Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Morrissey's "Autobiography": Book Review

At fifty-four, the memoirs of very few living authors might merit inclusion as a Penguin Classic. Morrissey reportedly demanded that the British publication of his autobiography appear in that august series. Two months later, the American release by Penguin's affiliate Putnam comes out not as a Classic paperback, but as a hardcover keeping the original cover photo and design.

This media backstory plays neatly off of the clever persona and the artful presentation (as with those Smiths LPs adorned with iconic models) Steven Patrick Morrissey has adroitly mastered for his devoted and fiercely loyal audience. Shifting from song to print, he keeps his suave air and deepens, understandably, his cultural allusions. The results, drawn from both popular and erudite sources, may appeal first to his fan base, but this uneven if spirited contemplation of five decades deserves a wide readership. 

Of his birthplace, he begins: "Manchester is the old fire wheezing its last, where we all worry ourselves soulless, forbidden to be romantic." It evokes, from its first rush of images from dank and dim streets where he comes to consciousness doomed as self-aware, the postwar decades when everyday Britons, through pop and rock viewed weekly and played on radio or phonograph, contemplated fantasy in their parlors. Tension between his Irish Catholic heritage and his Northern English residence simmers within him.

"In the midst of it all we are finely tailored flesh--good-looking Irish trawling the slums of Moss Side and Hulme, neither place horrific in the 1960s, but both regions dying a natural death of slow decline." His family, all Dublin immigrants, possesses resilience: "The Irish banter is lyrical against the Manchester blank astonishment." In such measured phrases and careful prose, his childhood unfolds with tyrannical teachers and trudging through warrens of Victorian squalor. As he matures amidst "this race to the grave", the library, a treasured stack of vinyl, and Top of the Pops reveal the influences which broadened his perceptions, and the songs which inspired him, not to play music but to sing. His first 45 is by Marianne Faithfull. He vows to sing or else. "If not, I will have to die."

Sly joshing speckles these revelations. Both the Eurovision song contests and Miss World pageants annually enlivened on air his prepubescent curiosity. "There is no such thing as Mr World, perversely enough." Who knew that not only the dashing debonair secret agents of Department S but the waspish Dr. Zachary Smith (played by Jonathan Harris) of Lost in Space helped make Morrissey circa 1970 aware that "effeminate men are very witty, whereas macho men are duller than death"? 

David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople, and especially the "slum of all failures" the New York Dolls enliven Morrissey's teenaged years. Poets, too, play a role: Hilaire Belloc, John Betjeman, W. H. Auden, and Stevie Smith. A.E. Housman and, inevitably, "the world's first populist figure (first pop figure)" Oscar Wilde enlighten him as he flounders at odd jobs and, from the reticence here, suffers a lack of intimacy. 

The mid-70s usher in Patti Smith alongside Lou Reed and Iggy Pop as "a proud sign of bad breeding", and Morrissey lines up alongside Ian Curtis and Paul Morley to see the Sex Pistols debut in Manchester. He tries to tough it out in South London but returns, after a slow musical start, in 1982 to join with guitarist Johnny Marr, bassist Andy Rourke, and drummer Mike Joyce as the Smiths. 

He figures if Culture Club can make it, why not him. (Listen to the harmonica-driven hook on one of the Smiths' first songs "Still Ill": it's always reminded me of that other band.)  Morrissey marvels at what they created: their "sound rockets with meteoric progression, bomb-burst drumming, explosive chords, combative bass-lines, and over it I am as free as a hawk to paint the canvas as I wish". 

Signed to a leading if logically marginal indie label, they don't match its eccentric, dodgy roster. "The vinegary spinster face of Rough Trade was no place for anyone seeking public attention, but it worked because the Smiths worked." Work led to rapid success, and five albums in a row entered the British charts at number two. But try harder as they may, their nation's radio ignored them and the little label labored often in vain to keep up with the demand for their records.

Furthermore, Geoff Travis' refusal, at least in public, to dish out not only sufficient praise but stockpiled royalties justifiably annoys Morrissey. Yet, the joy of hits, so quickly, enlivens this tale. Their first LP stayed thirty-three weeks on the charts. Still, that eponymous debut suffers from weak production and prissy arrangements, as Morrissey laments. Its potentially strong songs became much enhanced through their radio sessions, packaged as the follow-up Hatful of Hollow. 

He moves to London and finds hangers-on, famous and otherwise, soon flocking to perplex him. It's a familiar narrative, as Johnny and Steve find themselves as partners musically and as legal co-creators, but outfoxed by the Sire Records suits and thwarted by the Rough Trade hippies. Morrissey harbors from his childhood a suspicion of authority, while legal matters loom and long persist as his nemesis. The managers and accountants endure in the music business, while stars soar and sputter. He ruefully concurs how the "pop artist who complains about anything at all is universally damned as petty". 

That's why he unravels this meandering, often in turn awkward, loutish, or touching, narrative. Nearly four-hundred-and-sixty pages document his story, and after all, many want to hear it. Joining his voice to the familiar litanies of woe from one rich (despite that slow cash flow) and famous, Morrissey on the road and at his many homes as he roams cannot resist the lure of the stage and the lust for the tune. Tours for "misery Mozzo" in Johnny's phrase (shortened to Moz) cannot dim this. 

He cannot square his inner discontent with his mass appeal. He peers at himself as if a specimen.  "Although a passably human creature on the outside, the swirling soul within seemed to speak up for the most awkward people on the planet." Heaven knows he's miserable now. 

A thrashing punch toughens Meat Is Murder. It knocks Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA off the top British spot. Morrissey praises its clanging title track as a slaughterhouse exposé, and he invites controversy as a vocal vegetarian. (He helped sway me but it took a quarter-century after I bought that LP to summon enough conviction.) He reflects on the delights of being labelled by a hostile press as "bad", as "I sit by a reading light, pawing George Eliot's Scenes from a Clerical Life". 

On this and its follow-up, The Queen Is Dead, Morrissey prefers to relate the fervor of the fans and the fury of the media rather than in-the-studio tidbits. He appears resentful of Travis' incompetence or duplicity, and he chafes at Sire Records' typically conniving bottom-line fine-print machinations. This bitterness will only increase as his autobiography progresses and the impact of the Smiths, oddly at times out of proportion with their album sales (strong as they were) and concert draws, reverberates. 

Lashing out, then caricatured and slandered, Morrissey finds himself the object of bemused contempt. The band struggles to find airplay, labels keep withholding revenue, and his northern-bred loneliness intensifies during the middle of the 1980s. "This, then, was my true nature as the Smiths began: the corpse swinging wildly at the microphone was every bit as complicated as the narrow circumstances under which he had lived, devoid of the knack of thigh-slapping laughter." Johnny, Andy, and Mike jostle and laugh; their shy singer finds few of life's jokes funny in the first place, let alone anymore. 

Feeling pinned and mounted, Morrissey bristles under the spotlight. But he can revel in it onstage. Strangeways, Here We Come benefits from the band's communal spirit, and he considers it the Smiths' "masterpiece". But Johnny wanders off to work with Talking Heads and Bryan Ferry, so the band sputters out, five years on. Nobody else appears quite sure if Marr or Morrissey bears the blame.

The inevitable solo career ensues. Respites from London's grime and noise soften the irritations but even on a trip to Saddleworth Moor near Manchester, the haunted legacy of that expanse where murdered bodies molder and spectral spirits hover jolts him and his friends one horrible night. The "harsher energy" of a natural realm releases its own threats, never far from his habitual urban sprawl.

Within that megapolis, Morrissey tries to comfort. He rescues birds from a marauding cat and releases them in the safety of Hyde Park. Later, he saves a pelican at Los Cabos even as he fears it will wind up on a hotel's dinner plate. He writes passionately about hunted creatures and factory-processed animals too many kill for sport or for sustenance. But this tenderness towards the voiceless and helples jostles against his steady pot-shots at human targets.

Yes, he lets us glimpse his compassion. He finds love at last or first with Jake. (Allegedly a few lines about this relationship have been excised from the Putnam edition compared to the Penguin.) Their affection shimmers for a few paragraphs, shadowed, but then fades discreetly. Moves to London, Los Angeles, and Dublin display his restlessness, and his transatlantic crossings trigger a reader's jet-lag.

Your Arsenal signals the 90s and a crack rockabilly band that backs Morrissey smartly. It sparks violent gigs in "the American madness", as well as "a Beatlemania that dares not speak its name". In Washington D.C., "'Don't let your ego hurt people' shouts one security guard as I pass" but in this rushed telling it's unclear if Morrissey means the moshpit or himself as a recipient of this admonition.

In 1996, Mike Joyce, "a flea in search of a dog", resurfaces to claim a quarter of the earnings from the Smiths, rather than the ten percent Morrissey defends as his proper portion. Making my way through fifty pages of the defense the singer marshals against the drummer (and soon the guitarist and bassist), I thought of Bleak House. A few paragraphs on, Morrissey sagely alludes to that Dickens epic about another case that went on in London's courts even longer. One must admit that despite its value as a celebrity autobiography lacking an "as told to" byline or ghostwriter, one may well counter that Morrissey's pace grinds to its own fact-checked and debate-diligent crawl with his score-settling screed, even if we sympathize. Still, as with Dickens, wry humor leavens this. "Like a well-fed Roman emperor, Andy Rourke took to the witness stand complaining of financial starvation."

Understandably weary, Morrissey leaves England behind. Next door to Johnny Depp in West Hollywood, Morrissey settles down and meets a "lifelong constant", Tina Dehghani. He contemplates having a child with her (we catch this only as an aside, another instance of intimate reserve) but the shocks of 9/11 and Bush's war on terror discourage him. In a destructive decade, he inveighs against violence but brandishes on You Are the Quarry a machine-gun. On the other hand, a few years later on the perhaps or presumably tellingly named Years of Refusal, he cradles a baby.

It's entertaining to hear more about celebrities, renowned musicians, and still more tours, but such musings weigh down the narrative (as they do many who cultivate such memories to regale us) as the years tally. Death among his friends begins to hover, as middle age reminds Morrissey on stage that he's now "avuncular"; he notes the devotion of his Latino fan base in his adopted California and across the border, but he sidles away from any extended self-analysis for this intriguing phenomenon.

Given that the book opened so strongly, with such control, Morrissey's decision to let the flow slacken as his fame grows and the albums accumulate may reflect the verisimilitude of how he views his later life, one more gig, one journalist after another to spar against, one more star to share his sorrows and joys with. The remainder of this narrative runs together in time and space. While this captures the enviable if enervating routine of a celebrity as he jets around the world, it also reveals the tedium that so many rock stars reliably moan about--to their fans.

He faces as he begins one concert "the usual mix of teenage jailbait and superior Smiths scholars". He watches a crowd surge towards him. "Having never found love from one, I instead find it from thousands--at the same time, in the same room." A sweet and tender hooligan, his tenderness jostles against his rueful realization at another venue. "Inside the hall it is Osmondmania, but thankfully with the wasted corpse of Morrissey, in place of the oily Osmonds." Over thirty years at it, he's still ill, this charming man.

As he is driven to a concert, he looks out at his fans in the streets of a small California city. He wonders: "What it must be to be 17 and leading the right life in the right skin." Twenty years famous, Morrissey cannot shake his inhibitions. We close this autobiography knowing less than most of us had surmised about his intimate partnerships, but as with his grandmother and his friendships with an array of celebrated or humbler people, we glimpse his guarded side. The effort he makes will reward us, if we are ready to roll with its harsh or languid flow and rock among its arch, barbed ripostes.

"Finally aware of ourselves as forever being in opposition, the solution to all things is the goodness of privacy in a warm room with books." This elegant reflection demonstrates Morrissey's wisdom, and its grace indicates that, with luck, he may issue a sequel a few decades on for those of us still around.

However, he refuses to remain predictable, let alone sentimental. He ends this boisterous yet often reticent examination of his life in Chicago, on a wintry night. His tour bus awaits in the darkness. A female voice cries out to him after a concert, desperately seeking his attention. Morrissey turns away. (As above to P  ; in shorter and rewritten form to Amazon US 12-19-13)

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