MARCH 6, 2014
The more you ignore me
The closer I get
You’re wasting your time
— Lyrics from the Morrissey album Vauxhall and I (1994)
BRITISH SINGER-SONGWRITER Morrissey published his autobiography in England last October. It was an instant best-seller. Immediately the American rights were sold among heavy competition to G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and in December a U.S. edition of Autobiography was hatched. If you’re familiar with the pop star, you might infer a measure of ironic affectation in that title, because the book is not really an autobiography. In it, there are facts and details about Morrissey’s personal life that befit an autobiography, but for the most part it is the story of a singer’s professional journey, as told in near chronological order through impressions, anecdotes, poems, lyrics, TV shows and films, all spanning a career that began in England in 1982, as the frontman for the Smiths, and continues today. Autobiography, you see, is memoir.
But a title Memoir wouldn’t have had the impact of the authoritative Autobiography, and that’s the point. Admire or abhor him, Morrissey knows how to package a commercial product and has from the outset of his career. In fact, he settled on the band’s name because he judged the “Smiths” as timeless and unlikely to date, and he took equal interest in their presentation, on the stage and on the record-shop shelf. In his early 20s, he designed the sleeve art for the Smiths’ albums and singles, when that type of artwork was consequential to buyers of popular music. In Autobiography he writes about the band’s compilation LP The World Won’t Listen — the sleeve work of which he is most proud. When the CD for that album was released however, his art was cropped in such a way that it sent Morrissey into a “homicidal seizure” and “a now familiar maniacal furore” with the band’s UK record label Rough Trade. As he sees it his work had been cheapened, and he has neither forgotten nor forgiven. Morrissey had a similar reaction nearly two decades later to “a world record number of printing errors” on the sleeve of his solo album You Are the Quarry (2004). And the miscues still sting. “As the years go by, and ‘The World Won’t Listen’ changes labels,” Morrissey writes, “the CD image remains heart-sinkingly abysmal compared to the majesty of the LP sleeve. These things count.”
One presumes Morrissey applied similar care to the production of his first major book. On the covers of the US and UK editions there are similar photos of an ostensibly content, almost beatific Morrissey, eyes shut and head tilted ever so slightly to the side. The UK version adheres to the Penguin Classics format. In both editions there are no chapters, nor is there an index; Morrissey has eliminated in print the instrument to skim effectively in search of gossip or other specific subjects. It’s almost as if he wants you to read the book the Morrissey way, the way in which he wrote it, and in no other manner whatsoever. So let’s obey for now and start where he starts: at the very beginning.
Morrissey was born in 1959, and he drolly informs us that his enormous cranium nearly killed his beloved mother as she gave birth. He’s the son of Peter and Elizabeth Morrissey, working-class Irish Catholic immigrants, and he has an older sister, Jackie. He is named Steven Patrick, of Manchester. Years later, once fame arrives, he jettisons his Christian name and becomes simply Morrissey, from Manchester of the 1960s and 1970s. It is that city-in-time that has been an object of Morrissey’s ire for decades (not necessarily present-day Manchester), and the singer doesn’t relent in Autobiography. His is a childhood of “streets upon streets upon streets upon streets” in “Victorian knife-plunging Manchester where everything lies wherever it was left over one hundred years ago.” His prime targets are the erstwhile faculty of St. Wilfred’s School and St. Mary’s Secondary Modern School. (“[It] may indeed be secondary, but it is not modern.”) Morrissey detests St. Mary’s — the school he attended in the Manchester suburb of Stretford through the mid-’70s — and rarely passes on the opportunity to throttle the school and several teachers, specifically. It was that contempt in which a young Morrissey wallowed in silence in front of the family TV with his sister Jackie, as they “were united in the glorification of the social-problem film — a fly-by television treat never to be missed, especially the school-as-cesspit honesty.”
Morrissey, in fact, scrutinizes his own childhood by reexamining his TV and movie watching habits and, later on, the seriousness of his music-listening and concert-going. In the early part of Autobiography, Morrissey actually reviews movies — ones that very few might remember, many that Morrissey himself seemed to dislike — and in doing so he writes obliquely about himself. Later in the book he employs (inadvertently?) a similar self-revelatory technique when writing about certain artists he personally knows or admires. For example, the video for the Morrissey single “Suedehead” was filmed on James Dean’s family’s farm in Indiana, and Morrissey writes of Dean’s life there: “Summers in baggy western jeanwear, confidently fooling around, barnyards and animals, before literary pretensions kicked in and lost the bespectacled boy to fame’s barbarity.” In reading that, knowledgable observers might recall images of a young Morrissey in National Health Service eyeglasses, at the beginning of a singing career and on the precipice of international fame; likely, Morrissey does as well. He does devote a few fine paragraphs in fact to the subject of fame in discussing his friend and actor Peter Wyngarde who, according to Morrissey, “is what the world now calls ‘the real thing’ which, let’s assume, means serious artist. He adapts to different listeners […] Peter’s genius is such that all of his actions work on two levels.” Wyngarde is best known professionally for playing the TV spy Jason King, and he appealed in the early 1970s to a mass-market audience. Likewise Morrissey creates pop music — a middlebrow art form — though he clearly believes his work should also be classified in a higher stratum. Some of these TV- and movie-world digressions are intrusive but others offer insight into the mind of Morrissey, because there are many things he will rarely, if ever, express directly. That could be ascribed to Anglo-Irish reticence but it is also, I believe, part of a greater design. In a tell-all celebrity culture (and now an oversharing culture, generally) Morrissey sets himself apart as an artist by declining to indulge in voluntary or willful personal revelation.
As a teenager of the 1970s Morrissey closely studied the Manchester scene, corresponded often with the English music press, and followed the rock stars that appealed most to him, the ones who would inevitably shape his future music career. They include Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, The Ramones, T-Rex, Mott the Hoople, Brian Ferry, Roxy Music, among others. David Bowie, naturally, was an enormous influence — not only because of his music, but also for his overtly sexual yet sexually ambiguous public persona. A full-page advertisement for Bowie’s 1972 Ziggy Stardust tour catches Morrissey’s attention, and he’s enlivened by the photograph, which he describes as “quite fanatically homosexual.” To young Steven, Bowie’s famous image on that ad is “damned-soul-as-savior-of-society, preacher and reformer, now free of his own unhappy childhood and willing to help you through yours should Black Sabbath and Deep Purple seem insufficient.” Years later many disaffected and alienated young people would come to view Morrissey similarly. I’m referring of course to a demographic of self-identified misfits in the UK and Europe in the mid 1980s and 1990s, and their fellow travelers in the US, who were listening to what was then called “college radio” and “alternative music” and for whom, in their day, Mötley Crüe or Guns N’ Roses would prove inadequate.
Morrissey describes with wonder his first encounter with Bowie, as an autograph-seeking Manchester tween in his St. Mary’s school uniform. The effect never wore off. Years later they would appear on stage together at The Forum in Los Angeles and Morrissey reluctantly reports that he felt like his 12-year-old self under the lights with Bowie. Of equal influence in their androgyny and campy reversal on the punk-rock-lead-singer-as-macho-male were the New York Dolls and David Johansen. The Dolls were a revelation to teenaged Steven and their artistic influence evident from the outset. In many ways the Smiths were a masculine, guitar-driven rock band (I’m referring to the music itself, e.g., listen to the song “How Soon is Now?”), but they were fronted against type by an effete and sensitive singer. Throughout his career, Morrissey’s sexuality has been a matter of speculation and obfuscation — by him and by those around him. He’s claimed to be celibate or asexual, and maintains his rejection of binary sexual convention. In response to his own writing in Autobiography, in which he describes a homosexual love affair (portions of which were curiously excised from the US edition — more on this anon), Morrissey said in a statement upon first publication, “Unfortunately, I am not homosexual. In technical fact, I am humasexual. I am attracted to humans. But, of course … not many.”
Sexual elasticity has also been part of Morrissey’s lyric writing and public persona since the days of the Smiths, and so too has coyness and ambiguity. The singer has exploited this pose successfully, and he’s held it resolutely for three decades now. He will always refuse to be direct about himself; it’s foolish for fans and observers to expect otherwise. Morrissey will always be disengaged and aloof, while simultaneously demanding pop-star level attention. It is a difficult, sometimes exhausting relationship for media and fans alike, but it is one that has gone on for far too long to expect anything else than a flirtation that will never be consummated. The experience of reading Autobiography is a continuation of that coquetry.
Even the few details Morrissey does reveal of his own sexual life are characteristically cryptic. In his early 30s Morrissey had a two-year affair with Jake — a man who’d had the word “Battersea” tattooed on the inside of his lower lip. (In the opening salvo to their relationship Jake reminds Moz that the word is also used in the Morrissey song “You’re the One for Me, Fatty.”) In the US edition of Autobiography the affair is described briefly and Jake disappears just as suddenly. In the UK version there is additional information but, contrary to some press headlines, the account wasn’t cut entirely from the US book, although it was indeed edited, pages removed. Expunged were Jake’s surname, a photograph of Jake as a teenager, and other brief anecdotes, including a violent mugging the two men experienced on the streets of Los Angeles. Most of the deleted details seem innocuous, and the reasons for eliminating them — whatever they might be, editorial or otherwise — difficult to fathom. “As I lie in the bath, Jake serves me tea,” Morrisey’s writes in the UK edition. That’s about as explicit as it gets, yet US readers are deprived, mysteriously, of the scene. They also miss out on a brief mention of Morrissey’s visit to an eminent Irish psychiatrist, a lone quote from Sinéad O’Connor, and during a night out with Chrissy Hynde, in the UK edition, Jake attends, while in the US version he is not mentioned. In the extracted text Morrissey also describes a photograph for Creem magazine in which he’s seen resting his head on Jake’s stomach. Morrissey’s manager was alarmed by the potential fall-out. Nothing became of it, and the photo — like the affair now — is hardly a secret in the world.
Once the reader arrives at the formation of the Smiths about one-third of the way through Autobiography, Morrissey’s personal story slinks into the background, as does mention of the singer’s immediate and extended family, and so ends the strongest portion of the book. I would’ve liked to have read more about his parents, aunts, and sister and their relationships as adults. But with Morrissey you get at most glimpses and impressions. The Morrisseys and the Dwyers (his mother’s family), it seems, are heard from in the latter part of Autobiography only when someone dies. Morrissey is obsessed with the dead, his father announces, in a rare late appearance, adding that his son ought to become interested in the living instead. “He is right of course,” Morrissey admits reluctantly. But that might be bad writing advice here, because some of the lovelier passages in the book explore the deaths of people close to Morrissey, and that includes moving eulogies for a friend from youth and for his maternal grandmother.
The Smiths segment in Autobiography is a relatively brief 79 pages, a paltry amount of space for a band so important in rock history, in a long book written by its co-creator. But then again the Smiths weren’t around for a very long time, a mere five years, from 1982 to 1987. They produced four exceptional studio albums before their sudden break-up — a dissolution that Morrissey also (surprise!) neglects to elucidate. Morrissey’s song-writing partner Johnny Marr was the driving, ambitious force behind the Smiths, and for that Morrissey gives him full credit, along with glowing evaluations of his musicianship and the musical skills of bandmates Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke. Those sections are a pleasure to read. Marr’s guitar virtuosity and Morrissey’s sardonic, witty lyrics are of course what defined the Smiths, although Morrissey’s own journey from music fan and depressed Manchester lad to the singer the music world would come to know in the 1980s is glossed over, disappointingly. It just happens one day, it seems, and Morrissey even quotes from the Book of Psalms in part to explain his sudden transformation into glamorous frontman.
Though the Smiths were labeled “mope rockers” early on, humor is central to Morrissey’s lyrics. (According to Morrissey, it was Marr who mockingly transformed media derision for Morrissey’s “misery” into “mozzery,” and the nickname Moz now belongs to Steven forever.) Morrissey’s songwriting, though freighted with depression and loneliness, was also imbued with humor, and his dryly comic lyric-writing has continued unabated through a 25-year solo career. Some of his lines are in fact interspersed in the text of Autobiography. It’s a risky device but one that works because he uses it sparingly and to further comedic effect. For example, after a music executive informs Moz of underhanded industry shenanigans that have likely damaged an album’s performance, Morrissey inserts the line “At the record company meeting / on their hands a dead star…” from the song “Paint a Vulgar Picture.” After legal wrangling over a television documentary ends with moderate success after much perceived damage and high emotion, Morrissey adds a line from the song “Panic” and asks, “Could life ever be sane again?”
To enjoy the music of Morrissey and the Smiths it certainly helps to understand and appreciate Moz’s humor — witty, droll, maudlin, irreverent, bitchy, and often caustic as he is in his lyrics. In my view, this requirement may have hindered wider acceptance of the Smiths and Morrissey with Anglo audiences outside the UK and in particular, in the United States. Irony and cynicism are not representative American traits. It is often said that Americans don’t understand or appreciate the irony in British humor. That’s not entirely true, and my own view is that pessimism in British humor serves as a greater barrier. Dry, intellectual humor — of which the UK is prodigal — is nevertheless more of a niche proposition in the US. I think that’s a reason why the British rock band the Kinks, for example, never achieved a heightened level of popular success in America. Either the humor in “The Village Green Preservation Society” speaks to you, or it doesn’t; likewise, either you’re entertained by the Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma,” “Rusholme Ruffians,” and “Half a Person,” or those songs leave you stiff and perplexed.
But then what explains Morrissey’s enormous following among Mexican Americans, specifically in Southern California and the Southwest? A lot has been written about the phenomenon of Moz’s Latino fan base, and there are plenty of theories as to why this is so. Morrissey’s dress and style are often cited; in terms of lyrics and music, pessimism can bring with it a concurrent strain of honesty and sincerity to which Latinos and others might be responding. Morrissey, however, as can be expected, offers no concrete reply in Autobiography. He expresses only mutual love for this group, and for Mexico itself. “For once I have my family,” he writes about a heavily Latino concert in California. He informs the reader that he’d often sneak off with a friend and cross the US–Mexico border for a visit — to do what, he does not say.
Yet in Los Angeles and throughout his life as described in Autobiography, Morrissey is always looking back to England for acceptance — though, again, he wants that on his terms and he refuses to budge on his demands or change in any way. He is from that country and judges his success chiefly by how his records perform on UK charts. He’s forever checking sales figures and British media coverage of his latest career move. Top of the Pops is still the television show on which one is to appear — not American Idol (or as his spells it, American, I, Dull). He views himself as a man in permanent exile. In Los Angeles and Rome he is British. In the UK he is from Manchester. In London he is “Northern” — from the north of England — and that is both a curse and a badge. He is Irish by blood, and an outsider by rule. He’s the son of immigrants, something with which most Mexican Americans can identify.
In the end though, all that you’re ever going to learn about Morrissey from Morrissey, likely, is in Autobiography. Refusal and demurral are intrinsic to his music, art, writing, and performances. In his book, as under stage lights or on camera, Morrissey is performing. He entertains. He beguiles. With his readers he is a polite host, even though on political issues, he’s as strident and outspoken as ever. Carnivores, Margaret Thatcher, the police, the Iraq War, the British royal family, the music industry: these get the typical Morrissey excoriation. With a close read one can discern new personal insights, though not very many and, even so, that information is shrouded, obscured, or merely hinted at. There are simply better sources for Moz info — articles, websites, and numerous biographies by fans and music writers alike. After all, Autobiography is an autobiography that is not an autobiography. It is a memoir that provides too few memories. Morrissey’s talents certainly extend into prose, even when he’s busy placing the odd word in italics for emphasis, in mimicry of his own speaking voice. (“Johnny Marr, having never once deprived Rough Trade of a second of his outstanding and liberating talent, had been turned into a woeful joke by Geoff and his legal muggers. But life, somehow, goes on.”) But he also frustrates. He won’t give the Morrissey enthusiast what he or she really wants to know, and he never will. For 30 years fans have desired insight into Morrissey’s personal life from Moz himself, and I’m here to inform you that those people will have to continue to wait for him to reveal himself fully. Perhaps the longer you’re willing the wait, the bigger the fan you are. Otherwise you might feel like you’re wasting your time.