Book review: Autobiography, by Morrissey

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 October, 2013, 4:36pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 October, 2013, 2:50pm

by Morrissey
Penguin Classics
3 stars

John Harris

Thanks to a hyped-up fuss that has done its job in spades, this much we all know: owing to its author's cheek and his publisher's marketing nous, former Smiths singer Morrissey's autobiography is a Penguin Classic, which means it shares its imprint with Ovid and Plato.

Self-evidently, it's also a high-end example of a literary genre that seems to form at least half of the publishing industry's raison d'etre: the celebrity memoir, 2013's most notable examples of which include the self-authored life stories of Mo Farah, Jennifer Saunders, Harry Redknapp and Katie Price (again). Despite career wobble after career wobble, the author has become an unlikely British institution. As the blurb on the back reminds us: "In 2006, Morrissey was voted the second greatest living British icon by viewers of the BBC, losing out to Sir David Attenborough."

Autobiography is, in its own way, as faithful to the celeb genre as all the other books that are piled into stores at this time of year. Though its 457-page splurge of text occasionally suggests a bold stylistic experiment - there are no chapters; nor, for the first 10 pages, any paragraph breaks - as with so many famous-person books, it also betrays a lack of editing. So too do some very un-Morrissey-like American spellings ("glamor", "center"), his habit of jumping between tenses, and the odd passage that simply doesn't make sense. "I will never be lacking if the clash of sounds collide, with refinement and logic bursting from a cone of manful blast," he writes on page 90. You what?

And yet, and yet. For its first 150 pages, Autobiography comes close to being a triumph. "Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big," he writes, and off we go - into the Irish diaspora in the inner-city Manchester of the 1960s, where packs of boys playfully stone rats to death, and "no one we know is on the electoral roll".

And when pop music enters the story, he excels. Before The Smiths, Morrissey fleetingly wrote reviews for the long-lost music weekly Record Mirror under the name Sheridan Whiteside, and his talent for music writing is obvious. "It seemed to me that it was only in British pop music that almost anything could happen," he writes, which is spot on.

School, unsurprisingly, is hell, complete with Catholic guilt, brutality, and one grim incident in which a PE teacher molests him. When he leaves St Mary's secondary modern, he falls into a period of torpor and self-doubt. And then Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr pays him a visit, and his life takes off - while Autobiography takes a serious turn for the worse.

There are not many more than 70 pages on the actual experience of being in The Smiths, and around a quarter of those are devoted to complaints about their record label, the supposed commercial underperformance of their singles, and Geoff Travis, who founded Rough Trade records in the mid-1970s, and has clearly not been on Morrissey's Christmas card list for several years.

As all other credible accounts have told it, The Smiths broke up because Morrissey would not be handled by a manager, and as their business dealings turned chaotic, Marr was worn down by not just playing the guitar and writing songs, but dealing with lawyers and booking hire-vans. Small wonder that their bond came to grief, probably the single biggest event in Morrissey's adult life. In the absence of even the barest recognition of any of this beyond a tortuous passage that claims all managers "merely manage their own position in relation to the artist", Autobiography presents the end of The Smiths as a mystery, sullied by innuendos about Marr supposedly growing envious of Morrissey's profile, which does not stand up to any serious scrutiny.

"Beware, I bear more grudges/Than lonely high court judges," went the lyric of Morrissey's 1994 single The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get, and he wasn't lying. As the bitterness overflows, there are still flashes of wit, along with some rather rum views. Circa 1994, he finally finds love and companionship with one Jake Walters, who has "lived a colourful 29 years as no stranger to fearlessness" and has "BATTERSEA" tattooed inside his lower lip.

Morrissey evidently melts - but soon after, he reaches his peak of bitterness and verbosity: 40 pages on the court case in which Smiths drummer Mike Joyce ("an adult impersonating a child", he reckons) successfully made a bid for 25 per cent of the band's posthumous earnings, and a judge named John Weeks apparently became the human being Morrissey hates most of all. Here, all levity evaporates: it's understandable that he feels so aggrieved, but when the verbiage dedicated to this stuff threatens to eclipse what he has to say about every other aspect of his career, something has gone badly wrong.

Towards the end, things pick up. But it's hard not to reach for a line from Half a Person, released a quarter of a century ago: "In the days when you were hopelessly poor, I just liked you more."

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