Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Morrissey - Autobiography

"I am not a number, I am a free man" said Number 6 in The Prisoner, and adopting this defiant stand on individuality I joined a vast number of others who thought they were free men too; I knew that as leader of the best UK pop/rock group of the 80s, one Steven Patrick Morrissey was speaking to me and me alone (and possibly him, and OK, him too) when he warbled his elfin-like way through such wonderfully illuminating ditties as Hand In Glove and This Charming Man, even the arch Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now, although possibly not Shoplifters Of The World Unite or Girlfriend In A Coma!

After the break up of The Smiths our Mozza swiftly became a self-parody, and his increasing isolation within a highly protective, rabid, and paranoid fan-clique allowed my former hero to indulge in increasingly bizarre and ill-judged attempts to reclaim the limelight he had lost after his parting of ways with writing partner Johnny Marr, the best English tunesmith of his generation. This odd behaviour included early misjudged flirtations with what was perceived by some as racism. Morrissey maintains he was simply writing about racism in his lyrics, not eulogising it, in which case, why leave it open to (mis)interpretation? There have been instances when his attempts to be clever have backfired spectacularly, and that was one of them.

His favourite subject nowadays seems to be promoting vegetarianism and animal protectionism with utterly ridiculous pronouncements that have absolutely no sense of proportion. His recent daft outburst equating meat eaters with paedophiles does his cause no favours at all. My favourite Bigmouth Strikes Again moment from our hero has him blaming Beyonce for the extinction of the rhino! All this shows us a man who appears to despise just about everyone on the planet, probably not least himself.

If you thought that introduction was unnecessarily long winded and flowery, you should try reading this grandiloquent tome, the wittily titled Autobiography, a copy of which I received as an Xmas gift last year. I am only now getting round to reading it, partly as a result of my fear that it would drive the final nail into the coffin of any slither of respect I still had for the self-aggrandising oaf.

The first thing I noticed is that somehow this book got itself published on Penguin Classics, which should not really surprise me as Morrissey always had an inflated opinion of his own worthiness, even back when he was on top of his game. It would seem that the artistic credibility of his publisher is in inverse proportion to their need for a healthy bank balance.

The second thing to notice is that there are no chapters. The book starts, and 457 pages later it ends. This can lead to sudden changes in scene, sometimes indicated by extra line beaks, sometimes not. A strange way of writing a book, especially a biography which by necessity is defined by chapters in a life, and an early indication of the lack of a strong editorial hand.

Much of the first part of the book is a diatribe against his educators, who, if we are to believe the author, were a bunch of narrow-minded sadists whose only purpose in life was to put the pupils in their place, preferably using physical force. As I am of the same generation as the author, I can say that most schools had one or two teachers who were bullies, they most likely still do, but if you kept your head down you'd be ok. I have to say that on the rare occasion when my ear was clipped by a flying board rubber, or my knuckles rapped by a set-square, it was probably because I deserved it. Morrissey exaggerates all this to promote his "outsider as martyr" persona. A cliché becomes a cliché because it is based on truth, and the old maxim "it never did me any harm" certainly applies here. Would that some real discipline existed in our seats of learning nowadays instead of mollycoddling "isolation rooms" or threats of expulsion, which from a miscreant's point of view simply means less school!

What he does manage to impart with some distinction in the first part of the book is the grinding poverty of his childhood, growing up in Manchester slums. As far as biographical writing goes, this early section is by far the best, and from a literary point of view it's nearly all downhill from there on in. However, even here there are parts that do not quite fit. In his early mid-teens Morrissey jets off more than once to see his sister Mary who emigrated to America in 1969. These visits are paid for by his mum whom, given the proportionately huge cost of transatlantic travel back in the 70s compared to now, must have come into money. This is completely at odds with the miserable existence he had described so eloquently just a few pages beforehand. This may be because his mother did not play much of a part in his upbringing at that particular time, and it is another instance where some thematic editing would not have gone amiss.

Obviously, by far the most significant part of Morrissey's musical career from an artistic and cultural impact viewpoint was his tenure in The Smiths. In terms of timescale, given that the band only lasted for 5 years, you may suggest that the mere eighty or so pages devoted to the iconic band is more than generous. But you would be wrong. Before commencing this scribbling it was in my mind to conclude this rambling discourse with something along the lines of "Nobody is buying this book to read about Morrissey's solo career", but given that his popularity, outside the UK at any rate, now appears to be on a much higher level than it ever was in the time of The Smiths, from a purely commercial standpoint that line seems to be redundant. It is true however that if a cultural historian 100 years hence acknowledges Morrissey as going down in musical history, one can guarantee it will be because of his part in The Smiths and nothing else.

The most frustrating aspect of the pages on The Smiths is the complete absence of any insight as to how the songs came about. It would be good to know how that fantastic riff in How Soon Is Now? evolved, but maybe Morrissey can be excused that one. That the author says nothing, nada, zilch about his writing partnership with Johnny Marr, or gives any insight into his lyric writing process, be it with The Smiths or solo is however, most disappointing. Getting an inkling of the spark between Morrissey and Marr that led to gems such as This Charming Man or Frankly, Mr Shankly would have been more than interesting. I suppose the counter argument is that you can pick up the lyrical influences from the anecdotal references to his schooldays or whatever, but learning nothing about Morrissey's and Marr's creative process from lyric or riff idea to completed song is a big let down.

Morrissey's skewed perspective on The Smiths' legacy is writ large in the fact that he considers their last album, the occasionally good but progressively more weary sounding Strangeways Here We Come to be their best. I am playing it now as it happens, for the first time in years and it sounds like a sailing ship slowly becoming becalmed. I would guess that even the most rabid Smiths fan would not agree with the author on this one.

During The Smiths' pages, Morrissey makes more than one reference to the fact that all the record deals etc were always signed by Morrissey and Marr, not The Other Two, and this acts as a pointer for the bitterness that follows. However, ungrudging praise is given for Mike Joyce and Andy Rourkes' musicianship, and let's face it, despite Morrissey's soon to follow arguments against them being deserving of an equal cut, with any other rhythm section the group would not have sounded the same, the musical chemistry would have been different and success may have passed them by as a result.

The Trial, to use entirely appropriate Kafkaesque title capitals, occupies forty pages in the middle of the book, and chronologically as well as metaphorically it is the fulcrum on which the rest of Morrissey's life balances, both before and after. If there was one section of this book that desperately needed editing, and there isn't just one section believe me, then this is it. You will be sick to death of it when you have read for the 23rd time that Joyce knowingly signed up for his 10%, and that his arguments for deserving 25% were at best ill-formed, but maybe that is the point.

Given Morrissey's unshakeable conviction that he was in the right, a belief he makes sure is indelibly tattooed into the reader's cerebral cortex by the time The Trial section is over, it seems odd that given his more than healthy bank balance that he could find no-one in the despised legal profession to relieve him of some of that wealth in order to prevent him having to shell out considerably more in the long run when he lost first the case and then the appeal.

Some bands simply agree on equal splits from the off, regardless of who writes the music, and that is a far less fractious way of doing things than giving the majority to the songwriters and arguing incessantly about it later. I cannot comment on the judgement that went against Morrissey, and let's not forget, against Marr too, but suffice to say Moz thinks it entirely inequitable. His subsequent bitterness seeps through the pages and pages and pages of repetitive ranting, but for all that I can see his point from a business perspective. However, this isn't "business", it's art, where normal commercial rules do not always apply. In the end it all comes down to generosity of spirit, or lack of it. If The Smiths had been fronted by a man who had his colleagues' as well as his own best interests at heart, and the band was set up on an equal split basis, none of the legal shenanigans would have happened and Moz would not have had to spend hundreds of thousands if not millions of pounds defending and appealing and ultimately losing a case that caused no end of personal trauma to all involved.

Johnny Marr, portrayed throughout as "nice but dim" obviously saw that the seemingly endless litigation was doing no-one any favours, and appears to have accepted the inevitable outcome, an outcome that was equally costly to him, one assumes. If Morrissey had as much pragmatism as ego and less of a sense of entitlement he maybe should have taken the same course.

Morrissey's post-trial solo years are clattered through at a pace, becoming a list of album and song titles, chart positions, and ever growing audiences worldwide, crowd numbers quoted with understandable pride. It is noticeable that the foot is now off the gas slightly as far as weighty wordiness is concerned, as if he'd had enough of writing the thing by then. His barbed put downs disguised as praise find an easy target in Julie Burchill late on, and it is the humorous tongue lashings that serve to leaven the sometimes overbearing self-righteousness that surfaces now and again in the book.

He makes no judgement on, or takes any responsibility for the fact that as the years have gone by his audiences seem to have become more and more excitable, with mention of punch ups and fights dropped in here and there. As understandable as his pride in his increasing popularity is his grump about the ongoing perception in his home country that whatever he does now, however successful it is, it will not be as good as The Smiths. Sorry Moz, but when you have been part of something as culturally significant, and simply as good as your former band that's always going to be the case. Just ask Paul McCartney.

For an autobiography there is very little insight into the author's personal life, or maybe he doesn't have much of a life away from the roar of the greasepaint? His sexuality is kept deliberately vague. To say he swings both ways would be a wild exaggeration; more accurately, he very occasionally gently inches over the asexual tipping point in either direction, but seems to stay uncommitted and presumably untouched, one way or the other, for most of the book. This is almost a complete guess as very little is revealed, apart from one male and one female relationship, the latter seeing him briefly musing on becoming a parent.

Morrissey is followed by the Grim Reaper throughout the book, with family, friends, business acquaintances, and musical colleagues alike falling in his wake, some soon after meeting him for the first time. He played a major part in getting his heroes The New York Dolls, or the three still alive at any rate, to reform for the 2004 Meltdown Festival, which he curated. A mere month later Arthur Kane was dead. This is the most eye-catching instance of several similar occurrences, some couched in black humour, some dismissed in a short sentence.

One-liner homilies scattered throughout are attributed to David Bowie, who if we are to go along with the impression given by the author is really a spinster aunt bestowing wisdom on her favourite nephew. This is odd in itself, as Morrissey once walked out on Bowie after a few gigs as his support act on the European leg of Bowie's 1995 Outside tour, allegedly blaming Bowie for stealing his thunder! This is the kind of juicy goss we all want answers to, even if they turn out to be completely one-sided and catty. Unfortunately this is another incident in Mozza's life that this time is not so much as mentioned let alone explained.

Mozza's ego is resplendent throughout, but that that is nothing I was not expecting. He often obsesses about the chart positions of his records, blaming his record company if the albums or singles do not climb as high as he thinks they should, which of course is No.1.

Morrissey admits at various points throughout the book that he is not easy to get on with, which at least shows self-awareness. Guided by his impish but deadly dry sense of humour I have learnt that Morrissey can moan for England, and that he holds grudges going back decades judging by the vast number of folk from teachers, to band mates, to managers, to peers, you name it, they all come in for a righteous verbal lashing. Definitely at the top of the hate list is, perhaps understandably, Judge John Weeks, probably followed by Rough Trade's Geoff Travis, with Tony Wilson at No.3, with a bullet. Morrissey's catty humour is at its best when delivering putdowns to Wilson, one of many characters in the book he has, or in this case had, little time for. He even lambasts John Peel, a man whom it was impossible not to like, even if you detested his taste in music. His hatred of Thatcher is there for all to see, but I'm not about to argue with that!

Once finished I put the book down having not learned much more about the author than I knew when I set out on this cruise on the seas of verbosity, which is surely the point of any good biography, auto or otherwise?

With more insight into his familial and personal relationships, and into his creative processes, some hefty wielding of an editors scalpel, particularly in The Trial section, and some very necessary chapterisation, Autobiography would have been a good read. As it is, Autobiography is a tsunami of style over fleetingly good and sometimes drearily repetitive content, and a lot harder going than it ever needed to be.

For a scathing put down from someone equally as opinionated and unlikeable as Morrissey himself, posh nosh "critic" A A Gill's acidly pompous blast is rather amusing, if nothing else. Gill's infamous review won this year's Hatchet Job of the Year award from the Ominvore website, an ironic name given Mozza's militant veggie stance, eh? However, would you want to win anything where one of the big noises on the judging panel was that dreadful snob Brian Sewell? Actually Gill probably would, once he came to terms with being judged by a mere human being, heaven forfend!

A. A. Gill is a man who gets to stuff his over-privileged face in elitist restaurants, gratis, and is then handsomely paid to moan about the experience in print. Morrissey is a man who over the years has slowly disappeared into a vortex of self-importance. One can only conclude that they deserve one another.

A sentence from the final page perhaps best sums up the strange creature that is Steven Patrick Morrissey: "I am no more unhappy than anyone else, and most humans are wretched creatures". Perhaps he has a point.

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