Note: The following review refers to the U.S. version (Putnam) of the book.
Steven Patrick Morrissey was (and remains) many things to millions of people: Singer and lyricist for ‘80s alt-pop pioneers The Smiths. Hesitant heart-throb and hit-maker of the ‘90s. Unrepentant critic of government, organized religion, and other institutionalized oppression. Animal advocate, outrageously literate lothario, and old-school cinemaphile. A moody messiah whose clever turns of phrase, breathy baritone, and steamy falsetto scan still melt and reshape everyone in earshot.
“Moz” is the conundrum with the quiff.
Not since Sting memoirs Broken Music have we encountered a rocker with such gift for reconstructing visceral sense memories with a few well-chosen words, transporting readers back in time to share tea and pints with the people who impacted him most and linger with him in the locales that shaped his gestalt. Single sentences gleam stiletto-sharp or lilt like dewdrop-kissed lilies, begging to be re-read more slowly, if not jotted down for future reference and sharing via social media. It’s always been apparent in Morrissey’s verses that he’s an intelligent, unabashed lover of language, but Autobiography furthers his scholarship with elucidating passages that eschew rock-biopic cliché by focusing on feeling, excavating the emotional ephemera from key life events and reconciling their impact instead of dredging the quagmires of fact.
The book’s first act (there are no chapters per se) replants the singer in the appallingly grey environs of Manchester, where his Dickensian boyhood consists of “streets upon streets upon streets.” Born the son of Irish emigrants in May 1959, young Steven begins life with too large a skull (he nearly kills his mother) and a nasty scar on his stomach. As a boy, he fritters his time watching Granada Television drama Cornation Street and is mesmerized by other projection-tube imports Skippy, Captain Pugwash, Lost in Space, Batman, and Tarzan. Even in pubescence he’s distracted, prone to daydream, and susceptible to becoming grim and dour.
At St. Wilfred’s School, Moz suffers unwarranted corporal punishment and humiliation tactics along with his classmates. The cruelty continues at St. Mary’s, where the sadistic headmaster flays pupils with leather straps, and gym instructors indulge latent pedophilic whims by watching boys shower. Morrissey discovers his athleticism and goes sprinting with the track team under cobalt skies, but (as Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters surmised on 1979’s The Wall) the psychic damage was already too profound for petty, short-lived successes to bring solace. The 50-year old author doesn’t restrain himself when identifying his tormentors, retroactively psychoanalyzing, condemning, and dismissing the lot as malicious cogs in a misbegotten educational system whose primary subject was hopelessness. The “snarling stupidity” of academia permeates Morrissey’s teenage thoughts but brace him for a larger, equally predatory world.
At home, Moz is surrounded by females, with older sister Jackie, maternal grandmother Nannie, and an assortment of aunts and cousins coloring his days. He divulges little regarding his father, Peter, beyond the man’s fascination with Elvis and willingness to get “scrappy” in defense of others. Nonetheless, the father-son dynamic reads far healthier than those of other music icons, many of whom knew no such bond. Conversely, Moz’s mum is a key figure, and quite literally so: The shapely blonde could draw wolf-whistles just walking to market. Blessed with his parents’ winning features, Morrissey attracts the attention of boys and girls alike without knowing precisely why. One spurned lass even cold-cocks the aloof adolescent for not acknowledging her advances: “I like you, and you won’t even look at me!”
The youngster nurses his wounds with the transcendent sounds of Tony Orlando, Paul Marsh, Sandie Shaw, and Marianne Faithfull. The Righteous Brothers’ heavenly harmonies set Moz reeling so badly he’s tempted to believe there’s a point to it all, even though he can’t hold a job and—unlike his few friends—has little interest in drink, drugs, and dames.
“If I can sing, I am free,” he concludes. “No legislation can stop me.”
Not so powerless is the Dwyer family’s elderly next door neighbor, who—sufficiently annoyed by Moz’s moonlight wailing—admonishes the upstart to “at least sing something everybody knows.”
Occasional jaunts to the United States open Morrissey’s eyes to a cosmopolitan world replete with endless artistic possibility—and myriad cruelties. Outside New York’s famed CBGB’s, the ardent fan-boy solicits autographs from The Sparks and other favorite musicians, blissfully unaware that his prospecting will come back to bite him a thousand-fold. Gender-bending, rule-breaking glamour boys David Bowie, Marc Bolan (T-Rex), and New York Dolls dazzle Moz’s senses, while Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Nico, Iggy & The Stooges and The Ramones give voice to his internal anguish.
Still, Morrissey’s every joy is tempered by Death, who visits the neighborhood early on and returns with somber regularity, stalking Morrissey like a jilted paramour and becoming something of an albatross ‘round his neck. An uncle and aunt die prematurely. Nannie gives up the ghost, and sisters’ boyfriends are interred. Loved ones and acquaintances fall victim to freakish boat and motorcycle accidents and succumb to cancer and AIDS-related illness. Later, the singer buries his manager (Nigel Thomas), video director (Tim Broad), and guitarist / producer (Mick Ronson) in a single calendar year (1993-94). It’s enough to darken Mickey Mouse’s mood, much less the fragile countenance of an already-downtrodden Brit reared in the rubble of WWII and who came of age in the shadows of the notorious 1960s child murders perpetrated by Brady and Hindley.
Forgoing unpromising careers as a clerk and canal cleaner, the otherwise disinvested Morrissey haunts record shops in the ‘70s, serendipitously rubbing elbows with The Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks at a now-legendary Lesser Free Trade Hall concert. He networks with TV newsman / Factory Records exec Tony Wilson, whose Hacienda Club books shows by Culture Club, Durutti Column, and A Certain Ratio. Fate thrusts Moz together with guitarist Billy Duffy, who agrees to riff for the budding vocalist in fledgling group The Nosebleeds before going on greater fame with Theatre of Hate and The Cult.
Morrissey doesn’t get round to serializing The Smiths until page 145 or so (call it Act II), but once he befriends Wythenshaw guitarist Johnny Marr (vis-à-vis Duffy) it’s a completely immersive revue. Although the singer refuses to hand-hold us through exhaustive dissections of “Hand In Glove,” “This Charming Man,” and “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore,” he does spin thorough accounts of every Smiths studio effort and compilation—from the band’s painstakingly-crafted eponymous debut through 1987 swansong Strangeways, Here We Come—with ample exposition of key album tracks and B-sides (“Meat Is Murder,” “Headmaster Ritual”, “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” etc.).
We’re introduced to drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke, whose naivety and greed cause serious problems later. We hunker with the quartet at various studios in Manchester, Stockport, and London for tune-smithing and tracking under the watchful eye of producer Stephen Street. An anemic, lifeless first record is remixed. Arguments flare with Rough Trade Records owner Geoff Travis when his fly-by-night label botches pictures and lyrics on cover sleeves and fails to produce cassettes fast enough to meet demand. Moz takes heat over “controversial” verses on petty theft, vegetarianism, anarchy, and homosexuality—but the singer blows off his accusers, refusing to bite his lip even when a rewrite or self-censure might boost sales (which skyrocket regardless). Morrissey can’t believe he’s competing for chart space with Phil Collins and Bruce Springsteen, both of whom nudge Smiths discs from the top spot. He professes to not care when the albums don’t debut at #1, but the perfectionist in him sets to immediate reconciliation of each commercial “disappointment.” Having wrung his heart out on tape and released the results into the ether, Moz becomes cause célèbre.
And yet, he’s still not sure who he is or why.
Indeed, the British-born crooner’s career has—at least in part—pivoted on his insecurity. His despair is alluring and his vulnerability charming. That he doesn’t comprehend (or feigns not knowing) why listeners love him only amplifies his appeal. Even Moz’s tantrums are adorable. Throw in the sideburns, fitted jeans, and cambric shirt, and a would-be narcissist is afforded sainthood. Morrissey’s always has a talent for turning the mundane and morose into melodious, darkly romantic poesy that skewers societal norms convention and satirizes pop culture. Now, with Autobiography, he’s free to lash out and lament without fear of reprisal.
Craig Gannon becomes a fifth Smiths member, but the guitarist’s tenure is short-lived; he becomes first in a parade of vindictive former associates who cloak themselves in the color of law in order to plunder Moz’s profits. Nearly half of Morrissey’s solo career (mid to late ‘90s) is given to court hearings after Joyce sues him over royalties. The singer observes that he and Marr signed with Rough Trade before Joyce and Rourke entered the picture, that all songs were written by himself and Marr alone—sans input from the Smiths rhythms section—and that no written agreement ever guaranteed the drummer a full 25%. But Judge Weeks has it in for Moz, labeling the singer “devious, truculent, and unreliable,” and awarding Joyce millions. A futile appeal nearly bankrupts our hero; bloodthirsty attorneys even attempt to seize the homes belonging to his sisters. But while his logic is sound and his vehemence surely warranted, Morrissey’s legal tirade gets tiresome, and we sigh with relief when he resumes discussion of his solo musical endeavors.
The book tap-dances through the making of seminal works like Your Arsenal and Kill Uncle through You Are the Quarry and Years of Refusal, with our congenial host providing backdrop for hits like “First of the Gang to Die,” “You Have Killed Me,” “Suedehead,” “Let Me Kiss You,” “The More You Ignore Me,, The Closer I Get,” and deep cuts “Sing Your Life,” “Heir Apparent,” “Seasick, Yet Still Docked,” and “I Am Hated for Loving.” Debates rage over provocative album titles (Viva Hate), silly song names (“Margaret on the Guillotine”), and atrocious sleeve art (Maladjusted) as Moz relinquishes more control to his minders at Sire and EMI. What emerges is the portrait of an earnest (if brooding) writer / performer driven by a genuine desire to impart his message across to listeners in the most direct way possible, unfettered, unchecked, and un-sanitized.
We brave near-riots in Nashville, where an incredulous Moz is mobbed like “Fabian in 1960.” Calamity ensues when the ailing singer walks offstage at another show, unable to continue, and comedian Russell Brand tries placating the crowd. There are evenings when singer and band are in top form—but are scuttled by inclement weather (San Diego), abysmal front-of-house mixing (Austin), or overzealous police (everywhere). Morrissey is nearly baited into trading blows with a gold-digging security guard who jostles him backstage, but a quick-thinking handler collars the headliner, warning him: “That’s exactly what he wants.” Elsewhere, a girl files suit after a tossed souvenir tambourine cuts her face. In France, Moz is hospitalized shattering a steam room door.
It’s not all bad. Most shows are sell-outs. 4,000 pogo-dancing Belgians leave Moz “embarrassed by [his] own happiness.” At San Diego’s Symphony Hall, the vibe is “suspiciously perfect.” Morrissey is rendered speechless in Brazil when the enthusiastic San Paulo crowd lifts a blind concertgoer over their heads and gingerly passes her forward. Improbably reaching the stage, she proffers a note: “I can’t see you—but I love you.” At Riverside Stadium, melancholy Moz is uplifted by the gigantic canvas of his face blanketing the façade. Suddenly, “Jesus is in his heaven and all is restored…. [For] what good is it all without love?” A Birmingham dentist with kid gloves erases childhood nightmares of Moz’s molar-mashers back at Stretford Road Clinic.
We tour the United States in support of albums like Your Arsenal, Vauxhall and I, and Southpaw Grammar, notching stops at The L.A. Forum, Hollywood Bowl, Madison Square Garden, The Shoreline in San Francisco, World Theater in Chicago, Nautica in Cleveland, and Meadowbrook in Detroit. We visit exotic venues (and squalid hovels) in Denmark, Italy, Brazil, Korea, Sweden, and Hungary before winding back home for dates at London’s Philharmonic and The Palladium, the cumulative miles scarcely registering.
Of course, Autobiography is peppered with countless tangents and sidebars on vegetarianism and animal protection. Muesli-munching Moz makes a convincing case for eliminating meat from one’s diet, referring to animals as “beings” that don’t deserve to be caged and slaughtered any more than you or I. He even goes so far as to quit lunches at fancy restaurants when his companions order something he doesn’t like (the plateful of frogs legs presented to an EMI record agent disgusts him). He’s always at the ready to mother injured creatures back to health, and thinks nothing of chasing hobbled starlings in traffic in order to bring them home for rehab. Morrissey is dejected—but not surprised—when he happens upon the lifeless body of a cat he treated and released days prior.
Morrissey dishes on long-term friendships with artist Linder Sterling, photographer / housemate Jake Walters, confidante James Maker, and Pretenders front-woman Chrissie Hynde, but he’s still hush-hush on his sexuality. He entertains life as a family man with live-in partner / Iranian model Tina Dehghani in Act III, but any and all intimate encounters are most are kept under wraps. Autobiography is likewise devoid the drink-and-drug confessionals prevalent in most celeb tell-alls; Moz admits taking prescription meds for his moodiness in the 2000s per doctor’s advice but insists he spent most of the ‘80s living on chocolate, crisps, and chips (ironically, said physician later killed himself).
However, major portions of the book drip with vitriol as its angry author lambasts agents who betrayed him, sidemen who abandoned him, band mates who fleeced him, barristers that bullied him, journalists who misquoted him, and the instructors and judges who wronged him. For every personal triumph there’s a parasite lurking ‘round the corner, ready to lay claim to a slice of Morrissey’s pie or publicly discredit him when they’re denied. One gets a sense of the exasperation endured by rock stars who inch their way to glory over the course of years—and decades—only to be robbed, reduced, and ridiculed by jealous hangers-on.
Here’s hoping the light never goes out on Morrissey’s muse.