MORRISSEY Autobiography. Reviewed by Michael Jongen
Morrissey presents his case with palpable bitterness in a book that offers validation in the end.
Bitterness and revenge inform this eponymous autobiography, or at least large chunks of it. Morrissey disses his bandmates, his record label, the press and the judges of the High Court, and he does it with incisive and bombastic logic. So much so that by the end the reader feels obliged to skim any more detail regarding the court case over the royalty splits among the Smiths:
Yes, time can heal. But it can also disfigure … If the Smiths’ split was designed to kill me off, then it failed. If the Smiths’ court case was a second attempt to kill me off, it too must fail.
I was a Smiths fan but I came to them with the release of The Queen is Dead, which, fittingly, Morrissey believes to be the first complete album from the band. I have also enjoyed Morrissey’s solo output over the years. Reading this book took me back to listening to the Smiths and to Morrissey and, for the first time, to conceding that his solo back catalogue is equal to his recordings with the Smiths.
I wanted to read the book because of Morrissey’s gift as a lyricist, and the wonderful three-minute vignettes that he creates. His prose writing does not fail in this regard. He is sharp-tongued and funny – and every page gives a great quote.
However, the book opens in a very impressionistic, exhausting voice, which, if it had been sustained, would have made it unreadable. I felt that I needed to come back to each paragraph and stare until I could see the meaning hidden within the words:
Fields are places in books, and books are placed in libraries. We, though, are out here in the now, unchecked and ungoverned.
Finally, however, paragraphs made sense and stories started to unfold and I found the tales of the early Steven Morrissey the strongest and most interesting part of the autobiography, particularly when he writes about his schooling. His descriptions of his primary and secondary education will resonate with those who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s:
No schoolteacher at St Wilfrid’s will smile, and there is no joy to be found between the volcano of resentment offered by Mother Peter, a bearded nun who beats children from dawn to dusk, or Mr Callaghan, the youngest of the crew, eaten up by a resentment that he couldn’t control.
Once he launches into the story of the rise of the Smiths, Morrissey presents his case and we are invited to judge. He is somewhat guarded but his sense of bitterness is palpable and he shows his disdain for his ex-bandmates by never agreeing to a Smiths reunion.
Morrissey famously had many run-ins with the press, who equated his art to his life. The story of him being branded a racist by the NME is well covered. Clearly Morrissey has chosen to write his own story and protect his legacy, and it is understandable that he would wish to put his case, but perhaps a more detached point of view might have been more convincing.
Merely being published by Penguin Classics has exposed him (and Penguin) to mockery in the UK press, but you have to admire the certainty that he shows regarding his own importance in the pop and cultural pantheon.
This is a book of parts and segments. There are a few placid anecdotes about Siouxsie and David Bowie and we get a sense of the difficulties for young pop bands starting out and getting ripped off by the adults supposedly positioned to protect the interests of the talent – an old story and wearing in the end. The book becomes more interesting when, after having spent his venom on his court case, Morrissey begins to describe the turnaround in his career. Do we not enjoy a redemption story as Morrissey CD singles releases reach the Number One spot in the charts denied to the Smiths? Morrissey’s excitement touring in Scandinavia is palpable: the size and youth of the audience provide validation and relevance to a middle-aged pop star. Readers can share his joy as he feels more secure in his artistic legacy:
Peace came at last with Vauxhall and I, streaming out in a lavish flow and leaving me stupid with smiles. A last sun warms, as if it had always been awaiting its chance.
For this reader and fan, the section detailing Morrissey’s solo career and recordings served to remind me that he is a significant popular music figure, who survived the break-up of his band and went on to greater achievements. I came away from this book with a few films and recordings I wish to track down, a renewed sense of the depth of the Smiths’ and Morrissey’s back catalogue and the poetry of the three-minute stories he told to music. The Smiths and Morrissey are constant earworms and Morrissey has convinced me in Autobiography that the law is an ass, and that he was the Smiths.
(Morrissey’s new album World Peace is None of Your Business will be released in July 2014.)
Morrissey Autobiography Penguin Classics 2013 PB 480pp $22.99
Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen and microblogs at http://larrythelibrarian.tumblr.com