From the first rueful lines of his band’s first rueful album — “It’s time the tale were told of how you took a child and you made him old” — we knew Morrissey and his Smiths would have little good news to report. Manchester had so much to answer for; and each new song seemed to more deeply dampen our shoes with the cold rain of its most blighted bystreets.
When we’d shove our Smiths mixtapes in the car stereo, our parents heard only the yowling complaints of a self-loathing baritone wrenched into self-exiled falsetto amid swirls of heaving noise; but to us, his was the most stylish possible expression of our own unique (that is, universal) anguish. If anything, Morrissey — with his anachronistic wit and gracefully gritty diction — was for many of us our first introduction to artistic restraint.
And while “Autobiography” will ultimately represent Morrissey’s most conspicuously blown opportunity to come up with a really great title, this often-rollicking romp from Manchester’s lowest lows to the heights of the West Hollywood hills (infested with fancier rats) provides a precious source of light on his life and work — albeit shone at a fixed, dramatic angle.
For fans, a stroll through the streets of Morrissey’s source material can feel a bit touristy. Sometimes this is circumstantial — internal flashbulbs may go off as we meet his mother’s sister Jeane (of “Jeane”!), or as we roll through Whalley Range, or as Strangeways prison makes a foreboding early appearance. Just as often, it’s Moz’s doing, as he over-peppers his prose with relevant lyrics, sometimes with barely appropriate resonance (after the disastrous LAWSUIT INVOLVING DRUMMER Mike Joyce, “it’s so lonely on a limb”), and frequently with a groan-worthy ham factor (“Could life ever be sane again?” he opines after a squabble with a filmmaker).
Avuncular chuckles aside, the back alleys of back story that make up the book’s first third not only offer some of the book’s lushest language — Moz at his Mozziest — but a fuller understanding of why the steadily stoked despair of his youth was perhaps more effectively conveyed in snatches of song than stretches of prose.
And like any of his albums, Morrissey’s story is given to grand overhauls of tone — first tossing and turning between Manchester’s many cruelties and the respite he found in music and poetry; then grasping for bearings as the fitful, fateful five-year rise of the Smiths rushes by; later lapsing into defiance and frothing defensiveness when outlining his outrage over Joyce’s legal battle for a quarter of the Smiths’ earnings. (This particular section, while giving full, robust voice to Morrissey’s fury toward Judge John Weeks — and the corruption he smells all over the UK justice system — couldn’t be any more detailed and sure, nor more exhausting and drab.) It rounds out with a less-than-revealing tour of an impressive solo career; with more time spent digging into personnel issues and the fervor of his fans than into any of the material itself.
Along the way, Morrissey grabs from a satisfying stash of anecdotes — Vanessa Redgrave appearing on his doorstep and calling him “Marcie”; the Sun tellingly misbilling them as “Dismiss”; Moz and crew, bus and all, nearly being kidnapped en route to a Mexican date; the Special Branch Task Force questioning him over “Margaret on the Guillotine”; Chrissie Hynde biting a dog; and a priest dryly noting “most boys like girls — he likes Mott the Hoople,” among many, many others.
There’s a 10-page detour into Saddleworth Moor where he reels in terror to see a sallow-cheeked boy ghost (in fact, Morrissey’s life feels more haunted by Myra Hindley and Ian Brady than Joyce or Andy Rourke); and there’s another sweet excursion to James Dean’s boyhood farmhouse in Fairmount, Ind., where the extemporaneously filmed video for “Suedehead” was shot. And his remembrances of his friendship with guitarist Johnny Marr are both tender and tense, like their music together.
As expected, Morrissey’s pen is often just an inky claw. A teacher at St. Wilfrid’s is “[h]erself, a sexual hoax”; the music of Siouxsie and the Banshees is “a strict ice bath of nightmare and caution,”; and of Los Angeles, he observes “[i]f people only spoke of what they had done as opposed to what they were about to do, it would be the most silent city on the face of the earth.” Small knives, as we know, can sting more than battle axes.
There may not be a more Smiths-fan thing to say about “Autobiography” (and Morrissey would certainly disagree), but put into true record-snob parlance, the early stuff just works better. Especially so in those early pages, where he details the music and poetry that shaped him. I’d never have arrived at Morrissey existing as a triangulation of the sensibilities of A.E. Housman, Jerry Dolan, and George Best had he not offered their names.
I recommend reading “Autobiography” alongside YouTube, as his story is most alive when scored by the playlist of his past, and the songs of Paul Jones, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jo Jo Gunne (with “Glamorous Glue” coursing through its veins), Mr. Bloe, Roxy Music, and of course, the ever-present (even when absent) New York Dolls all run through these pages. It’s eye- and ear-opening to hear anew how Morrissey started his journey following the stray threads of truth he found in pop music. It’s a favor he’s returned many times over, and it’s time the tale were told.