BOOK REVIEW: Morrissey: Autobiography

One of the most highly anticipated memoirs this year finally became available for all to read in October with the publication of Morrissey's imaginatively titled book, "Autobiography." After a dispute with his publisher, it was released, with some controversy (at least in the media), on the Penguin Classics imprint, with detractors stating that as a new book, it does not deserve to be on such a prestigious imprint. Putting that aside, what heightened the anticipation for this book amongst numerous fans (myself included) was the fact that Morrissey, while at times highly opinionated and outspoken, not to mention endlessly fascinating, is also, thirty years into his career, still an enigma.

***Special thanks to Rosie and Etty at Penguin Books for sending me a review copy of the book!***

The first thing I want to mention is that the book is as quirky as the man behind it. There are no chapters or breaks in the writing. It simply starts on page one and goes. Beyond that, for the first 100 pages or so, there are also very few paragraphs, with the prose just written sentence after sentence. It makes for a bit of a struggle at first, until your eyes and brain get used to Morrissey's style. Once you do, it's fairly easy to work your way through. A second stylistic point I want to make is that Morrissey has a habit of jumping from topic to topic, oftentimes in rather jarring fashion. He may be writing about an incident from his youth in one group of sentences, and in an instant, he's then discussing his favorite records from 1973. Such leaps disrupt any flow that he may have built, although as any fan of Morrissey knows, the quirks come with the territory, whether you like them or not.

The book begins right away with his birth in Manchester in 1959 to Irish immigrant parents, and he spends the first hundred pages or so detailing his life from that day up until his early 20s when he finally meets up with Johnny Marr. Along the way, he goes into excruciating detail to paint a picture of how miserable and filled with hardship his childhood was, especially his schooling. A friend of mine who has also read the book used the term "Dickensian tragedy" to describe how he felt Morrissey was depicting Manchester in the 1960s and 70s, and I think that term is completely appropriate.  Beyond that, however, what is interesting to read is just how extended and close a family Morrissey had growing up. His parents, grandparents, and various cousins, aunts, and uncles all emigrated from Ireland and settled in Manchester, and while he and his sister (who he describes as "having tried to kill me four times" as a small child) did indeed seem to have an existence marked by financial hardship and family tragedy (such as the death at a young age of one of his uncles), they also had the closeness and support that are the typical hallmarks of any immigrant family. He goes to great lengths to point out how his mother has always been there for him, while his father was always emotionally distant and did not nurture him at all (for instance, Morrissey came in fourth place at a school track meet, his best finish to date, yet the only thing his father said to him was "you didn't win").  Additionally, anyone who is a Morrissey fan will know how he has looked back upon his school years, and he spares no expense in words bringing to life just how horrific an experience it was for him. As soon as you read sentences like "she would grow old, and die having never married, smelling of old attics" (describing one of his teachers), there is no doubt as to who's book you're reading.  While I don't doubt that those years in Manchester schools (run by "Manchester ghouls," to quote one of his Smiths lyrics) were indeed bad, I also have to believe that there is some embellishment, although to what degree I of course have no idea. Still, it's hard not to sympathize with the shy, small, introverted boy who has his knuckles wrapped and backside whipped for the most minor of transgressions, and to read about his molestation at the hands of one of his teachers, in however obtuse a fashion as Morrissey describes it, is heartbreaking. What is most striking about these years of his life is how encyclopedic his knowledge is about television and records/singles during his formative years. Interestingly, as anyone who is a fan knows, his tastes do not run through the typical Beatles/Stones/Who/etc gamut. Indeed, apart from the more typical Bowie/T. Rex reference points, his favorite artists from that era range from girl singers (Sandie Shaw, Cilla Black) to obscure/one-hit-wonder singles, culminating with his first obsession, the New York Dolls. Additionally, he becomes an avid reader of (and writer of letters to) the musical papers, most notable Sounds, NME, and Melody Maker.

All of this is, of course, leading up to what is the most interesting and important part of his life, the music he made in The Smiths and later, as a solo artist. From the point in the book where Morrissey first meets Johnny Marr (around page 120 or so), the pace of the book really picks up. Unfortunately, Morrissey chooses to only spend around 60 pages on the entire career of the Smiths and all of the wonderful and legendary music they made, and for most of those pages, he snipes and moans at Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis and the failure of any Smiths records to chart high in the UK. Additionally, while their UK tours are well received, they have an almost Beatlemania-like reception in the USA, yet none of it was reported in the UK; another slight for Moz to gripe about. What was really interesting to me in this bit was how glowingly and complimentary he wrote about his fellow Smiths (Marr, Mike Joyce, Andy Rourke), because as soon as the band broke up (which he details in exasperatingly short shrift), he does nothing but slight them at every opportunity. He even engages in some foreshadowing, describing the "upcoming Joyce lawsuit," which he then rails on about for another 60-70 pages. The description of his solo career is quite interesting, starting right after the Smiths' break-up and chronicling all of the highs (Viva Hate, Your Arsenal, Vauxhall and I) and lows (Kill Uncle, Maladjusted) as well as inter-band struggles. It's exhilarating to read of the scenes of pandemonium that accompanied him across his US tours, and heartbreaking to read of how he lost three of his closest friends to death in a short span in 1993.

Once he gets to the Mike Joyce lawsuit, however, it's just page after page of moaning and sniping and character insults lobbed the way of the other three Smiths as well as the judge, the prosecutors, his defense lawyers, and anyone who was around at the time. While one can certainly debate the merits and eventual outcome of the court case, the undeniable fact is that it is over and done with, and yet nearly twenty years later, Morrissey has still not gotten over it. Also, the contrast between the praise he heaped on his bandmates during the pages dealing with the Smiths years and the scorn he heaped on them during the recounting of the trial is eye-opening. The remainder of the book (roughly the final hundred pages or so) deals with his solo career from that period to the present and all of the trials and tribulations, imagined or otherwise, that Moz went through. Finally, while he seems to have been able to find some happiness with a few partners in the intervening time (a man, a woman, and presently another man he only cryptically names as "Gelato"), Morrissey does not come across ultimately as someone who has ultimately found peace and happiness in his middle age (he is 54 at the present), although I can't shake the feeling that he is so comfortable in his solitude and misery (whether actual or not) that he's okay with it...and perhaps that's his own version of inner peace at this stage of his life. His exhaustive reminisces of the various tours he's undertaken the last decade, and the adulation he's received, seems to validate his self-worth more than anything else. As he says late in the book, he is unable to accept the love of one, but can accept the love of millions (loosely paraphrased).

As far as overall impressions with the book, once your eyes and mind get used to Morrissey's writing style, the book ends up being an enjoyable read.  However, the first fifty pages or so a real struggle to get through because of this. He has a tendency to pepper the text with his own lyrics and song titles; this can oftentimes be quite amusing, but it also comes off as pretentious and gets a bit irritating in other spots. While Morrissey is often self-deprecating and in a humorous way, more often than not it seems he brings a lot of the sorrow on himself; he certainly deserves the "miserable" label he's gotten over the years, but as is seen in this book, he also has done a lot to purposely cultivate that image.  That being said, it cannot be denied that he's very witty and talented with the prose, and anyone who is a fan of his music will go into this book knowing this already; there are many laugh-out-loud moments. Lastly, I think a line from one of Morrissey's own songs, "Girl Least Likely To," sums up the majority of this book: "page after page of sniping rage." One can almost think of this book as character assassination with an autobiography sprinkled in, as opposed to the other way around. Perhaps I'm exaggerating a bit with this, but apart from his own mother, lifelong friend Linder Sterling, and Stephen Street, who all escape unscathed and with praise, barely anyone else he mentions in this book is as lucky. 

I still think, after all these years, that Johnny Rogan's "Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance" remains the definitive Smiths biography (although Tony Fletcher's new Smiths book, "A Light That Never Goes Out" appears as though it is also a worthy candidate). However, if one wants to know the inside story as told from the perspective of one of the main players, especially the most mysterious and complex personality, then this book offers the "horse's mouth" telling of his own history. With the news that Johnny Marr will be releasing his own memoir in the coming years, the story of the Smiths beyond their excellent music doesn't seem to be running out of new angles for the foreseeable future. I can't see myself rereading this book on a regular basis; maybe I'll read it every several years for entertainment, if not informative, purposes. But, if you're a fan of the Smiths and/or Morrissey, you have no choice: you *MUST* read this book.