Purchased at 6pm last Thursday night, and tucked into straight away. I managed 300 pages in a marathon session that very night, got through another 50 the following night before heading out to a gig with the final 100 taken early on Saturday morning before the rest of the day was dominated by football. I’ve now woke up Sunday morning determined to compose my own thoughts all the while making sure I don’t venture to see what others have made of it.
Autobiography by Morrissey is unlike any other book of its type that I’ve come across with its entire contents having no chapters or an index. A stroke of genius if you ask me given that many a reader would likely have gone straight to the chapters about The Smiths or looked to the back of the book for a name or subject matter and gone straight there.
So everyone has to make a start where it all began, which was Manchester, England on 22 May 1959. The opening 150 or so pages consist of a fascinating, superbly written account of growing up in a working-class family in a working-class part of a working-class city. Many of the words brought back long-forgotten memories of my own childhood – such as the coal fire and the dangers from it – and it also got me thinking how, in less than half a century, the whole nature of how raising children has changed beyond recognition.
Morrissey’s childhood isn’t dominated solely by his own parents or siblings but by his extended family of grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. What stands out by a country mile is just how many strong and resourceful women there were surrounding the young Morrissey and the lack of any obvious male role-models. He himself hints that this led to a spoiled and somewhat sheltered existence in his formative years.
In many ways this is the best bit of the book, probably in as much that it reveals much more than was previously known and is so expertly crafted that that I had devoured two-thirds of the book in a single sitting late into the night, and indeed the early hours of the following morning , without realising the time.
Morrissey’s account of his self-confessed miserable late-teenage years don’t come across as self-pitying – yes, he does stray into being a tad pretentious occasionally, but for 99% of the time he is hugely entertaining and more often self-deprecating. We do learn however, that there were a number of tragedies that befell the young Morrissey as he was growing up, with the loss of a number of family members and close friends having a huge impact, so perhaps his morose manner was more justified than you’d previously have imagined.
Johnny Marr bursts onto the scene almost one-third of the way through the book. The story of The Smiths is handled in not much more than 50 pages, so anyone looking for an in-depth study of what made the band tick or juicy gossip about the sudden and painful break-up will be disappointed. But Geoff Travis of Rough Trade probably won’t be all that comfortable reading it….and hip fans of The Smiths might be stunned to learn that A-Ha were among the favourite other acts of Morrissey and Marr.
On that first night, I finally put the book down at the first mention of the court case brought against him in 1996 by Mike Joyce. As I switched the light off, I thought to myself that I was reading a very entertaining and less bitter book than I had imagined. I was taking some of the things with a pinch of salt….having read many other books about The Smiths and more general books about indie-pop in the 80s, I knew that this book was simply Morrissey’s take on things and wasn’t always the full extent of what had actually taken place or had been the outcome of one action or another.
Picking things up on Friday night after work I was stunned to discover that the court case took up almost as many pages in the book as had the career of The Smiths. There is real venom within many of these passages, most of it directed at Judge John Weeks, Mike Joyce and his legal representatives (particularly the barrister Nigel Davis) with the occasional swipe at Johnny Marr. Readers are left in doubt that this entire episode has caused Morrissey enormous pain and left him feeling very vulnerable, and not just financially. Morrissey repeatedly implies that the judge was using the case to even up old scores on behalf of society – and reading the extracts of the summing up and some of the logic applied it is hard not to sympathise with the author.
Some might say that this section of the book is far too long and convoluted and out of sync with the rest of a general autobiography.
But in defence, I’m recalling the approved biography of a politician that I know very well, written in the aftermath of what had been a protracted and messy legal matter (one in which, unlike Morrissey, this politician emerged triumphant) and again a very substantial chunk of the book is dedicated to the legal battles. It was the one and only time the politician had to fully set the record straight from his point of view and similarly for Morrissey in his autobiography.
I’m not convinced in terms of the court case that Morrissey tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth but it’s certainly how he remembers it and how it all panned out has and continues to have a huge psychological impact on him. Some of the words used by Judge Weeks will haunt Morrissey to his grave….oh and having read this part of the book I think we can all now forever give up on dreaming of a full reunion of The Smiths….
That section over, I headed out to a gig (more on that later in the week) which meant putting the book down just as Morrissey picked himself up by leaving England to live in Los Angeles. There’s about 25 pages covering the wilderness years with no record deal before the closing 80-odd pages cover from the recording of You Are The Quarry in 2003 right through to a final paragraph describing a scene in December 2011. It’s a breathless description of seemingly never-ending world tours in which Morrissey finds ever-increasing numbers of new devotees, often in countries where he least expects it (after all, he is a well-know racist….) and muses how as he gets older his audiences at the front of what are often chaotic, energetic and frantic gigs, get younger and younger and younger.
The book also allows Morrissey to take the opportunity to air his views on a whole range of issues but primarily the British monarchy, Margaret Thatcher and animal rights. There are references to relationships that he’s had throughout his life but no salacious details are revealed. Quite a few well-known names are savaged, some more cruelly and viciously than others. And there’s a number of eyebrow-raising moments in a ‘well-I-never’ sort of way, such a the A-ha fandom and that It was John Walters and not John Peel who was the true champion of the early meteoric rise of The Smiths. Oh and Morrissey once seriously thought of fathering a child………….and there’s a genuinely creepy ghost story contained within the pages.
I approached Autobiography with some trepidation as I feared it would simply be 457 pages of Morrissey getting to even-up old scores. My fears were banished by the beautifully, vivid descriptions of his early life and from then on in I was hooked. There’s been some controversy over the fact that it’s been published under the canon of Penguin Classics, but for my money that’s just a brilliant bit of marketing, as is the fact it’s been made instantly available in paperback at a very affordable price and not as an expensive hard-back. This book is filled with humour, love, hate, tenderness and bitterness in the same way as so many of his best lyrics. It was time that the tale was told and if I may be allowed to quote the Bard of Barking, the boy done good.
mp3 : The Smiths – Reel Around The Fountain (Peel Session)
mp3 : Morrissey – That’s How People Grow Up