Just as Lou Reed once said that nobody did Lou Reed better than him so it is with Morrissey – he’s a character that Stephen Patrick Morrissey has committed to playing. Some days he does it well, other times you wonder if he can even be bothered being the ham. But with just enough defence mechanisms in his lyrics – how could anybody possibly know how I feel? – and such high drama, too, Morrissey, or Moz to the fans and followers, offers a strange brand of humour and intellect. He’s funniest when he’s not trying to be, he’s thoughtful when the guard goes down, and he’s the creator/co-creator of some enduring pop music, a charming lyricist, a wonderful singer.
Even if you don’t care for his solo career – and really that’s being too harsh – there’s a world of wonder in those sharp singles from The Smiths.
The idea, even, that Morrissey might one day lay down a version (aversion?) of his life on the page was always tantalising enough for fans – and now here it is. That title, Autobiography, all at once an understatement and some lofty statement, the grandest of gestures – add to that one-word life-summary the reinstatement of the Penguin Classics cover image, so that Morrissey can be filed, in some sense, with the Oscar Wildes and Elizabeth Barrett Brownings that he clearly adores over the usual songwriting go-to figures, not for him a Bob Dylan or Neil Young schmooze or suck-up.
Autobiography sings – it really does. Morrissey, you see, wasn’t just from Manchester, but “forgotten Victorian knife-plunging Manchester” and he damns an old teacher with the prediction they will die “smelling of attics”. So it sings in much the same way as a Morrissey song. There are petty putdowns and mean gags, but there’s humour and heart.
You see nobody thinks Morrissey is as absurd quite as much as Morrissey does. That’s something I’ve always been certain of; sussing that out was what made me a fan. He knows it’s an act – he invented, and is still working at, the act. The thing that frustrates and alienates just as much as it exhilarates is that Morrissey takes the art and act of being absurd really quite seriously.
And so Autobiography, chapter-less, roams for close to 500 pages and he hardly talks about The Smiths, unless you count the court case. And he is certainly counting the court case.
You have to be careful what you wish for with autobiographies – and if you come to Autobiography wanting some examination of the way Moz and Marr met and married themselves to the craft of pop-song engineering you will be disappointed. If you stand back and let the purple prose flow then you can have a good time with this book.
It’s worth thinking Morrissey did this to see just how much he could get away with – just as you figure that’s why he opens his mouth to the press about fox-hunting and vegetarianism and celibacy and hating the Royal Family. He believes it, sure, but behind the smirk there’s a twitch of playing with contempt, flirting with it, courting it, delivering it with aplomb.
Just quite what Morrissey should be remembered for varies – but at his best he’s a near-perfect crooner in an age where that art was forgotten. He’s been written off as not that important, in the pages of his book you’ll read that he’s still sore he’s not quite the critical darling, when, in a way, he kinda is. But I’ve always seen him and heard him as a writer, first and foremost. And that extends over to the page. There are some beautifully evocative phrases in this book, particularly the care that is placed around describing his upbringing, the squalor of the time, the family unit – his parents were, almost surprisingly, attractive, happy in their courtship. You almost want Morrissey’s folks to be working class, hide-their-head moles, tunnelling toward keeping afloat.
So much of Morrissey’s humour can be cruel, he refers to The Smiths’ drummer as “a flea in search of a dog”, he does little to dispel suggestions he’s a misogynist, he doesn’t really explain his sexuality – probably the main thing, apart from his songwriting, many fans ache to know about. Some editions of this book have even had the mention of a homosexual relationship removed. But you still have to say he is committed to the character of Morrissey. And that’s what’s actually important here. That and the fact that so much of the confusions and contradictions around Morrissey, as is the case with anyone, really, deserve to go unsolved, shouldn’t ever be explained in full. They would lose their magic, or at least the mystique.
None of this is to condone his sometimes despicable and certainly petulant posturing – but we so often mistake an idea of the truth with beauty. We can’t really rely on pop songs to offer the fabled “three chords and the truth” but what they often offer is two or three chords and, for two or three minutes, some beauty. That of course is often more important – certainly more enjoyable – than the truth. And so it is with autobiography. (And certainly with Autobiography). We should not be looking here for the truth, but instead for beauty. And though the second half of this tome stalls at times, gets bogged down, prattles on, there are sequences of beauty here. Particularly in the scene-setting. There’s lovely – flowery and extravagant, yes (of course!) – writing. And it matches the mindset of Morrissey the lyricist. It ties in with the character he’s created, keeping just enough of himself – if he ever had a self – in reserve. Or at the least locked away.
Thanks to Penguin Off The Tracks has ONE signed copy of Morrissey’s Autobiography to giveaway to one lucky reader. Please leave a comment below with your favourite Morrissey song and your alternative title for a Morrissey autobiography. I will select the winner at the end of this week, Friday, December 20, 2013.