The Chronicle Review

Less Is Morrissey

The Smiths' frontman in 1986
December 09, 2013

A devoted (and wealthy) fanboy might have flown over to London just to procure a copy hot off the press: Initially, no U.S. publication was announced. As for me, I was spending my fall break in the British Library, and simply looking for something to read during those awkward table-for-one dinners one endures when traveling alone. So I wandered into the W.H. Smith at Victoria Station and picked up a copy of Morrissey's Autobiography.

Some background: Morrissey is Steven Patrick Morrissey, lead singer and songwriter for the iconic 1980s Manchester band the Smiths. The surname-only stage moniker was chosen, he tells us, "because I couldn't think of anyone else in music that had done so" (Liberace, anyone?); the aggressively generic band name, because it "lacks any settled association on face value."

Four hundred and fifty-seven pages later, I knew little more about Morrissey than I had going in: 457 pages of my life I'll never get back. Early reviewers were widely, wildly divided in their assessments. Some were brutally honest; others I can understand only as blindly loyal to Moz (Morrissey's nickname, derived from the Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr's private name for him, "misery Mozzery"). The review in The Independent was titled, "Droning Narcissism and the Whine of Self-Pity"; Terry Eagleton, writing for The Guardian, believes on the other hand that Morrissey might have a Booker prize in his future.

One feature that caught everyone's notice was the book's publication under the prestigious Penguin Classics imprint. Classic is a slippery term, of course; for Dr. Johnson, writing in his Preface to Shakespeare in 1765, literary greatness could not be reliably assessed during the writer's own century, "the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit." When Bennett Cerf and his fledgling Random House publishers provoked an obscenity trial in 1933, trying to win permission to publish James Joyce's Ulysses in the United States, the lawyer Alexander Lindey was aware of the impropriety of using the term "classic" to describe a book published just 11 years prior—yet he did, reasoning that "we have come to realize that there can be modern classics as well as ancient ones." (Penguin itself has for more than 50 years maintained the less presumptuous Penguin Modern Classics imprint.) Ulysses was the first "modern classic"; Morrissey's Autobiography, seemingly, is a presumptive or proleptic classic. And autobiography? That's a genre, not a title.

The book is not without interest, and charm. Devoted fans will already know much of what's "revealed" here (and readers of Simon Goddard's exhaustive Mozipedia  will arguably know more). About Morrissey's teasing, hidden-in-plain-sight sexuality, there's little new: bisexual when not asexual is probably a fair summary of disclosures that amount to less than a full page. His wry observations about sexuality, however—as distinct from revelations about his own—can be quite keen. About himself at age 17, for instance, he writes, "There are no sexual guidelines and I see myself naked only by appointment."

The book's best moments are glitteringly witty in just that way. One might easily assemble a slim collection of epigrams from the passages that I've underlined in my copy. On his 1991 solo tour of the United States, with a nod to Oscar Wilde: "a Beatlemania that dare not speak its name." On his hometown: "Manchester's architectural heritage is demolition." On Los Angeles, his adopted hometown: "the city where everyone is guilty until proven guilty."

Sometimes, beyond just witty, the writing is simply gorgeous. Certainly the opening page sets a very high standard:

"My childhood is streets upon streets upon streets upon streets. Streets to define you and streets to confine you, with no sign of motorway, freeway, or highway. Somewhere beyond hides the treat of the countryside, for hourless days when rains and reins lift, permitting us to be amongst people who live surrounded by space and are irked by our faces. Until then we live in forgotten Victorian knife-plunging Manchester, where everything lies wherever it was left over one hundred years ago. The safe streets are dimly lit, the others not lit at all, but both represent a danger that you're asking for should you find yourself out there once curtains have closed for tea."

The passage offers many beauties: the nearly incantatory repetition, the assonance (define and confine, streets and treat, space and faces), the homophones (rains and reins—but not reigns?), the pun (no sign of motorway). And this is just a snippet: The description goes on for more than 500 words. (But that's nothing: This opening paragraph is well over 1,000, and the first chapter ... is 457 pages.)

But arguably the opening of "Never Had No One Ever" (from 1986's The Queen Is Dead) is a more powerful evocation of this sense, and leavened with a welcome bit of humor:

When you walk without ease
On these
Streets where you were raised
I had a really bad dream
It lasted 20 years, seven months, and 27 days

Listening to Morrissey jam the comically precise tenure of his Manchester misery into the song's short lines can't help but provoke a smile from the most sullen teen.

Now to be clear, a large part of the book's problem is that it's quite badly written. Verb tenses "oscillate wildly*." (Morrissey repeatedly bashes journalists for lazily borrowing his titles and lyrics as clever tag lines. I shall do so, just to irritate him, but will mark such gestures with an asterisk.) Wording and phrasing are mindlessly repeated; pronouns point confusedly; constructions dangle. Autobiography is, for all intents and purposes, unedited. Morrissey thanks Helen Conford, a Penguin editor, on the last page as a "steady scrutineer," but if she actually edited the book, she should lose her job. Unless she wants to take credit for howlers like "Mercury Records had sacked its president and had also fired all of the artists that he had signed—one of which was I." An example, perhaps, of southpaw grammar*?

Or parse, if you can, this claim—as Morrissey, lost in his own sense of wrong, devolves into mixed-metaphor incoherence: "If the axle upon which the relationship between Morrissey and Marr as the Smiths swiveled had been the main bearing of the written songs, and Joyce," the Smiths' drummer, Mike Joyce, "had no rights to publishing, how could equality ever exist if two group members are naturally excluded from the central pivot that maintains the group's success and existence?" Who, except possibly a stoned structural engineer, could argue?

The reader's patience is tested by run-on paragraphs spanning three pages or more, with nothing unifying them but Morrissey's outsized ego.

But the book suffers from more than mere mechanical flaws. On a larger level, Morrissey proves himself to be a singularly undisciplined writer. The reader's patience is tested by run-on paragraphs spanning three pages or more, with nothing unifying them but Morrissey's outsized ego. As his idol Wilde might have said, Morrissey can resist anything but temptation. And to a writer, and one who obviously delights in language as Morrissey does, the temptation is to refuse to tame one's wordplay. So early in the story, we read about the funeral of a family member: "Mother turns against the church as her father and her last surviving brother are lowered into the same grave in gravely unpleasant Southern Cemetery." Rim shot. That's far less clever than Morrissey seems to think—and certainly less effective than the line from "Cemetry Gates," a Smiths song in which Wilde is explicitly name-checked: "So we go inside and we gravely read the stones ..."

Later on the same page we read, "Nannie's first boy, Anthony, had a pitifully short Dublin life, slipping away after nine difficult months of exertion, buried unpleasantly at Mount Pleasant." Yes, we get it: How ironic. Rather than a proper grocer's, the family is forced to buy provisions from an Off Licence (liquor store), "a beacon of bacon with the wonder of Wonderloaf." This is less witty description than echolalia. In other spots, rather than deft, the writing is simply turgid: "the snarling stupidity at St. Mary's [school] is deathless, and its wearisome echo of negativity exhausts me to a permanent state of circumstantial sadness." Wearisome indeed, closing oxymoron notwithstanding.

The blemishes aren't exclusively stylistic. Sometimes, for instance, the writing is laughably tendentious. I'm not one of those who think that rock musicians should keep their politics to themselves. I hoped that Sting might help save the rain forest and protect the rights of indigenous peoples, and that Bono could abolish African debt. But even though I'm sympathetic to the arguments for a meat-free diet, a claim like "In the U.S., the homeland meat industry causes more deaths to Americans than any other known entity" is just ridiculous, and utterly without support. In his later railing against animal testing, we watch in horror as Morrissey slides into paranoia: "How many billions of animals tortured in the name of research—and, to what progress? And what if progress were ever truly made? How many giant industries would fall—fully dependent, as they are, on cancer victims? Has a cure been found but blocked?"

Least forgivable, perhaps, are ugly and mean-spirited attempts to pay back old debts. Their number is legion, and they begin early.

The book's first paragraph opens in urban pastoral, as we've seen; the second begins, "Headmaster Mr. Coleman rumbles with grumpiness in a rambling stew of hate." Much of Morrissey's venom is reserved for the church-school disciplinary-educational complex; the men are all sadists and the women, apparently, all fat and sexually stunted. Again, this was done better and more memorably on vinyl—in this case, "The Headmaster Ritual," off the Smiths' second album, Meat Is Murder (1985): "Belligerent ghouls / Run Manchester schools."

In Autobiography, he can't keep the misogyny and fat-hatred down, describing his elementary-school teacher Miss Dudley as "a sexual hoax," and a counselor at the Stretford job center as "a fat-assed woman" who "shifts her full-figured pigginess, with lard-arms waving and jelly-legs struggling." Obesity, especially in women, seems to provoke his rage—and some girls are bigger than others.* A hard thing, given his own fuller, middle-aged figure, which comes in for some self-loathing comment.

Such passages point to a fundamental lack of self-awareness. Nothing the Smiths or Morrissey in his solo career did comes in for any criticism—only cover art that he hasn't authorized, or videos he disapproves of. And one begins to notice with some alarm, after the halfway point in the book, that his criticisms of others are in fact precisely those we've started to make of our author. Of Siouxsie Sioux (lead singer of Siouxsie and the Banshees), he writes, "She looks at everyone and everything only with a sense of what is due to her." Of Mike Joyce, "He spoke as if accompanied on harp, exclusively absorbed in self-pity." On meeting David Johansen of the New York Dolls: "Such meetings reveal that which we all darkly suspect about those whose art we have loved: that they are unlikely to be whatever it is we imagine them to be." Back atcha, Moz.

'Autobiography' demonstrates convincingly that mastery of the short form is no guarantee that a writer can sustain a narrative.

One thing that Morrissey's Autobiography demonstrates quite convincingly is that mastery of the short form is no guarantee that a writer can sustain a narrative. In retrospect, it's obvious: Morrissey was, like his beloved Edward Lear and Dorothy Parker, at his best as a writer of couplets, epigrams, aperçus. Or, even better, like Oscar Wilde. In a 1984 interview, Morrissey said that Wilde and James Dean "were the only two companions I had as a distraught teenager. Every line that Wilde ever wrote affected me so enormously." In Autobiography, Morrissey quotes approvingly Parker's clever quatrain about Wilde:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

If Oscar were here to give Morrissey a piece of advice—no, two—about Autobiography, they would be these:

First, as Shakespeare said, brevity is the soul of wit. Some were meant to write songs, not memoirs—born, as Morrissey writes of himself, to "blend noise and words and save the world." There's more great writing on the Smiths' last album, Strangeways, Here We Come, and Morrissey's first solo release, Viva Hate, than in all of Autobiography. The discipline of the short form, it turns out, brings out the best in Moz.

In this, he's like D.H. Lawrence: better in his short fiction, some would argue, than in his novels. (James Joyce, roguishly, referred to Lawrence's succès de scandale  as Lady Chatterbox's Lover.) To be sure, some rock artists have successfully made the transition from pop song to memoir. Keith Richards surprised everyone in 2010, I think it's fair to say—though he's not the Stones's lyricist, and the journalist James Fox was at least an equal partner in the writing of Life. Not long before, Patti Smith published the National Book Award-winning Just Kids, a memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe: A poet before she was a rock star, that woman can just flat-out write.

Then, of course, there's Dylan. Critics tripped over themselves to praise Chronicles, Volume One when it was published, in 2004; rumors of a Volume Two have haunted the publishing world for the near-decade since. At around 300 pages, it doesn't try the reader's patience to the degree that Autobiography does, even though like Morrissey's tome, Dylan's memoir alternates between brief and incisive observations and what the critics call longueurs. But the most important stylistic resource for Dylan in Chronicles is unreliable third-person narration, writing from the vantage point of a character rather than the (relatively) unvarnished self.

Emulating that tactic would be Oscar Wilde's second piece of unsolicited advice for Morrissey. Dylan's a recognized master of this strategy, as Todd Haines's 2007 film, I'm Not There, dramatizes, with six actors—including a 13-year old African-American boy—playing Dylan, or at least quasi-Dylans. "I is another," Dylan said by way of Arthur Rimbaud.

The autobiographical "I" is always something of a fiction—more so in some texts than others. But for Morrissey especially, it seems, writing as another brings a wit and freshness, and frees from debilitating self-pity—or at the very least, sprinkles that self-pity with humor.

That was one of the great gifts of his music, in which moments of bathetic self-pity were peppered with laughter. In "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now," included on Hatful of Hollow (1984)—a Morrissey theme song if ever there was one—lines like "Two lovers entwined pass me by / And heaven knows I'm miserable now" are comically undercut by Johnny Marr's bright, jangling guitar chords. The protagonist of "Bigmouth Strikes Again" (from The Queen Is Dead) declares his own cartoonish martyrdom:

And now I know how Joan of Arc felt
Now I know how Joan of Arc felt
As the flames rose to her Roman nose
And her Walkman started to melt.

That's right: This boy's being persecuted—persecuted, I tell you! 

Or take, as a final example, the concluding lines of Morrissey's 1988 solo B-side, "Disappointed":

This is the last song I will ever sing
No I've changed my mind again
And thank you.

Not that funny on the page, I suppose; on the recording, though, a huge cheer arises from a sound-effects crowd when the singer announces his retirement from the stage—and an equally vociferous groan when he instantly recants.

"Man is least himself," Wilde wrote, "when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth." When Morrissey puts the mask back on, I'll be there, ready to listen.

Kevin J.H. Dettmar is a professor and chair of the English department at Pomona College. His newest book, Gang of Four's Entertainment!, in the 33 1/3 series, will be published in March by Bloomsbury.