Funny, sad, bitchy, frustrating: it’s Morrissey, all right
Despite the fanfare, this pacy autobiography reveals little about the Smiths singer
Autobiography was a phenomenon even before it was published, when no reviewer had seen a word or had any idea of its contents. Where were the review copies? There were none, not even under embargo. Was Penguin really publishing it as a mass-market paperback for less than £10? Yes. Instead of the anticipated £25 hardback, it was seemingly cutting its own throat by hitting the airport market, instantly.
First serial rights? None available. A handsome newspaper spread for a sizeable fee is the traditional way for publishers to recoup part of a large advance. Not this time. As for book signings on publication day, well, there was one in Sweden. The decision to issue Autobiography under the Penguin Classics imprint also prompted debate. Was Penguin compromising its own brand? In a spin worthy of a political party, it described the work as a classic in the making. Or, with luck (to use a popular oxymoron), an instant classic.
The sideshow threatened to spoil the main event, but Morrissey’s Autobiography is available in supermarkets and sitting proudly at number one in Amazon’s chart. Aspects of its production remain mysterious and unorthodox. It has no index (not even a short one), sections or chapters, and, oddly for the English-educated Morrissey, features US spellings throughout (even a couple of “rinky dinks”). Yet Penguin is a UK publisher and the book isn’t even available in the US. So far, so puzzling.
Autobiography is nevertheless a thoroughly addictive read, made more urgent by the author’s decision to write in the present tense. Funny, sad, bitchy, fan-worshipping, frustrating, iconoclastic, vindictive and vengeful, it covers pretty well all of the author’s paradoxical personality traits. Chief among these is Morrissey’s solipsism, punctuated time and again by an inability or unwillingness to see the other person’s point of view. This, combined with a penchant for hyperbole, makes him a spiky narrator, overly keen on settling scores, imaginary or otherwise.
The narrative style is cinematic in technique, typical of a writer who has always been an avid film fan. At its best, this works spectacularly well, enlivening the pace as scenes and vignettes flash by, frequently captured in snapshot.
Memories of Manchester during his childhood are often evocative. It’s a place where “birds abstain from song” and Dickensian gloom is leavened by a sense of community. How accurate Morrissey is as a social historian is debatable, as he always allows a grudge to get in the way of a good story. His primary school, St Wilfrid’s, is described as “a bleak mausoleum” whose children are “contaminated”, “many stragglers stink, and will faint due to lack of food”. The school, he concludes, “has the power to make you unhappy and this is the only message it is prepared to give”. Is this the same institution that several of his classmates cheerfully recalled in print as a happy place?
“No schoolteacher at St Wilfrid’s will smile,” Morrissey insists. Sixteen lines later he writes, “Miss Redmond smiles lovingly at Anne Dixon,” seemingly unaware or unbothered by the contradiction. Unsurprisingly, he reaches a froth of Swiftian disgust when documenting his time at St Mary’s Secondary, an institution he denounced in the song The Headmaster Ritual. It fares even worse here, with teachers contentiously, if not libellously, named and shamed – none forgiven by the passage of time.
Childhood and adolescent adventures proceed, but Morrissey’s fast-cut cinematic style means much is unexplored. His relationship with his mother, often assumed to be the bedrock of his early existence, is largely passed over. She loses her Catholic faith, but we never find out precisely why. His supportive sister is reduced to a bit player, barely mentioned. The same applies to his father. When his parents’ marriage breaks up, Morrissey does not tell us how his mother fares or even how he copes with the news. The vicissitudes of everyday life are supplanted by immersion in his subjective inner world, where films, pop songs, television programmes and actors are described in ornate detail. It is, no doubt, indicative of the way he escapes from “reality” into fantasy. There are some deeply personal comments on AE Housman’s poetry and a nine- page appraisal of the New York Dolls where the prose shimmers, but then we return to Manchester, where characters move in and out of the narrative, sometimes never to return. There is a coy reference to some “cupcake grabbles”, but Morrissey quickly draws a curtain around that scene.
The Smiths era, ultimately tainted in Morrissey’s mind by the 1996 court case with Mike Joyce, the band’s drummer, is relatively sparing in detail. Those hoping for sumptuous revelations about the singer’s partnership with Johnny Marr, the Smiths guitarist, may feel short-changed at an appraisal that seems calculatingly distant.
There is a revealing account of the Smiths’ first US tour and some previously unheard titbits – evidently Marr suggested that the album The Queen Is Dead should be retitled Bigmouth Strikes Again, and Morrissey originally wanted to omit There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.
Exposition is swiftly replaced by vituperation as Morrissey lays into accountants, solicitors and managers. Acting adviser Joe Moss (“the unsung hero of the Smiths’ story”, according to Marr) is portrayed harshly. “Behind my back, Joe Moss has coerced Johnny, Andy and Mike into axing the singer,” Morrissey says (note the use of “my” and “singer”). This new revelation makes no mention of the incident, described in the high court as a power play, where Morrissey himself allegedly abandoned the group in Manchester while seeking refuge with Geoff Travis, founder of the Rough Trade record label, in London. Either way, the quip, “We resume – deloused of Joe Moss,” is especially offensive.
Travis becomes another pantomime villain, with Morrissey twice referring to his “whooping cough smile” while presenting an unrelentingly negative interpretation of his actions. Tony Wilson, the founder of Factory Records, fares little better. Even John Peel gets a roasting.
It’s mainly fellow artists who receive commendation, James Maker, Linder, Chrissie Hynde, Kirsty MacColl, Mick Ronson and Michael Stipe among them. Plus, the Krays. Other people, notably Vini Reilly, Mark Nevin and Pete Hogg, are written out of the script completely. Jake Walters, an assistant who lived at Morrissey’s house for two years, is eulogised – “he is me and I am he” – only to fade from view, again without much explanation.
The solo years are interrupted by a 41-page diatribe covering the Joyce v Morrissey court case. This represents a full 10 per cent of the singer’s life story, but it provides the reader with arguably the greatest, most revealing and painful insight into his peculiar psychology. The drummer is renamed “Joyce Iscariot” while Judge John Weeks is transformed into an almost mythological figure of imagined malevolence in Morrissey’s partisan recounting.
The story gets brighter at the end, with its vainglorious list of adoring actors and touring triumphs. “It is quite true that I have never had anything in my life that I did not make for myself,” Morrissey concludes, with hubristic effusion.
While cataloguing concert dates and chart entries, he writes like a scholarly fan, but he still has little to say about what happens after the stage lights are dimmed. “Too much happens in my life, and then months and months of nothing,” he observes, by way of excuse.
But it is precisely the so-called nothing aspect of Morrissey’s life that still intrigues, far more so than any congratulatory litany of sell-out concerts. Behind closed doors, he remains both an enigma and a blank canvas.
Autobiography by Morrissey is published by Penguin Classics, priced £8.99
Johnny Rogan has written biographies of The Smiths, Van Morrison, The Byrds and Neil Young, including Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance.