Morrissey’s long-awaited autobiography, titled simply, Autobiography, was released at midnight yesterday (October 16). Both fans and mere casual observers of the former Smiths singer will find plenty to enjoy in this melancholy page turner, not least of all the vivid and erudite way in which he writes about the music he loves. As memoirs go it’s up there, sometimes as scathingly hilarious as Sebastian Horsley’s Dandy Of The Underworld, sometimes as discretely old-fashioned as Dirk Bogarde. After spending much of the night in the company of Steven Patrick, here are ten things we learned about Morrissey.
He’s no fan of the paragraph
Stylistically speaking, Morrissey is surprisingly maverick in the way he constructs his memoir. He doesn’t worry about paragraphs. Instead he favours a stream of consciousness which rarely pauses for breath. It takes a while to get used to, though once in his flow, he’s an able storyteller and you can easily imagine him mouthing the words lugubriously and hilariously deadpan.
His schooling was grim
The Manchester Moz portrays is grim and industrial, and the 60s he describes could quite easily be the 1860s, with large swathes of the opening section recalling Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. He despises his primary school, his secondary school even more, and excels mostly at truancy. “Each day is Kafka-esque in its nightmare,” he laments, “and the school offers nothing at all except a lifelong awareness of hate as a general truth.” Morrissey shares with us some of the abuse he suffers, mostly at the hands of PE teachers, and in one episode a Miss Dudley watches on as he’s tossed into a swimming pool by another pupil despite the fact he can’t swim: “Miss Dudley made no effort to understand the secret agony of a troubled child, and I was lifted up and thrown into the water in an act that these days, would count as extreme physical and psychological assault”.
He watched a lot of TV
Morrissey goes into great detail about the television of his childhood and his love of shows like Stingray and Thunderbirds (“they are, of course, animated puppets, yet they are as real as I am”), the Eurovision Song Contest (“because we who know so little are allowed a view of the greater world”) and even Skippy The Bush Kangaroo, an anthropomorphic marsupial helping kids out of scrapes with rattlesnakes, bottomless pits and so on. Skippy introduces us to Australia and “a world where adults are understanding and have time to explain and to sympathise with the peach-cheeked kids – none of whom resemble anyone that I know”. Johnny Morris’ Animal Magic in the UK gets sharp shrift while Miss World is ‘unmissable high drama’ (he wonders why there’s no Mr World). Opportunity Knocks makes his “heart bulge with jealous rage” as he knows he must “molder in silence for many tears to come”. That’s right, tears.
He likes George Best
Morrissey is reluctantly sporty in his fledgling days, and represents his school in the 400m. His father’s disappointment that he only comes fourth in a heat is clearly a memory etched in him (“life decomposes in a bucket” is his description when his father utters the words ‘you didn’t win’). George Best represents hope to him, a totem of the possibilities of escape and a symbol of working class aspiration; he writes deliciously about “conventionalised noblesse oblige such as Bobby Charlton” disapproving of Best because the latter is “the shocking new against Charlton’s 1950s pipe-smoking discipline”. An eight-year-old Morrissey is taken to see Best play at Old Trafford and promptly faints, annoying his father once more as he’s forced to miss the rest of the match.
He could have been a music journalist
Morrissey is forced to take a string of bizarre and demoralising jobs (as well as a cycle-on part in Coronation Street) before success with The Smiths, and at one point he heads to London for an interview with Sounds, though despite being given the faintest glimmer of hope he receives a rejection letter nine days later. The pop world’s gain was music journalism’s loss: Moz writes with staggering beauty at times about his favourite artists, including a large section devoted to his all-time favourite group, the New York Dolls. He celebrates the death of his innocence with the emergence of David Bowie (“the vision is profound – a sanity heralding the coming consciousness from someone who – at last! – transcends our gloomy coal-fire existence”), calls Bryan Ferry’s smile “Hiroshima mean”, says Ron Mael is the closest thing to Chaucer the pop world will ever know and claims Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Patti Smith’s “contribution to thought marks them out as our very own Goethe, Gide and Gertrude Stein”.
He still bears more grudges than lonely high court judges
Morrissey’s antipathy for Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis is legendary, and he doesn’t hold back. Of the label he notes the arrival of the Smiths “shattered their afternoons of work rotas, poetry workshops and Woman’s Hour” and adds that the personnel couldn’t “produce enough testosterone in matters of big business” when the Smiths were kept off the no.1 spot following a failure to manufacture tapes in time. There’s little charity to adversaries who have since passed on, the “meat-fed” Tony Wilson being a prime example, and even John Peel is passed over in favour of his producer John Walters who Moz says was the real champion of The Smiths.
He’s a little more generous to his former bandmates
Morrissey speaks glowingly of Johnny Marr who he describes as “unnaturally multi-talented” and wonders “what he is doing here with me?” when the band are in their formative stages. Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke don’t come out of it too badly, and regarding the sound of the Smiths, Morrissey praises the “bomb-burst drumming, explosive chords, combative basslines, and over it all I am as free as a hawk to paint the canvas as I wish. It is a gift from Jesus.” Morrissey concedes he and Johnny were the “Tispy and Topsy from the village when it came to the cackling jaws of business. We signed virtually anything without looking.”
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He explains the significance of MozArt
Though the style of cover art has been imitated so often, the way The Smiths presented themselves on record was in stark contrast to what the garish 80s generally had to offer. Classic, monochrome colours, in thrall to 60s kitchen sink drama, Morrissey says now that the essence of The Smiths art was to “take images that were the opposite of glamour and to pump enough heart and desire into them to show ordinariness as an instrument of power – or, possibly, glamour”. The Smiths often had problems securing the pictures they desired, with Albert Finney, George Best and Alan Bates all refusing to allow their images to be used. French actor Alain Delon wrote to Morrissey approving the use of his image – much to Steven Patrick’s delight – though he expressed concerns and said his parents were upset “anyone would call an album The Queen Is Dead”.
The NME inevitably features
Morrissey remembers fondly when NME was known as the New Morrissey Express back in the 80s, such was his exposure at the time, though the later stages of the relationship is then recounted in full.
He’s not the kissing (and telling) kind
Morrissey is coy about his relationships, and speaks guardedly about his sexuality. Those expecting a kiss-and-tell biography full of lurid revelations probably don’t know the first thing about Morrissey! The mysterious Jake Walters features though, and Moz describes a companionship that commences almost disastrously when the latter orders meat at a Notting Hill restaurant. Morrissey characteristically flounces off claiming “whether this be considered irritating by the gluttonous carnivore is of no interest to me”. Jake follows him home. “He steps inside and he stays for two years,” says Morrissey.