Late last year, Morrissey went to pains to distance his Autobiography from the usual celebrity memoirs that hit the shelves in time to be Christmas gifts. But saying that an autobiography isn’t the usual celebrity dross doesn’t automatically qualify it as a work of literary merit. Morrissey’s tome does start well. There are moving descriptives of the people and places of his childhood. These are the narrative flowers. The lack of footnotes to explain their references had me wondering why the editor won an industry award; at the same time, a sense of a mysterious world accompanies this disorientation. Future editions will probably struggle to maintain this sensation when putting references in to compensate for lost living knowledge about British and Mancunian popular culture in the ‘70s and ‘80s. This will be especially important for keeping up the reputation of the Penguin Classics livery.
About a third of the way through the book, the florid and often opaque intro gives way to recollections of the music business that soon dominate proceedings with muckraking. Anyone looking to find out about The Smiths may be disappointed. The section covering this key period is curiously brief. Instead, large portions are dedicated to score-settling. Morrissey’s defence against a law-suit over Smiths royalties has been widely commented on (intelligent readers will recognise his Wildean stylisation of the trial as only one view, and hardly a transcript). And this is only one case among countless others in the global conspiracy against Morrissey. Music journalists and DJs are repeatedly shown for the moribund, two-faced destroyers of culture that he perceives them as. Even an L.A. estate agent gets the surprising accusation of being misleading. Then there are the attacks on former school teachers, all named and shamed for their cruelty towards the children in their charge, unlikely as they are to legally challenge a wealthy pop star.
Why then did Penguin think that Morrissey’s autobiography was acceptable for its Classics range? On the surface, it is stuffed with the same celebrity tittle-tattle that he affects to be above. This said, there is precedence for his unforgiving invective. Louis Aragon scandalised the French literary establishment in 1928 with an attack on just about every member of it in Treatise on Style. So for what A. A. Gill called Morrissey’s ‘cantankerous, entitled, [and]whingeing’ qualities, how about:
It must be pointed out that my previous masterpiece–it is to Le Paysan de Paris that I refer–did not receive from the press the kind of acclaim, applause, in a word, the encouragement, it had the right to expect, given its bright promise … journalists are termites nesting in the ear of fame … And I call them bastards. (12/13)
Morrissey’s revelations of private events is recently reminiscent too. Karl Ove Knausgård, recently reviewed here, admitted to making a Faustian bargain when incorporating his family members into his autobiographical novels. In Morrissey’s case, his messianic descriptions of his gigs, along with his relentless black and white judgements of people suggest he’s assuming a vengeful, all-seeing religious power. It’s as if he adopts the oppression he perceives is ranged against him.
And he seems miserably unaware of his luck. All that wealth and opportunity that comes with rarified personal focus. There must have been more bright moments than he documents? Can it be so hard to enjoy a life in which you yourself make no mistakes that harm others? All this suggests that Morrissey is great at writing songs about life while being rubbish at living it.
Yet for all my gripes about his gripes, I find myself dusting off my Smiths CDs. They sound fresh and, yes, literary, this so in a way that seems unimaginable in todays’s music market. His whining self-pity, now amplified by his book, stands out in a contemporary musical landscape in which hopefuls line up for the opportunity to conform so they can be plucked from obscurity by svengalis.
Lyrical immiseration, by contrast, is clearly not everybody’s cup of tea. Perhaps then the opportunity to buy Autobiography secondhand should be seized by those with more curiosity than commitment.
Extract from p.26/7:
Dark crimes return to a wasteland where there is now no street lighting since there are now no streets. There is no street traffic, and the hum of Stretford Road is distant. It has all been wiped away, and the church once pressed upon by houses now looks like a pathetic creature of pointless endurance. The Three Legs o’ Man and the Unicorn call in the last of the old crowd, who will tell you that life was so much better when things were slightly worse. There is a sense that something terrible has happened to this district even though they of scant resources welcome the promise of luxury — miles away from the knots of houses and narrow passageways of old. See the slums and the tramps and read of murdered children — beyond, where the bleak moor lies. An ultraviolet magnetic shock goes through the blood as the parents of the missing children over-hope. A swarm of misery grips mid-6os Manchester as Hindley and Brady raise their faces to the camera and become known to us all; nineteenth-century street life right here and now, with 1970 but a spit away. It is factual Hindley and Brady, and not our spirited Lake poets or cozy tram-trammeled novelists, who supply the unspoken and who take the travelling mind further than it ever ought to have gone, sealing modern Manchester as a place of Dickensian drear. Of Hindley and Brady there would be nothing to give you heart in their complicity, as children of the poor, who had lived short and shaky lives, were led away to their tortured deaths, and the social landscape of Manchester warps forever with further reason to cry. Tormentedly, everyone appears to know someone who knew Myra Hindley, and we are forced to accept a new truth; that a woman can be just as cruel and dehumanized as a man, and that all safety is an illusion. Nannie rails against Hindley and Brady with a hatred skirting terror, and our thunderclouds part only for the obsessive details of football results and the success stories of our world-famous local teams. Arbitrarily illiterate, football players remained in the stuckness of their own dull social units until George Best spoke and teased and joked and made sense. Best was clever and witty, and he had found a variety of ways to make his life glamorous. The old mold of the at-home regular fellow smashed forever as Best diversified the image of the football player, now suddenly capricious and disorderly but led by no one. Demonstrating the life of success, Best is of course penalized for enjoying too much, yet he is a revolution effecting overwhelming change on how sport is viewed because he is blatantly contemptuous of the press and of governing sporting associations whilst also, incidentally, being an extraordinary player. Catch him if you can.