Review: ‘Autobiography’ by Morrissey
For his 'Autobiography,' pop star Morrissey makes ample use of sharp memories, well-nursed grudges and withering wit
By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Tribune
2:22 p.m. CST, December 19, 2013
We know that pose: Stephen Patrick Morrissey in black and white, an awning of jet-black hair over his forehead, his eyes closed, the photograph tilted at such an angle to make him appear caught in mid-swoon.
This persona, a romantic so burdened by life he might be dying, is what continues to make this pop star so compelling and also so reliable. For more than 30 years since 1982, the year The Smiths debuted, Morrissey has sung about the cruelty of being alive in a world of irritants, a world that endorses animal cruelty, and a world where noble romantics die noble and romantic deaths. He is a cultivated personality who has not cracked one inch, so much so that it appears he exists in the fog of his own mystique.
So make no mistake: This autobiography is not a tell-all, but mainly a deeper dive for fans interested in hearing his voice. And what a voice; the book is written in first person present, with paragraphs that tend to run on for pages on end. Morrissey does not wait for us to get to the curb before this book takes off; it's we who must run to catch up.
We spend the first third of the book moving through his suffering, and often violent, childhood, in a cold and grim Manchester where, with deadly precision, he lacerates the cruel and petty dictators of his Catholic education. "Headmaster Mr Coleman rumbles with grumpiness in a rambling stew of hate. He is martyred by his position and is ruled by his apparent loathing of the children. Convincingly old, he is unable to praise, and his military servitude is the murdered child within." Mother Peter is "a bearded nun who beats children from dawn to dusk." And Miss Redmond? "Aging, and will never marry, and will die smelling of attics," he writes.
There is heaviness throughout this section, and also the best writing. The weight of these passages is acute: "(T)hroughout these years I am a largely bedridden child unwilling to keep death at bay," he writes. The escape hatch is television — lengthy passages give us the scenarios of long-forgotten shows with titles like "Little Big Time," "The Time Tunnel," "Mystery and Imagination," "Thunderbirds," and the greatest of them all: "Lost in Space." Here, he tells us, were early lessons about life, relationships and masculinity.
"They are, of course, animated puppets, yet they are as real as I am. But how real am I?" Morrissey asks.
Morrissey's parents, siblings and relatives are distant in these pages; instead things start to cook when the boy enters a more subversive schooling through the discovery of David Bowie, T. Rex, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls, as well as the poetry of A.E. Housman, Oscar Wilde, Robert Herrick and W.H. Auden, among others. Morrissey gushes with the enthusiasm of an unrepentant fan.
The idealized self that Morrissey cultivated in his youth made him a natural leader of a pop band. As with any great band, The Smiths' tenure was brief, between 1982 and 1987. Morrissey gives this slim, but incredibly potent, time period short shrift: Less than 100 pages in which he expresses resentment for the continual cycle of letdowns by Rough Trade, his label and band members. Guitarist Johnny Marr, the band's yin to Morrissey's yang, later emerges as a petty rival whom Morrissey dismisses as misunderstood, uninformed, jealous, or all of the above.
The ultimate culprit in the band's demise appears to be its lead singer's unexpected popularity, which allowed Rough Trade to skirt promotional dollars or sweat equity in favor of free tabloid headlines, and the band's resentment to grow.
"Very accidentally, I had become the most famous face of the Rough Trade enterprise, and like a Rank Charm School starlet, I had an arranged marriage with the press, whose NME was now known as the New Morrissey Express," he writes.
Of that stardom, Morrissey writes with bemusement. Accused in the press of wounding a fan with a tambourine, he reveals he has no idea it happened; Tom Hanks corners him backstage but he has no idea who the actor is; mobbed by "Mozophiles" on the streets, he wonders, "What do they think is about to occur?" He is, by his account, a star not meant for his level of stardom, at least one in the conventional sense: celibate by circumstance, and uninterested in drugs or debauchery. When he finally meets Bowie, his mentor wonders out loud how he remained alive after years of unbridled amounts of sex and drugs. "I loudly tell him, 'You know, I've had SO LITTLE sex and drugs that I can't believe I'm still alive,'" Morrissey writes.
In this stage of the book, and onward, the writer recounts his fights with the inevitable brood: journalists, lawyers, accountants, fans, other musicians (both Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney let him down by refusing to pose for photographs with him), and he spends more than 50 long pages aimed at Smiths drummer Mike Joyce and his claim for equal share of band royalties. This is a predictable turn for any pop star memoir, as it is in life, but you wish it weren't so for this one. Especially for this pop star, who is so clearly a better writer than others. For sure, crabbiness consumes the writing, but at least there is considerable entertainment along with the complaints.
The singer crisscrosses the world, but Chicago becomes a hot spot for rejuvenation. The story ends at the Congress Theater in Bucktown on New Year's Eve, 2011. Morrissey says he is "immobilized by singing voices of love." "All along, my private suffering felt like vision, urging me to die or go mad, yet it brings me here, to a wintry Chicago street-scene … clinging to the antiquated view that a song should mean something."
Mark Guarino is a staff writer with The Christian Science Monitor, where he covers national news out of the Midwest.
Putnam Adult, 465 pages, $30