Let us establish something right off the bat, just so we are clear. This is NOT going to be a conventional review of Morrissey’s Autobiography.
Most likely, seeing how it will be, inevitably, hopelessly, written by someone whose first online screen name was The Girl Least Likely To, it will be something more along the lines of rambling declaration of love and relentless self-scrutiny. See, when I attempt to speak of Morrissey’s much anticipated memoirs (humbly published as a Penguin Classic), I inevitably find myself speaking of my personal relationship with Morrissey. In this regard, I realise that I am far from unique. Oh, but then again, it's not like any other love; this one is different because it's us, no? In any case, we’ve been at it for years, the Mozzer and I. Needless to say, it has been – and is – a rather one sided relationship. Not that there haven’t been times when we’ve been close, mind you. I will always relish the day when I fleetingly touched his right shoe. It was a very nicely polished shoe, should you ask, and the air was reeking of stale post-bandy match sweat (this was in 1997, prior to the big Morrissey revival of 2004, so small multi-purpose venues were common in the world of Morrissey). Appropriately – poignantly – enough, the shoe encounter took place right as Morrissey was singing "Paint a Vulgar Picture", that paragon of fan-idol lyricism. The relationship between the worshipper and the worshipped is at best an unbalanced one, and Morrissey addresses it beautifully in one of the finest tracks from The Smiths very last studio album. In it, the devotee fleetingly touches their idol at the sound check, only to realise later on that "to you I was faceless, I was fawning, I was boring – a child from those ugly new houses, who could never begin to know". A similar realisation, although possibly from a different angle (is Morrissey referring to himself or one of his previous – infamous – biographers?), takes place in another Morrissey penned song, "Reader Meet Author" from Southpaw Grammar:
You don't know a thing about their lives
They live where you wouldn't dare to drive
You shake as you think of how they sleep
But you write as if you all lie side by side
Surely I wasn’t the only one who had that particular song glued to my brain last Thursday, when Morrissey came to Gothenburg for a signing? (Yes, I temporarily wished I lived in Gothenburg. And yes, I soon caved in to fear of being cruelly disappointed and/or humiliated – or both. Just suppose – the horror! – that Morrissey would detect the chicken I had had for dinner last night on my breath as I leaned in to embrace my teenage saviour…? I would have to leave the country, surely. Listening to Meat Is Murder yet not fully embracing vegetarianism remains one of my life’s biggest failures, by the way.)
Here’s another realisation: next birthday, Morrissey will have been in my life for exactly half of my earthly existence. Seventeen, clumsy and shy, I went to England and found not love nor luck but something far, far better. I found a certain Stephen Patrick Morrissey, and it was his songs, his words, his outlook on life that provided a much needed soundtrack to a time where very little made sense. (That, incidentally, is called adolescence, aka something we all must endure at some point, but I am nevertheless very grateful for Morrissey’s help.) Never even attempting to fit it amongst the hormonal hell of vodka-flavoured parties and dreary popularity contests that my high school had to offer, Morrissey was a godsend. Unabashedly bookish, caustically witty yet strangely compassionate, oozing with homoeroticism yet (mostly) claiming celibacy, he made me fall in love with Oscar Wilde, daffodils, Shelagh Delaney, and the black and white working class England of yore. He also provided snappy comebacks for unwanted questions. Why did I wear black? "I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside." Do I seem a little strange? "Well, that’s because I am." What is the meaning of life? "There’s more to life than books, you know (but not much more)." And so on.
Oh, how I walked without ease on these, the very streets where I'd been raised on drab school day afternoons, Smiths and Morrissey mix tapes glued to my melting Walkman! Despite an age difference of just over twenty years, with heaven knows how many miles between us, Morrissey had so much to offer the teenage me: companionship, wit, lyrics that eerily captured my current mood, whatever it happened to be. More than anything, he got me. Let me in, then let me out, and for this I shall always be grateful. Yes, I’m older now, and I’m a clever swine, but there was a time when it felt like he was the only one who ever stuck by me. I still get misty-eyed just by hearing the opening chords of "Now My Heart Is Full" and have virtually every Morrissey lyric tattooed at the very bottom of my heart.
Do you sense a "but" coming? Oh, but here it is. In recent years, Morrissey has made some shall we say alarming comments that makes him feel a wee bit like that drunkenly outspoken, eccentric uncle you somehow always find yourself sitting next to at family gatherings. You love him dearly – how could you not, after all this time? – but you can’t help but cringe a bit, bracing yourself for the next debacle. You know, the oh dear, here we go again-ness of it all. I was, needless to say, not proud of being a Morrissey fan when he, right after the tragic events at Utoya, made a point out of telling the audience at a concert that this was nothing compared to what goes on at "Kentucky Fried Shit" every day. Somehow I can’t help but suspect that Morrissey, for all the good he has done to the maladjusted across the globe, is somehow lacking a sensitivity gene. Or does he simply enjoy the controversy? How else to attribute the fact that he, despite time and time again telling the world he is not a racist after NME’s "vicious attack" (his words, not mine) in the mid-90’s, continues to make statements that can be viewed as, if not downright racist, then at least deeply problematic? Morrissey, so much to answer for. And sure enough, he has to go there in Autobiography! Using vocabulary such as "Israelites" and "blackface" while attempting to clear one’s name in murky waters? Please.
So yes, I do have my reservations – reservations which also, ultimately, reflect on how I view Autobiography. But let us go back to the very beginning of the book, shall we? I did mention there is a book, didn't I? Not in the new year but, rather to the delighted shock of Mozophiles worldwide, THIS year?
Yes, the book. It's about time we talked about that, isn't it?
The first half of Autobiography could well be the finest piece of autobiographical writing I have yet to encounter. Full of the gloom and doom of post-war Manchester, introducing death, sexual ambivalence, Northern grimness, and virtually Dickensian characters such as teachers who are "old, and will never marry, and will die smelling of attics", it serves as the perfect backdrop for the tiny rays of light that do eventually manage to creep into the life of one lonely Northern boy. For, as we all know, the good life is out there somewhere, and it is when Morrissey discovers music - 60's pop tunes, Patti Smith, David Bowie (who in a poignant turn of events will go on to cover one of Morrissey's own songs, "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday") and, most notably, the New York Dolls - that he knows this for a fact. A music fan first and foremost, with his signature style and wit to boot, Morrissey is heavenly when depicting the cathartic and escapist nature of music. In this, of course, he mimics the experience of many, many Morrissey fans (including this one), adding further weight and heart to lyrics such as "Rubber Ring" and "Paint a Vulgar Picture". But, true to form, Morrissey does not start dancing, laughing and finally living simply because he has found a coping mechanism. Yes, Morrissey does eventually meet Johnny Marr, who luckily turns out to be a window-tapper, and he throws himself into singing and performing with a near-sexual ferocity. He remains alone, but perhaps not forevermore. Well into his thirties, Morrissey finds requited love for the first time. Reader, meet Jake, who knocks on Morrissey’s door and stays for two years. Enter: tears of joy. What do you know, he has seen brighter sides to life! Here is yet another beautifully written and touching part of Morrissey’s life story, so when it gives way to a 40 page dive into the infamous Joyce trials where Morrissey (quite unsuccessfully) tries to make himself into a modern day Oscar Wilde, I can’t help but feel slightly disheartened. Yes, yes, we know, you bear more grudges than lonely high court judges, and clearly this is something that has had a great effect on Morrissey’s life ever since so I am all for the inclusion of such an event in his autobiography. It is, after all, his story to tell. Still, though: FORTY pages? Really? I turn the pages more quickly now, actually come close to stifling a yawn at one point (something I NEVER thought could happen while reading Morrissey’s autobiography).
Then there is that infinitely sad postcard from Kirsty McColl, written on holiday in Mexico just before she was killed in a horrendous boating accident, and suddenly Morrissey’s hand has a relentlessly firm grip on my heart again. He is very good at that: going on and on about something rather uninteresting, then suddenly, by a sudden turn of phrase or perspective, making things interesting again. Ah, the amount of loss and sudden death resonating against the pages of Autobiography! Seems so unfair, I want to cry. A more lighthearted note of the book takes place in the funny depiction of Morrissey’s musician acquaintances. Here, the already much talked of Chrissie Hynde dog biting incident earns top marks. I also love the fact that Michael Stipe, along with the previously mentioned Hynde and, of course, David Bowie, get an altogether positive treatment (and with "altogether" I mean "c’mon, it’s Morrissey!"). He never does reveal whether Kill Uncle’s "Found, Found, Found" is in fact about Stipey (a fact that, I shall hasten to add, he has previously refuted, but… well, see above) though.
The final part of Autobiography is a rapidly shifting yet beautifully structured series of countries, venues, and people passing through – with special emphasis, I am happy to report, on Sweden. Near 500 pages do not seem nearly enough – that is, as long as he at least tries to take the high road. I would gladly read 1000 pages of those "streets upon streets upon streets" of Morrissey’s childhood, of love found and lost and the songs that saved his life. Cheap digs on Julie Burchill’s middle-aged legs, though? Why, oh why does he have to make it so difficult for us to defend him? I mean, I LOVE Julie Burchill and I really believe that Morrissey respects her as a writer, in spite of their personal baggage, in spite of, well, spite. And yet, here we go again… do we sense a pattern?
I have said it before in this "review", and now I will say it again: it is the absolute prerogative of any autobiographer to depict one’s life however way they deem appropriate (or, preferably, inappropriate – oh yes, please!). Following that logic, every prospective reader of said autobiography – or Autobiography, as it were – should be free to read whatever they like into and out of the story. Now, this particular autobiography is rather tough to separate, seeing how it has no chapters, no clear chronology, just a never ceasing, mostly flawless wall of beautiful, essentially Morrisseyesque prose where the subject, rather than neat chapters, serves as a constant point of reference. Still, I choose to emphasise on the wonderfully bleak Victorian feel of Morrissey’s childhood, music, and love (there is quite a bit of love going out to his fans, as well, which needless to say is very pleasing indeed). Is it, then, okay to simply cut out the 40 odd pages of dull court proceedings and vindictive feelings, along with the seemingly pointless digs at physical flaws and looks? Can we really do that? If we could, there is no doubt in my mind that Autobiography is one of the finest bits of writing I have read in a long, long time. The things that irk me are, perhaps, there to put everything – including me, the former Girl Least Likely To – into perspective. Morrissey, ultimately, as a human being made out of flesh, blood, genius and a great deal of spite. Could it be?
I honestly don’t know, and therein lies perhaps part of the appeal. I will say this, though, all earnestness and big eyes, standing at the very front of the stage, desperately elbowing my way across bequiffed boys and daffodil clutching girls both taller and younger than I am:
Nothing’s changed, Moz, I still love you. Only slightly, slightly less than I used to. Oh, and please, please, please write more books. A novel – why not a darkly Victorian tale of bleak modern times? – would be absolutely smashing. Thanks, and see you soon! Who knows, maybe I’ll get to touch your hand one day…?
The girl least likely to