Morrissey: Autobiography – book review
Published by Penguin Classics
REVIEW FROM AFTERNOON OF RELEASE (17th October 2013)
(Beware – review may contain spoilers.)
“It’s time the tale were told…”
Crucial to the understanding of Morrissey is that there is no understanding of Morrissey. Spending three decades as the most consistently contradictory enigma – part national treasure and part national scourge – is something managed previously by no one. Even David Bowie’s near-decade public exile didn’t quite manage to achieve the unique situation Morrissey has carefully constructed since his first yelps into public consciousness between 1983 and ’84.
It’s no surprise that Morrissey’s autobiography – once dispelling doubt over everything up to and including its actual existence – would be hard currency in the publishing world. Confounding literary precedent, ‘Autobiography’ is now infamously the first book to be released straight to ‘Penguin Classics’. If one is willing to accept that a Morrissey book could be a classic, then the book justifies its status as such remarkably early on.
‘Streets upon streets upon streets upon streets’ is how Morrissey describes the concrete maze of 1960s South Manchester at the start of ‘Autobiography’. Derelict, disappointing and destructive conformity and rigidity is omnipotent in the life of the young Morrissey – seeing a peculiarity in himself matched by nothing else in his surroundings. The warmth with which Morrissey speaks of his family is disarming and powerful; watching nose pressed up against the glass as his elder counterparts enjoy a life destined not to be his. An emotional pattern of rejection and bereavement soon falls into place; the family unit is shattered by a series of unexpected deaths as Morrissey looks up to his father to be met with only disinterest and consistent embarrassment. The vivid, somewhat Dickensian description of second-generation Irish immigrant life in 1960s and ‘70s Manchester descends into a period of desperation and solitude, until the knock at the door from one Johnny Marr – every ounce the rubber ring and life jacket.
As in the public perception of Morrissey’s work, the spectre of the Smiths looms large over ‘Autobiography’. Even as the judge’s hammer falls down in the infamous 1996 court case, Morrissey is thinking of how the creative union that led to ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’ and ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’ rang its death throes amidst the stench of a courtroom. Whilst Morrissey’s extensive account of the court case lacks the verve and warmth found in abundance throughout the rest of the book, it does provide a salient case for Morrissey’s continued public anger about the result of the trial. Details of Morrissey and Marr’s post-Smiths relationship is interesting – as is the revelation that Marr has at times told Morrissey he is ready for a reformation – but equally the account of Marr in the courtroom may well prove the ultimate death knell for their relationship in the present. Nobody, Morrissey included, escapes the court room drama graciously, but whilst there is some truth in Morrissey’s earlier pledge that ‘the guilty will be protected and the innocent will be named’, Mike Joyce (‘Joyce Iscariot’) undoubtedly heads the list of characters who come off none too well from Morrissey’s pen; Tony Wilson, Geoff Travis, Sandie Shaw…
Sexuality is discussed with startling candour and a surprising lack of ambiguity – girls never begin to become interesting to the young Morrissey as he becomes uniquely perceptive of the repressed sexuality all around him. As ever, nothing is spelt out in block capitals regarding Morrissey’s sexuality, but there is a tacit understanding. Especially revealing is when Morrissey watches a contingent of lesbians heckle Patti Smith for not being open about her sexuality, and it becomes clear that Morrissey too has little time for binary understandings of sexuality. Much has already been made of Morrissey’s description of his relationship with Jake Walters – an East London character seen continuously by Morrissey’s side during the mid-90s. Again, nothing is spelt in black-and-white, but dots are presented for the purpose of joining. Cups of tea in the bath. Shared hotel suites. The eternal ‘I’ becomes ‘we’. Many Morrissey aficionados will already understand the influence that the Jake years had over Morrissey – something of a muse for if not the much underrated ‘Vauxhall and I’ then certainly a pattern of brilliant obscurities such as the exuberant ‘Swallow On My Neck’. Walters – like James Maker, Linder Sterling and Morrissey’s mother – emerge in the book as one of the few to gain the canonisation of Morrissey’s respect and admiration. Morrissey as a lyricist rarely gets the credit he deserves for his humour and wit, and as with his lyrics there is a gallows humour pulsating through ‘Autobiography’, as is his taste for the surreal – a walk through the home of the recently deceased Carry On star Charles Hawtrey is as eerie as his description of a late-night Saddleworth Moor encounter with a vision from another realm.
As a work of prose, ‘Autobiography’ is at times thoroughly startling; the best of Morrissey’s master of language and imagery seen in his lyrics is occasionally surpassed in his vivid and often humorous accounts from his life. Starkly titled, with no chapters and flitting between past and present tense, ‘Autobiography’ is a triumph of the written word that will only be damned by those already wishing to damn it. He is at his best when being funny and warm, but the carping and cat-calls – as well as some occasional bitterness and mourning – is equally engaging. It will be perverse for future generations of Morrissey fans to come to his vast body of work with many of the questions answered, but even as one comes to the end of ‘Autobiography’ there is still much of the enigma present, as well as a restored sense of Morrissey’s worth as an artist still with something incredibly valuable to offer and unique only to himself.
All words by Fergal Kinney. More writing by Fergal on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.