The tremulously awaited Morrissey autobiography is now with us and it’s everything you wished for and everything you feared. This is a door-stop sized dollop of full-on Moz, not ghost-written and I’d be willing to bet not even edited, a vast slab of melodramatic and self-pitying soul baring that would be almost completely preposterous and laughably self-serving if it wasn’t so saturated with wit and passion and sheer outrageous conviction. It’s pretty damn well-written too, even if the author has a somewhat cavalier approach to strict chronology (and even what tense he’s writing in) and clearly finds the notion of dividing one’s magnum opus into easily digestible chapters hopelessly pedestrian. While you sometimes find yourself craving a bit more detail on the nuts and bolts of making those extraordinary records it can’t be denied that Autobiography is several cuts above your average plodding rockstar career summary.
Or at least it is for the first half of the book. In these first 225 pages Morrissey achieves the tricky feat of tempering his relentless denouncements of the various establishment forces that he transparently feels are working round the clock to deny him fulfilment (you know, schoolteachers, record label bosses, meat eaters, people like that) with frequent flashes of self-deprecatory humour and turns of phrases that bolster his reputation as one of the greatest of lyricists. One of his teachers will “die smelling of attics”. Another is “a sexual hoax”. The release of the first Smiths single Hand In Glove shattered their staunchly alternative label Rough Trade’s afternoons of “wok rotas, poetry workshops and Women’s Hour”. David Bowie “feeds on the blood of mammals”. It’s bracing, hilarious, fiercely non-ingratiating stuff that cedes not an inch to the many commentators who dismiss him as a one-note miserabilist and the style couldn’t be mistaken for that of another human being on the planet.
And once you’ve acclimatised yourself to the style you get quite a bit of insight into the formative years of a sensitive Mancunian lad raised in the 1960s within an extended Irish family dominated by doughty women. If the young Mozzer’s chief sources of misery were school and the brutal attitudes of teachers and would-be teenage gang leaders alike his salvations were television, books and particularly 45 rpm records, which he collected and studied obsessively. Later he would fall under the spell of The New York Dolls, Jobriath and other strange, sexually ambiguous acts on the margins of rock music, but his tentative attempts to establish himself as either writer or singer didn’t come to much until Johnny Marr came knocking on his door in the early 80s. Morrissey conjures the whirl and creative flood of the early days of the group he’ll always be best remembered for with rare economy and flair: “The Smiths’ sound rockets with meteoric progression; bomb-burst drumming, explosive chords, combative bass-lines, and over it all I am as free as a hawk to paint the canvas as I wish.” Autobiography captures the emotional highs and lows of the band’s stormy five-year lifespan brilliantly even if it leaves it up to the reader to remember or research some of the prosaic discographic facts (anyone wanting a more objective summary of these years is hereby directed to Tony Fletcher’s excellent A Light That Never Goes Out).
After the group breaks up however the book becomes considerably less essential as Morrissey’s sense of being wronged by the world in general and by a long list of former collaborators, judges and media figures in particular starts to colour everything. It’s still a more or less entertaining read but the dramatic tension is gone with the narrative flitting around between perceived slights that people have made against Moz’s character and, fatally, a fifty page account of the court action initiated by Smiths drummer Mike Joyce in pursuit of what he claimed was his fair share of The Smiths’ earnings that ends with judge John Weeks finding against the singer and branding him “devious, truculent and unreliable.” Morrissey does not like this one little bit and goes into obsessive, nit-picking detail about the spuriousness of Joyce’s case, repeating himself and restating his unimpeachable arguments over and over and over again. Sometimes, the reader is forced to conclude, it’s better to just let something go.
To be fair though, the book is not all Morrissey railing at the world. There are some unexpectedly tender passages scattered here and there amongst all the disappointment and bile. The singer pays moving tribute to the much missed Kirsty MacColl and several other prematurely deceased friends such as producer Mick Ronson, manager Nigel Thomas and video director Tim Broad, and is constant in his devotion to members of his family. There are also one or two accounts of Moz helping injured and distressed birds and animals, another constituency that he’s always been a fearless defender of.
But in the end you can’t help feeling that the book, despite delivering a surface punch as powerful and witty as anyone could have hoped for, has missed its mark ever so slightly. It’s a shame, because without the court case section and with some judicious trimming and collation of the isolated, loosely strung-together events and impressions that make up the back end of the book Autobiography would have been a genuine instant Penguin Classic, worthy of the imprint that Moz insisted on as part of the publishing deal. As it is, it’s closer to something like The Kenneth Williams Diaries – an insight into a unique and unmistakable British recording artist who’s as incapable of mellowing with age as a neglected stub of camembert at the back of the fridge.