IF ever you wondered what it would be like to be stuck in an elevator with Morrissey you need wonder no more. The English singer’s memoir resolves the issue. Such close proximity to Morrissey, it turns out, would prove fascinating for a brief spell. But before the end you’d be a catatonic shell, a person devoid of will, crouched up in a corner, fingernails bleeding and teeth broken from your forlorn attempts to hack a way out of Morrissey’s mad, toxic bubble of self-regard.
The elevator metaphor is a crusty old cliché
, of course, but Autobiography invites it. Even if — like me — you nurse a love for The Smiths and much of Morrissey’s solo material, you will still find large parts of this book a minor ordeal.
The most frustrating thing is that it begins so well. The first third — in which Morrissey recalls his youth in a bleak Manchester of the 1960s and 1970s — is quietly enthralling and the narrative voice that Morrissey strikes up is a seductive one. Predominately written in the present tense, the singer casts a cinematic lens on his childhood. The son of Irish immigrants, we follow the young Steven Patrick Morrissey as he flits back and forth between his own home and those of his extended family — the Dwyers — the head of whom, Nannie Dwyer, is portrayed with deep sentiment, as are the friends with whom he comes to knock around.
A vibrant, affecting account of youth, then, it’s one that is both intimate and yet somehow cautious, respectful of the mystery of the past and shy of foisting lashings of psychology on everything as so many biographies do. References to his mother and father are notably thin and the pair assume the quality of a structuring absence — the thing that perhaps governs everything, but which cannot be directly addressed. In the few cameos his father does make he is usually found telling our young hero that his antics are “embarrassing”. (When Morrissey plays Mott the Hoople’s single ‘All The Young Dudes’ for him, his father walks away, intoning “Ooh no, I’m not having that.”)
As he would later attest in Smiths classic ‘The Headmaster Ritual’, the young Mozzer had scant regard for the Manchester school system. If he rails against it once in Autobiography he does so a thousand times. More telling, however, is his youthful alertness to our mortality: The fact that, as he puts it, time “rips” constantly at us in its march. One quickly observes — and it’s something fans know already — that Morrissey’s whole identity is bound up in a vast sensitivity to the simple everyday pathos of just being alive. (It is what first made his songwriting so distinctive, after all.) Fortunately, Morrissey realises that he can counter this huge sensitivity to life head-on through pop music. He will fight feeling with feeling, and if he must be vulnerable to the tragic intensity of life then he will also open himself entirely to the rapture of song. It is The Righteous Brothers single ‘You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling’ that provides an epiphany for him. The song leaves him “in danger of feeling too much”, but it also leads to a conviction that: “I will sing, too. If not, I will have to die.”
This might read like bathetic overstatement. But such is the command with which Morrissey here depicts a young person’s susceptibility to pop music that it actually comes across as a candid and accurate expression of how many of us, in our youth, can feel our lives transformed by exposure to a mesmeric pop song. In any event, as we know, it did transform Morrissey’s life and this inward vow made by the young Steven is one that he keeps.
Alas, once the book starts to document Morrissey’s musical career, things go askew. The charismatic narrative voice is abandoned. Tenses now change more freely, and a pithy, curmudgeonly sensibility kicks in. The early section depicted a young and vital, if also maudlin, Morrissey who was always moving — usually walking, sometimes cycling, but always wandering fluidly through the “cage” of Manchester, a weirdo flâneur provoking the rainy, humdrum streets with his very presence. The Morrissey who succeeds him is a more static and regressive figure, almost sedentary of spirit. It is this dour fellow that guides us through the book’s later two-thirds.
The calibre of the writing remains high but the content is often shockingly dull. Essentially, it becomes a very well-written celeb autobiography, with all the lack of commitment that implies. When Morrissey is not playing sycophant to himself, he’s cribbing about others, or else spouting longwinded pages that document yet another brilliant solo show performed before his obsessive fans. The latter, it seems, even frequently hoist their infants up to him like ancient Greeks trying to appease some mercurial god. He does not say if the infants have first been set ablaze or not.
Of course, there has been much talk of the book’s references to the singer’s romantic liaisons, and Morrissey, who was once a self-proclaimed celibate, does allude to dalliances with Jake Walters and later, very vaguely, with Tina Dehghani. We’re even treated to a brief mental snapshot of Morrissey in the bath (heavens-to-Betsy), while a partner idles in another room. The truth, however, is that the prurient-minded will learn shag-all about Morrissey’s love life.
What is far more distressing is the lack of meditation on his own work. An artist’s autobiography that can’t engage frankly with one’s personal life is one thing, but an artist’s autobiography that has so little to say about the artist’s aesthetic convictions is intolerable. Sure, he bangs on about his love of T-Rex, Bowie, Lou Reed, and the New York Dolls, makes countless banal references to cinema, and even wedges in a preposterously earnest section about his love of poetry, but he has virtually nothing to say about what, as an artist, he has endeavoured to do. Nothing is served more poorly in this book than the songs Morrissey created.
There are other annoyances still. The continual use of US spelling grates, as does the excess of facile wordplay that a steely editor would have zapped. All the same, the final two-thirds of the book are not without redeeming elements. There is plenty of intriguing pop trivia and, frequently, Morrissey’s incessant cattiness about other pop stars — step forward Siouxsie Sioux — can be fun. There are also curious episodes such as the time Morrissey sees a ghost, the time Morrissey is almost kidnapped by Mexican bandits, and the time Morrissey mines for gold on Jupiter. (One of the latter episodes may be my own imagining.)
By far the book’s most redeeming aspect as a whole is the singer’s recurring concern with time and mortality, and there are a number of moving tributes to lost friends and relatives. Yet, ironically, despite — or maybe because of — his sensitivity to our human fate, Morrissey struggles to articulate much humanity in himself and he forges little real sympathy with the reader. As a result there is little of the poignant vulnerability that marks a good memoir. This is especially strange given that Morrissey rose to prominence as a songwriter who could penetrate the essential sadness of our lot. Yet this book will move few to tears. Indeed, it is such an autoerotic love-in that the only person likely to require tissues at the end of it is the singer himself.