Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Autobiography, by Morrissey

Staff Review by Chris Saliba 

Morrissey’s Autobiography is a fascinating trip that traces the singer’s early days as a poor Irish Catholic in Manchester, then moves through the breaking British music scene of the early 70s, and ends finally with his own success as an artist. Like his song lyrics, it’s smart, keenly observed and often funny.

Morrissey’s career and public persona are perhaps a bit too complex to summarise, but he can best be described as a singer and poet. His lyrics were always brilliant – witty, clever and original. He collaborated with talented musicians to create a lot of great pop songs. Now, at the age of 54, he has decided to publish his autobiography.

In an outrageous move, Morrissey managed to get Autobiography published as a Penguin Classic. Is he serious? It’s hard to figure out whether this is a jest or hubris. It’s perhaps a mixture of both.  Or even a nostalgic nod to a youth spent reading Dickens and Wilde in these editions.

So, what’s it like? Pretty good, actually. I’d divide Autobiography into three parts or components. The first 150 pages or so trace Morrissey’s hard times growing up poor and Irish in Manchester, then move into his awakening as a singer and his visceral response to the early 70s British music scene.

The second main component is his commentary on art, music and culture, including his well observed portraits of the famous and legendary. His descriptions of Siouxie Sioux and Julie Burchill are really quite funny and rich in detail.

Lastly, Autobiography covers a lot of his time as a public figure, the period where we all feel we’ve come to know him. Here Morrissey goes into a lot of what you could term ‘famous people’s problems’. Ironically, once you get exactly what you want, it seems the potential for unhappiness and frustration expands exponentially. Most notably Morrissey has one almighty rant about the 1996 court case over royalties, brought on by Smiths drummer Mike Joyce. He’s incredibly bitchy about the judge and his biliousness makes it hard to figure out what’s true and what’s not. 

As you could expect with Morrissey, this is a book heavy on style and manner. It’s dolorous, ponderous and often humorous. There are many writers who came to mind whilst reading. The early parts almost read like a novel, full of Dickensian bleakness, and give a good explanation for Morrissey’s pessimistic view of humanity: Manchester in the 1960s sounds like the most depressing place in the world. Once the autobiography moves into the seventies, the style is more like Jean Genet, full of long, Proustian sentences. The many passages of music and cultural appreciation read like something out of Walter Pater, the famous art critic and mentor to Oscar Wilde. 

Morrissey doesn’t discuss his personal relationships much, except for one. He lived with Jake Owen Walters for two years, with whom he was extremely close, but doesn’t describe the relationship in any detail. Beyond that, nothing else is revealed. Even the friendships are sparse. After 457 pages, Morrissey still remains a bit of a mystery and you sense very much the loner. The last 50 pages or so describes his last tour, and this is when he really comes alive. Performing is clearly what he lives for. After that all that’s left seems to be the company of disappointing famous people and the odd cup of tea and toast.

This will largely be a book for the fans. Autobiography makes it clear that Morrissey has a great talent for writing about music, art and people. His observations are intriguing and would gain from being expanded. I imagine a collection of essays or further reminisces would be terrific. I hope Morrissey writes more in this vein as he has a lot of interesting things to say.

Autobiography, by Morrissey. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780141394817  RRP: $22.99