'Autobiography' by Morrissey #briefbookreviews
Morrissey and I
In 1984 I was still at school. Back in those days not everyone had a record collection and there was just a handful of us in the sixth form who were recognised as music lovers. One of those young men was called Andy Park but whereas I suffered some derision for my love of Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, The Human League et al, Andy was one of those very cool characters with a satchel on which he’d inked such bands as Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, The Cure and Bauhaus. That summer though, we had a rare bonding over The Smiths’ ‘What Difference Does It Make?’
It’s a song that I have loved from the first time I heard it through to this day (although I would now recommend this version from ‘A Hatful Of Hollow’). It sounded instantly familiar, almost obvious, and yet I can’t think of anything that preceded it to which it is obviously indebted. But while my brother fell head over heels in love with The Smiths, that was it for me until, perhaps three years later, my friend Ric made me a compilation tape that included the extraordinary ‘How Soon Is Now?’
From here I fell in love with the title track from ‘The Queen Is Dead’ and, later, most of their ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ album, but I think it’s honest to say that I was never a full on Smiths fan. In fact, the first album featuring Morrissey that I truly adored, playing it at least once a day, end to end, was his first solo outing, ‘Viva Hate’, which I would still highly recommend (with the exception of the dubious ‘Bengali in Platforms’ with its “Life is hard enough when you belong here” refrain).
But from there, to be honest, I lost interest in Morrissey’s music. I was bought a couple of the later solo albums but nothing really grabbed me, possibly because his subsequent bands always seemed so very average to me. Even his recent renaissance has left me cold although some have found it to be quite brilliant. (Here’s a playlist of this later material from my friend Justin.)
Music aside, I watched his adoption of the Union Jack - wrapping it around himself at concerts - and looked askance at that in conjunction with some of his lyrics (subsequent to ‘Bengali’) that appeared to be racist. And then there was the court case, where his reported behaviour seemed to chime with some diva-ish actions earlier in his career. When the judge described him as “devious, truculent and unreliable”, that seemed quite believable to me.
So, that’s where I’m coming from with respect to Morrissey. Now (at last!) a bit about the book.
There have been rumours of a Morrissey autobiography for a while now although late last year reports suggested that Morrissey had withdrawn it and it would no longer be published. And then, a few weeks before Christmas, there it was, available to buy.
Over the years my respect for the Smiths has grown and grown, and whilst I never play either of the first two albums, I have a huge respect for them as a band. Indeed, The Minx and I went to see Johnny Marr play live last year (and he was great). So, taking those things into account in combination with my abiding interest in pop music and taste for autobiographies, there was no doubt I was going to buy the book.
And what an amazing surprise! Morrissey’s writing is superb. I write most days and I’m acutely aware of how often I repeat certain words and phrases but Morrissey’s writing seems constantly fresh and inventive. By the bottom of the first page, I was smitten with his writing, and that enjoyment bloomed into a grand passion over the course of the book.
The book itself can be seen as being in four unequal parts. The first of these concerns Morrissey’s childhood up to the point where he meets Johnny Marr. He paints an incredibly vivid and bleak picture of working class life in Manchester in the sixties and seventies, and his schooling sounds intolerable. This part of the book is an evocative and fascinating study into this period which, for Manchester at least, still qualifies as post-war.
The second section - the part that concerns The Smiths and the section that I was most keenly anticipating - passes at a fair clip. There’s none of the detail to be found in other publications and, as far as I could see, no fresh insight into the band and how they wrote and recorded their albums. Indeed, there seems to be as much prose about Morrissey’s dissatisfaction with his label, Rough Trade.
The third part of the book concerns the trial and he gives this the kind of detail I was hoping to read about The Smiths. And yet, if Morrissey’s depiction of events is the correct one, I can now understand where his bitterness comes from and, indeed, why this is the most focussed part of the entire autobiography.
And then, from here to the end, we are taken on an impressionistic ride through Morrissey’s subsequent and remarkably successful solo career. Indeed, the writing, which has at times been reminiscent of Kerouac - an effect emphasised by the paucity of paragraphs - becomes almost a stream of consciousness in places. And then it finishes, quite abruptly, and one is left feeling it could have ended in the same style anywhere in the previous hundred pages.
So would I recommend it? Yes, I would. The writing is brilliant to the point that I enjoyed it regardless of what Morrissey was writing about. The Smiths section is undoubtedly a disappointment but the court section was engrossing and, as I’ve said, I’m sure reason enough to write the book in Morrissey’s eyes. This was an opportunity to tackle the racism accusations head on but Morrissey’s argument seems to be that since he is not a racist, these are spurious arguments that shouldn’t be flattered with his attention. Having listened to ‘Bengali in Platforms’ many, many times, I’m not so sure about that.
In conclusion, I’d just say that for what it’s worth, I’d have been happier if Morrissey had given up music after ‘Viva Hate’ and concentrated on writing. This is a great book, even though, unusually, I can also say that you needn’t read the last section to the very end.