Bigmouth Strikes

By Simon LeeMarch 6, 2014

Bigmouth Strikes

Autobiography by Steven Patrick Morrissey

MIDWAY THROUGH Morrissey’s highly anticipated Autobiography, a scene unfolds in a manner that is both sinister and jarring. The scene depicts a bleak Saddleworth Moor — a region of the English Peak District through which the author, video directors Tim Broad and James O’Brien, and artist Linder Sterling are traveling — when a spectral figure unexpectedly appears before them in the road. Clearly referencing the infamous Moors murders of the 1960s, the setting is furnished as ominously gothic, and the figure — a pale, naked young man — is rendered as an apparition that prompts the four travellers to swiftly flee the area. As the car speeds away, the author reflects on the figure’s “forsaken Christ-like appeal,” inferring a symbol of martyrdom — an individual who is “obviously being hunted.” It’s a haunting moment that’s tastefully rendered, but one that seems marginal to its surrounding narrative, leaving the reader with the task of figuring out its purpose. There are plenty of other moments throughout Autobiography’s 454 pages that interrupt the narrative in similarly destabilizing ways, but given the subtext’s inclination toward themes of exploitation and persecution, this particular moment seems suspiciously apt.

Immediately evident in Autobiography is the prose style that wavers between charmingly idiosyncratic and gratingly affected. While it lends color to the narrative and is emblematic of the author’s notorious eccentricity, the overwrought nature of the prose is problematic in that it largely obfuscates genre intentions by minimizing access to the subject and masking far more than it reveals. Often, the narrative deviates into rambling diatribes that feel wholly detached from the passages or events that precede them. Yet these deviations can be read as associatively telling in that they illuminate the author’s caginess — a reluctance to address key issues that the text hints at yet never fully explores, opting instead for witticisms and poetic flourish that dissatisfy as much as they entertain. The stabs at syntactical fireworks and ironic aphorisms are affable, filling the text with quips and sharp retorts — many of which display Wildean glibness and a degree of self-deprecation that’s admirably poised between sensitivity and hilarity. In this sense, the prose style is serviceable but far from ideal, raising serious questions about the editorial process in which one can only begin to imagine the kind of heated negotiations that took place between Morrissey and editor, Helen Conford, to whom the reader might extend a sympathetic nod by imagining the amount of diplomatic choreography it probably took to chisel the text into the semi-functional state of its release.

What the bizarre prose manages to obfuscate ends up as the main cause of Autobiography’s general failure in that much of the narrative contained within the book could potentially be culled from other sources with greater detail and dexterity — there’s very little here that we didn’t already know. While Morrissey allows us into his world, there is a sense that his welcome is contingent — that we shouldn’t touch anything, nor should we look too closely or for too long lest it reveal something of actual interest tucked away behind a pile of books, or underneath a stack of legal bills. Fundamental details are missing, and the narrative strides through key periods, failing to pause and adequately reflect on specifics that, for a majority of readers, would be at the heart of such a text. While this might prove frustrating for those who come to the text for unique insight unavailable elsewhere, it’s conceivable that the deployment of such syntactical turmoil is actually an intentional move.

It can be commonly acknowledged that much of Morrissey’s identity — and indeed, his career — has been structured upon the cultivation and maintenance of an enigmatic persona. He has notoriously evaded probing questions and has gone to lengths to avoid exposing too much of his private life to retain the element of mystery that cloaks him. Given this, there is an existential hazard involved with the release of an autobiographical “tell all” — especially for one whose career is hinged upon the notion of “telling very little.” In this respect, it’s possible to approach Autobiography’s style as a perpetuation of the enigma in its capacity to obscure much and reveal little. To gain access and understand the subject on a personal level would fulfill the reader’s desire; so to maintain the desiring fan base, the pretense here is maintained, or in the words of the author, “Sex is advertised, yet withheld.” The problem is that it becomes ambiguous as to what the text’s goals actually are. Why bother with such a book if you have nothing new to say? The consequence is a text that’s unhinged: revenge fantasies, the protracted mythical status, and stabs at martyrdom all run amok. Instead of playful evasion, there’s an unambiguous tone of antagonism throughout, rendering the reading experience somewhat draining — like listening to someone have a good moan for an entire weekend.

Despite this, Autobiography does have somewhat of a formal structure, separated into sections that are marked by decades covering the pre-history and development of Morrissey’s musical career, but ending with a largely disheveled portrait of recent years. The history that comprises the first two thirds of the text is chronological, coherent, and oftentimes masterful, mapping closely onto the genre framework of the Künstlerroman (“artist’s novel”). However, the final third is as mercurial and as vagabond as the singer’s projected image, and the text flails without much grounding. Consequently, no narrative finale is reached; instead the text meanders and peters out with a bit of a discursive whimper.

The story begins in the urban center of 1960s Manchester — an environment portrayed as imprisoning and oppressively restrictive. Following the industrial downturn and rise of unemployment during the time, Morrissey deftly captures the despondency and malaise that characterized the cultural moment. The stoic face of postwar redevelopment is articulated through the neighborhood locals in which “Asphalt, dust and diesel fuel wrap around the dismal Victorian grandeur,” resulting in “a sense that something terrible has happened.” Similarly, the development of grim housing estates that detain rather than support life perpetuate cycles of social chaos in which “Prison is the accepted eventuality, and is certain to turn you into a criminal.” This tone of hostility — both toward the environment, as well as those who inhabit such environments — continues through much of the initial part of the book as a way to establish the escape narrative of the rags-to-riches motif, but also to set the stage for the theme of persecution that the text is so steeped in. While these sentiments of urban disillusionment were indeed commonly felt by the people of Manchester at this moment, lasting long into Thatcher’s time in office, in Autobiography they serve the narrative function of constructing the image of the persecuted figure who, through the world of pop music, finds his escape from the drudgery of the post-industrial.

This backdrop also functions as a stark juxtaposition for the creative and highly strung young Morrissey who, entering his artistic escape hatch, shifts into music and eventually meets Johnny Marr to form the Smiths. Bizarrely, given how iconic the band became, there’s a stunning deficiency of reflection on his time with the Smiths, and the text bleeds into the early solo career period with virtually no delineation aside from a cavalier mention of the band’s demise. Much of the solo career period reads more like an extended tour diary, but without any of the real excitement that often crops up in such a genre. Even when things do heat up, such as the scene in which Morrissey is apparently kidnapped in Tijuana, there’s little attempt to dramatize or recount with detail. In fact, by the time the reader has figured out what’s taking place, it’s as if Morrissey has already moved on to a different subject altogether. For much of the solo career period, we’re given geography and some minor interactions with the live band, but an extraordinary amount of focus is directed at the importance of Billboard chart success with little discussion of how the music was created and what it meant to him at the time. In fact, there’s very little in the way of emotive response to the production of any of his own music at all, contributing to the text’s ambience of disengagement in which the artist appears alienated from his own work. This is highly unsettling, and once more raises questions about the real motives behind the release of Autobiography.

But prior to the author’s recounting of the founding of the Smiths, the reader is given a glimpse of the transgressive role of music and art within the young author’s life — specifically the palliative purposes that it served during his time in Manchester. Although the approach taken in the text is odd — a sizeable chunk of pages are devoted to what essentially feels like a series of reviews of various bands circulating at the time — music fans will instantly recognize and identify with the passion that’s portrayed and the sense of escape that music and art can provide in context. This is one of the more relatable moments, yet it underscores what appears to be forfeiture of passion that’s discernible once the Smiths records begin to chart and celebrities emerge with which to rub shoulders. It’s hard not to feel deflated by the depiction of a music-obsessed teen whose fanaticism was such to produce books and essays transforms into that of the pop star whose chief concerns seem to be chart placement and units moved.

A disproportionate amount of time is spent discussing the 1996 court case filed by the Smiths’ drummer Mike Joyce that consolidates the text’s themes of animosity and persecution. The narration of the proceedings, retold with a total neglect of the power of rhetorical subtlety, could be described, at best, as an attempt to set the record straight; at worst, a whining, contradictory diatribe that takes up entirely too much space. It’s clearly a significant part of his story — one in which the reader is expected to sympathize mechanically — but it comes across as little more than sad, vicious retribution. While it would be charitable to assume that the flailing and tousled nature of the narrative that follows this moment represents the stylistic reproduction of harm done, this could not be the case as it’s here that the author’s ego really kicks into gear, as the remainder of the text is told from the perspective of frenzied fanaticism and apotheosis. Largely inconsistent and unfocused, this final section of the narrative, that outlines time spent in both Los Angeles and Rome while chronicling a series of deaths (some far more touching than others), serves to gild the author into the mythical role of romantic enigma. It’s vague and aloof, wrapping up with a convoluted series of tour dates littered with discursive mutterings about celebrities, George Bush, and a handful of closing lines that contradict what was said prior. But this is Morrissey — idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and unique. Surely we must have cause for absolution?

With these admittedly large contentions aside, Autobiography provides a salacious slew of joyously snarky and self-deprecating humor that’s on par with any of his finest lyrical turns. For example, upon entering a 1972 T. Rex concert, a purple satin jacket renders him as “a sight ripe for psychiatric scrutiny”; and when introduced to the poet Gregory Corso later in his career, the singer expresses total astonishment as he was certain the Corso had long since died, noting that “this is not something to raise when the subject stands before you.” Evanescent banter such as this brings charm, and extended passages or ornamental irony validate the author’s capacity to produce genuinely hysterical moments of sartorially dry deflation. For example, in a scene in which the Smiths are described as “bad boys” in the Manchester Evening News, Morrissey notes how he mused over the headline while sitting at home under a reading lamp, “pawing George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life.” Similarly, when a friend’s mother tells him that he is a bad influence on her son, he lapses into a sidesplitting projective reverie:

I ponder on how I could possibly be considered a bad influence, since I am neither bad nor remotely influential. It is not as if, at this age of 18, I designed dresses under the name Violet Temper. It is not as if I sought a career in exotic dancing, or read jokes aloud at funerals. I had never even once been drunk. My main concern in life was to find somewhere that could make spectacles in less than an hour. I bored my own self into unconsciousness every single day, so how I could exert bad influence mystified me.

In moments such as these (thankfully, quite frequent within the text), the reader is perhaps reminded of why they fell in love with Morrissey in the first place. Much of the cleverness of the lyrics that were always so perfectly contrasted against the melancholic melodies and miserable demeanor is found in Autobiography, serving to elevate the text via moments of pithy conviviality. Yet, within such a protracted form, the equilibrium of the lyrics doesn’t quite hold; there’s an implicit imbalance between humor and persecution in which the latter completely subsumes the former, stripping the text of the playfulness we’ve come to expect from the songs, and rendering the sentiment derivative and painfully overwrought.

And this is key to one of the text’s main pitfalls — the wildly affected style confuses the purpose of what the autobiography genre customarily seeks to accomplish. Sudden shifts in verb tense vacillate between tasteful garnish and syntactic impediment, occurring too arbitrarily to register as any kind of sly stylistic choice. The ornate flourishes, patterned syntax, and mischievous toying with language that permeate the lyrics simply do not translate into an extended work. Even after adjusting to the quirks, flourishes, and meanderings, the text is remains a slog in which content and insight are kept separate. While there are some beautiful lyrical turns throughout, the text is punctured by ham-fisted effluvia such as the description of the author’s infatuation with singer Kristeen Young, spiritedly introduced as a figure unwilling “to waste her life making tea for in-laws,” but who’s introduction is followed by this cringe-worthy line: “A midwinter heart, her Julys are darker than her Decembers — carried away like a thing lost in the early stages of pregnancy. I am quite possibly in … quite possibly in … what’s that compulsive, addictive, obsessive hairball mess thing called? … um, yes, love. There, I’ve said it.” Here, the reader can’t help but reflect once more on the almost total lack of editorial prowess.

Of course this could all just be part of the enigmatic scheme — a way to perpetuate the mythical status that’s been continuously cultivated for the last three decades. Yet one would think that the point of such an autobiography might be to allow the writer a chance to think, reflect, and perhaps develop such events, processing them in a manner that allows the reader to understand what such a moment felt like rather than what it looked like from a bystander’s perspective — a position where the reader already stands. Interestingly, the question of the author’s sexuality — a topic that’s largely exhausted and redundant at this point — is deftly handled here in that Morrissey all but shouts his relationship with Jake Walters from the rooftops (more of a whisper in the US release, it seems). It would require an astral level of naïveté to miss what’s insinuated, and if the rampant homoerotics of the particular section aren’t enough, to his credit, the author plays cat and mouse with the snooping reader, dropping references to drag queens, homosocial desire, and systematically rejecting possible romantic advances from various females. What’s implied here is that the author anticipated that such a reveal would attract readers to Autobiography, and in this sense the author toys with us graciously, giving more than ever before, yet maintaining a judicious ambiguity.

Yet the dominant impression of Autobiography is one of persecution, with the text functioning as an unsubtle retaliation against a host of people and institutions that have threatened to cause the singer harm over the years. Given the nature of the events, much of this barbed anger seems highly justified, yet it further impedes the text’s efficacy, the attempts at revenge appearing more like flailing advances than considered attacks. At the center of this retaliation is the trial to which the author spends far too many pages demeaning and patronizing everyone involved. Similarly, antagonism aimed at the music press — specifically the NME for the since-retracted 2007 allegations of racism — is understandable but belabored to the point of redundancy. Such takedowns might have worked had they been swift and direct, but what transpires is a series of claw marks that barely scratch the surface. Enmity aimed at family, at Manchester, at institutions, at the music industry, and at strangers, fills the book to the point of exhaustion. In this sense, the enigmatic mask is cracked a little more, but what’s revealed is hardly flattering. On top of all of this is the fact that the narrator himself seems increasingly unreliable, unwittingly revealing a number of contradictions, from the acrimonious parting of ways with a band member that’s later described as anything but acrimonious, to one of the most telling disclosures of all: a single line that deflates much of what the trial was predicated upon on in which the singer recounts the negotiation of a contract with Sire, stating that “We have no idea what we’re signing, in an act of legendary mental deficiency.” Given that accusations of the same mental deficiency forms the basis of his defense in the Mike Joyce case, the contradiction seems not only jarring, but also convicting.

Autobiography ultimately succeeds in upholding the distance that the mythical persona demands, but does so at the expense of the text itself. Wildean analogies run rampant from the witty aphorisms to the evasive ambiguity, but whereas Wilde’s moving epistle, De Profundis serves as an admission that largely reveals the human behind the mask, Autobiography tries far too hard to keep the mask pressed against the face, and it’s the gesture of forced masking itself that inadvertently reveals the more unpleasant aspects of the subject that perhaps weren’t intended for us to see. It’s hard to read this text and turn a blind eye to the notion of martyrdom that persists, aligning the author with the ghostly specter that appeared in the Saddleworth Moor. But for all its frustrations and affectations, it’s a text that exists within a world of its own making. Perhaps one day we’ll learn more about this unusual creature, but it’ll probably come from the music, as that’s where the real autobiography can be found.


Simon Lee is a PhD student in English at the University of California, Riverside, where he studies 20th-century British and Irish literature, theories of space and place, and esoteric culture.

LARB Contributor

Simon Lee is assistant professor of English at Texas State University. He researches and writes about British literature and culture, specifically on the intersections of space, identity, and working-class culture. He splits his time between Los Angeles and Austin.


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