Narrative moves from stage to page
Morrissey’s vivid language will enthrall fans
Revelations can be funny things. You never know where they’ll turn up. Take a brief passage on page 195 of Morrissey’s long-awaited Autobiography. Why on earth, you wonder, would he bother recounting a backstage meeting with the two-hit wonder A-ha, at a time when Morrissey’s Smiths were at their giddy artistic and commercial peak?
You wonder, that is, until he recalls his reaction to the “healthy and athletic and inherently decent” Norwegians. “This is interesting to me,” writes Morrissey, “because it shows me how the mission to sing isn’t always the result of pain.”
Pain, both the psychic and physical varieties, was something the man born Steven Patrick Morrissey in 1959 knew early and often, growing up poor and Catholic in a city going through its industrial death throes. “Victorian knife-plunging Manchester, where everything lies wherever it was left over one hundred years ago,” is how he describes it.
The outlook didn’t grow any rosier under the patently unfair British system by which schoolchildren were separated into upper and lower streams based on a test taken at age 11. Morrissey failed his and was sent to Saint Mary’s Secondary Modern School, an abuseridden institution for which the word Dickensian hardly sufficed.
Few major artists, you soon realize, are so transparently a Morrissey Putnam product of their time and place as is Morrissey.
“In the North of the 1970s,” he writes, “everyone had just gone to bed — or is about to go, that lengthy going-to-bed process being such a great relief and escape, for isn’t sleep the brother of death?”
Spend a minute unpacking that sentence: The grammar is slightly wonky, there’s a tendency toward the florid, the overwrought, the self-pitying, yet the whole thing transcends its flaws to achieve its own poetry, one with a luxuriant melancholy undertow and the hint of a comic’s wink.
In all these ways and more, it’s like a Morrissey lyric writ large (and long). If you’re a fan, it’s exactly the form you’d hope his prose would take. And there are hundreds of pages of it here.
Bookish as a youth, oddly resistant to the icons of golden-age British rock, Morrissey sought musical solace in the fringes of pop: female singers, novelty oneoffs and later in gay-friendly glam rock. Punk, which had some of its crucial first flowerings in Manchester, offered some hope to an untrained singer, but still, until rescued by soon-to-be-Smiths collaborator Johnny Marr, Morrissey felt himself an utter failure, unemployable, already over the hill in his early 20s.
“I would talk myself through each day as one would nurse a dying friend,” he writes.
The Smiths’ instant rise is no less remarkable for being so well chronicled. Devoid of macho posturing, not beholden to the classic blues-derived canon, they brought a whole new sensibility into the rock arena. Their implosion in 1987, probably unavoidable in hindsight, hardly slowed Morrissey down.
He stepped into a solo career almost immediately, inherited the Smiths’ audience, and has built on it tirelessly. Meanwhile, though the Smiths’ active career spanned only 3½ years, their catalogue has infiltrated pop culture by stealth ever since.
It’s strange, then, how comparatively little of Autobiography is devoted to the Smiths era. For Morrissey, it seems that the band’s legacy has been overshadowed by the 1996 lawsuit brought by Smiths drummer Mike Joyce against Morrissey and Marr for unpaid royalties.
In the end, Autobiography’s strengths — its vivid coming-ofage evocation, its unbridled love of language, its final sense of hardwon contentment — far outweigh its weaknesses. And Morrissey emerges from its pages as much a literary figure as a musical one.
Singer Morrissey doesn’t hide his bitterness toward his former Smiths bandmate in Autobiography.