The former Smiths frontman’s conspicuously unedited memoir is eminently readable, writes James McNair, but is it worthy of inclusion in Penguin Classics?
Morrissey, a self-portrait
There are, of course, books that are instant classics, but that verdict isn’t normally inked on the cover from the first print run. When news broke that Penguin Classics would handle Morrissey’s Autobiography, some were horrified that the venerable imprint associated with Virgil and Maupassant was publishing a pop star memoir whose worth had yet to be properly weighed.
“Morrissey will survive his unearned elevation, [but] I doubt that the reputation of Penguin Classics will,” griped The Independent’s literary editor, Boyd Tonkin. Elsewhere, more flippant commentators noted an upside: thanks to Penguin Classics, those hungry for the writing of pop’s perennial curmudgeon had instant access to a cheap paperback, rather than the pricey hardback that might otherwise have come first.
Though the singer will likely enjoy the controversy that his gatecrashing of exclusive literary circles has provoked, his being allowed to do so arguably says more about his publisher than it does about him. The suspicion that Penguin wanted Morrissey’s meandering 457-page manuscript at almost any cost gains credence as you wade through it. Often vitriolic, sometimes brilliant, and occasionally plain long-winded, the book that’s already topping certain bestseller lists seems untouched by any editor’s red pen. This is variously its strength and its Achilles heel: Morrissey’s writing is eminently readable, but he does not always get his tenses correct.
The singer devotes the first third of his tome to his life growing up as part of a large Irish immigrant family. “Birds abstain from song in post-war industrial Manchester, where the 1960s will not swing,” he writes. This sets the tone for a resolutely grim sketch of his home city that takes in sadistic schoolmasters and eventually builds to a dark, dark stain, namely the child murders committed by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley on Saddleworth Moor, now part of Greater Manchester, between 1963 and 1965.
This is a topic that Morrissey addressed directly on The Smiths song Suffer Little Children, and much later in Autobiography, there’s a Gothically gripping section where he recalls a highly unsettling car journey that he and two friends made through fogbound Saddleworth Moor one night in January 1989. Morrissey’s description of their all-too-authentic-seeming encounter with a wailing grey ghost is one of Autobiography’s many odd departures.
The singer is highly entertaining when detailing the multifarious strands of his cultural awakening. He quotes cherished lines from Hilaire Belloc, Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde, is drawn to Sandie Shaw because she has “a vacantly indifferent expression, not especially willing to please”, and is able to atomise the appeal of the bands that matter to him with great verbal flair. “Ron Mael sat at the keyboard like an abandoned ventriloquist’s dummy, and brother Russell sang in French italics with the mad urgency of someone tied to a tree”, says Morrissey of the 1970s pop duo, Sparks. As with his assertion that Michael Stipe sings like “a cornfed John Denver”, this is perfect.
But of course it’s The Smiths – the band synonymous with Morrissey, and about which he has said so little for so long – that most purchasers of Autobiography will want to read about. “It is a gift from Jesus,” says the singer of his nascent band’s magically evolving sound circa 1982, while his indie guitar-hero co-writer Johnny Marr is described as being “in the full vigour of his greatness” circa 1986’s UK No 2 album, The Queen Is Dead.
Ultimately, Morrissey equates the demise of The Smiths with he and Marr’s “final loss of innocence”, but he himself, he clearly holds, is in no way culpable. It’s off-putting, then, that there’s almost as much poison in the singer’s pen as there is poetry, and when Geoff Travis, founder of The Smiths’ first record label, Rough Trade, is repeatedly pilloried – “he leaked a little touch of sentiment that was almost human”, says Moz cruelly at one point – you began to get a handle on the length and breadth of the singer’s grudge-bearing. Some of his other targets – testy Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie & the Banshees; outspoken journalist Julie Burchill – have also been vilified by others, but never with such relish, such catty devilment.
Another section of the book that seems misjudged, though predominately for its length, is Morrissey’s 50-page tirade about the court case that former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce brought against him and Marr in 1996, citing – and winning – unpaid earnings. “Johnny telephones me at my squatty room in the nearby Tower Thistle Hotel where I sit alone, wondering how Hand in Glove led to this,” writes the singer, picking at deepening estrangement from his former bandmates, Marr included. To be fair, the trial gives Morrissey good reason to gripe, but his whining is so prolonged and repetitive that he quickly loses your sympathy.
What keeps you keeping on is the quality of the writing. That and the fact that, when he’s not out to settle scores, Morrissey can demonstrate great wit and/or humanity. “The most fascinating aspect of both offers is that somebody somewhere had thought it a good idea,” he notes when British soap operas Eastenders and Emmerdale offer him bit parts in the late 1990s.
Elsewhere, his account of losing his friend, the singer Kirsty MacColl, to a tragic speedboat accident in Mexico after he has recommended she visit the country, is heartbreaking:
“I plough logs onto the open fire and crack open a bottle of vodka and cradle Kirsty’s [postcard] in my hands like a prayer book, wondering if she would still be alive had I talked her out of travelling to Cancún. The vodka induces bewailing, and I cry myself blind for yet another lost friend.”
By this point in the book, Morrissey is a highly successful solo artist living in Los Angeles. We follow him to a filming of an episode of the sitcom Friends, where, having been asked to sing alongside Phoebe “in a really depressing voice”, he takes flight and “winds down the fire escape like a serpent”.
It’s a shame that in obsessively detailing each successive solo singles’ chart-placing and crowing about successes sans The Smiths he seems triumphalist, rather than justly proud, but he has so many great stories to tell – about fellow veggie and animal rights campaigner Chrissie Hynde biting a dog; about Nancy Sinatra, David Bowie and countless others – that you almost forgive him.
Throughout the book, it’s usually creatures great and small, rather than human beings per se, to whom Morrissey shows especial devotion and loyalty. Stranded fledgling birds are rescued, a sickly pelican is helped to die, and when one of Morrissey’s personal managers, Arnold Stiefel, bullishly insists upon eating frogs legs at a business lunch, the singer quickly decides that Stiefel’s services are no longer required.
The final 50-60 pages of Autobiography are an extended riff on the act of touring, and much more engrossing than that might imply. The pace quickens, and Morrissey drops into an almost beat-writing style to describe the places he most loves to play, and the places where he is most loved (Mexico, Rome and Denmark). Thankfully, he can also be amusingly self-deprecating, as when a glance in the mirror tells him that the brilliantly daft title of his 1992 single You’re the One for Me, Fatty has caught up with him.
Autobiography is a little overweight, too, and no bona fide classic, Penguin or otherwise. There are pounds of vendetta and self-justification that could usefully be shed, yet it’s a pleasingly idiosyncratic memoir with a wealth of black humour and it’s share of aphoristic-sounding insights.
There’s also something refreshing about a memoirist who tackles his life’s controversies head-on, rather than tiptoeing around them, but there are moments when Morrissey’s account of things seems more construct than confessional. It will be interesting to see if Johnny Marr and Geoff Travis, men who stood close to Morrissey for so long, will exercise their right to reply.
James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.