Growing up in Manchester during the 1980’s demanded that you place yourself in a kind of cultural planetary system. One could orbit the Fall, swing around the Joy Division/New Order nexus, but for this young man in rainy Cheadle, the Smiths were a black hole from which there was no escape. The power of Morrissey’s lyricism combined with Marr’s inspired guitar was a sound entirely right for the time if you were frequently caught in the rain while wearing an acrylic jumper from BHS. It spoke directly to me, thousands like me, and for us he made the intolerable bearable, illuminating the dreary and glamourising the greyness.
I saw the Smiths play twice, and it was brilliant on both occasions; electric, jubilant performances that I’ll remember all my life. I bought all the records. I still have them, and play them. The songs sound fresh to me today, particularly after a couple of drinks, and I think The Queen is Dead is one of the best albums ever recorded. So this review is biased, but even to this unabashed supporter it’s clear that Morrissey, as a man and as a writer, has feet made if not of clay then some other pretty base material.
This autobiography is at times brilliant, at others utterly unreadable. It’s plain that the publisher’s rulebook has been jettisoned - nobody has edited this work. I don’t suppose he allowed them.Well, it needed editing. And there’s surely an element of self-mockery of his insistence that it should appear on the shelf dressed as a Penguin Classic, he must know he is no latter day Manchester Gaskell. Instead he is at times a stranger to paragraphs, flits between tenses, and the book has at best a shaky grip of structure and narrative.
And yet there’s much to enjoy. Perhaps predictably Morrissey is at his strongest talking about Manchester, his love/hate for the city burning through the text. His childhood in Moss Side and his apparently awful schooling make for a great read, but he is plainly the most unreliable of narrators, even of his own story. A wise reader travels here with a bucket of Cheshire salt. He makes his schools sound appalling but if they failed him it’s because they didn't spot his unusual intelligence, not an uncommon problem in big educational systems. He says he put no effort in, so infact he may have failed them. There are no even half-decent teachers depicted, all of them were alleged monsters, and yet someone - somewhere - must have taught him something. He can’t have sprung on us fully-formed and self designed. It’s also clear he came from a big and loving Irish family, albeit with a disappearing dad. I suspect much of Morrissey’s so-marketable trauma is manufactured.
He’s at his strongest about his loves, weakest about his hatreds. Passions shine through; for the New York Dolls in particular, who he plays a part in re-uniting. For punk too; he is among those at the historic Sex Pistols gig at the Lower Free Trade Hall. There’s the sheer randomness of life as a rock star, like the mad drive over the moors during which he and his friends see what they think is a ghost who throws himself across their car semi naked; they ring the police who hilariously suggest they ‘keep an open mind’, when daylight comes they return to find the spectre’s Y-Fronts. A handful of friends are recorded, some of them die far too early and he communicates the blinding robbery of grief very effectively .
While the Smiths are characterised by their critics as tedious and miserable, if there’s a generic Smiths sin it’s more one of over sensitivity. Morrissey simply feels so intensely, about perceived slights, his talent, his music and so on and this is what comes through the whole of the book. Each entry chart position is listed, too low and it is always his record company’s fault, high and it’s simply what he’s due. And he hates with a terrible vengeance and liberality, playful gossip (bumping into Bowie, fencing musically with Bryan Ferry) at times replaced with seeping vitriol and score settling. His description of Rough Trade, who took him to the top, is unappetising and small minded. Sire records, a later home,also take a pounding, they simply never do anything for him, apparently. The press, even the NME, is always horrendous in his view, but I remember the Smiths being lionised, then revised, then lionised once again.
Even allowing for the fact that the music world is a bitchy place, Morrissey’s unrelenting take no prisoners approach alienates even the most sympathetic of readers. Stooping to conquer, he lambasts poor Nick Kent for criticising the band in some music paper, then plainly at a low point, he writes to Morrissey to ask to join it. There are countless more examples of long memory sideswipes at minor players in the Smiths saga. But the worst of this self indulgent stuff is the seemingly endless and turgid account of the law suit over Smiths finances, in which Mike Joyce successfully sued him and Marr. It is entirely tedious, pretty much indigestible and reader, I skipped it.
There’s a lot that’s not here. There is hardly any explanation or discussion of his much run-ins with reported and denied racism. It might have been a gargoyle worth finally slaying, although personally I don’t see him as racist. His creativity with Marr is barely described. At least he’s honest when he describes the first Smiths album as atrocious. I still remember sitting on my rented couch numb with shock when I heard how the mishandled production had effectively blunted all the songs. I relied on a bootlegged cassette of the Peel and Jensen sessions to get me through my second year of University.
And yet at the end of all the meticulously catalogued abuse, mismanagement and legal tedium he winds up rich, and we’re back in readable territory once more. He absents himself from the UK, taking to California like a duck to water, and rents the house next to Johnny Depp. Finding himself in love with a woman who can (miraculously) put up with him, he even contemplates children, then writes about our politics with all the dilettante authority of the ex-pat Mail reader. In the middle of this, he returns to Sale to watch his auntie die, and this passage is unbearably strong. Pages later he breaks off from an exhaustive account of a world tour to analyse the cultural contribution of Victoria Wood.
You have to winnow through the chaff. Is the exercise worth it? For me it is, but then I have a personal stake, as so many of us do from that time and that part of the world.