Nar­ra­tive moves from stage to page

Mor­ris­sey’s vivid lan­guage will en­thrall fans

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - IAN MCGIL­LIS

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.

Getty Im­ages/Files

Singer Mor­ris­sey doesn’t hide his bit­ter­ness to­ward his for­mer Smiths band­mate in Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.


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