Monday, January 18, 2016

Autobiography by Morrissey

Reader, meet author
Most rock stars aren’t expected to be men of letters, so all that’s asked of their memoirs is an adequate retelling of sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll anecdotes fleshed out by a competent ghost writer. Not so with Morrissey. His brilliant lyrics (for those like myself who consider them so) inspire high literary expectations, and with this long-awaited autobiography Morrissey proves himself up to the challenge.

The first quarter of the book, in which he vividly describes his youth in Manchester, is a phenomenal piece of writing. In eloquently rendered, unconventional prose that resembles a sort of thesaurus-wringing beat poetry, Morrissey depicts latter-20th-century working-class life in Northern England as a bleak, modern Dickensian world in which children are beaten by sadistic teachers and every day is silent and gray. Music is the only means of escape for young Morrissey, and one day he decides to stop idolizing bands and start becoming one. Fans of the Smiths will probably be disappointed by the brevity with which he covers his tenure with that band, but it was after all only 10 percent of his life span. The centerpiece of the book is his Kafkaesque account of The Smiths trial in which drummer Mike Joyce sued Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr for additional royalties. Here Morrissey really piles the acrimonious invective on Joyce, the lawyers, the judge, and the British justice system in general. He insists over and over again how he got the shaft, and, from his one-sided account, it certainly appears that he did. One can understand Morrissey’s desire to state his case once and for all, and his account is quite riveting for a while, but it goes on far too long. What really kills the book, however, is its final quarter, which consists of an elaborate tour diary in which Morrissey travels the world, basking in the glory of his You Are the Quarry renaissance. He recounts every city he stopped in, how the crowd loved him, and how he loved them loving him. This sort of writing would be fine for a what-it’s-like-to-be-a-rock-star fluff piece in Rolling Stone, but it feels out of place in this otherwise uncommonly literary memoir.

There’s not much in this book about writing songs or recording music. If you’re interested in details of that sort, I would suggest checking out Simon Goddard’s Mozipedia. There is, however, quite a bit said about the marketing of music—as in, no record company or manager ever did enough for Morrissey. It’s surprising how much he obsesses over the chart position of each and every recording. Despite all his scorning of the mainstream and his honorary status as a godfather of “alternative” music, what he really wanted all along was to be the next Beatles. Those hoping for bits of show-biz gossip won’t be disappointed, as Morrissey recounts myriad run-ins with musicians, movie stars, and television personalities and how each and every one of them somehow disappointed him.

Morrissey, in his own words, makes himself sound egotistical, cantankerous, petty, vindictive, querulous, ungrateful, and mean-spirited. Nevertheless, he somehow comes across as quite likeable and frequently hilarious. After reading Autobiography, I don’t think I’d want to hang out with the guy, but one can’t help but admire what he’s achieved in his music career and what he has accomplished with this exceptional book. This may not be quite the memoir diehard fans have been waiting for, but still it’s definitely well worth its cover price.
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