Bob Stanley Reviews Morrissey
October 28, 2013 | by Faber Social
The first third of Autobiography is finely honed and lyrical, with Manchester’s red brick walls the constant backdrop. It will remind everyone, and not in a nostalgic way, why they liked Morrissey so much in the first place. His education was “illumination by violence”, in school buildings with “air from 1947′. He gets whacked in the face by a “sporty Welsh girl” because he hasn’t noticed that she fancies him. Young Stephen is often chased by girls as he is famously not ugly, though looking at the photos of his mum and dad he might actually have been short-changed.
Food and the New York Dolls are recurring themes for him. As an adolescent, his palate has “the inability to expand beyond the spartan. Somewhere, Tin Tin sing Toast And Marmalade For Tea – which certainly suits me.” Life is mapped by pop music; it has all the references and language that he needs, and his love of it seeps into descriptions of almost everything. The gothic horror of his school is wrapped up in the sound of Barry Ryan’s Eloise and its “cliff-bound sirens”; front doors open to release “putrid smells… the malodorous hallmarks of the humans within – no scented candles yet,” accompanied by “the lost strangeness of I Will Return by Springwater.” He is happy to archive such forgotten songs, sights and smells, evoking 1971 completely. He discovers Roxy Music, who are “Agatha Christie queer”, but they fall from favour once Bryan Ferry mentions his fondness for veal.
In the mid seventies he becomes fascinated by some of the most cloistered English poets and their “monumental loneliness”: the “black horizon” of the unknowable AE Housman; the wisdom of WH Auden; John Betjeman’s lack of ego; Stevie Smith’s self-imposed exile in deeply suburban Palmers Green, a life which he describes as “50% blotting paper and 50% loose tea.” Getting his bearings, his aesthetic now unveiling itself, Morrissey realises that Oscar Wilde was “the world’s first pop figure”. He decides to “blend noise and words and save the world.”
A brief stint in a record shop at 19, an interview with Sounds editor Alan Lewis which sadly comes to nothing (how different everything might have been if he’d got the job – maybe Dave McCullough would have become the pop star in his place. Or… Gary Bushell. As you were, then). He’s pre-fame, on the cusp, and I wish this was end of volume one of his memoirs. It’s rumoured that he delivered 200,000 words to Penguin – they should have split into two books.
Quite precisely, at page 150, the tone changes; I can only assume the first section was written, with considerable care, some time before the final 300 pages. Out come the knives for “meat-fed” Factory Records boss Tony Wilson, and a baffling critique of pre-Smiths Rough Trade runs for several pages. A “lugubrious historian” Geoff Travis may be, but he had previously signed Scritti Politti and Aztec Camera who hardly fit Morrissey’s dismissal of the label as “anti-listenable”. “Suddenly the smell of money replaced the smell of overcooked rice in the Rough Trade cloisters.” Well, at least those cloisters didn’t smell of overcooked veal. By page 153 he is saying, of Robert Wyatt, “certainly there could be no shame attached to wheelchairs, but there aren’t many in the Top 40.” It’s doubly unpleasant coming from someone who used a hearing aid and NHS specs as an affectation.
Various fictional characters spring to mind. The better bitchier lines are best read out loud in Matt Berry’s Toast Of London voice. As he settles petty scores with Tony Wilson, photographer Juergen Teller, and Michael Stipe (who apparently goes on stage without brushing his teeth), I think of the Father Ted prize-giving episode. Other slices of revenge are humourless, tasteless and extraordinarily horrible, beyond the realm of Partridge: “When Neil Aspinall dies in 2008, I think to myself, well that’s what you get for being so nasty”.
The final two thirds of the book do have their illuminating moments and well-turned phrases. Morrissey adores Al Martino, while both Morrissey and Marr “quite like” A-Ha. He loves Al Martino – who knew? He is all humility and foppish shyness in the presence of Eartha Kitt and James Baldwin (he seems less cowed by Morten Harket). In New York he is introduced to Gregory Corso, “which doesn’t make sense, since I am certain he is dead.” Quite beautifully, he explains the Smiths’ split as “wanting to live yet longing for sleep.”
“Anything is forgiven of anyone who makes us laugh” says Morrissey, quite aware of his own, often well-deployed, comic talent. Yet Autobiography feels as if it were written in two, or possibly three, different sittings, and the laughs come hard the longer it goes on. It’s hard to believe that the man who sees the giddy daftness of accidentally starting an LA riot by singing You’re the One For Me Fatty – “hardly an Altamont rallying cry to the social underbelly” – would expend any energy on trying to take down “little pinched Irish madam” Henry Kelly. Yes, that Henry Kelly, the one from Going For Gold and Classic FM. The schizophrenic nature of the book prevents it from being the classic he presumably thinks it is.