‘Autobiography’ by Morrissey review: Prose of Smiths frontman sings on the page

December 12, 2013

This book begins the only way a Steven Patrick Morrissey autobiography should: with gorgeously excessive descriptions of decay and despair.

“More brittle and less courteous than anywhere else on earth, Manchester is the old fire wheezing its last, where we all worry ourselves soulless, forbidden to be romantic,” the notoriously melancholy pop star writes of the English city of his youth. “The dark stone of the terraced houses is black with soot, and the house is a metaphor for the soul because beyond the house there is nothing, and there are scant communications to keep track of anyone should they leave it. You bang the door behind you and you may be gone forever, or never seen again, oh untraceable you.”

It’s a passage of virtuoso bleakness that could have been ripped directly from the scrawled notes in Morrissey’s song-writing journal. (“Oh Untraceable You” — that was the name of an obscure Smiths B-side, wasn’t it?) It’s also typical of the spectacularly unbridled “Autobiography,” a book that is, in turn, typical of Morrissey: solo artist, frontman for the influential ’80s British brood-rock band the Smiths, and outspoken owner of an often petulant attitude that remains, 30-plus years into his career, a light that never goes out. Like Morrissey’s lyrics, “Autobiography” is filled with prose of dazzling, poetic excess that unspools without regard for conventional organizational tools, such as chapters or paragraphs of any reasonable length. Like Morrissey the man, “Autobiography” sometimes doesn’t know when to shut up, marinating a bit too long — specifically, for about 50 pages — in the bitters of a highly publicized trial regarding the division of royalty payments among the Smiths’ former band members. Morrissey once sang that he bears more grudges than lonely high-court judges. This book provides additional proof.

But what sings out most from “Autobiography” is his flair for expression and the same wicked sense of humor present in much of his music, humor sometimes overlooked due to his reputation as the official, silken-voiced balladeer of post-break-up crying jags. In the evocative sections of the book that flash back to his spirit-breaking days in primary school, he recalls one teacher “who is aging, and will never marry, and will die smelling of attics.” Later, when the head of Rough Trade, the Smiths’s record label, finds a flat for Morrissey, the star writes with refreshing self-awareness: “The flat is haunted — as everyone who calls by testifies (even if the chilled atmosphere is initially assumed to be me).”

And still later, he wryly remembers a TV newsman saying, “Morrissey conveys all the worst elements of homosexuality and bestiality.”

“It is not enough, I note, to represent homosexuality fused with bestiality,” Morrissey quips, “but indeed I apparently convey all the very worst elements of both.”

One must read this book armed with a pen; at every turn, there’s a quote worth underlining.

As memorable as his words are, though, Morrissey doesn’t use them to reveal certain details his fans may crave. He delves into scant specifics about the song-writing process that allowed him and Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr to become the Lennon and McCartney of the post-punk British music scene.

At one point, he discusses a two-year, seemingly romantic relationship with a man named Jake Owen Walters: “Every minute has the high drama of first love, only far more exhilarating, and at last I have someone to answer the telephone.” Curiously, as many media outlets have noted, some additional references to that relationship have been excised from the U.S. edition of “Autobiography” despite having already appeared in the U.K. version. Meanwhile, in October, Morrissey issued a statement explaining that he is not homosexual but “humasexual”: “I am attracted to humans. But of course . . . not many.”

Clouding the issue further is a reference to the “uncluttered commitment” he shared with an Iranian American woman named Tina Dehghani, with whom he once considered having a child (or, in his words: “a mewling miniature monster”). That’s followed still later by talk of time spent in Rome with an Italian man Morrissey calls “Gelato.” Oh, Morrissey — oh indefinable you.

Naturally, Morrissey does his share of railing against the evils of meat-eating, of recalling the indignities of never seeing “Panic” rise to No. 1 on the U.K. pop charts and of tossing mud at industry insiders he doesn’t like. (Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees is referred to at one point as “the beast from fifty thousand fathoms.”) But he’s also quick to express adoration when he feels it’s earned. Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, one of Morrissey’s favorites, “could make people laugh at the funeral of triplets.”

At his essence, Morrissey is someone who managed to carve tunnels out of his Manchester childhood gloom by opening his mouth to make music. In doing so, he carved similar tunnels for others, a fact that will forever permit his fans to forgive their beloved Morrissey when he waxes a little too vaguely poetic or goes off on egotistical rants.

As the man himself writes: “Whenever I’d overhear how people found me to be ‘a bit much’ (which is a gentle way of saying the word ‘unbearable’), I understood why. To myself I would say: Well, yes, of course I’m a bit much — if I weren’t, I would not be lit up by so many lights.”

Chaney is a film critic and pop culture writer whose work appears in Vulture of New York magazine, the Dissolve and other outlets.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

By Morrissey

Putnam. 459 pp. $30

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