While any sane person would be advised not to spend too much time trawling through the back doors of his favourite artists (a personality not seen in a work of art is a personality not worth seeing), autobiographies are different. Yes, they often end up pulpy melodramas or boring self-serving homilies that will on occasion (god no) alter your perception of an artist in question, but once in a while you might also stumble upon a literary masterpiece that will leave you awe-struck and dumbfounded. And I was expecting a classic from Morrissey – I just couldn’t expect it would be quite this good.
Forget about the Penguin Classics imprint (if you don’t have the guts, then at least find the courage to applaud him for the cheek) and forget about Morrissey having favorite artists (as opposed to ‘favourite’ artists) – what you are looking at here is a monumental piece of non-fiction done by a man who was very much aware right from the start that ‘monumental’ was the only thing worth going for.
The evil question here would be why Morrissey bothered in the first place. To settle scores? To satisfy a narcissistic whim? To remind us of his existence? But evil questions are better left unanswered, so let’s just consider the words (words, words, words: 457 pages of words) and the gamble on posterity so explicitly seen in the memoir’s title. Fuck your clever suggestions torn out of the Smiths’ lyrics – Autobiography is maddeningly perfect.
Speaking of lyrics, Morrissey loves them so much they are spread all over this book in lovely cursives, which only accentuates what we’ve suspected all along; yes, of course it has all been true: all that misery, all that bitterness and all that loneliness. From “Reel Around The Fountain” to “I’m OK By Myself” – every word rings with experience and inner feeling. Don’t doubt Morrissey’s integrity. Honestly, the best thing he can say about the human race is hidden somewhere in the middle of this memoir: “People are certainly oddities”.
In a book so richly textured and so beautifully written (often florid, but always articulate), everyone is bound to have his own favourite pages and lines. Myself, I felt enchanted right from the very beginning: the lush, poetic way with which Morrissey describes his childhood, his teachers, endless odd jobs, the drab city that, yes, has so much to answer for. (See? Morrissey’s integrity is precisely the reason why you want to support each Morrissey’s sentence with Morrissey’s lyric.) The unspoken truth soon to be revealed to our young man is this: “Effeminate men are very witty, whereas macho men are duller than death”. Girls love him; fast-forward 30 years later: girls still love him – with the possible exception of Siouxsie Sioux.
The Smiths’ years, and this has puzzled and riled up a lot of people, are quickly dispensed with. The Smiths’ years are just years, you see, Morrissey’s years piling on top of each other to make up his life and this autobiography. Yes, he loves the music and for a few years Marr is a true soul mate; yes, he doesn’t like the production on the debut album and Strangeways, Here We Come is The Smiths’ masterpiece (no argument here), but he is just as interested in persistently slagging off Rough Trade Records and decrying dodgy record deals. His family, his apartment, his love of animals and his growing inner frustration are just as essential to the story as who wrote this or who came up with that. It’s simple: what you want to hear is not necessarily what Morrissey is interested in saying.
Besides, “nothing that isn’t my own seems to work for me”. So understandably much of Morrissey’s interest is invested in his solo years. Deliriously successful American tours (marred by madness and slander), meticulous descriptions of chart successes (and failures – those record labels), a passionate love affair (ah yes) and, of course, the unfortunate centrepiece: the lawsuit filed by the Smiths’ drummer Mark Joyce, the ensuing trial (John Weeks, “may you turn in your urn”) and the inevitable defeat are described through pain and with a great deal of spiteful and bitter detail. Will you take Morrissey’s side? Of course you will. And then later, much quieter years, that nonetheless bring out one incredible, dramatically understated moment: Morrissey comes to Denmark and finally feels at home. The world fainted, my eyes got watery. Now you see?
There’s certainly much bitterness in the book. While Marr is more or less spared, Joyce, Rourke, Geoff Travis, John Peel, NME and countless others are all dismissed with various degree of care and vitriol. Morrissey has every right to be bitter; close people dying around him, people he thought were close leaving and betraying him – these are just a few recurrent motifs in the book that constantly strives for pattern and consistency. But it’s not just bitterness and it’s never quite despair. There’s droll humour (pages describing the Smiths’ one-time rhythm guitarist are hilarious), there’s love (the way Morrissey speaks about Bowie and Auden and the New York Dolls is both beautiful and accurate) and, towards the end, there’s that light that never goes out. Because it’s been a life well spent, as told by a talented and fulfilled man who has never once compromised his vision, taste or integrity. The book may be drenched in Morrissey’s ego, but it’s not like he hasn’t earned it. Yet. Baby.
And for God’s sake, forget about vegetarianism and sexuality. Because if you don’t, this book will find you wanting. Because this is an Artist’s book, through and through. Because before you know it, a line like “most people keep their brains between their legs” will come up and Morrissey will be done with you.
‘Accomplished’ is an understatement.