Autobiography by Morrissey: A Full Review
Morrissey’s Autobiography largely lives up to the reputation of its author – sometimes for better, often for worse.
“Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big,” Steven Patrick Morrissey notes drolly of his appearance on the world stage, a couple of pages into his long-awaited Autobiography, with the sort of humorous flourish that once rendered him the most potent, as well as the least modest, pop lyricist of his generation. And it is more than mere metaphor; according to the author, the infant would spend the next few “months” on the critical list at Salford’s Pendlebury Hospital, unable to swallow, enduring various operations on his stomach and throat, his parents warned that he was unlikely to survive.
This turns out to be but one of many revealing anecdotes the reader comes across in the first part of Autobiography, a section that is delivered with such vivid detail and such literary prowess that it competes amongst the very best writings on 1960s and 1970s Manchester. We always knew that Morrissey was a prose stylist, who successfully imbued the songs of the Smiths with words and phrases that were previously considered anathema to pop music. Still, it proves instantly reassuring to discover that he can compose sentence after sentence, page after page – though not chapter after chapter, given that his 480 page life story is devoid of conventional literary breaks – in equally poetic language. All the more so, allowing that his memories of childhood are mostly, dare we use the word, depressing.
“More brittle and less courteous than anywhere else on earth,” he writes of his home city, “Manchester is the old fire wheezing its last, where we all worry ourselves soulless, forbidden to be romantic.” Of course, the young Steven Morrissey had little experience to justify that certainty of opinion, one of the first hints that his Autobiography is, to rather understate the case, a subjective rather than objective account of his life. The extent of his early travels was, in fact, limited to his parents’ Dublin, which he views fondly for its seemingly more relaxed attitude towards Catholicism than that which traveled to Manchester with the great 1950s Emigration, especially in the form of his maternal Grandmother, Bridget Dwyer, the central matronly figure of his Manchester childhood:
Nannie is afraid, and appears older than her years. Her every hysterical observation is steeped in the fear of God (a God who will not save her at the end of it all) and although her life is entangled in love, Nannie doesn’t know it, or cannot show it.
The Manchester of Morrissey’s upbringing is, in one part then, all about the choking constraints of Catholicism and the poverty of the working class – especially in a manufacturing city on the brink of extinction and in the midst of ill-conceived ‘slum clearance’ – alongside the sadistic violence of his education, against which his own father’s willingness to resolve neighborly disputes with his fists seems almost gentlemanly by comparison. (Watching his dad, Peter at a swim competition, Morrissey was pushed in the pool by a malicious teen. When Peter got out the water, he “neatly chinned” the offender.) Lacking the aggressive Darwinian instincts of his fellow Mancunian males, Steven is largely bedridden through childhood and readily given to flights of escapism – either via television, where he notes that the child heroes of foreign shows are afforded the alien attributes of self-assurance and politeness; the cinema, where in a line almost straight out of a Morrissey song, “the (British) police are never known to be either devious or wrong,” and of course, via pop music, his ultimate saviour:
All human activity is fruitless when pitted against the girls and boys singing on pop television, for they have found the answer as the rest of us search for the question. I will sing, too. If not, I will have to die.
Morrissey, as we well know, succeeds in this ambition. But his morbid obsessions never fully subside. The early pages of his Autobiography help explain why. The scene in which he describe his Nannie’s forced relocation from her abode on Trafalgar Square, leaving behind but one equally ailing and aged resident before the wrecking ball demolishes another slice of working class Manchester, is the most powerful damnation of the slum-clearing process I have come across. Likewise, his search for any justification for the daily beatings administered by his headmaster, Vince Morgan, at his secondary school, St. Mary’s, speaks for generations of equally damaged British children who have come to suspect that the sadists entrusted with their education were acting out of some sort of repressed sexual malice. “What job did he think he was doing? And… for whom? And if there is no reason to show interest in these boys for any other reason (as there clearly isn’t), then why be so concerned about administering their punishment? Why isn’t their punishment ignored along with their hopes and dreams?”
Just as the actions of Morgan were to be clearly reflected in the Smiths song ‘The Headmaster Ritual,’ there are clues here to other Morrissey lyrics. Most revealing, perhaps, is the story of his Aunt Jeane. (Morrissey’s mother, the glamorous Betty, was but one of six Dwyer daughters to come of age in Manchester.) Jeane falls for Johnny, a local tough who shins up the drainpipe for a bout of courtship at Queens Square, where three sets of the Dwyer/Morrissey clan are ensconced in one soon-to-be-condemned row of houses. Morrissey’s father beats Johnny up for the intrusion; Johnny laughs it off; Nannie’s house is promptly burgled; and soon after, as young Steven walks Moss Side’s main road with his Nannie and Jeane, Johnny comes along and punches his erstwhile girlfriend in the face, in public. When Nannie runs to the Loretto Convent at the end of Queens Square for assistance, the nun slams the door in her face. Jeane and Johnny promptly reunite and have three children. And Morrissey later writes a song named for his Aunt, which states, “I’m not sure what happiness means, but I look in your eyes, and I know that it isn’t there.” Who, one might have wondered, needed the cinema?
But all is not well with Morrissey’s own parents’ marriage. We know from a lifetime of interviews that he was that much closer to his ‘glamorous’ mother than his sporting father. We may not have known that relations between them were so bad that Steven would run away from home, several time over: to his Nannie, where he sleeps at the foot of her bed; to his oldest Aunt Dorothy, out in Wilmslow; even to Aunt Jeane, whose Johnny promptly brings him home on the handlebars of a bicycle – “and how I sat there throughout can only indicate the hardiness of the times.”
He also spends considerable time at the house of his friend Edward Messenger, where he sleeps “at the opposite end” of the bed, and allusions are offered to something more substantial. For when the pair meet a decade later on the street, “we nod as we pass, because that’s what northern males do, and can only do.”
This is as much potentially homosexual detail as Morrissey offers from his adolescence, and that is no more, and not much less, than most other boys would admit to if suitably honest. Morrissey prefers to focus his sexual dilemma on what rendered him attractive to the opposite sex, and equal bemusement at why he would ever choose to be attracted:
What had girls to offer? Nothing but a mangled jungle of tangled hair presented as the jackpot payoff. Honeypots sprawled like open graves, their owners doing nothing at all other than letting you.
And so, even as he turns “a thousand corners,” it is without gratification. “Nothing electrifying took place,” he notes and as such, he appears to choose abstention – though use of the word “celibacy,” that with which Morrissey is so closely associated, is but one of many conspicuous by its absence.
Indeed, death is a more common theme throughout his upbringing than sex. It is only six weeks after Morrissey’s maternal grandfather Esty dies prematurely at Queens Square, and while Nannie is still recovering from a broken leg, that Morrissey’s only maternal uncle, Ernie, drops dead at 24. Steven’s mother Betty endures the pain of officially identifying both bodies, and thereafter turns her back on the Church. Esty and Ernie are each laid to rest in Manchester’s Southern Cemetery, of which Morrissey would later walk, and later still, sing. A cousin comes to stay with Nannie from Ireland and is soon found dead in the back room of Trafalgar Square; another cousin is cursed by the death of her only son, who set fire to himself in a Manchester back yard at the age of 11. What with the daily ritual of beatings at school, one is hardly surprised that Morrissey takes refuge in the glam of Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Lou Reed and, of course, the collective ensemble of the New York Dolls:
Jerry Nolan on the front of the Dolls’ debut album is the first woman I ever fall in love with: the hussy-slut positioning of the legs is playmate call-girl, and the pink drum kit just might be a rock ‘n’ roll first.
If his story gains colour – quite literally – with the depictions of these various male sexual revolutionaries and his almost laughably minor fan-boy encounters with them, there still persists an undercurrent of doom. Morrissey befriends a glam rocker by the name of Jon Daley, who carries his Aladdin Sane look through the heart of machismo Manchester with the same easy confidence as Bowie presents from on stage; Daley dies in a car crash. Morrissey hangs out in Haslingden at the house of an Anji Hardy (whose mother takes the 15-yr old Steven to a blues party in St Peter’s Square, where they are the only white faces on show); her hysterical outlook on modern life has her cheerfully informing Morrissey by phone one day that she has leukemia and but six weeks to live. Death arrives on cue and Morrissey is further crushed by the sheer pointlessness of it all.
So engrossing are all these anecdotes, character studies and popular culture reviews that the reader has to step back to grasp how much is missing. Morrissey only once so much as mentions the Salford playwright Shelagh Delaney, whom he previously credited for “at least fifty per cent of my reason for writing.” There is an almost similarly stubborn refusal to write about Oscar Wilde until he has penned profiles on just about every other poet of the last 400 years – and then mostly to berate the Judge who sentenced Wilde to hard labour for his homosexuality, a deliberate set-up for Morrissey’s own damning encounter with a High Court Judge later in the book. And for all that Morrissey’s love of cinema glows in short, energetic reviews of movies and film stars alike, he flatly avoids any reference to the “kitchen sink realism” whose very lines wound up in so many Smiths songs and whose actors and actresses graced so many Smiths sleeves. Is the author attempting, by omission, to rewrite his own frequently written history, one wonders – and if so, at what expense not merely to the truth but to his fellow travelers?
In particular, how does Morrissey (re) view the story of The Smiths and, especially, his relationship with Johnny Marr? If it’s not a total surprise that it takes us a third of the book to get there (I’m evidently not the only one who finds the back story worthy of substantial telling), it may be something of a greater shock that less than a sixth of the tome is devoted to the greatest British band of the 1980s; Morrissey, clearly, wishes us to know that his life did not end when the Smiths did.
But even Morrissey would not deny that it only got going once Johnny Marr essentially rescued him from the ‘has-beens’ of the Manchester punk scene. “He is quite obviously gifted and almost unnaturally multi-talented,” the singer writes of their early meetings. “Since he shows an exact perspective on all things, I can’t help but wonder: What is he doing here with me?” The answer is quickly apparent: ‘It is a matter of finding yourself in possession of the one vital facet that the other lacks, but needs.”
For a few pages, everything is right with a world that includes not just Johnny and Morrissey, but Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, Johnny’s girlfriend Angie Brown, first manager Joe Moss, and sound-man Grant Showbiz.
Swiftly our set was assembled – each trial run of every song an excruciating torrent of excitement; nothing ever failed, nothing ever stumbled. The harsh intensity of every song gave immediate rise to an indescribable stimulation mixed with impatience. Here, at last, it all is.
The euphoria proves brief, and the reader’s joy at Morrissey’s literary prowess – one acknowledged facet of his character – is overtaken by sadness at his need for character assassinations, another acknowledged personality trait. Rough Trade supremo Geoff Travis, in particular, comes in for page after page of literary brutality – and this the man who both signed and broke The Smiths, success that no one can possibly prove would have occurred at any other label. The insults begin when Morrissey brings the tape of a self-recorded ‘Hand In Glove’ down from Manchester to London’s Rough Trade alongside Johnny Marr – which will be news to both Marr and Smiths bassist Andy Rourke, each of whom claims the other as their companion that day. Morrissey insists to the reader that Rough Trade was “not a hip label… pressing records that no one wanted to buy” when Rough Trade was, in fact, about as hip as a label could be (while not being Manchester’s Factory), and the path had been well paved for the Smiths courtesy of ongoing commercial success with Aztec Camera and Robert Wyatt. In Morrissey’s version of events, “Geoff waved us away and didn’t want to see us” on their journey to London, which turns out to be perhaps the kindest thing he has to say of the man who promptly listened to ‘Hand In Glove,’ recognised the rudimentary basics of a great band, and signed them the following week.
Mere moments later, before we can even enjoy the ecstasy that was the hit single ‘This Charming Man’, we embark on the first failure: The Smiths’ debut album. Most of the blame Morrissey attaches to producer John Porter for murdering the songs, some of it he ascribes to the band (for failing to stop Porter), and the rest he forces on Rough Trade for the album reaching but number two on the national charts – and this with an album he himself admits (after the event) to being an artistic disappointment.
This ingratitude – and there’s sadly no other word for it – continues throughout. Regardless of whether or not the Smiths’ records are commercial enough, irrelevant of the fact that the group won’t make the videos by which record companies marketed bands in the 1980s (which Morrissey conveniently ignores in this story, though his years of refusal are well documented), leaving aside the band’s regular abandonment of their prescribed touring schedule and Morrissey’s routine public biting and baiting of every media outlet’s hand that fed them, there remains, even after all these years, an assumption that every Smiths release deserved yet greater chart success, that every label somehow undersold them, that they were disregarded, disrespected and demeaned by people who, Morrissey assumes in as many words, would otherwise have starved without them.
It’s a false telling of history, and the true tragedy of it is that after so many years, Morrissey still appears not to recognize as much. Where others around him have mellowed, matured and come to terms with the great creative fortune that was their tenure of the Smiths (it’s telling that Johnny Marr, equally hungry at the time for success, bears no ill will towards Rough Trade), Morrissey still somehow feels that the band was relentlessly maligned, ignored and mis-treated. His obsession with singles’ chart positions seems oddly petty thirty years down the line, when those who routinely had number one hits back then (hi, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Culture Club and Spandau Ballet to name but three) would gladly return them for just a touch of the Smiths’ critical legacy and enduring sales. And yet, would that we should all be so unfortunate as to have our second album enter the charts at number one, dislodging Bruce Springsteen in the process. Tellingly, Morrissey refuses to thank Rough Trade for their role in that major achievement after their apparent ‘failure’ first time around, using the success of Meat Is Murder as a springboard instead for an (excellent) essay on animal abuse.
Morrissey certainly has a point when he writes about the inherently lop-sided nature of the music business:
Never do we hear of an artist who rips off a firm of accountants; never do we hear of the artist who embezzles the record company; never do we hear of the artist who defrauds the lawyer; never do we hear of the artist who fleeces the management.
Yet to Morrissey’s insistence that he and Marr signed everything put in front of them without a second thought, and paid the price through loss of earnings, there is surely the counter argument that Morrissey could not and would not put his faith in any manager long enough to protect and enhance his catalogue – and that the one document he and Marr apparently could not bring their band to sign was the one that really mattered, an internal contract that confirmed the four-way split of royalties. As a result, we do later get to hear of the artist who is accused of fleecing his own rhythm section.
Morrissey presents himself throughout this period, and indeed most of the book, as the innocent, and almost everyone else around him as guilty, and so his initial enthusiasm for The Smiths soon turns to paranoia, the exuberance turns bitchy, and former team-mates are thrown under the bus.
Joe Moss, we hear for the first time in history, “has coerced Johnny, Andy and Mike into axing the singer.” Fortunately for that singer, the group is soon “deloused” of the manager who had provided them with rehearsal space, PA, van and no shortage of personal attention. John Porter is fired by Morrissey, in preference for Stephen Street (who, inevitably, later comes in for similar treatment), after producing their master-piece, ‘How Soon Is Now?’ – though Morrissey promptly blames Geoff Travis, rather than himself or Marr, for not instantly hearing the song as an A-Side. Factory boss Tony Wilson is accused of trying to cut the sound on the Smiths at the Festival of the Tenth Summer. And the women in the Smiths’ lives are portrayed, oddly enough for a feminist, with sexist overtones. One publicist, Pat Bellis, is routinely described as having “lipstick stuck to her teeth.” Another, Gill Smith, is accused of winding “her way in as a hottie of blouse-ripping biological urge.” (Morrissey resists the temptation.) Sandie Shaw is somehow portrayed as a greedy Smiths groupie, the “Duchess of Cumberland Place,” when it was Morrissey and Marr who approached her to cover their songs in the first place.
When Morrissey moves away from personal attacks to personal examination, the book reads, thankfully, more like an autobiography and less like a celebrity hatchet job. Morrissey reflects, as would any singer of modest roots, of the bizarre stream of events that finds him sharing airport lounges and hotel rooms with Paul Newman, Eartha Kitt, Sir Richard Attenborough and James Baldwin, and of finding Mick Jagger backstage at a Smiths show. But when Jagger “extends the hand of friendship,” Morrissey demurs, unimpressed by the Stones, a stance he now regrets. Indeed, he then attempts an understanding of his contrary persona:
As The Smiths’ singer I consigned all my best efforts to conviction, and all of my being went into each song. This can be embarrassing for onlookers – an embarrassment that makes us turn away whenever someone bares their soul in public. But for me there could be no other way, because otherwise there would simply be no point and the Smiths would be eminently average.
This baring of his soul was always at the heart of The Smiths’ appeal, and Morrissey attempts to relay some of the hysteria that surrounded the band on its American tours, just as he shares his delight with the album The Queen Is Dead. But too often, we sense that he is merely trying to settle old scores. In Morrissey’s telling of events, the creative partnership between himself and Marr turns sour when Porter is brought back to mix a track or two, and the singer shows up early one day to the studio, only to find Bryan Ferry sat alongside the guitarist and producer. “Billy Bunter and his playmates are rumbled, and The Smiths battleship springs its first mutinous leak, with John Porter as Captain Bligh and Johnny as the always-innocent young cabin-boy, hoping old Moby Dick will use his tune. And, to everyone’s disadvantage, he does.” The track in question is an instrumental, entitled, all too sadly, ‘Money Changes Everything’. It emerges a year or more later, re-recorded by Ferry’s band, with Morrissey’s former beloved singer’s voice on top, entitled ‘The Right Stuff’. By then, The Smiths have split, and Morrissey appears to place the blame on Marr’s unhappiness with his minor share of the limelight. Marr, he states, assumed that “stage right to centre stage is not a desperately giant leap, after all,” when “it is, in fiddling fact, so very far that it might span all your born days.” A short while later, the group record Strangeways, Here We Come, marvel at its magnificence, and “after a glut of meetings… The Smiths breathed a last exhausted sigh, and folded.”
At least here, Morrissey accepts the conventional wisdom of the untimely demise. “Johnny and I were both drained beyond belief, and there was no one around us to suggest that we disappear somewhere to rest, and apart.” But the absence of such a figure was mostly down to Morrissey’s refusal to trust one – a position recognised by almost everyone (else) involved in the group. Similarly, Geoff Travis is dutifully blamed for Morrissey’s sudden volte-face on the video question for the final post-Smiths Smiths singles, just as he is for bringing in “a guitarist to replace Johnny.” (That guitarist, his former Kings Road neighbour Ivor Perry, recalls that the singer was determined the Smiths should continue.) A rare gem of surprise arrives as if from nowhere to round out the story, in the form of a letter from Marr’s music journalist pal Nick Kent, to Morrissey, begging to play the part of Marr in an ongoing Smiths. “I am not a good self-salesman but I can confidently boast an encyclopaedic knowledge of the chord structures, dynamics etc. of Johnny’s contributions to date.” You couldn’t make this stuff up.
There is of course a caveat to this review. In 2012, I wrote a lengthy biography of The Smiths, A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths, to which Morrissey did not contribute, and it might be assumed by some that there are sour grapes as a result. Far from it; I never really expected Morrissey’s co-operation, and I was happy, at least, that he did not put out any apparent road-blocks as I approached other people. Given the amount of new information he has offered of his formative years in Autobiography, I now further understand why he would shy away from talking to biographers in recent years – and I have nothing but admiration for his riveting prose. And while I am comforted to know that I got most of my facts right about his upbringing, there is much I have learned, as well as the odd counter-argument to conventional wisdom, all of which makes this opening section such thrilling reading. If I am less enamoured of his version of the Smiths’ story, it is because I recognize it as just that: a personal version, lacking the necessary objectivity and not deeply vested in factual evidence.
The most common criticism I received about A Light That Never Goes Out regarded the absence of post-Smiths commentary. In particular, I have been asked why I did not write about the High Court case, in which Mike Joyce (after Andy Rourke settled out of court) sued for – and won – 25% of Smiths royalties. My answer remains as it was: that the court case ruined the legacy of the Smiths, and to immerse myself in the back-and-forth of writs, court testimony and legal judgements would be to drink from that poisoned chalice. I didn’t want my story of The Smiths to end with such acrimony.
Morrissey has decided otherwise, as is his right. Indeed, he may well have a point when he insists that “If (Joyce) had been in possession of any documentation indicating that his royalty split had ever been 25%, then there would never have been any need for a court case.” Equally, because such a document never existed, the awarding of equal payments to Joyce under the Partnership Protection Act may seem unjust to Morrissey if he believes, in his heart, that the drummer knew, in his heart, that his earnings were always intended to be much lower, a mere 10%. As such, I might then agree with Morrissey that the Judge, John Weeks, appointed during the Thatcher years, was pre-disposed to teach the anti-authoritarian working class upstart Morrissey a lesson.
But the fact that he takes almost as much of the book to plead his case, line by line, judicial retort by judicial retort, insult by insult (Weeks, in Morrissey’s words, resembles “an old, weathered tree-trunk”) as he does the entire, mostly glorious five-year history of the Smiths, suggests some greater inner burden that may be beyond this reviewer’s understanding. (It also suggests the need for that well-worn phrase ‘judicious editing’, and believe me, I have had it said enough times about my own books!) In Morrissey’s telling, the unfortunate coda to The Smiths becomes bigger than the group itself, and this saga is not so much enduring as never-ending. Inevitably, he takes out his bitterness at the Judge’s finding on his former fellow partners.
“A blubbering mass of blubbering mess, Joyce cannot even recall the date of his own marriage.” “Like a well-fed Roman emperor, Andy Rourke took to the witness stand complaining of financial starvation.” “Johnny’s verbal disclosures jumped about willy-nilly and concluded with his exhausted inclination to accept anything at all that was said against me – in what I assumed was the hope that he might be separated from the one target who did not beg for sympathy.”
Yet when Judge Weeks declared in Joyce’s favour, it was Marr as well as Morrissey who was found at fault. Rather than allowing the bitterness of defeat to consume the rest of his career, Marr paid up – a million pounds or more, plus the ongoing quarter share – and vowed to have learned his lesson. “When bands form, they should agree right from the off to split everything equally,” he admitted during interviews for the book. (Publishing, he insisted, was a different matter – and Joyce and Rourke never laid claim to the Morrissey-Marr song-writing partnership.) “That’s what should happen. Absolutely.”
In the context of the current times, one can’t help but see Morrissey as the equivalent of a recalcitrant Tea Partier. His opponent’s case has been upheld; it has survived an appeal; it is time to accept the findings and move on. Unfortunately, Morrissey seems unable to do so. And we the readers suffer as a result.
Elsewhere in Autobiography, there remains so much to recommend. There is a stunningly powerful story of a shared encounter with an apparent ghost on Saddleworth Moor. One of his fellow witnesses that day is Linder Sterling, who is portrayed all along in almost saintly tones. (Only James Maker and Morrissey’s mother Betty come off anywhere near so well.) Morrissey writes with admirable detachment of the highs and lows of his solo years, and of his forays to Los Angeles and Rome. He admits not only to a close relationship, as many had always suspected, with familiar companion Jake Walters, but to another one with Iranian-born Tina Dehgani, Indeed, after 9/11, “Tina and I discuss the unthinkable act of producing a mewling miniature monster,” he writes, supplying a rare modicum of hetero-sexual detail where almost nobody was looking for it.
So yes, tenderness abounds. But the invective continues alongside it, and if the likes of Siouxsie Sioux (“she appears to hate even the people that she likes”) and Julie Burchill (“her naked self probably kills off plankton in the North Sea”) can probably take it, one wonders if every former Morrissey band member who quit under pressure really deserves the literary cold shoulder. The last section of the book finds Morrissey amazed at his increased world-wide popularity, as he recounts global tour date after global tour date in far more intimate detail than he ever allows for the Smiths. (Presumably, in more recent years he kept a diary.) There is a reward here for the author, and it is hard not to be happy for him, even as he over-labours the point and we all regret that that greatest British band of the 1980s will never share a stage again.
At the end of it all, we find Steven Patrick Morrissey, he who so nearly didn’t make it past childbirth, entering his 50s as a statutory cult figure, the second Greatest Living British Icon no less, the man whose Autobiography is guaranteed best-selling status. We also find someone standing very much alone in the world – and if he claims it to be of choice, it is also, finally, a product of character.