“The difficulty is not getting bored with the central character.” This was Morrissey’s response last year to my question about the progress of his memoir. He was speaking as the author, though one might wonder if the same experience now can be said for the reader.
To be sure, the book is rarely boring.
Its existence was dished, discussed, denied, then suddenly dropped into the world with all the tactlessness of, well, its subject. The narrative itself is its own roller coaster — maddening, hilarious, enlightening, obfuscating, but mostly quite delicious. It’s a book I’ve waited a lifetime to read, and I echo Rob Sheffield’s observation in Rolling Stone: “I will spend years reading this book.”
“Dickens himself would be lost for words,” Morrissey writes early on, and his first 140 pages is Victorian literature of a rather high order (justifying of its prestigious Penguin Classics imprint — none other than Terry Eagleton thinks it should go up for the Booker Prize). The cloistered family, the leveling descriptions of school-sanctioned abuse — his bleak account of a sooty Manchester youth is illuminating to many of his lyrics (particularly the “Meat Is Murder” album). It’s no wonder that (despite running track!) our lad seeks solace behind barriers of books and music, his critical descriptions of which are sharp and astute. It’s here he keeps slipping into present tense, perhaps as a tactic to draw in the reader but more likely because Morrissey is still there — in those bygone bedroom moments, hiding, reveling, safe only with his kindred voices.
By the time Johnny Marr comes along, though, Morrissey’s authorial voice noticeably stiffens. His account of the Smiths’ days is by contrast detached, surprisingly soulless, devoid of much anecdotal amusement or any discussion of songcraft. The writer hardly ever mentions his own writing. For this career, as well as his solo peak later in the book, Moz is all balance sheets, chart positions, and venue headcounts. Several photographs appear — though in the second half of the book they’re all album covers; the Morrissey tag on Tumblr has a wealth of interesting behind-the-scenes photos every day. (A special hardcover of the book, however, is due next month and promises “a number of new images chosen by Morrissey.”) Occasional fuming throughout the book gathers steam for nearly 50 pages of, frankly, repetitive kvetching about Mike Joyce’s victorious royalties lawsuit. The Dickensian prose becomes full-throttle Bleak House. Moz’s dirge about the case (“Sorrow Will Come in the End”) was skippable; this section of the book is, alas, skimmable. Truly disappointing.
He’s wonderfully bitchy toward nearly everyone that has wandered within his field of view, dishing catty remarks about, for instance, temporary Smiths second guitarist Craig Gannon (“Nothing useful vibrates in Craig’s upper storey”) and a hilarious encounter with a snooty Siouxsie Sioux. Only longtime collaborator and bandleader Boz Boorer escapes the jab of his pen. It’s all quite amusing and, I trust, mostly enlightening, though one still can understand Stephen Street’s recent reaction to reading the book: “I don’t enjoy seeing other people who contributed to the success of the band and his solo career being put down in such a bitchy matter. What does it achieve?”
There are personal revelations, but they often fly by. He saw a ghost on the moors. He spent a surprising amount of time as a young lad in Denver. He was thisclose to appearing in an episode of “Friends.” He’s attended a lot of funerals (he’s way overdue for a cover of Felt’s “All the People I Like Are Those That Are Dead”). He’s cagey about his relationships and — “Tina and I discuss the unthinkable act of producing a mewling miniature monster” — um, did he just say he considered conceiving a child?!
The take-away, though, is this: his critical ear is unparalleled (he’s even spot-on about his own work) and, as he dabbled as a rock scribe briefly in his youth, he should return to publishing music criticism at once. In fact, his next book contract should be a critical history of pop or, hell, just a record guide — The Moz Music Manifesto. Throughout Autobiography, Morrissey examines, intricately with clear-eyed relish, the likes of Lou Reed (for whom his latest single is a cover of “Satellite of Love” in posthumous tribute), David Bowie, the underappreciated Jobriath, his beloved New York Dolls. Describing “the straitjacket sound of Sparks,” Moz claims, “Lyrically, Ron Mael is as close to Chaucer as the pop world will ever get.” True to his own, more genteel approach, he marvels at others in terms of regurgitive metaphors: Patti Smith’s “Horses” is “part musical recording and part throwing up,” and “Iggy does not so much sing as relieve himself.” Great stuff. (Although we might have a continuity problem: recently, a brief review written by young Morrissey surfaced online, in which he bluntly savages the very existence of the Ramones. Yet in Autobiography, he praises them as “mesmeric,” declaring them saviors: “Now I could accept all the suffering that came my way as long as the Ramones were in the world.”) For the hardcore fan, here’s a Spotify playlist of every non-Moz song mentioned in the book.
The tale ties off with a careening tour diary, a whirlwind account that conveys the head-spinning daze of performance travel, full of satisfying anecdotes and funny observations about surprising places (“Fresno! Fresno! Fresno! Here is the light!”). I was happy to read what is clearly a serious man-crush on Chicago, and he describes his perspective on a few shows I witnessed there. The book’s final scene even finds him muttering to himself on a Milwaukee Avenue curb in “the still Illinois winter atmosphere of midnight.” Given that he’s written tributes to other pockets of intense Moz fandom (“Mexico,” “Scandinavia”), and that the last time I saw him in concert he’d picked up two Chicagoans as his rhythm section, I eagerly await the particular Chi-town grind of a future B-side lamenting urban violence (“Englewood, so much to answer for …”).
I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.