Wednesday 13 November 2013

Autobiography by Morrissey

Review by Steve Clark


AutobiographyFeverishly anticipated for some years now, Morrissey’s autobiography was never going to be a normal book. Publishing it on the Penguin Classics label was always going to stir controversy as usually death is required before your work can appear in that canon. But then Morrissey has never been one for convention and that is soon clear when the reader starts the book.

There are no chapters and not all that many new paragraphs either. He flits from subject to subject throughout the book and sometimes the chronology suffers as a result. The writing style is florid (as you would expect) but often entertaining. The former lead singer of the Smiths has never shied away from giving opinions in the past and he certainly fires off a number of verbal volleys here; in his sights for gunning down (amongst others) are Siouxsie Sioux, journalist Julie Burchill, virtually every teacher from his schools whilst growing up, and of course ex-Smiths drummer Mike Joyce, who famously won substantial royalties following a controversial court case in 1996.

In fact, the court case does take an extraordinary amount of time to recount in the book. Morrissey is clearly very upset with the outcome and fires pages and pages of invective at both Joyce and Judge John Weeks, who despite the flimsy evidence on display, ruled in favour of the drummer and famously lambasted the singer as “devious, truculent and unreliable”. It is understandable that Morrissey should feel hard done by, but the sixty or seventy pages that the case takes up in the book is often repetitive and gets too bogged down in the fine details of Weeks’ final judgement. The reader has got the point about 30 pages before the author finally blows himself out.

The section about Morrissey’s time in the Smiths is barely much longer than the court case diatribe and that is a shame as the reader does feel a little short changed that there still seems so many questions unanswered, especially about the formation of the band and also its ultimate demise. To be fair, I learned a lot more from previous biographies of the group than I did from this tome, which was rather disappointing. Much of the writing about this period involves Morrissey mockingly deriding the efforts of Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis, who seems a figure of fun to him. We don’t find out much about what inspired him to write the great lyrics that we all know him for, so the veil still remains firmly down here.

Where the book is more enlightening is in Morrissey’s childhood, where finally we get to understand why he grew up to be who he is. “I must sing” he tells us, as music is his escape from the horrors of the Manchester education system, where beatings and humiliation are normal for someone of his more delicate disposition. Childhood friends come and go and there is a dizzying array of Aunts in his life, all of who are spoken of fondly. His mother is treated with the reverence which you would expect but there are only brief mentions of his father throughout the book. Morrissey poignantly invokes the feeling of helplessness of being young and unemployed in Thatcher’s Britain and takes us through some of the menial jobs he briefly performed before Johnny Marr, and ultimately fame, found him.

Marr himself is generally treated well in the book (except during the Court Case rant, where he comes in for stick for “trying to be everyone’s friend”) and you are left with the feeling that there is still unfinished business between them, although there is nothing here to encourage those desperate to see them work together again.

Morrissey’s love life is sparsely treated and we learn very little new, other than he lived with a man (Jake Walters) for two years in the 90s and that he also discussed with a long time female friend the possibility of them having a child together. However, we never get to know whether there was anything any more than platonic in either of these relationships, so once again we are left with more mysteries cloaked in vague statements: "You are either brothers or lovers" says an airline worker to Morrissey. "Can't brothers be lovers?" he replies, and the world is none the wiser.

Moreover, Morrissey is excellent at airbrushing people out of his life completely; there are no mentions, for instance, for Mark Nevin (who he wrote many songs with), or Vini Reilly, who played guitar on the singer’s debut solo album; it is like they never existed. Plenty of other famous people get mentioned though, such as David Bowie, Eric Cantona and a host of others. Morrissey complains of being deliberately ignored by celebrities and recounts many incidences of it, but doesn’t seem averse to handing out plenty of snubs himself; such is the paradox of the man. There are predictably frequent digs at meat eaters, which start to wear after a while (references to "cannibals" and "spurting blood” for instance, are more akin to sixth form melodrama) and often he switches subjects at the drop of a hat, making the lack of chapters very noticeable.

The last section of the book reads like an elongated tour diary and is often entertaining, if a little random at times. There are a number of amusing incidents during his live shows, usually involving over-zealous security men or misreporting by journalists.

It all ends a bit suddenly, and you are left feeling a little empty and eager to know more, but somehow I suspect that is what Morrissey intended all along.

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