When the publication of Morrissey’s autobiography was announced, the collective heart of the news media skipped a beat. A tell-all book by one of rock’s most inscrutable, stubborn, and unlikely idols? Some definitive insight, finally, into one of the defining songwriting partnerships of the 80s, that turned out music by turns mordant, jubilant, tongue in cheek, or tongue just sticking out? Morrissey behind the veil, or perhaps more appropriately, Morrissey under the coif, the man up to things his persona wasn’t. Or hell, maybe Morrissey would finally stick it to Robert Smith of The Cure, who famously said “If Morrissey says not to eat meat, I’m going to eat meat; that’s how much I hate Morrissey.”
Well…no. Though the daft online news media was able to throw together pieces in that mold upon the book’s UK release, highlighting various feuds (Siouxise Sioux might not be the easiest to get along with!), relationships (Jake Walters was close with Morrissey who might in fact harbor attractions to men!) and jabs at women, and at people in general, that are a bit cruel (Morrissey throws barbs at people, particularly women, who are overweight, but venom tempers to sighing when its his turn, later in his career, to pack on a few pounds) the truth was, and is, that there just isn’t much dish in this book. Johnny Marr, for instance, was recently quoted as saying he has a book deal of his own, and given the timing it sounded like lawyering up, or a man under seige. Yet based on what Morrissey writes about him here, other than taking umbrage at being portrayed as cowardly during a 90s court battle with Mike Joyce, he really has nothing to complain about. For Morrissey fans aware that they are doomed to a reunion-less world, the affection Morrissey held for his songwriting partner and still holds is understated but touching.
Enough of what the Morrissey autobiography wasn’t. Let’s talk about what it gloriously is – for over 150 pages an evocative, urgent, and stirring portrayal of Irish-Catholic working-class life. Writing in the present tense throughout, Morrissey’s passages about his childhood, his parents, his raucous and warm extended family, and his justifiably hated schoolteachers draws you in. The scenes are staged through style and unmistakable turns of phrase. It’s a beautiful stretch of writing. You’re there as Morrissey at an inexcusably young age escorts a sick classmate back home, and returns to school along unsafe streets only to be blasted by a teacher for not doing the job quite as the teacher would have, according to the teacher’s own unspoken calculus. You’re there as Morrissey watches other boys in the class humiliated at random, as they are ushered from one unsanitary, borderline unsafe, institution to another. Morrissey’s parents split, an understated fact that is a more than plausible outcome based on what’s come before – Manchester is hardly fertile soil for satisfying relationships of any kind. His father departs for a presumably more liberated existence, while his mother remains proud, attractive, dignified. Morrissey smartly offers no explicit commentary on what a lesser writer would split open with a hatchet and dissect. There’s no “Why is Morrissey Like This?” line of analysis from the man himself, and the question still remains – Why is Morrissey like this? The world he creates here is too rich for simple questions, and tells a much larger story than his own.
The less bleak flipside of this, for the reader and for Morrissey himself, is the passionate relationship he has with pop music and pop culture in general. Young Morrissey’s eyes were wide open to the various influences relatively banal programs can have in forming our impressions of how Men Act and how Women Behave; of what families are and how to pursue adventure. He chronicles the musical tastes of his family as his taste intersects with their own; one song that’s been stuck in my head as a result of the book is Faron Young’s Four in the Morning 1
It’s fun to imagine Morrissey’s father crooning the song as he walks through various run down Manchester homes the family shared (fans will delight in the photographs Morrissey provides of his young self and his family. You can immediately recognize “Your Arsenal” era Morrissey in his robust father cracking a large smile near his record collection, while his mother looks distant, beautiful, and composed on a beach in another shot. You can’t get a coif like that without good breeding, folks).
The New York Dolls get their fair share of real estate, as do less obvious influences, including the mighty Buffy Sainte-Marie (an attentive reader put together a Spotify playlist of the songs Morrissey refers to in the book – the songs themselves are practically an Easter Egg of additionally autobiography, as no doubt are the references to English figures of 60-70s pop culture, most of which I’m afraid probably went over my head). It’s worth checking out the songs for hints at how the Morrissey/Marr partnership blended sounds from the 50s and 60s into their own work. Rita Pavone in particular is an interesting reflection of who Morrissey eventually became.
Morrissey gives a colorful account of his early milieu, yet is at times refreshingly frank if brief about his actual experiences with depression. Morrissey has spent his career taking depression and its many tentacles and trying to make them interesting in some way. In song, the substance of this depression is elusive, staged, circumstantial, glancing, indirect – or as some might call it, persistent as it is, “whiny.” The key to this musicianship is revealed here in the songs he loved. Inside the pop mannerisms, they’re boiling over. If you can’t feel release to the emotional frenzy, signifying everything, in “Bernadette,” you won’t feel it in Morrissey’s songs either, and so much is the pity for you. “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” is not about a halogen lightbulb.
What’s interesting about the autobiography, as it transitions to his years with The Smiths, then onto his solo career, his court case, and finally, 40 pages of post-You Are The Quarry revival recording and touring, is how little he tells, how “in the process” it still all feels. There is not one goddamn moment in the book where he explains the genesis of a particular song, and perhaps that is what we were all waiting for – who was the “good lay” in Suedehead?? Was someone responsible for “I Know It’s Over”? Did Morrissey and Johnny Marr stay up late confessing romantic disappointments on a cold night in 1985? The answer to the first two is God knows, and the answer to the third is probably not. Morrissey has spent his whole life as a thorn in the side to conventional masculinity, pricking it with a toothpick but pricking himself as well. Morrissey would be happy to be the first of the gang to die, but is not impulsive enough to be that poor fool. As in pop, Morrissey both plays with and by the rules.
Once childhood and an extended pre-Smiths adolescence is left behind, so too is vulnerability, and we run into a fairly stone cold wall of masculine propriety. By 18, you and he know everything they need to know. Morrissey is shaped. It does not necessarily make for the most riveting autobiography. Anyone without a vested interest in believing everyone on the earth is entirely heterosexual could probably gather from Morrissey’s career, specifically the time in the mid 90s when he was in a creative partnership with Jake Walters, that he was also in a more intimate partnership, which is nevertheless devoid of explicit detail. There’s no need to be tawdry, but very few pages are devoted to showing how the people he met in adulthood changed his life. Clearly a triumphant fraternal model has provided Morrissey more solace emotionally than state certified relationships ever could, but gangs don’t snitch and Morrissey doesn’t either.
One of the interesting parts of the book is Morrissey’s wavering awareness of his brokeneness, which is projected onto others. He clearly believes in the merits of the flesh (as any Smiths sleeve could tell you), and lacerates his Catholic schoolteachers for being so frigidly without and determined to spread their disease. But for Morrissey, the damage is done. He admires the bodies of his fanbase, and their physical aggressiveness and attitude; but he is unaware that he possesses the same, and the impression is that for him, it is a wishful and entirely genuine pantomime. He is only the mold.
Now, before you kill yourself by lighting a copy of the book on fire in your oven, let me reassure you that the grace of the book throughout is the same that animates his songs – self deprecation and humor. One anecdote that sticks in my mind is when on a tour at some point in the early 00s, at a lovingly described and no doubt luxury hotel somewhere near the Mediterranean, Morrissey takes a stroll around a pool and…falls in. You laugh and he laughs, with the awareness that a Manchester boy who certainly shouldn’t have made his fortune writing about the things he writes about has fallen in a pool surrounded by the half nude elite who were born and bruised by the softness of Chanel.
The book, unfortunately, loses steam at the end. I’m a huge fan (as if that had to be disclosed 2 ), but his impressionistic Cliff’s Notes of tours for the last 40 pages is where the narrative grinds to a halt. The solace he finds in his fanbase is no surprise if you’ve attended a concert in the past 8 years; he tests out for himself night after the night whether the love is real, and if you’ve been on the shouting and carrying-on end, you know the answer is a resounding YES. His difficulty in accepting even this is a bit tedious if convincing to read. His description of the trial in which Mike Joyce fleeced him and a judge targeted him has grated on other reviewers, and a while a bit slow it is almost Kafka-esque (or Wildean) in detail, and reminiscent of when other major artists have found their flights of fancy ground into the ground by the law (Ingmar Bergman was nearly destroyed emotionally by a tax case in Sweden – speaking of which if ‘depressing’ autobiographies are your thing, that one comes highly recommended).
When you’ve reached the end of this consistently well-written “Autobiography,” you may find yourself frustrated. It does a remarkable job at giving life to the writer, and one senses it gives life as much to him as it does to the reader. It’s shockingly vivid and elusive at the same time. At times it reads like a diary. But for all the things you might know, you still don’t feel that you’ve learned that much. Morrissey’s elliptical songwriting style is equally applied to his autobiography. In this context, is that artistry? It’s not so much the lack of detail from his private life that begs the question. Bergman’s romantic CV is long and illustrious, but his book mostly ignores the dynamics of those relationships (it’s his formative relationships with women in his teens and early twenties that take up the most print in that area, again, the story of a man shaped young). What it does convey is his passion for the form, his love for cinema, the care taken over the banalities, the dreams that offer clues to eventual scripts. Ingmar Bergman takes you by the hand and shows you a little bit what it is like to be Ingmar Bergman. What Morrissey does not do is show you what it’s like to be the young man in front of the typewriter, sweeping his hand through his hair when “Suedehead” is finished, or putting together over Marr’s music the dark and vague images of “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” which make it so unsettling and affecting. Shedding some light on the genius of Morrissey the lyricist could have taken the book to a more personal place, and made it more of a true “Autobiography.” As it is, Morrissey picks up the pen and shreds through a new format with his inimitable style. A great book, but the stage to which he owes his life, that he loves – the stage remains.
- Which is in itself the subject of Prefab Sprout’s magnificent song, “Faron Young.” Of the other 80s groups that specialize in overcast skies and emotions, Prefab Sprout is unique and one of my favorites. They offer a gentle and interesting view of the world more similar to descendant Belle & Sebastian than Morrissey’s. They in turn received a musical tribute from Blind Terry – “When Prefab Sprout Wrecked My Mind.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWOJlCF22BY. ↩
- Better late than never. ↩