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“It’s the same old S.O.S.” -Morrissey
Morrissey, solo-artist and former lead singer-songwriter of the Smiths (whose album, The Queen is Dead, was recently named the greatest album of all time by the British magazine New Music Express), has published his autobiography under the esteemed banner of Penguin Classics in the UK [Autobiography is being published by Putnam in the United States, an American imprint of Penguin]. The book is one big bag of grudges with bits of wit thrown in. Every disappointment in his life is chronicled like coal caught in the vice-like grip of his Wildean observations—every other paragraph meant to incite a shrug and shake of the head, as if to ask, “Can you believe how I’ve suffered?” The answer is a resolute “Yes.” Most autobiographies are bags of grudges ironed out into sheet after sheet of self-proclaimed sainthood or at the very least oh-so humble life lessons. That Morrissey would side-step the usual route and stick to his unloaded (save a few wilted gladiolas) guns, is no surprise and is in fact readily welcomed by the legion of fans who flock to his concerts, tattoo his lyrics across their bodies, and buy every album, single, compilation and reissue he’s put out. It’s this emotional honesty that’s made his music so enduring, and in turn makes this book so riveting.
A label whore in an entirely unique vein, Morrissey wrangling Penguin to publish him under the Classics imprint—usually reserved for the likes of, say Virgil—is less pompous then is appears. As he has recorded for various record companies, Morrissey’s revived forgotten imprints or attached himself to ones that don’t normally release rock or pop acts, more as a reverence to their cherished output then any attempted overreaching. My chief complaint about most literary biographies is that the biographer only occasionally records what their subject read. Yet what’s more of a foundation for the creative soul than their personal library? Well, Morrissey gives us his record collection: his memory of songs on the radio, television, concerts, 45s, and it’s simply marvelous. His recalls songs that kept him alive during a bleak childhood and particularly cruel schooling, though we get a peek at his bookshelf as well: Auden, Wilde, feminist literature, and assorted poets. When he writes about the musicians who matter to him, discovering Nico, seeing Lou Reed and Patti Smith in concert, what Bowie and Bolan meant to young kids who didn’t fit in, and later drinking beer with Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, his Autobiography sparkles. His description of the band Sparks is priceless: “Ron Mael sat at the keyboard like an abandoned ventriloquist’s doll, and brother Russell sang in French italics with the mad urgency of someone tied to a tree.” The book is rife with laugh-out-loud observations, though his take down of Siouxsie from the seminal Goth-cum-punk band Siouxsie and the Banshees is wince-inducing (and so juicy you’ll read it twice).
The book drags when one of the ex-Smiths, Mike Joyce, sues Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Mars for a larger share of royalties. Page after page of ranting and eye-rolling over the resulting trial becomes quite the endurance test (as most descriptions of trials are, being of so little interest to anyone not directly involved). No invective is left unflung. Really, I was well on my way to worrying that a more apt title than Autobiography would have been My Trial –destined to be shelved along aside such winners as My Divorce, My Back Pain, etc. But then things pick up as Morrissey records anew and tours, both with fantastic success (the description of the concerts make for some of the better music writing I’ve encountered). Yet the man is a magnet for irony, and that the New Music Express would value one of the Smiths albums above Sergeant Pepper, after years of accusing Morrissey of racism and general mudslinging, is poetic justice–but then his offhand reference to lawyers as “Israelites” certainly falls flat.
As the book reveals a gay love affair, Morrissey has since issued the statement that “Unfortunately, I am not homosexual. In technical fact, I am humasexual.” Can someone still be on the fence about their sexuality? Absolutely. That gay people have fought for sexual liberation only to turn around and deride bisexuals is madness enough to send anyone back into the bushes. Asexuality exists and is finding a voice and making a place. But if either group tries to unionize, Morrissey will torch his membership card. However it is disturbing that at this writing the U.S. version of Autobiography omits references to Morrissey’s relation with photographer Jack Owen Walters as well as his picture. No reason has been forthcoming, but after all of the rage and anguish directed at record labels who changed album covers without consulting him, it’s hard to imagine Penguin would do so without his permission, and more likely at his request.. So indeed it looks like those membership cards have been burned. That wafting smoke is the incense of his song.
Hardcover, 9780399171543, 464 pp.