I’ve just finished reading Morrissey’s “Autobigraphy”. And an excellent read it is too. It’s written in a discursive, sometimes quite poetic style. There are no chapters – just a long narrative, which is mostly chronological. There is a lot of settling of old scores, sometimes with a witty quip, other times, particularly over the court case about Smiths’ royalties, with pages of vituperation. But it is also a tale of love. The love of music.
Morrissey’s private life is fairly closely guarded. There are some hints of relationships, in one case a bit more, but you build a picture from the fragments, the observations, the recollections of places he stayed, people he encountered, the music he played.
And yes, it is, ultimately, all about the music. Its redemptive, liberating power. The discovery of the New York Dolls, Patti Smith and the Ramones and others, as a teenager. Life savers. And above all, the utter transformation when Morrissey hooked up with a local Manchester musician, Billy Duffy, and sang with a band for the first time:
Against the command of everyone I had ever known, I sing! My mouth meets the microphone and the tremolo quaver eats the room with acceptable pitch and…I am removed from the lifelong definition of others, and their opinions matter no more. I am singing the truth by myself, which might also be the truth of others… and give me a whole life… let the voice speak up for once and for all…
What a powerful expression of what making music can do! And in those words I think you see the essence of Morrissey’s enduring appeal. Forever the outsider – and so many people feel they are outsiders – but… I am singing the truth for myself, which might also be the truth for others...
Billy Duffy also introduced Morrissey to Johnny Marr. The rest is history…
The book is at its best, for me, in the first 150 pages, as Morrissey details his rather – or should I say, utterly? – miserable childhood. The dreadful schools, the grim jobs he was faced with, his inability to relate to all but a few fellow outsiders, mavericks. And yet also his loving extended Irish family. He had a safety net of love and companionship. This is a complex story – it’s not all bad.
He is undoubtedly a difficult person, and, in fairness, he recognises that. He is self-deprecating and amusing about his capacity to alienate. Self-awareness is in strong supply.
One of the interesting things in the book for me, is his description of his successful concerts as a solo artist. I don’t think we have ever realised this in this country. Naturally, Morrissey blames the media for this – for its lack of interest. It is hard to disagree, as he details the rapture, the near-riots, the idolisation. America, Mexico, Italy, Scandinavia… in the the latter his audience seems to get younger as he gets older.
He gets to meet many of those artists he idolised as a teenager. He helps to revive the fortunes of the New York Dolls – those still alive – but doesn’t get much gratitude for it. He’s relaxed about that – what else to expect? David Bowie flits in and out of the story. There’s a moment of true joy as Bowie records one of Morrissey’s songs and plays it to him:
The sound coming from the speakers is the gift of life, and nothing will keep me level after David’s bestowal. Here is the unimaginable culmination of a mad process that began for me sometime in 1970 as On The Buses chirped annoyingly in the background.
Every young artist’s dream? And I love the way he offsets that moment of fulfilment with a reference to a humdrum ITV comedy, which everyone watched at the time, in the days when we had three channels to choose from. Classic Morrissey, reaching for the stars, but rooted in the quotidian, in the dank streets of seventies Manchester. Always.
The autobiography does not feature much in the way of happiness – after all, one of The Smiths’ best tunes was Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now – but by the end there is a sense of real achievement, something close to contentment. And, credit to the book, to Morrissey’s writing, I feel really pleased for him. I want him to be happy!
Not only that: it has sent me back to his records. The brilliance of The Smiths, but also the depth of his solo catalogue, which I have rather dipped in and out of, over the years.
It has made me feel that I need to reappraise that music that I have neglected, as well as rejoicing in the sounds I have always loved.
And that, surely, tells you what a good book it is. An honest, heartfelt, exciting, moving, funny, vicious, insightful, intriguing story. Written with style, wit and emotion.
I read the book on my tube journeys to and from work. I looked forward to the next instalment every day. I was sorry when it came to the end.
What better recommendation can I make?