Morrissey’s Autobiography finally hit the shelves last year after years of his teasing the public about its future arrival. The passage of months since its publication has not dimmed anyone’s puzzlement over Penguin’s decision to include it as part of their ‘classics’ series, usually reserved for dead legends. Either Penguin was just trying to get what they felt to be an inevitable work ahead of them out of the way or their sole criteria for publishing something in the ‘classics’ series relies on a person’s fame. But Morrissey’s fame is of a peculiar sort. A blurb on the book jacket reads: ‘Most pop stars have to be dead before they reach the iconic status that Morrissey has reached in his lifetime,’ (a quote which is prefaced only by a peculiarly vacant ‘It has been said’). It seems that today, to utter something about Morrissey’s legend is to speak a platitude so over-said and annoyingly true that it almost reaches the hardly controversial realm of, ‘It is better to be hated for what you are than loved for what you are not.’
Whether one belongs to the lonely stereotype Smiths followers of the 80s who found some affinity with the flower donning, hearing-aid wearing singer, or the almost soccer-frenzied ultra macho Midas Touch madness of the fans flooding the arenas of his solo years, Morrissey has been loved by people in every corner of the globe and he has been loved by them very much for a long time.
‘My childhood is streets upon streets upon streets,’ begins his chapterless book, which doesn’t break paragraph until four pages in. It doesn’t even break section until about fifty pages in.
His natural gift for language pits him somewhere in the realm of mid-modernism, in keeping with the great stylists of English literature (being made of Irish blood and English heart helps, surely). The pastoral first section acts not as a means of telling a story but as a means of attaining an accretive mood as his flexible prose and frequent wordplay feed us witticism after obscurity after horror. ‘Once I am discharged from hospital, my sister Jackie, older by two years, is interrupted four times as she attempts to kill me, whether this be rivalry or visionary, no one knows.’
The abstractions and the seemingly random flitting around of time and detail make the book feel like a series of songs—to use a cheap if inevitable metaphor.
Most grave when most fun, she will play the upright piano for anyone who will listen, her too-long fingernails chipping across mock-ivory until uncle Liam, inevitably tells her that she is murdering music, and thus Nannie will step aside as Pretty Flamingo by Manfred Mann lashes the land. A few years older than Jackie and I, Rita screams at music, and every male singer is ‘gorgeous.’ Family life is chaotic and full of primitive drama as everything is felt intensely.
In isolation, some sentences were, suspiciously, far too close to his lyrical writing style: ‘It is too much to bear, and in this dark November air I hear the voices of people who are not there.’ The first couple of these kinds of sentences are spread apart far enough that I naively assumed that Morrissey could have used a better editor, until we come to sentences like these: ‘And the clock on the wall makes fun of us all.’ ‘… they are just manly sons of mothers in search of others.’ My two personal favorites are almost magic in their arbitrariness: ‘…they have pictures of The Dolls on their bedroom walls.’ ‘My heart sinks further as I watch the full-blooded mess on VHS.’ Morrissey allows himself the luxury of this lyrical campiness, perpetuating the book’s tendency to catalogue instances of his not taking himself too seriously in social matters while refusing to take himself as anything but serious as an artist.
Morrissey is not vaccinated from the front-man's curse of always favoring his band's worst album, as he does their final studio effort, Strangeways, Here We Come--a work that often sounds like The Smiths trying to sound like The Smiths, and accomplishing this, somehow, while incorporating synthesizers, which the band had always prided themselves in not using before.
The curse of present-tense is ever-present throughout the course of the book and as it usually is with present-tense narratives, it falls into third-person past-tense as soon as it becomes cumbersome to make sense of information, thus revealing the complete pointlessness of its present-tense in the first place, outside of some unearned sense of stylized ‘immediacy.’ Morrissey is an engaging enough writer that it is unfortunate to see him resort here to the recycled bits of workshop minimalism that infected twenty-somethings in the 1980s and which still casts its long shadow over youth novels and the indie books pumped out each year by Amazon.
But it would be unfair to compare Morrissey to any of the mentioned, for his prose still wins on enough occasions to help us to, if not forget, then forgive his stylistic compromises. He keeps things unparticular and interesting as he highlights strange details and lyrically glosses over those bits the reader has been trained to pay attention to by pop media. In the tradition of the best poems (and arguably the best prose) each sentence conveys a different thought, which is then washed away in the wave of the next sentence or, at least, gathered into the shadow of the book’s unconscious for us to retrieve certain particulars as they become relevant later. It has been said that there are masters of the paragraph and masters of the sentence and on few occasions do they overlap. Morrissey would appear to be one of those few occasions. Late into the book, when any other musician-but-not-regular-book-writer would have relied on the strength of his first half to coast along into a simple ending, Morrissey is still coming up with sentences that blister with their own personality and violent humor. This one verges on the Martin Amisesque: ‘Evidently this is what happens in Chastain Park—everyone brings their lunch of skyscraper wedges with a sprinkle of rabbit neck and eagle shit.’ Add to this regretful anecdote that Morrissey then took the opportunity to show his disgust for his audience by throwing Cheese-Its at them, and you have an example of what Morrissey can do with sentence inside of paragraph—he can make others look silly in the micro while ultimately feeling silly in the macro. And make others look silly he does: he convinces one band mate from his solo years that Rome was, in fact, built in a single day, contrary to the popular phrase.
If Morrissey takes the occasion now and again throughout the book to make himself look silly, others are systematically rounded up for equal or worse measure. The book is often a catalogue of high-profile humiliation. Tom Hanks comes backstage, unrecognized by anyone and ‘unable to finish a sentence.’ David Bowie truants into the book heroically before flitting in and out as a megalomaniacal clown and, sadly unknowingly, a source of comic relief. Morrissey accepts a request from one of Bob Dylan’s people to take a photo with him, only to be shut down moments later with a peculiar ‘Sorry, Bob doesn’t want to do it,’ (ditto with Paul McCartney later). When New York Dolls member Arthur assures Morrissey that fans could sleep with him [Arthur] for the price of a Dolls t-shirt, Morrissey is too kind to assure him that most people would prefer the t-shirt.
We shouldn’t expect any less than this sort of bitchiness from a book written by Morrissey. But can we expect to find out anything more than what we already know about him? One of the fears people might have in opening a book written by someone who’s veiled his life in so much mystery is that he will be far more normal than we’re willing to accept, or that he will reveal nothing at all and leave us in the dark forever. It is strange enough to see him dive headlong into the two great relationships of his life, but it is stranger still that he offers us their first and last names, especially after a career of constant conversational flitting about and question evasion (he was once asked by a journalist when he lost his virginity and responded with, ‘I’m not aware of having lost it.’). I was not at all scandalized that his two mentioned adult relationships were represented by one of each sex. I was scandalized, however, to learn that Morrissey talked about having a baby with the woman. What is going on here? Can we imagine a properly domestic Morrissey? Apparently he had just as much trouble as we did, for the woman in question gave him, in the end, not a child but her friendship.
One of the most important features of the book would seem to be, not his disclosure of his personal life, but his reexamination of his already highly public legal battle with Smiths drummer Mike Joyce (a battle that took place long after the band disbanded and which, for troublingly unknown reasons, made it all the way to the High Court). Here, Morrissey may not be able to win back the large sums of money that Joyce was legally never entitled to but which the High Court strangely decided he deserved, but he does provide himself the chance to get even by offering his reader his own cultivated analysis and rigorous investigation of these events which only time—an unfortunate thing that courts do not allow—could grant him.
The protagonists of punishment determine that the only function of the unfolding court drama is to force each peg into an unsuitable hole, and make the cold-blooded destruction of one unfortunate part seem fair—and how dare you feel contemptuous of this court, and how dare you raise your voice to the level of the cross-examining barrister, and why exactly would you feel moral indignation towards a regime that cannot succeed in balance, but only in the punishment of one party against the other (never both, and never neither).
Joyce is referred to as ‘Joyce Iscariot.’ The prodigious Johnny Marr is painted up to be a simple-minded double-crosser. The trial concludes with the Judge’s wholly unnecessary personal attack (highly public as well), leading on into all sorts of post-trial nightmares, including Joyce’s avaricious quest to shut down both Morrissey’s mother’s home and his sister’s home (which were not even in Morrissey’s name), causing him all sorts of further legal battles, only to incongruously contact Morrissey a while later to ask if he wanted to do a Smith’s reunion. It would seem impossible to blame him for being reluctant.
The book’s redemption relies almost entirely on the overwhelming (if sometimes disturbing) love of his fans. A staple of the outlandishly violent Morrissey concert is that one must, at all costs, try and touch him. And touch him many people have (the reader is provided with an exact number of torn shirts for one tour). The book’s mannered ending is probably not a place for me to end, but rather, I would offer this excerpt which occurs much earlier in the book, just after Morrissey and two of his friends have a paranormal experience in the middle of the night on a dark, country road:
How many unfortunates have Saddleworth Moor as their final resting place? Or are there still people so disfigured that they cannot live at Society’s lack of mercy, and can only find solace in dark places? There may very well be spirits of 1780 who still roam, begging for release by prayer—buried without ceremony, out of the way, beyond gaze, blotted out of creation just for knowing too much, or for saying too much, or for being witness to some dark crime; rent boys and runaways, troubled teens and latchkey kids, motherless druggies and hastily pregnant Carol Annes, now silenced good and proper, deliberately dumped so far from their homes that even a most determined spirit could not find its way back.
While meant to be a rumination on that haunting encounter, it comments on something that has always belonged to Morrissey’s music and we now know, evidently, is part of Morrissey the man: that the past (here manifested in the form of its ghosts) is always working itself out in its complicated relationship with honesty. Morrissey may not be the most candid man, but concerning that little bit which he has revealed, he cannot help but be honest. Like his ghosts in the Moors, he might have been punished at different times for his honesty, but he is far from being a ghost, even if he is already a legend.