Bookforum, February / March 2014
by Simon Reynolds
In “Pretty Girls Make Graves,” off the Smiths’ 1983 self-titled debut album, Morrissey bemoans the advances of a voracious woman: “But she’s too rough, and I’m too delicate.” That’s how the world has tended to see the singer: the prince of mope rock, someone who speaks for life’s wilting wallflowers, the easily bruised and eternally unrequited. From his fey, sighing vocals, often spiraling up into a genderless falsetto, to lyrics that express the erotic-ascetic yearnings of someone with “no understanding of himself as flesh,” most of Morrissey’s best songs fit this image of bookish, bedroom-cloistered sensitivity.
Yet something odd becomes apparent as you make your way through Autobiography, the fifty-four-year-old singer’s best-selling new memoir. Yes, Morrissey sings on behalf of those brutalized by the world and its bullies. But he also admires and aspires to a certain sort of brutish ruthlessness. There’s a consistent attraction to masculine hardness running through his life and work, starting perhaps with Morrissey’s handy-with-his-fists father and blossoming later with songs that reveal a fascination with criminals, boxers, hooligans, and others who both dish out and take punishment. Musically, too, it becomes apparent that for all the yearning tenderness and fragile shimmer-jangle of songs like “Reel Around the Fountain,” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” the Smiths were a punk band as far as Morrissey’s concerned: an aggressive pushback against the world that had overlooked and mocked him, an act of vengeance.
He describes the Smiths in militaristic language seemingly more suited to the Stooges (“bomb-burst drumming, explosive chords, combative basslines”) and complains that their underproduced debut album should have been “a dangerous blow from the buckle-belt end of a belt” but ended up “a peck on the cheek.” Morrissey’s current band, likewise, is compared to a gangster clan of “blood-bubbas” and “an unstoppable destroyer.” Affix “a green beret” to bassist Solomon Lee Walker, and he’d be “ready to clean up North Korea within an hour,” Morrissey writes.
His pop ambitions were sparked by glam, and fanned to a flame by punk. As he explains here, he yearned to front a band that fused brains and brawn: “refinement and logic bursting from a cone of manful blast.” But even the purely verbal side of Morrissey’s art—which includes not just lyrics but his scintillating interviews and now this gripping, exasperating book—has a violent aspect. What he exalts in others, and excels at himself, is rapier wit: the cutting quip, the painfully incisive and often physically insulting assessment. This he learned from the masters: Oscar Wilde, obviously, but also Julie Burchill, whose cruelly beautiful writing for the punk-era New Musical Express he revered as a youth. That debt is repaid here with a savage portrait, seemingly in retaliation for an indiscretion about Morrissey’s love life in a 1994 profile by Burchill that was otherwise uncharacteristically gushing (the idol having herself become a fan).
Following Wilde and the dandy tradition, Morrissey’s ideal is the hard-edged personality, standing out and apart from the mediocre mass. There is a war being waged, between the bored and the boring. As Morrissey puts it: “the monotonous in life must be protected at all costs. But protected from what? From you and I.” The dandy self is both a monstrous eruption of sheer freakish difference, innately against nature and against the grain, and also a persona that’s been zealously cultivated and shaped to goad the small minded.
Growing up in a dilapidated working-class neighborhood of Manchester during the ’60s and ’70s, Morrissey fashioned himself out of fragments of poets (Stevie Smith, Auden, Housman), dramatists (Shelagh Delaney), and actors (James Dean). He was also fascinated by certain characters in forgotten TV shows and movies: the highly strung, waspishly witty Dr. Zachary Smith in Lost in Space; the stylish spy Jason King; Mr. Cringle, from the obscure British comedy I’m a Stranger, who deploys his “weapon of words” against the dowdy dullards surrounding him. Morrissey gleaned other important clues, including Warholism, from Films and Filming, a covertly gay magazine that passed as a cineast periodical.
Most of all, though, Morrissey learned from pop stars. Glam rock gripped his imagination through its combination of effeminacy and toughness. He worships the New York Dolls, streetwise thugs in women’s clothing, describing “Jerry Nolan on the front of the Dolls’ debut album” as “the first woman I ever fall in love with.” He chill-thrills to the heartless indifference of Lou Reed, and the “deadly frost” of Nico’s voice. Glam successor Siouxsie Sioux, he notes admiringly, “doesn’t mind if she poisons the world,” even as he gives an unflattering account of their brief collaboration in 1993.
Yet as much as Morrissey has been driven by the desire for stardom and by an inborn superiority complex, he has also, in songs and public statements, consistently stood up for the downtrodden masses. The essential and irresolvable contradiction at the heart of Morrissey’s art is this clash between his belief in himself as extraordinary and destined for some sort of peculiar greatness, and his commitment to social realism and his working-class roots. Describing the Smiths’ record sleeves, a series of photographs he carefully selected, Morrissey writes of his idea “to take images that were the opposite of glamour and to pump enough heart and desire into them to show ordinariness as an instrument of power—or, possibly, glamour.” But is it really possible to be both a dandy and loyal to the common people? That was the impossible balancing act Morrissey tried to pull off. On the one hand, he deliberately picked a mundane band name with the Smiths, preached fatalistic humility in songs like “Accept Yourself,” and mocked the royal family in “The Queen Is Dead.” On the other, he struck self-preening and almost regal postures in songs like “Still Ill,” which decreed, “England is mine, it owes me a living.” From the outset of his career, he’s been obsessed with fame, at times sneering at anonymous nonentities.
The first quarter of Autobiography throws us shoulder deep into the world that Morrissey tried to leave behind but returned to so many times in song: Manchester, “a place of Dickensian drear.” It was Hard Times updated to the late twentieth century, with brutalist apartment blocks erasing the old terraced slums and unemployment replacing the city’s once-storied industriousness. His descriptions of the bad weather, bad housing, and bad education are vividly, almost sensually grim. At St. Mary’s and St. Wilfrid’s, the Catholic schools Morrissey attended, “encouragement is not on any curriculum,” but humiliation and intimidation are. Corporal punishment is doled out regardless of whether any offense has been committed. Morrissey devotees know this world from songs like “The Headmaster Ritual” and “Late Night, Maudlin Street,” but some readers may think also of the muted-color bleakness of Ken Loach’s 1969 film Kes, or the sordid shame and hopelessness of “Beasley Street” by Mancunian punk poet John Cooper Clarke.
Television provides dazzling glimpses of another life of grace and prowess, whether the sporting heroism of charismatic soccer star George Best, or the UK’s long-running weekly chart rundown Top of the Pops, “a rare flash of glamour in our oh so very pale lives.” The centrality of this BBC program in British pop life created a particular structure of feeling for Morrissey’s generation. Because anything that charted was featured on the show, inspirational moments from acts like Bowie or Buzzcocks were surrounded by middle-of-the-road blandness, novelty singles, and merely professional pop. Thanks to Top of the Pops and the BBC’s pop station Radio 1, Morrissey acquired the dual sense that “it was only within British pop music that almost anything could happen,” but also that “market-driven mush” constituted the greater part of the chart and DJ playlists. Pop is a religion for Morrissey, but nearly all pop music fails the ideal.
The Smiths, then, went to war with pop. Morrissey’s sense of himself as an outcast was transferred to a larger arena. Hence the hissy-fit title of the 1987 compilation The World Won’t Listen, and the group’s dismay at the failure of its singles to crack the UK top ten. The Smiths blamed their record company, Rough Trade, for lacking the promotional muscle and will to make this happen. Autobiography is full of scores settled: sadistic teachers, two-faced journalists, slights and injuries that are often bizarrely petty (for instance, ’60s pop chanteuse Sandie Shaw, who used the Smiths as her backing band on a cover of “Hand in Glove,” is upbraided for serving him a piece of toast gone cold, without a plate). But it’s not just active affronts that Morrissey stores up in his ledger of grievances. He rages against those who failed to coddle or support him and the Smiths sufficiently strongly.
Nothing in the book surpasses the vindictive treatment of Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis, who outwardly appears to be a benefactor to the Smiths and is generally considered a fairly saintly figure in the record industry. Rough Trade had chalked up major achievements long before signing the Smiths, and Travis has remained an important figure through his work with bands like Pulp, the Libertines, and the Strokes. But Morrissey insists repeatedly that the Smiths “saved his life and made it count in the long run,” while further accusing Travis of having “zero appreciation for the songs that had saved him from life’s lavatory.”
It’s slightly shocking how tightly Morrissey clings to this bitter sense of himself as a hard-done-by underdog, after almost thirty years of fame, wealth, critical praise, and the adulation of a worldwide cult. Autobiography, in large part, runs on classic psychological mechanisms of projection and disavowal. In true narcissist style, Morrissey seems incapable of seeing how things might look from an outside perspective and has no sense that all this ungraciousness reflects back on him badly. The long low point of the book is the account of a suit brought by former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce to retroactively contest his measly 10 percent royalty share. Morrissey lost, appealed, and lost again. The financial and reputational cost still rankles him. Boiling over with indignation, Morrissey lashes out spitefully not just against Joyce, his lawyer, and Judge Weeks (who infamously described Morrissey as “devious, truculent, and unreliable”), but also the other ex-Smiths and Morrissey’s own counsel. A full forty pages are devoted to the “quagmire maze” of the case, an account that starts to recall Lenny Bruce’s twilight, when his stand-up routines degenerated into rambles through the intricacies of the legal cases that embroiled him.
Autobiography ought to be insufferable. But Morrissey’s saving grace is style, for which almost anything can be forgiven. Not as Strunk and White would define it, but style as everything in a literary performance that is extraneous and excessive—unnecessary for the purpose of communication, drawing attention to the person of the writer. Morrissey’s writing style, in fact, is rather like his dancing in the early days of the Smiths: ungainliness transformed into elegance, a coquettish prance of pity-me petulance. Flirting with but always just skirting opacity, he’s drawn to the jarring word choice, the dissonant synonym, the adjective used as noun (“the houses cackle with the droll of the extended family”). Morrissey loves bathetic fadeaways and tart twists: “Once Mikey has left he then says terrible things about me,” he observes of a departing keyboard player, “all of which are true.” He’s also partial to musical and rhythmic effects like alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme: “drooled gruel face,” “tediously teetotal,” “a mangled jungle of tangled hair.” That last one refers to early encounters with female genitals, also described as “honeypots sprawled like open graves”—an echo of the sexual dread that suffuses “Pretty Girls Make Graves.” It makes a striking contrast with the succulence of his descriptions of the mostly male swarm of Latino fans at a Fresno show:
The good buddies are out in their mainman force, each posse and tribe bonded by their busting fresh flyboy look. . . . I face my race. I wonder how they found me. . . . I walk onstage and the roar that greets me nearly kills me—would Italian godfathers find better respect? For once I have my family. . . . Snazzy and spiffy boys point to me, sticky hands squeeze any part of me, and my bluff is called. Dare I take one on? The fire-eater within me leaps out, and I belong nowhere except over the line. Sex is advertised yet withheld—go on, make my day. It is gritty prison-cell sex, and I am shaking with courage.
It’s not just empty flash, though. Morrissey is perceptive and evocative when writing about his musical heroes and the initiating raptures they kindled in him: Bowie, T. Rex, Roxy Music, Patti Smith (Horses was “part musical recording and part throwing up”), the Ramones, and Iggy Pop (who “does not so much sing as relieve himself”). Often he seems to describe himself indirectly when praising others, like singer Kristeen Young, blessed with “talent as much a demand as a gift. . . . Be this, or die—cannon fodder for art, tears with accuracy.” But Morrissey’s not nearly as sharp when it comes to his own work; he offers cursory, clunky descriptions of the Smiths’ music and scant insights concerning the chemistry of his songwriting partnership with Johnny Marr. Overall, he’s a poor judge of his own achievements, holding on to the view—in the face of all sensible opinion—that the Smiths’ final studio LP, Strangeways, Here We Come, was their pinnacle, and apparently unaware that his last five solo albums feature tunes that are melodious but oddly unmemorable, framed in stolidly undistinguished playing.
Not that any of this matters to Morrissey’s die-hard following, which seems to be content with faint traces of the old Smiths heart-piercing magic. In the closing stretch of the book, a lyrical, free-flowing account of his tour-heavy 2000s, the singer basks in the furnace of mass ardor that greets him at huge arena concerts around the world (particular hot spots of Moz love being Scandinavia, Serbia, Turkey, and Mexico). He lists famous people he’s hobnobbed with and reels off precise figures for ticket sales, along with chart positions achieved for his three “return to form” albums of the last decade, and their many singles. Vindicated, serene (or near enough) in triumph, Morrissey asks aloud: “Smiths re-formation? What for?”