Morrissey‘s Autobiography was always going to attract attention. Yet the amount it received still surprised. That thought is one of a typical Morrissey fan. He belongs to you, not anyone else.
The coverage the book received was also rather irritating for anyone who believes books should be savoured in one’s own time. The media and, it seemed, anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account were determined to screech out every revelation instantly. This went against the whole process of reading to discover things for oneself, but this is a symptom of the age we live in. Indeed, Morrissey – may – have enjoyed this acknowledgement of his reputation from the media, particularly the British media, which he bemoans throughout Autobiography for ignoring his impact around the world, notably in America and Scandinavia, and which hooted at the notion of his celebrity memoir being accorded Penguin Classic status before it was even published.
Now that most of the determined will have, in all likelihood, read most of Autobiography’s 457 pages, it seems more timely to discuss it. Others who probably don’t care as much, who just wanted the sensationalist bits, will have moved on. And of sensationalist bits there are a few, granted: an apparent attempted kidnapping as our hero travels into Mexico; his two-year relationship with Jake Walters; a later relationship with Iranian Tina Dehghani that almost yields a child. For many, it could have been the equivalent of The Second Coming. It may well have brought Armageddon. Come Armageddon, come Armageddon, come.
Speaking personally, I have always had a rather unsettled relationship with Morrissey. There was the typical youthful adoration, the tears as he arrived on stage during his comeback concert at Manchester Arena, the occasional visits to the Morrissey Smiths Disco at Manchester’s Star and Garter. Arriving in London for university and discovering clubs like How Does It Feel To Be Loved made an intimidating city seem somewhat like Manchester, as others wore faded Hatful of Hollow t-shirts.
But this adoration began to fade as apathy took over, apathy brought about as his remarks, comments, concert cancellations, regular stormings off stage and a seeming intent to piss as many people off as possible grew. Morrissey – or, perhaps, the media – had created about him an unpleasant air. Coupled with seeing grown men at Smiths discos with fading hair lines attempting quiffs and the bitchy atmosphere that could at times surround such nights, one felt tired and a little depressed to be around anything or anyone relating to Morrissey. That was especially the case if you’re predisposed to anxiety and depression. The last thing you want (most of the time – sometimes it’s exactly what you want) is to be surrounded by all that when you’ve just about managed to drag yourself out on a Friday evening.
Some would say that’s the most appropriate relationship to have with him. Nothing should be smooth as far as Morrissey is concerned. The book presents almost countless occasions where a friendship – indeed, it feels like a friendship when listening to his voice through the words on the page at times – be formed, only for it to be damaged or to collapse for some reason: from his complex personality and demeanour to uncertainty about and discrimination against him.
One example comes during his pre-The Smiths days where friendships would be dogged by mothers deeming him to be “a bad influence”, with former friends adding that “she’s worried that…” – read into that what you will.
This is something Morrissey recounts in particular detail for one doomed friendship with Nico fan Simon Topping, “the first person who likes me for all the reasons that others usually dislike me”. Topping would arrive at 384 Kings Road in Stretford on a motorbike clutching Nico’s Chelsea Girl. Yet by the end – and after irritating Topping’s mother for dismissing her opinion of actress Bette Davis – the friendship would be followed with the “now familiar reel”.
However, contrary to previous occasions, Morrissey this time responded with “quite right, I AM a bad influence”. This pattern of hurt, pain, pessimism and fighting resilience is a pattern followed throughout the book. Indeed, it frames Morrissey’s life. Battles, many battles.
The opening of Autobiography is inadvertently (perhaps; it’s difficult to tell) rather funny. When Morrissey writes, “Naturally, my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big”, there’s surely (intentional?) irony here. The memorable sarcasm engrained in Morrissey’s voice comes to mind. He also describes how his sister Jackie tried to kill him four times: “Whether this be rivalry or visionary no one knows.”
Yet the impact of these earliest of moments linger throughout Morrissey’s life: a hospitalised baby, an operation on his stomach, the belief from his parents, Elizabeth and Peter, that he wouldn’t survive. A caption underneath an image of him, chest bared and performing while in The Smiths, summed it up: “The scar of the stomach for all to see. I came with nothing – all doors closed.”
These early moments of the Autobiography are particularly memorable not only in showing these early formative instances and allowing insight into his family – the ultra-Catholic matriarch Nannie, who collapses to her knees and prays salvation during 1971’s partial eclipse, is the family’s linchpin and the account of her final moments is quite heartbreaking – but for bringing added understanding of Manchester during the 1960s and ’70s.
Kitchen sink and A Taste of Honey come to mind; the torturous experiences at St. Wilfred’s Primary and St. Mary’s Secondary Modern (including a rather creepy PE teacher, Mr. Sweeney), the divisiveness caused by the tripartite education system and the inadequacy of the Manchester Education Committee, the failed experiment of Hulme Crescents and the overall poverty afflicting the city. It was far from where it is now.
In some ways, Morrissey acts as the link between the two Manchesters and two separate lives he’s led; this is touched upon when he recounts the moment he plays at Old Trafford Cricket Club in 2004, a place round the corner from where he worked in the Inland Revenue’s cellars for three weeks aged 17 and “inches from my old house on Kings Road”. The modern Manchester is far away from the one Morrissey endured during his youth. Playing at Old Trafford and seeing Manchester in a different light is presented as a sort of victory for both.
Morrissey’s flirtation with gangsters and pugilism (Southpaw Grammar) and the rougher side of society was likely inspired by his Dad, who would use his fists to protect his family:
Dad is playful although fist-ready with the outside world. He is constantly called upon when family feuds demand the physical, and he is always there and always unafraid in the days when physicality ironed matters smoothly…
He goes on to discuss violence in detail later in the book, touching upon how “the wheels of the world turn on violence… Violence is the ruling word in most persuasive action”. He later empathises with the Krays, whom he references in The Last Of The Famous International Playboys, stating that no-one could be seen to be thriving on the outside of law and that they had been “unfairly locked away… and they died quietly”.
This obviously contrasts the somewhat ‘soft’ (gladioli, vegetarianism, animal rights) image Morrissey perfected for himself. But again, he presents himself as a man who’s fought for what he’s wanted – “If I can barely speak… then I shall surely sing”. But rather than using fists (although there are occasions outlined where he did so when he was younger), he resorted to Wilde, Betjeman, Housman and The New York Dolls to educate himself out of his position in life, to make up for the “faulty development” he received during his time in education. He battled through using culture and language.
His discussion of AE Housman is a joy and someone who, arguably, he found more in common with than the oft-cited Oscar Wilde. Here, Morrissey achieves a scholarly aura:
Housman was always alone – thinking himself to death, with no matronly wife to signal to the watching world that Alfred Edward was now quite alright – for isn’t this at least partly the aim of scoring a partner: to trumpet the mental all-clear to a world where how things seem is far more important than how things are? […] Housman still occupies my mind.
It’s here that Morrissey demonstrates the human insight and empathy with the lonely and the disenfranchised. On reading his assessment of Housman and “scoring” a partner, it’s difficult to disagree. We want love and companionship, but we want to look successful and ‘normal’. “There is no such thing in life as normal,” he sings on The Youngest Was The Most Loved. It’s this that evidently feeds into his persona and output. Finding a partner can seem like a battle. Loneliness is a battle. Life is a struggle. Morrissey understands this.
Morrissey (and Marr) v Joyce is a battle he didn’t win and a loss that continues to hurt. One has to tread carefully during the 50-odd page court case passage. At times Morrissey is convincing as to why the decision to award The Smiths drummer 25% of royalties was ludicrous, while at others he almost descends into bathos as he mimics Joyce (“I just a-shoe-mmmd”) and talks about the stench of the court room and the mouldering walls. His “Bleak House, indeed” interjection just brings laughter.
During the case, the controversial Judge John Weeks suggests Morrissey is of a corruptive influence because he was the eldest of the four. But interestingly, Morrissey is at pains to point out that compared to Joyce, Marr and Rourke, he was the one who wasn’t grammar school educated nor the one who held a bank account prior to The Smiths’ formation. “I was the least worldly,” he said. Here, there is a lingering sense that his position in society, as well as his personality and lack of education, are held against him.
“I emerge bolder,” he says after the court case. But between the court case, Maladjusted, being sacked by Mercury Records and You Are The Quarry – some seven years or so – Morrissey moves to Los Angeles with no record contract. Here he meets Dehghani and suggests that he is now “a symbol of rest instead of panic”, although that is interrupted as the horrors of 9/11 ensue. Every time things seem settled, something comes along to interrupt.
A passage detailing his friendship with Kirsty MacColl is quite eerie and, in hindsight, difficult to read; the friendship between the two is one of a few represented as unendingly close and unthreatened by Morrissey’s personality. “I’d never refuse you ANYTHING,” she said as they ride along in Morrissey’s Saab, the hint of lust implied – at least in your mind, anyway. As she enquires about Mexico and Morrissey recommends Cancun, no-one would know what would happen weeks later.
Two weeks after her death, Morrissey receives a postcard from MacColl that was likely sent just after she arrived:
It is unusually overcast… I plough logs onto the open fire and crack open a bottle of vodka, and cradle Kirsty’s card in my hands as a prayerbook, wondering if she would be still alive had I talked her out of travelling to Cancun. The vodka endures bewailing, and I cry myself blind…
Of course, as is the narrative of Morrissey’s life it seems, he attacks – or most appropriately, signs for Sanctuary through the legacy Attack Records label and later releases You Are The Quarry. His career ascends once again, with the account of his gig at the Rainbow Ballroom in Fresno, California particularly memorable as the Mexican-American community take him to their heart. They are Morrissey’s “homies”:
The streets flood with Morrissey. I do not know what to do with all of this happiness. Viva Hate emblems; art-hound Ts, tank tops graffitied in Morrissey-code. Most of all, every arm, every neck, every hand is mobbed with a Morrissey tattoo. Fresno! Here is the light! And never go out! […] There are no Caucasian faces – which is a remarkable answer to those dap snappy London music editors… who would have me hanged for daring to sing about racism.
It is here that Morrissey’s impact, his reason-to-be, is displayed. He feels vindicated, victorious again, his mark on the world for all to see. The Mexican community, still demonised within American society akin to how UKIP and the Right demonise eastern Europeans in the UK, have taken him to their heart. Here, above all else, he is the voice and symbol for the marginalised. Of course, his remarks in 2010 that the Chinese are a “subspecies” due to issues surrounding animal welfare, coupled with the infamous 1992 Finsbury Park incident and its aftermath, will always dog his reputation.
With any autobiography there are usually two blunt options: you let yourself into the story of the person’s life and take it at face value, or largely dismiss it as nonsense.
Autobiography has managed to do something I’d wondered was possible: to fall for Morrissey again. This is a man who’s had to fight to succeed – or at least that’s what he projects. The figurehead for those who feel marginalised, different, lonely or feel they’re struggling through life in some form. The fighter those – I – can abide by, even if he’s often annoying and irritating. Autobiography may not have the majesty of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Penguin Classics imprint aside, but it will certainly be just as loved.
Indeed, the Penguin Classic spine is marked, creased, just like the others on the shelves. The Morrissey Smiths Disco beckons, faded and freshly dried Hatful of Hollow t-shirt off the maiden again.
Morrissey’s Autobiography is out now through Penguin Classics.