By Des Cowley
By Morrissey (Penguin Classics)
There was a veritable media frenzy over the publication of Steven Patrick Morrissey’s (or Moz or Mozza to his fans) autobiography. The fact that his memoir has been issued, at Morrissey’s instigation, in Penguin’s black classic series – normally reserved for long-dead authors like John Stuart Mill or Thomas Kempis – seems utterly fitting for a man deigned Britain’s second greatest living icon (he was beaten to the punch by Sir David Attenborough).
Love him or hate him (and both camps have long been vocal about their respective stances), it’s a fair call to say that Morrissey is one of the great lyricists of our day. His songs are desperate affairs, darkly brooding and full of menacing violence, but equally shot through with irony and sparkling humour. Is his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, or is he deadly serious? Thankfully, his new book goes some way to confirming he’s both.
If the past few years have granted us some unexpectedly superb musical memoirs – think Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Neil Young – then Morrissey, competitive as he is, aims to be at the head of the pack. From the get-go, his tale roars out of the gate, reveling in an alliterative and abstract stream-of-consciousness language that might have made James Joyce proud. Never content to call a spade a spade, he recounts, via a whirlwind of startling imagery, his unhappy days growing up in Manchester, grimly grey and industrial, amidst a brood of Irish catholic kids, hated by his teachers and fellow pupils alike. From childhood onwards, it’s as if he lacks an outer layer of skin, so sensitive is he to every slight and disregard. Each one is remembered, stored up, awaiting a time when he can escape his dull beginnings and exact his revenge.
There is no shortage of harsh and damning vitriol to be found in Morrissey’s autobiography. He has no kind words for Geoff Travis, owner of Rough Trade Records, a man who never fully understood nor supported the Smiths’ music, even though they made his fortune. John Peel comes in for a serve. Factory Records owner Tony Wilson is a buffoon. Morrissey devotes umpteen pages to unveiling NME’slong-held vendetta against him. Close friends let him down, and most celebrities he meets at the height of his fame have feet of clay. Late in the book, he dissects journalist Julie Burchall so brutally (and hilariously) that I am left wondering whether she can ever leave her house or appear in public again.
Morrissey took an early interest in music, writing opinionated letters to NME that mostly went unpublished. He developed, while still at school, an obsession with the New York Dolls, and later attended the legendary Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976. But it wasn’t until 1982, when he met guitarist Johnny Marr, that the songwriting partnership that would ensure his legend was forged. In actual fact, The Smiths were but a small blip on the radar of his long career, a mere five years or so that resulted in four studio albums. But what glorious statements they were, magisterial in intent, whose influence on British indie bands can still be heard today. Strangely, Morrissey seems at his patchiest when recounting these years, no doubt due to the painful legacy he’s endured since the band’s demise in 1987.
In a weirdly fascinating, if somewhat pathological, aside that runs for some fifty pages, Morrissey unleashes his venom on former Smiths’ drummer Mike Joyce who, along with bassist Andy Rourke, took Morrissey and Marr to court in 1996 in dispute of royalties.It’s like watching a train wreck. Lampooning proceedings, and the incompetence of presiding Judge Weeks, Morrissey relives the legal spat as it played out in the High Court. He is publicly humiliated in court, in the media, and in the public gaze. After several years’ stress and after having been forcibly parted with several million pounds of his own money, courtesy of Joyce, Morrissey high-tailed it to Hollywood, and later to Rome, to lick his wounds. Reading his account of the courtroom farce puts paid once and for all to any dream of a Smiths re-union.
The final slab of Morrissey’s book recounts his worldwide tours on the back of his 2004 comeback album You are the Quarry. After years of ignoring the evidence in front of him, he finally faces up to the fact that he is beloved by masses of fans in Sweden, Belgium, Spain, South America, and pretty much every other place he performs. They turn up night after night, in their thousands, their bodies tattooed with his lyrics, singing his songs, reaching their arms out to him. While it helps, it’s still never quite enough, though toward the end of the book Morrissey allows us a momentary glimmer of contentment, before fast pulling the rug away once more.
Unlike many rock star autobiographies, Morrissey displays little interest in trying to impress the reader. Surprisingly, he doesn’t labour his pet crusades, including vegetarianism and animal rights. For someone who has intentionally shrouded his personal life in mystery, he manages to be open about his sexuality while at the same time giving away scant details. More than anything, his book is a portrait of the artist as miserable curmudgeon. It is full of digressions, and is open to accusations of being wildly over-written, but therein lays its essence – a 450 page lyrical rant shot through with equal parts humour and spite. Anyone who hates Morrissey will have their worst judgments confirmed. The rest of us, I suspect, will be gracious enough to acknowledge that Mozza, hubris be damned, has delivered a genuine (Penguin or otherwise) classic.