"Autobiography is unmistakably the work of the singer and lyricist of the still-beloved band The Smiths."
Keith Richards' editor, the journalist James Fox, did a brilliant job of making Richards’ 2010 memoir, Life, read as if it came directly from the Rolling Stones’ guitarist’s brain to the page. Richards’ voice and sensibility register vividly, apparently unmediated. And although Life is long, it doesn’t feel overstuffed or repetitious.
Would that Steven Patrick Morrissey had a collaborator as adept as Fox. Morrissey’s Autobiography is unmistakably the work of the singer and lyricist of the still-beloved band The Smiths, who, since the quartet’s breakup in 1987, has pursued an erratic, albeit sometimes dazzling solo career. Morrissey’s personality lives and breathes on every page of his book: witty, and often hilarious; ironic and insightful but also self-pitying, truculent, and tiresome. That Autobiography is so Morrissey is its greatest strength and biggest liability.
As a singer and songwriter, Morrissey can crack you up and touch your soul. He was an awkward, alienated adolescent (more about that later), and he has few peers in giving voice to the yearnings of the lonely and loveless, the socially isolated and maladjusted. There are fewer more heart-piercing lyrics in rock than his famous cri de coeur from “How Soon is Now?”: “I am human and I need to be loved/ just like everybody else does.”
His often-epigrammatic wit—Oscar Wilde is his greatest literary hero—can be laugh-out-loud funny. (Sample lyric: “But sometimes I feel more fulfilled/making Christmas cards for the mentally ill”) But it also deflates some of the self-pity of the lyrics, giving them a knowing, camp edge. At his best, Morrissey is a wonderfully original singer, lyricist, and performer, and one of the great front men in rock.
That the author of “Hand in Glove” and “The Queen is Dead” can write sparkling and engaging prose isn’t surprising. Much of Autobiography is filled with perspicacious observation, pathos, and even sharp political commentary. But Morrissey, word-drunk and prolix, also overwrites and repeats himself. “Brevity is the soul of wit” is not for him a maxim to live by or write by.
Born in 1959 in Manchester to working-class Irish Catholic parents, Morrissey had a childhood and adolescence as gray and dreary as his surroundings. His macho father was an intermittent presence in his life; the future rock star grew up mainly among women, his mother and grandmother, sisters and aunts. He experienced the premature deaths of his grandfather and uncle as well as those of young friends. He took refuge in poetry and especially music, with a marked preference for flamboyant, gender-bending artists like Jobriath, an American singer who was openly gay before just about anyone else in rock, the cross-dressing but straight New York Dolls, and David Bowie.
Morrissey’s taste of course raises the question of sexuality. And that’s where Autobiography becomes frustrating, even exasperating. Gay readers, and perceptive straight ones for that matter, will recognize Morrissey’s boyhood and adolescence as almost archetypically gay. He had intense crushes on other boys and men. He tried sex with girls but felt no attraction or excitement. Uninterested in athletics, he had an emotional breakdown of sorts at a football match and was begrudgingly taken home by his irritated father.
His father also disapproved of his taste in music. When Morrissey played Mott the Hoople’s homoerotic 1972 hit “All the Young Dudes” for his dad, Morrissey pere was not amused: ‘Ooh no, I’m not having that’ were his words as he vanished in disgust.”
It’s hardly surprising that young Morrissey, raised in an Irish Catholic family and growing up in a rough and tumble working class milieu, would have been closeted, a lonely, dreamy and self-dramatizing youth in love with Oscar Wilde, outrageous pop stars and old movies. But you’d think that Morrissey the author, a man in his fifties, might be a bit more forthcoming, more honest and perceptive, about such a fundamental aspect of life as sexuality. Coyness and evasion are unwelcome in an autobiography, especially when so glaringly evident.
More than halfway through Autobiography, Morrissey opens up—a little—about his love affair with a “stubbornly macho” Englishman named Jake Owen Walters. “Every minute” of their time together had “the high drama of first love, only more exhilarating,” he writes. But he calls their partnership a “male friendship,” as if he were living in the dangerous old days of Oscar Wilde and his Bosie.
Morrissey and Walters were together for more than two years, yet Morrissey devotes only a few pages to their relationship. But he spends more than 40 pages recounting the lawsuit brought against him and Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr by the drummer Andy Joyce after the band’s breakup. The drummer’s demand for one-quarter of the band’s earnings clearly was tantamount to extortion, and the judge’s ruling in his favor inexplicable, except as an act of ruling class hostility toward the politically outspoken Morrissey. But this sad and squalid episode could’ve been recounted far more concisely and effectively.
Throughout Autobiography, there’s just too much of this score-settling—with ex-bandmates, record company executives, managers, and journalists. Poor Morrissey, always misunderstood and put-upon. Even if all the insults, outrages and betrayals are accurately depicted—and Morrissey doesn’t always come across as a reliable narrator—the endless invective becomes tedious. After reading Morrissey’s over-the-top cruel account of an interview with Julie Burchill, the toxic British journalist cum character assassin, this reviewer even found himself feeling sorry for her.
Morrissey isn’t without self-awareness. He reports that even friends found him “a bit much” and he acknowledges that “my general being . . . was difficult for a lot of people to take.” It’d have been better, for his book and his readers, if that awareness of his too-muchness had informed the writing of this Autobiography.