MORRISSEY AUTOBIOGRAPHY (Penguìn books, 2013)
"There is no self-discovery in a safe life"
Steven Patrick Morrissey has, to some extent, always courted equal measures of praise and ridicule. The mean-spirited criticism by the NME and other hacks within the music press was less evident while The Smiths were still together mainly because only those with cloth ears would have dared criticise the band’s four magnificent studio albums and peerless run of singles.
As a solo artist, however, he has become fair game for the haters so he is not exaggerating too much when he complains that “all I ever read about myself is one of intolerable egocentricity and dramatized depression”.
Carole Cadwalladr’s ridiculous Guardian article (‘Morrissey, You’re A Fraud’) exemplifies the kind of feeble-minded reporting he tends to generate these days. Cadwalladr effectively blames him for all the ills of modern Britain and writes that “he is the very definition of old news”. If this were true, character assassinations like hers would be rejected as irrelevant but the reality, as she well knows, is that the man remains newsworthy and, moreover, is still greeted with adulation from millions of fans.
Of course, for someone with such a well-developed martyr complex, Morrissey sets himself up to be knocked down.
Morrissey’s outspoken opinions have always been designed to grab headlines and ruffle feathers so he rarely troubles to use temperate language. Likening the treatment of animals to child abuse and their slaughter for food to the holocaust is deliberate exaggeration for effect. The mass media are only too happy to rise to the bait presenting these statements with fake outrage while attracting a sizeable readership in the process.
One might argue, with some justification, that his best work is behind him but too many are quick dismiss all Morrissey’s post-Smiths work as second-rate. This judgement is one of blind (deaf?) prejudice which ignores the consistently high quality of his song writing. Morrissey acknowledges that Kill Uncle (“recording something for the sake of recording”) was a mistake but his evident pride in fine albums like Vauxhall & I, Your Arsenal and You Are The Quarry is wholly merited.
There is a rush to dismiss his autobiography in the same terms that I went out of my way to avoid reading any reviews or spoilers before reading and I think long time fans or foes should make up their own minds before being so hasty in their criticism.
The book would benefit from some tighter editing but it is well written, highly readable and predictably cagey about the subject’s private life. Only the most sensation seeking reader could describe details of his love life as revelatory. He talks of a ‘close’ two year liaison with photographer James Maker but downplays the sexual nature of this affair. Far more revealing, and startling, is his reference to Iranian born Tina Dehghani who he describes in glowing terms as a “lifetime constant”. The one line that positively leaps out is: “Tina and I discuss the unthinkable act of producing a mewling miniature monster”.
Frustratingly, the question as to whether he is still contemplating fatherhood, or even if Dehghani remains his significant other are left dangling. After devoting just one page to their relationship, she is never mentioned again!
Easily the best parts of the book are those describing his upbringing and school years. He writes how “family life is chaotic and full of primitive drama as everything is felt intensely”. Manchester (so much to answer for) is presented as a depressing city that forged his maudlin temperament. He dismisses it as “sad soil” where life happens elsewhere, where “courtship is a question of aggression rather than gallantry” and where the only “architectural heritage is demolition”.
He is scathing about the routine institutionalised cruelty of his teachers whose only educational service was to instruct him on what he should despise: “school offers nothing at all except a lifelong awareness of hate as a general truth”. His less than fond memory is of himself as “a spectacle of suffering in a blue school uniform”. These are experiences that clearly feed into Smiths’ songs like the Headmaster Ritual and Barbarism Begins At Home.
His loathing of machismo in this “city of gangs” means that his male peers are mostly adversaries and rarely companions. This gives a context to one of my favourite Smiths tracks. I Know It’s Over, with lines about “loud, loutish lovers”. This song also contains the lyrics “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate, it takes strength to be gentle and kind” and Morrissey elaborates upon these gender politics in his autobiography: “I understand feminism to be a social saviour because it liberates everyone without exclusion, whereas masculism damns himself by measuring a man’s health by the amount of sexual gratification he receives”.
These sentiments were, and are, the exception rather than the rule in pop music; a breath of fresh air that immediately garnered a passionate following in the 1980s. Blinkered, jobbing journalists and other naysayers fail to recognise that his perspective as a flawed yet hypersensitive outsider is one of the main reasons why he won such a loyal fan base among men and women.
Morrissey is not blind to the fact that his lack of social graces have made him both a victim and a hero: “Although a passably human creature on the outside, the swirling soul within seemed to speak up for the most awkward people on the planet”. His stated aim (and who can possibly say that he has failed?) is “to show ordinariness as an instrument of power – or, possibly, glamor”.
Morrissey’s flawed personality is such that he always finds it impossible to comfortably enjoy a sense of camaraderie with any group he is part of The other three members of The Smiths are portrayed as being less complicated and more capable of having fun whereas he is forever “devoid of the knack of thigh-slapping laughter” and admits “even warming moments overwhelm me with despair”.
Compared with the rebukes for Joyce and Rourke, any criticism Johnny Marr is relatively mild. I was expecting to read of feelings of betrayal as Marr is seduced by a more conventional rock star lifestyle doing star turns with Bryan Ferry, Talking Heads and The Pretenders. Instead, there is more sadness than rage over the severed alliance. Morrissey even reveals that Marr had to talk him into including ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ on The Queen Is Dead album. In a rare admission of fallibility, he writes “It is often a relief to be wrong”.
Of his recording deal with The Smiths, he and Johnny Marr are depicted as “Tipsy and Tospsy from the village when it came to the cackling jaws of business”. This naivety comes to sour relations with Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis and is in no small way responsible for the bitter legal dispute over the group’s earnings.
No documentation exists to confirm or deny that drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke should be allocated 10% of recording royalties. It could be argued that an equal four-way split would have been fairer but, at the same time, it is hard to regard the rhythm section as essential components of the band. This is like claiming that Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell were fundamental to the success of The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
No fewer that 40 pages are devoted to the trial and the venomous rebukes for Judge John Weeks whose criticism of Morrissey’s “devious and truculent” behaviour were so gleefully reported in the press while Marr’s reputation remained relatively unscathed.
Morrissey’s bitterness towards what he regards as a flagrant miscarriage of justice is profound but it is also apparent that he did not mount the most effective defence. He is scathing about the ineptitude of his legal team but he was surely in a position to pay for hotshot lawyers who should have had no difficulty in making mincemeat of the drummer’s feeble case. As it is, Morrissey rages how “Joyce murdered the Smiths” and rants for page upon page as if his public humiliation in the courtroom was on a par to that of Oscar Wilde.
Thereafter, the final section of the book is little more than an account of recording duties and a tour diary with very few insights to make it interesting. There are only so many times you can write lines like “I walk onstage and the roar that greets me nearly kills me” before it becomes tedious.
By this point in this self-proclaimed Penguin Classic, readers will have already have got the point that Morrissey is still able to generate adulation across the planet. His need to catalogue tails of mass devotion and of “having never found love from one I instead find it from thousands” smack of a deep underlying insecurity rather than a celebration.
There is a fundamental lack of transparency in the book which serves to prove that he is still his own worst enemy. Although he does quote from poets like A.E. Houseman, Robert Herrick and W.H. Auden, he doesn’t say much about which books inspired him or give much away about his daily routine. There are references to an occasional sore throat but nothing about his declining state of health which has caused him to cancel numerous shows and tours.
Ultimately, this is the autobiography of a man seeking wider respect and understanding yet stubbornly reluctant to make any concessions to those who refuse to worship the ground he walks upon. He makes no secret of his misanthropy and anyone who makes statements to the effect that “most humans are wretched creatures” should not be surprised when the wretched of the earth are prompted to lavish him with insults rather than bow to his genius.
Despite, and perhaps even because of, all Morrissey’s self-evident flaws, he is still a hero in my book.
Love him or hate him, his autobiography is required reading.
- Book Review (MAINSTREAM): Autobiography by Morrissey. (thepedantess.wordpress.com)