Previously published in Dawn Books & Authors.
Morrissey has written an autobiography. Morrissey has pulled out of his publishing contract. Morrissey’s autobiography is being published as a Penguin Classic, where it will join the hallowed leagues of Dickens and Joyce and Dumas and Maupassant and Manto and Orwell. The publishing world is mostly enraged and oh look, ‘there’s panic on the streets of London’. Leaving aside the hullabaloo caused by Penguin publishing Morrissey’s Autobiography as a classic (and later, caused by the editing out of Morrissey’s relationship with a man from the US version), the book has received many positive reviews, both from fans of Morrissey and from literary critics. It has also been made immense fun of — Morrissey the Miserable, they called him. But Morrissey fans are known to be fiercely protective of the performer, flocking to stores all over the world to buy his newly released memoir. For decades, Morrissey’s lyrics have caught the attention of and earned the respect of the disenfranchised and lonely all over the world. The Smiths even have a rather solid fan base in Pakistan, which is only peculiar until you pay attention to their lyrics: often bleak, always dramatic little portraits of a life trapped, an identity confused or desires unfulfilled.
Born in Manchester, Steven Patrick Morrissey is the co-founder of the immensely popular post-punk UK rock group, The Smiths. As their lead singer and songwriter, Morrissey helped the band land numerous chart-topping hits during the five years they were together. Following that, Morrissey went on to have a successful solo career, and 26 years later, he is still performing and recording successfully.
Manchester, of course, features a great deal in Autobiography. A city that forged Morrissey and also often broke him, Autobiography’s Manchester is depressing and stark, “a barbaric place where only savages can survive.” Call it the tormented childhood of a sensitive genius, or melodramatic flair (of which is there is plenty elsewhere in the book), clearly Morrissey’s early years in the city had a heavy impact on his work. School was barely tolerable, jobs were impossible to find and music was the only solace. Eventually, he would sing in ‘Suffer Little Children’ from The Smiths’ eponymous debut album, “You might sleep / but you will never dream / oh, Manchester, so much to answer for.”
But it is in Manchester that Morrissey meets Johnny Marr, the young man with whom he would form a musical connection over their mutual love for bands such as the New York Dolls, bands that most of their peers were not ready for, let alone fond of. The two then form The Smiths, with Marr’s guitar strong enough to support Morrissey’s weighty lyrics. Certain aspects of the band’s career are very clearly revealed by Morrissey, who felt strongly that The Smiths’ inability to gain a number one hit single was caused by Rough Trade, their UK record label. He writes about his life with the label: “my life sinks. It is a noisy bell to a quizzy mind, and one that sounds and sounds for five years to come, and it tells me that Rough Trade cannot quite produce enough testosterone in matters of big business.” Later in the book, Morrissey spends a fair amount of time writing about ex-band member Michael Joyce’s demands for supposed unpaid royalties, going into quite some detail about the lengthy case. Far too many details here, on the subject possibly least interesting to both a fan and a reviewer.
But much of the book’s narrative is otherwise anecdotal, often with no real reference to the impact of the meeting, event or act being written about. There are no chapters, names are thrown about and people come and go. Like many of Morrissey’s lyrics, Autobiography is written as a sort of extended vignette, with wonderful lyricism and rhythms, but also the occasional patch of purple prose. What could have been (or maybe were) many important conversations and events are flung about within a larger, impressionistic picture, one often marred with negativity and deep, searing sarcasm. While incredibly amusing and always cutting, this can get a little frustrating at times, particularly for fans who are looking for deeper, better insights into the nature of the mysterious Morrissey, the man who seems to hate so many, yet is unequivocally loved by so many, many more.
Those hoping to understand more about the music will be left disappointed — other than a few throwaway facts, (Battersea is used because it “rhymes with fatty,” for instance), there is very little to explain the origins and significance of the songs that changed the landscape of popular music in the ’80s. How did Johnny Marr create the powerful, brilliant chord progression that launches ‘How Soon is Now?’ Were the vocals really perfected in just two takes? Was Morrissey being racist when he wrote ‘Bengali in Platforms’ and ‘Asian Rut’? So many questions are left unanswered. Surely artists should be allowed to reserve the right to never reveal private experiences that spur their creativity. Perhaps Morrissey still has a need to retain some mystery about himself, his songwriting process, his music. But ultimately, what everyone wants from an autobiography is to be let in, and Morrissey is a tease.
Admittedly, when he talks about music and the musicians who influenced him, he is fantastic. An adoring fan and yet an astute music critic, he is eloquent, sharp and always right on cue. Some choice observations are made in Autobiography on a number of other artists: on Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music, “he shuffles crab-style from stage right to stage left … like someone who’s had his food dish removed. It’s a voice of cold metal, just barely skin deep”; on Patti Smith: “I allowed Horses to enter my body like a spear, and as I listened to the bare lyrics of public lecture, I examined the genderless singer on the heavyweight album sleeve. So surly and stark and betrayed, Patti Smith cut right through — singing and looking and saying absolutely everything that would be thought to go against the listener’s sympathy”; and on Nico: “Nico was an unclassified artist and largely disregarded as a gifted amateur who took far too much refuge in horror. Her youth’s beauty dissolved into a lifelong lusty love of heroin that turned her into a shapeless object that moved along the ground like shifting smog.”
As eloquent as he is about fellow musicians, Morrissey is also often incredibly melodramatic when he talks about his own troubles — this is not to negate that he had hard times, but perhaps not getting a job in the local post office is still not a reason to declare “there is now no escape but death.” However, it soon becomes clear that unwavering clinical depression has been a terrible lifelong burden: “Horror lurked beneath horror, and I could only tolerate an afternoon if I took triple the amount of the stated dose of valium prescribed by my GP (who would soon take his own life). Life became a hallucination, and I would talk myself through each day as one would nurse a dying friend.” It is quite a revelation to him, then, when he meets pop group A-ha, and finds that “they are healthy and athletic and inherently decent, with their rosebud Norwegian propriety,” proving to Morrissey “how the mission to sing isn’t always a result of pain.”
Ultimately though, even through the pain Morrissey remains his own biggest fan. When he is called “a bit much,” he writes “well, yes, of course I’m a bit much — if I weren’t, I would not be lit up by so many lights.” His ego is immense, his writing mostly evocative and strong and though most would insist Autobiography does not belong alongside other Penguin Classics, no one would deny that this book will probably be enjoyed for a very long time and by very many people. Not that Morrissey would care, of course. As he wrote in ‘Something is Squeezing My Skull’ from his most recent album, “I’m doing very well … / Thank you, drop dead.”