WHEN THE FIRST REVIEWS appeared online on Thursday lunchtime opinions were divided yet similarly sure of themselves. It was “the best written musical autobiography since Bob Dylan’s Chronicles”, trumpeted one. It was “a puerile litany of grievances... a whine of self-pity”, whined another.
Lunchtime yesterday, this reviewer was still on page 269 of Morrissey’s Autobiography, opinions all up in the air about this schizophrenic beast of a book because, like the man himself, Autobiography is a construct of no fixed identity. It shifts and vacillates in a manner that annoys and delights in equal measure.
Morrissey was always meant to write a book. Ever since the emergence of the first Smiths singles in 1983, he had marked himself out as a lyric writer of rare accomplishment, whose songs and interviews were steeped in the deep cultural history of England and Ireland, from Oscar Wilde and Shelagh Delaney to John Betjeman and Graham Greene. Like Bob Dylan before him, Morrissey shaped the hinterlands of his fans whilst remaining simultaneously guarded and protective of his private life. In a memoir, on his own terms, you felt, secrets might be revealed, questions answered, or at least a few scores would be settled.
And yet, even on a purely grammatical level, it’s a puzzle. Tenses swim, subjects disappear, spellings drown unloved in the mid-Atlantic. Partly, this might be down to Penguin’s fear of sending in a serious editor, lest the whole thing were thrown in the Tiber in an authorial fit of pique, but it does seem a little ironic given that Morrissey dedicates numerous pages of Autobiography to the detailing of incorrect Smiths cover-art and misprinted CD booklets.
“He runs with a gang led by a hard-as-nails tomboy called Lillian.”
Such grammatical slip-ups inevitably weaken the authority of Morrissey’s voice. Or should that be voices? Reading Autobiography is sometimes akin to perusing the bookshelf of Morrissey the autodidact, checking off titles, hearing different authors vying for your attention.
Looking for a fulcrum to fix on early reviewers have focused on the opening sections of the book in which Morrissey details the grim surrounds of his ’60s Manchester upbringing. Yet, even here, the voice is skittish. Simple lyrical turns of phrase (“the leisurely stride of local boys”) are quickly followed by hackneyed pancakes (“dodging life’s bullets is known as survival”) or trite colloquialisms (“nine-day wonder” “amber-gambler”). It’s a style that might be well suited to the self-deprecatory humour of a Morrissey lyric, or even the man in conversation, but in the context of Autobiography the flow is stemmed, the narrative halted.
Morrissey has always acknowledged the debilitating power of influence – “A spark of me was always very unsure,” he told me when I interviewed him for MOJO in 2006, “and that’s when I think you rely on other people’s ideas” – and this opening section feels as much reliant on the working class dystopias of Alan Sillitoe as it does Steven Morrissey’s “Victorian knife-plunging Manchester”.
Yet if the book feels trapped when Morrissey writes about his environment, it soars when he writes about family and music, whether silently tracking his aunties’ assignations with “local scruffs... bursting with the secrets of yearning maturity and rough serenade”, or simply noting with grim understatement that “Life is taken as it is and Roy Orbison sings It’s Over all the way to Number 1”.
Gradually, as the young Morrissey becomes immersed in ‘60s pop culture this lack of fixed identity emerges as Autobiography’s central theme. He runs with a Manchester gang led by a hard-as-nails “heart and love” tomboy called Lillian, watches The Righteous Brothers sing You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ “to each other?”, and marvels at the sexual power relationships in Department S, fascinated by blurred definitions of gender, by pop stars and actors who complicate categories or slip the bounds altogether.
With the arrival of The New York Dolls and Bowie Morrissey’s life shifts from black-and-white to colour and Autobiography undergoes a similar transformation. To put it as simply as possible, the quality of Autobiography is wholly dependent on the quality of Morrissey’s direct experience. Happiness, in Morrissey’s case, writes right.
“Times of freedom and rich complexity are written about with freedom and rich complexity.”
Without the safety-net of a ghostwriter or a consistent tone Morrissey is, in the end, too good (bad?) at communicating the immediacy of experience: times of freedom and rich complexity are written about with freedom and rich complexity; times of misery are joyless slogs for both author and reader. As such, it’s unlikely that many readers will enjoy reading about The Smiths years quite as much as they will the tales of teenage Morrissey, attired in “lodging house thrift”, transfixed by Patti Smith’s “bare lyrics of public lecture”, writing alluring riddles about his own sexuality.
Unlike most pop stars, Morrissey retained 20/20 vision in the eye of the storm and his accounts of Smithsmania are described with awed relish but soon, as he says himself, “my first life’s pleasure turned into incomprehensible sorrow”. Reviewers have already commented on the fifty-page forensic analysis of the 1996 court case against Morrissey and fellow Smiths songwriter Johnny Marr by drummer Mike Joyce – a man “not qualified enough to be a nonentity” – but passages of pre-split Smiths history make for equally bleak reading, particularly the relentless character assassination of Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis. It’s a miserable read about miserable times, yet no other book is going to put Smiths fans this close to the subjective life of its author, whether they like it or not.
Despite the presence of an overlong tour diary detailing the growing fan adoration of his solo self, an inescapable sadness hangs over the final third of Autobiography and, again, the authorial voice changes. Passages are given over to vicious poison-pen portraits of Julie Burchill, David Bowie and Siouxsie Sioux (“a black-eyed shopgirl hidden somewhere in the whistling cathedral towers of Notre Dame”). Bryan Ferry, John Peel, Seymour Stein, Johnny Marr and the NME are subject to similar rhapsodic assassinations in a style comparable to Smiths cover-star Truman Capote’s put-downs of fellow authors and celebrities in Lawrence Grobel’s Conversations With Capote.
A book of high wit and intelligence, Conversations… was also a document of loneliness, melancholy and cruelty, from a writer in the chill winter of his life. Autobiography is far from that, but it has that voice, along with so many others: voices of joy, triumph, failure, bitterness, rancour, love, meanness, kindness, poetry and hate. Autobiography is all the voices of Morrissey’s life.