As so many Smiths tracks found their groove from the opening refrain, Morrissey’s much anticipated Autobiography hits the ground running with an arresting torrent. In fact the first four pages of searing, soaring prose is so compelling as to render the absence of a new paragraph unnecessary and almost unnoticed.
Armed with rapier wit and poetic license, Morrissey manages to eek gravitas from even the most mundane happenings and non-happenings of his downtrodden early existence.
Morrissey’s linguistic gymnastics act as a Johnny Marr guitar riff backing to a long play version of Headmaster’s Ritual, with St Marys’ Dickensian ‘Modern College’ squarely in the crosshairs. Think Pink Floyd’s The Wall meets Michael Palin’s classic Ripping Yarns comedy Tomkinson’s Schooldays.
As if cursed, the Grim Reaper makes regular visits to Morrisseyland, thus death’s irrefutable inevitability informs a morbid fascination. Perhaps the overbearing vegan’s animal activism is part explained by an obsession with the sanctity of life and its indeterminate, always-tragic deadline. Little wonder Morrissey’s mid-life crisis appeared to rear its head by his mid-teens.
Rather than exclusively shackled behind closed doors subsisting on Oscar Wilde, the New York Dolls, Valium and toast, Morrissey took to aimlessly roaming Manchester’s ‘streets upon streets upon streets’, observing with a forensic eye as he clumsily sought lonely kindred misfits. A sentimental commitment to immediate and extended family ties also illustrates a softer side to the acerbic, grown-up Moz that grates on followers and foes alike.
Morrissey’s progression from shy, unemployable wretch, unable and unwilling to hold down menial jobs cleaning canal banks and human innards off surgeon’s garments, to alternative pop icon, is difficult to grasp. Sure, the seeds are sewn with effusive recollections of abundant artistic influences, an allusion to a grandeur he suspected lay untapped deep within, not to mention a desperate Northern upbringing and search for meaning. But like sporting prodigies unable to deconstruct their gift, there are few hints as to how in his darkest hour Morrissey simultaneously made the huge leap to chartbusting lyricist and crooner.
Incredibly, as the Smiths mounted fame’s escalator, Morrissey claims to have been temporarily cast aside by his band mates – including Jimmy Marr for whom there seems a deep covered pit filled with regret.
There is much bitterness at the exploitation of talent by the music grinders. Despite making Rough Trade’s reputation, the Smiths’ rough treatment by their inept label, on the back of naïve Morrissey and Marr being ‘prize sapheads of the most embarrassingly gullible type’, cops deserved invective. At one stage founder Geoff Travis awkwardly thanks Morrissey for #1 album Meat is Murder with a cheap bag of biscuits. Meanwhile, the inspiration for Frankly, Mr Shankly was instigating petty legal action against his professional savior ‘from life’s lavatory’.
With the Smiths coming to an abrupt, exhausted halt, Morrissey is left holding the bag, legally obliged to stuff it with goodies for new label EMI. Which he does to immense self-satisfaction.
As for Morrissey’s determinedly ambiguous flesh preferences, despite the topic being granted as much ink as expected for one best described as asexual, there are interesting revelations.
After the first half novella, unfortunately the absence of a strong-willed editor sees Autobiography’s B-side lapse into moments of overwrought self-indulgence. As the spokesman for ‘the most awkward people on the planet’ admits, ‘somewhere deep within my only pleasure was to out-endure people’s patience’, and his life story, writ large, is no exception.
In addition to harping on conspiracies perpetrated by media and industry folk, reports of the still breathing Morrissey’s ‘death’ are greatly exaggerated, his default response to disappointments (of which there are many) losing impact to the point of tedium.
Morrissey also trudges slowly over the High Court circus of the mid 1990′s which saw Smiths band members Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke sue for equal royalties. Page after page of sniping rage is directed at the judge bearing a foul Mozza grudge, the unconscionable actions of drummer Joyce, and, to a lesser extent, the weak inactions of Marr and Rourke. The upside is closure, for the reasons a Smiths reunion won’t occur are painfully obvious.
Whilst a litany of injustices feeds an inherent despondency, post legal stoush Morrissey unfortunately loses his way in turning up the amplifier from 9 to 11. A wall of words collapses under its own weight, crushing the reader. Narcissistic name dropping, repetitive detailed accounts of worldwide Mozsteria at every port, and assiduously catalogued chart successes, seem calculated to emphasise the irrelevancy of the ex-Smiths who betrayed him, and to rewrite the wrongs of the media’s refusal to accept and report his station in music’s pantheon.
A rambling dissertation on Kirk Douglas gives way to a sudden conclusion. A final gripe (for it becomes contagious) is that image-wise, save for a few childhood family snaps, random unnamed portraits and unnecessary album covers (all poorly reproduced on ordinary stock) appear counterintuitive to Morrissey’s precise recall of people, places, dates and addresses.
This unfiltered, definitive version of a life frequently cross-examined, venerated and vilified by critics may not be everyone’s cup of greased tea. And in a month of Sundays, even a Mozophile like me couldn’t see myself sipping a Guinness with the mercurial Mancunian. One thing is for certain, Stephen Patrick Morrissey is an oddball who defied considerable odds, and whose page-turning memoir might otherwise inspire the most strident naysayers to lend his music, if not his politics, another ear.
For the A-side alone Autobiography is a classic of some description.