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Book review: Morrissey, ‘Autobiography’

December 27, 2013

Mozzzzzz

 

Here is my review of ‘Mein Booky Wook’, as written for The Thousands.

In a sense, it’s hard to fathom how it’s taken until 2013 for Smiths frontman, hyper-veggo and indie martyr-complex benchmark Steven Patrick Morrissey to pump out hisAutobiography. As a celebrated literature nut (Wilde is on his side, remember) and a man oft celebrated for his knack with a bon mot, he can’t have gone the last three decades without feeling a book was in him. Similarly, being the (presumably unwitting) spiritual father of emo – and (seemingly) super aware of the devotion he inspires across the globe – must’ve had him toying with the auto-bio format as an outlet for his truth and grief before now.

On the other hand, despite having not always resembled (as he puts it) “Jean Gabin after a good beating”, Morrissey’s gargantuan world-weariness has forever painted him as a man born at 52, the age this tome leads up to. So having to wait until now for his life story, sung his own way, is kind of perfect. Perhaps the main regret from leaving it this long is that the portrayal of the grim and gritty post-war English North that childhood-Moz endured has long been an overly mined cultural trope, in nonfiction and elsewhere. Despite the unrelenting despair and disdain only he can muster, it has less impact than it should.

That’s not to say Autobiography isn’t uniquely and undoubtedly Morrissian – it is, often overwhelmingly so. Many readers not already hardened on Mozza are likely to find this book rather daunting considering its 450 pages without chapters, its opening paragraph that hurtles from birth (and near-death in infancy) to early schooldays over four pages – and that it’s not until page 75 that we get the first line break to pause for breath. Oh, mother!

Indeed, while the style and heft of the prose may well signal the author’s stubborn refusal of an editor, it also acts as a means of weeding out the non-fanatics, only allowing those who really care to access the, ahem, meat of the work. For instance, the early 10-page tract in which Steven reviews virtually every TV show he watched in his schooldays feels like an endurance test to caution the mildly curious, rather than a burning desire to tell you how great Thunderbirds was. When somewhere in the mid section you read “my only pleasure was to out-endure people’s patience”, you don’t doubt it.

Those that stay, though, are rewarded often with a sublime turn of phrase that, even among fountains of ramble, prove his barbed wit and bleak poetry have been transferred from song intact. In fact, the writing sounds so dramatically like Morrissey that after a while it starts to read as hilariously self-parodic, intended or not. When an anecdote about being turned down for a job as a postman ends with the typically maudlin line “There is now no escape but death”, I wonder whether the guffawing it elicits is what was hoped for.

With this in mind, it’s worth noting there’s no truly shattering revelation for fans here (apart from, perhaps, the details of a two-year platonic relationship with a male companion, or the fact he once attended a taping of Friends but refused to sing ‘Smelly Cat’ with Phoebe). But that hardly seems the point; surely the joy they’ll derive from this book won’t be finally getting to hear Morrissey’s side of the story, but simply getting to read it in his voice. Most devotees will know, for example, that Moz hates the guts of Geoff Travis, the Rough Trade Records boss whose acquisition of the Smiths pushed the label unexpectedly into the mainstream. But the way he finds dozens of new and inventive ways to repeatedly mark Travis as an unscrupulous ex-hippie, tactless and terminally out of his depth, turn re-learning it into a masterclass of the grudge-fuelled diss.

Autobiography is, therefore, everything a Morrissey buff might expect: bitter, uncompromising, shot through with misery but cattily funny. Even when it’s brutally cruel (gloating at the death of Beatles associate Neil Aspinall just because he sent a slightly terse letter once) or unguardedly touching (talking of friendship with Kirsty MacColl, or praising Johnny Marr’s creativity), it’s hard to mistake for anyone else. And the message being said is what all those faithful to the Pope Of Mope already know: life is a pigsty.

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