Penguin Classics (2013), 480 pages
The Gutter Bookshop, €11.20
The fact that Morrissey’s book has been published by Penguin Classics has garnered almost as many column inches as the content of the book itself. Who says a book can’t be judged by its cover? Any reviews I’ve seen so far have taken the whole “only living writer to be published by Penguin Classics” thing very seriously. Personally I suspect there is a hint of irony attached Penguin using the Classics imprint. And of course all the extra publicity that the book has gained as a result is a brilliantly clever piece of marketing. Autobiography is also, “Copyright ©Whores in Retirement, 2011″ which implies a certain playfulness to the venture. Penguin Classics are only published in paperback format so it’s arguably more of a populist than elitist move.
The book was a present from my father when he was in The Gutter Bookshop at a book launch. My father doesn’t know much about The Smiths or Morrissey but has a sneaking admiration for Morrissey’s vivid attacks on the indolence of the British royal family and the general revelry surrounding the Queen’s Jubilee. I was a bit young for The Smiths’ heyday but I do remember a few of the older kids wandering around with Morrissey quiffs. In my early teens I wasn’t convinced by Morrissey’s voice but I soon realised my mistake and a couple of decades later I’m happy to have all of The Smiths’ records in my collection.
Morrissey’s book starts, suitbaly enough, at the beginning. Like many English musicians (the rest of the Smiths, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Kate Bush, John Lydon, Boy George, Liam and Noel Gallagher) Steven Patrick Morrissey is of Irish descent (see also Morrissey connecting with distant cousin Robbie Keane). Morrissey’s family life is generally happy, if somewaht chaotic, although he never seems to be able to please his uber-masculine father. It’s in the school system that Morrissey experiences the worst excesses of establishment Britain. He finds a system designed not to encourage learning and creativity but to stifle it, sometimes with brutal violence. Morrissey’s own creativity and more ambiguous sexuality mark him out in schools run by abusive loners who gain sadistic pleasure in humiliating and physically abusing children. Morrissey’s childhood sense of injustice, loneliness, and despair seems to have haunted him at different stages of his adult life too.
The language throughout is lyrically poetic with wordplay and neat little flourishes abounding. I’ve read some reviews complaining about the lack of chapters or the book being too long. How many people out there don’t know how to use a bookmark!? I don’t have to stop reading at the end of a chapter, and if I’m caught short on the bookmark front I occasionally fold the top corner of the page into a little equilateral triangle or really stretch my braincells and give my short term memory a workout by remembering the page I finished on. Autobiography isn’t an excessively long book and prose has a lovely momentum too it that perfectly evokes a feeling for life in 1960s Manchester.
Like many teenagers the confusion and pain of puberty is eased by the discovery of music. This is arguably the most joyous section of the book as Morrissey discovers his own musical heroes and his abilities to sing and write lyrics. Crucially music offers the glimmering possibility from the drudgery of daily life.
Morrissey devotes about fifty pages to Smith’s drummer Mike Joyce’s court case against him and Johnny Marr. Morrissey is still extremely bitter about his losing of the case and he directs most of his bile at Judge John Weeks. To Morrissey Judge Weeks is another example of ignorant Establishment Britain failing to listen to the evidence and judge fairly. Morrissey is particuarly angry at the judge labelling him as, “devious, truculent, and unreliable”. Morrissey certainly presents a convincing case and, not surprisingly, Joyce doesn’t come out well in Morrissey’s account. Perhaps, however, if Morrissey had ignored this whole section it would have been the greatest revenge. After all Morrissey is the only ex-Smith who has had what could described as a successful musical career. Johnny Marr is a case of what could have been whist Joyce and Rourke sank to the session musician level after The Smiths. Yet Morrissey is clearly still angry about The Smiths splitting up after all those years. Maybe Morrissey reckons for all the brilliance of his solo career there was something special about The Smiths that could never be recaptured. There is no chance of a Smiths reunion, the subject is only ever raised by the other three Smiths members who have so much more to gain. Morrissey is still a major draw, he doesn’t need the money now, and more crucially, he has a stronger sense of integrity than your average plastic pop product.
The last section of Autobiography tries to capture the atmosphere of the world of Morrissey as he tours around Europe and the USA. Whilst interesting it lacks the lyrical flow of the first half of the book. Morrissey cleary relishes the role as an elder statesman of music and, although insecure about his legacy, seems increasingly willing to accept the adulation of his fans. This adulation seems to act almost as a replacement for a platonic relationship. Morrissey’s sexuality, like most people’s, isn’t a simple affair. The irony of his less than ultrastraight personality acting as a magnet for girls in his teenage years isn’t lost on Morrissey (and is skillfully used by The New York Dolls ). He describes his more important relationships with men and women but, possibly partly to protect the privacy of those dearest to him, doesn’t go into intimate details.
The quality of writing puts Autobiography above the average music tome. I’ve never read a Morrissey or Smiths biography before so I’m not sure how much of the content is new to diehard fans. Being the cultural icon that Morrissey is Autobiography will have a readership beyond his core audience and for an admirer of quality music that can only be a good thing.
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