans storm the stage at a concert, for example…
”The riot ensued when Morrissey instructed the crowd to ‘come party’,” says a reliable newshound to the on-the-spot camera, and the very idea of me ever sinking so low as to use the expression ‘come party’ makes me spray tonight’s toddy across the television screen.
Again, it’s no surprise to me that the press can twist words and situations to suit – but when someone shares their specific examples of blatant lies rendered true in the public imagination by a journalist’s words, it does hit home a little harder.
This is why I am I
Apart from the story of the Smiths, most fans will also be searching this book for answers to the Big Questions. Is he gay? Yes and no. Within these pages, he has relationships with both men and women, though he is far from the playboy pop star (see Bowie quote above!).
Is he actually clinically depressed? Probably, but a) he values his privacy too much to become the next poster boy for mental health awareness; and b) he appears to have accepted the role of tortured artist, destined to be misunderstood and misanthropic.
My favourite quotable quote of the book sums him up:
It is a fact that even warming moments overwhelm me with despair, and this is why I am I.
I’ve reviewed quite a few celebrity autobiographies now and, in my humble opinion, this is an incredibly creative and eloquent piece of writing. It’s easily misinterpreted if you’re looking for a definitive, chronological life story though. The whole project is playful – from Morrissey’s insistence the book be published in the revered Penguin Classics imprint, through to the beyond perfect cover image that couldn’t be more tongue in cheek if you added a halo.
Self indulgent and verbose? Absolutely! But why not, I say?
Whenever I’d overhear how people found me to be ‘a bit much’ (which is the gentle way of saying the word ‘unbearable’), I understood why. To myself I would say: Well, yes of course I’m a bit much — if I weren’t, I would not be lit up by so many lights.