Book Review: Autobiography – Morrissey

January 24, 2014
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Autobiography by Morrissey (G.P. Putnam & Sons – ISBN-10: 03999171541)

Beyond blowing a raspberry, it’s no easy task to respond well to Morrissey’s Autobiography. I’m predisposed to like Morrissey because I’m a huge fan of the Smiths and that wonderful voice of his, which so many are predisposed to despise. I’m in no way a true fan or acolyte, though. The chanteuse/lyricist and semi-suicidal front man for the Manc* band, the Smiths, over its abbreviated but wildly influential existence on millions from 1982 to 1987, made some fantastic pop-rock that represented a sort of existential Geiger counter of the human heart. Those sad, solipsistic Rilkesque couplets were rendered sublime by the sharp, trembling jingle-jangle of Johnny Marr’s brilliant alabaster and steel scratchings at his Strat. So what happened when Mr. ‘Irish Heart/English Blood’ decided to go solo? I realized my heart belonged to Johnny.

The key relationship of his artistic life is never pictured in prose beyond the banal by Morrissey. Marr may indeed be “quite obviously gifted and almost unnaturally multitalented.” Yet he offers his reader none of it. They might as well have been writing letters to each other from separate centuries, like the characters in John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Indeed, like the hurried acts of guilt-riddled R.C. sex he chooses mostly to just hint at, Morrissey likes to give his fan base blue balls by describing in a third-hand sort of jaded, amorphous critic, Bernard Levin-wannabe way, the depth of admiration he holds for A.E. Housman, W.H. Auden and, of course, Dear Heart, Emily Dickinson.

Actually, this kind of Worship of A.E. and W.H. are one and the same with his obsessive fan worship of the Kinks, beloved Vikki Carr and Shirley Bassey, Cilla Black and the Kinks again. Born a working class Manc myself, I recognize all the usual targets, the back-to-back terraced houses, the outside bogs and the anti-intellectualism. Thick with factory sludge, it is “a cage… where everything lies wherever it was left 100 years ago” and all are in a “race to the grave.” Manchester is “where the 1960s will not swing, and where the locals are the opposite of worldly.” It’s all been done better and to death by Alan Sillitoe. “More brittle and less courteous than anywhere else on earth, Manchester is the old fire wheezing its last.” It’s so much the opposite of my own experiences dancing at the CIS, the Northern Soul at the Twisted Wheel, the fantastic music at UMIST. Morrissey’s Manchester is a kind of Puritan R.C. stronghold undergoing urban renewal while mine is filled with dark humor and a kind of constant sectarian war between Protestant and Catholic with disco truces.

Poor miserable Steve has a bomb go off in his life when he’s up late listening to DJ John Peel’s show and gets  that  shock of recognition when he hears the New York Dolls. Puzzled by their snarling energy, David Johansen, Sylvain Sylvain and Johnny Thunders political lyrics and sense of fun touch him somewhere deep. Obsessed with Johansen, still Steve Morrison, sexually ambivalent, über sarcastic, relentlessly battered and humiliated by both bullies and an irritated, embarrassed family, there’s a steady diet of the expected anecdotes about being pushed into the deep end of a swimming pool, being beaten up and, sometimes, rescued. It definitely does clue you in to his obsessions. Indeed, when he repeatedly dances around the house to the Supremes’ I’m Livin’ in Shame until his Dad tells him it’s embarrassing, I have to admit I feel for the father.

The man can write and he exhibits a lovely turn of phrase in each short tender descriptive portrait he makes of his mother and the grand, deep friendship shared with James Maker: “When his true self slipped out, he covered his face with his hands, as if scrubbing himself away… ” Indeed, I would urge him to bury some years in commitment to a novel. Clearly never challenged by any kind of editor with courage, Morrissey wants some payback and he wastes 50 snore-worthy pages vilifying Mike Joyce, the Smiths’ drummer, over a 1996 lawsuit in which Joyce successfully sued for a higher cut of the band’s royalties. I, me, mine: Boring!

My friend Desmond insists it’s all a careful paint-by-numbers Laird of Mopery persona. The utter boredom of at least a third of this puts the lie to that. All I wanted was more Smiths! Morte de Morrissey only lacks its final convincing bloody denouement. A gory corpse for his own gratification. “I am no more unhappy than anyone else,” he insists. Liar!

(*Manc – From Manchester, UK)

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