A A Gill on Autobiography by Morrissey
THE SUNDAY TIMES
AS NOËL Coward might have said, nothing incites intemperate cultural hyperbole like cheap music. Who can forget that the Beatles were once authoritatively lauded as the equal of Mozart, or that Bob Dylan was dubbed a contemporary Keats? The Beatles continued to ignore Covent Garden, and Mozart is rarely heard at Glastonbury; Dylan has been silently culled from the latest edition of the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry in English.
The publication of Autobiography was the second item on Channel 4’s news on the day it was released. Krishnan Guru-Murthy excitably told the nation that Morrissey really could write — presumably he was reading from an Autocue — and a pop journalist thrilled that he was one of the nation’s greatest cultural icons. He isn’t even one of Manchester’s greatest cultural icons.
This belief in high-low cultural relativity leads to a certain sort of chippy pop star feeling undervalued and then hoitily producing a rock opera or duet with concert harpsichord. Morrissey, though, didn’t have to attain the chip of being needily undervalued; he was born with it. He tells us he ditched “Steve”, his given name, to be known by his portentous unimoniker because — deep reverential breath here — great classical composers only have one name. Mussorgsky, Mozart, Morrissey.
His most pooterishly embarrassing piece of intellectual social climbing is having this autobiography published by Penguin Classics. Not Modern Classics, you understand, where the authors can still do book signings, but the classic Classics, where they’re dead and some of them only have one name. Molière, Machiavelli, Morrissey.
He has made up for being alive by having a photograph of himself pretending to be dead on the cover. The book’s publication was late and trade gossip has it that Steve insisted on each and every bookshop taking a minimum order of two dozen, misunderstanding how modern publishing works. But this is not unsurprising when you read the book. He is constantly moaning about record producers not pressing enough discs to get him to No 1. What is surprising is that any publisher would want to publish the book, not because it is any worse than a lot of other pop memoirs, but because Morrissey is plainly the most ornery, cantankerous, entitled, whingeing, self-martyred human being who ever drew breath. And those are just his good qualities.
The book falls into two distinct passages. The first quarter is devoted to growing up in Manchester (where he was born in 1959) and his schooling. This is laughably overwrought and overwritten, a litany of retrospective hurt and score-settling that reads like a cross between Madonna and Catherine Cookson. No teacher is too insignificant not to be humiliated from the heights of success, no slight is too small not to be rehashed with a final, killing esprit d’escalier. There are pages of lists of television programmes he watched (with plot analysis and character criticism). He could go on Mastermind with the specialist subject of Coronation Street or the works of Peter Wyngarde. There is the food he ate, the groups that appeared on Top of the Pops (with critical comments) and the poetry he liked (with quotes).
All of this takes quite a lot of time due to the amount of curlicues, falderals and bibelots he insists on dragging along as authorial decoration. Instead of adding colour or depth, they simply result in a cacophony of jangling, misheard and misused words. After 100 pages, he’s still at the school gate kicking dead teachers.
But then he sets off on the grown-up musical bit and the writing calms down and becomes more diary-like, bloggish, though with an incontinent use of italics that are a sort of stage direction or aside to the audience. He changes tenses in ways that are supposed to be elegant but just sound camp. There is one passage that stands out — this is the first time he sings. “Against the command of everyone I had ever known, I sing. My mouth meets the microphone and the tremolo quaver eats the room with acceptable pitch and I am removed from the lifelong definition of others and their opinions matter no more. I am singing the truth by myself which will also be the truth of others and give me a whole life. Let the voice speak up for once and for all.” That has the sense of being both revelatory and touching, but it stands out like the reflection of the moon in a sea of Stygian self-justification and stilted self-conscious prose.
The hurt recrimination is sometimes risible but mostly dull, like listening to neighbours bicker through a partition wall, and occasionally startlingly unpleasant, such as the reference to the Moors murderers and the unfound grave of their victim Keith Bennett. “Of course, had Keith been a child of privilege or moneyed background, the search would never have been called off. But he was a poor, gawky boy from Manchester’s forgotten side streets and minus the blond fantasy fetish of a cutesy Madeleine McCann.”
It’s what’s left out of this book rather than what’s put in that is strangest. There is an absence of music, not just in its tone, but the content. There are emetic pools of limpid prose about the music business, the ingratitude of fellow musicians and band members and the lack of talent in other performers, but there is nothing about the making of music itself, the composing of lyrics, the process of singing or the emotion of creation. He seems to assume we will already know his back catalogue and can hum along to his recorded life. This is 450 pages of what makes Morrissey, but nothing of what Morrissey makes.
There is the peevishness at managers, record labels and bouncers, a list of opaque court cases, all of which he manages to lose unfairly, due to the inherited stupidity of judges. Even his relation with the audience is equivocal. Morrissey likes them when they’re worshipping from a distance, but he is not so keen when they’re up close. As an adolescent he approaches Marc Bolan for an autograph. Bolan refuses and Morrissey, still awkwardly humiliated after all these years, has the last word. But then later in the book and life, he does exactly the same thing to his own fans without apparent irony.
There is little about his private life. A boyfriend slips in and out with barely a namecheck. This is him on his early sexual awakening: “Unfathomably I had several cupcake grapples in this year of 1973… Plunge or no plunge, girls remain mysteriously attracted to me.” There is precious little plunging after that.
There are many pop autobiographies that shouldn’t be written. Some to protect the unwary reader, and some to protect the author. In Morrissey’s case, he has managed both. This is a book that cries out like one of his maudlin ditties to be edited. But were an editor to start, there would be no stopping. It is a heavy tome, utterly devoid of insight, warmth, wisdom or likeability. It is a potential firelighter of vanity, self-pity and logorrhoeic dullness. Putting it in Penguin Classics doesn’t diminish Aristotle or Homer or Tolstoy; it just roundly mocks Morrissey, and this is a humiliation constructed by the self-regard of its victim.