Review: Morrissey "Autobiography"
Morrissey and I have history - albeit one-sided. Since the astonishing moment I first heard "what difference does it make" in 1983 I've thought of "The Smiths" as somehow separate: not music but an integral part of life. When asked to contribute to a collection of stories about Islington ("Down the Angel and up Holloway") I called my story "Hatful of Holloway". When asked to write about my hard journey to publication I titled the essay "this is the fierce last stand of all I am." When writing my first novel, "Fire Horses", I called one chapter "Hand in Glove"; and I even interviewed him once. Well, I THINK it was him.
Less happily, when seeking a song quote for my second novel, "Out of Office", I asked Morrissey's people if I could use one of his quotes. Back came the reply: I could, but it would cost an incredible £250 - just to advertise his work. I decided against it: for "Fire Horses" Peter Hook had allowed me to quote Joy Division for a much smaller fee, though he did ask me to buy him a sports car (we settled on a pint which I still owe him).
That incident left me wary. On page 196 of his Autobiography, Morrissey reveals the fear he felt when coming face to face with his idol, author James Baldwin and mentions the adage you should never meet your heroes; you are sure to be disappointed. My feelings on my heroes are similar: I try never to read them in case I feel let down, which is why I've never bothered reading Peter Hook, Mark E Smith or Shaun Ryder, three other Mancunians who saw me through tough times.
Yet Morrissey rises above them all, a light that never went out, a new sun which lit the way through the dark eighties for me and for a group of people who became friends, and bonded, to a soundtrack - a sentiment - Stephen Patrick Morrissey (with Johnny Marr) created.
I didn't want to read Morrissey's book in much the same way I refuse to listen to anything he recorded after 1988: because I don't want the beauty of what he did early on be tarnished by what came later. Reviews of Autobiography confirmed my worst fears: he would spend far too long detailing a complicated court case against his former band-members and not enough time describing how it must have felt to press something so pure as Hatful of Hollow or Meat is Murder to vinyl. But then - what do critics know? As Morrissey says:
"How can someone who is not creative pass judgement on someone who is?"
While the court cases do take up a lot of space, I would argue they are more interesting than the final fifty or so pages of the book, when "Mozzer" (as I never call him) seems to drift from one mega-arena to another, always in love with his fans who always love him even more. However, this is a minor quibble: for Morrissey has written a(nother) classic. Others have remarked on his lyrical descriptions of postwar Manchester - the same city into which I emerged in 1967, though we left for "hillsides desolate" a few short years later - so I won't dwell there other than to say: believe the hype.
In fact the whole book is a compelling, poetic love affair with the written word. Morrissey's description of Saddleworth moor and the ghost he and his friends encounter contains some of the best gothic writing I've read. Even when he hints it might have been one of the murderees of Hindley and Brady you are willing to forgive him - and to believe.
Similarly Morrissey's haunting description of dying donkeys in Death Valley or his fury about the unfairness of Mexican poverty demonstrate an ambition and ability to write something other than another vacuous memoir. Morrissey is a genuine poet who (unusually) reads other poets from Herrick to Housman.
Perhaps best of all, Autobiography does what I'd hoped but suspected impossible: describing how it feels to be misunderstood and lonely in a way no-one has managed since - well, since Morrissey. All those of humble means who have ever felt lost and alone, only to be offered work cleaning canals will identify totally with someone who was there too: who knows how it feels to have nothing but the urge to create:
"Faulty emotional development can ripple like the sea, and only by the creation of art can your inner isolation seem insanely worthwhile".
Unsurprisingly the most-publicised aspects of the book have been Morrissey's references to his sexuality and his (?) insistence the book be published as a Penguin Classic. As it's unclear who stipulated the latter I won't comment, but the only interesting about his sexuality is that Morrissey is so relaxed about it: he is neither gay, nor straight, nor even very bisexual. It simply doesn't matter: he falls in love (celibate and otherwise) with men, women and in-betweeners and he doesn't find it interesting or angst-provoking, so why should we?
Morrissey, although only occasionally gay, is a permanent old queen, being hilariously catty about luminaries such as Julie Burchill, Siouxsie Sioux and Tony Wilson. Self-aware and all-too honest about his own failings and miserabilist reputation the book is replete with one-liners:
"I was simply trying to lighten the mood, which admittedly is not one of my strong points".
The singer - sorry, writer - lists an astonishing number of close friends and family members who died young in tragic circumstances. Perhaps it's understandable that he's sometimes as glum as a Stretford Sunday. Yet the thing that drove Smiths devotees mad in the 1980s was the dismissal by those not "in the know" that all the songs were depressing; The Smiths often made us laugh out loud.
How someone so English (hearted) as Morrissey ended up in LA seems less surprising when you discover some of his family lived there and Morrissey spent time in New York and Denver as a teenager - how different would his music have been had he stayed?
Tantalisingly, Morrissey is the missing link between my other two favourite lyricists. His on-off friendship with David Bowie is well-documented, but I was more fascinated by the revelation that young Ian Curtis used to phone him to read his poems - did any become songs? Did Morrissey have any input into "New Dawn Fades" or "Isolation", did Curtis ghost-write "Suffer Little Children"?
Morrissey describes how he came to create some of the great Smiths covers but I wish he'd mentioned that the image for "Suedehead" was taken by a fan at a Palladium gig - the photographer, Geri Caulfield, was a friend, and we were part of a small, dismal coterie who hung around King's Road in the forlorn hope of glimpsing our idol.
Finally, most upsetting for me personally (for this is all about me), although he mentions Glastonbury, Morrissey makes no mention of the band's seminal 1984 appearance where the stage was invaded by delirious fans - including, I'm informed, by yours truly. That was my ultimate moment in pop: until I read Autobiography. Now I suggest you do the same - unless you wish music to be killed forever.