I doubt if the rock star Morrissey – born Stephen Patrick Morrissey in 1959 – would welcome any comparison between himself and the film director Woody Allen, yet he is a similarly brilliant, highly amusing mixture of egocentricity and self-denigration. Interestingly, although Morrissey was born in Manchester (UK) and spent his youth there, throughout Autobiography he uses American spelling and expressions, such as 'parking lot' and 'cell phone'.
Some reviews of the extended treatment Moz gives to the (in)famous court case of 1996 – in which drummer Mike Joyce successfully sues for (allegedly) unfair distribution of profits dating back to when he was in the Smiths – have called it tedious, but it reads brilliantly as a farcical, Kafkaseque onslaught, a determined hounding of Morrissey to extract as much financial blood as possible from him. The judge, John Weeks – later described as a 'fuckhead' by REM's Michael Stipe – has not even heard of Top of the Pops. This shows as much knowledge of how people in England (and by extension people on Earth?) then lived as chief prosecutor Mervyn ('Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?) Griffith-Jones displayed in 1960 during the Lady Chatterley's Lover obscenity trial. In this section, Morrissey delivers one of his many dismissive put-downs: '[Joyce] is not the quarry. He is not even qualified to be a nonentity.'
(I suspect that Joyce laughed at Moz's insults in the book in the same way as he laughed at the song 'Sorrow Will Come in the End' on Moz's solo album Maladjusted, in which the singer speaks of 'A man who slits throats [...] And I'm gonna get you'. Although – fearing legal repercussions – the pusillanimous Island Records pulled the track from the UK version, Joyce remarked that he thought it funny, but joked that he would have been worried if Lemmy (the fearsome Motörhead singer) had written it.)
Coming from a working-class Irish background like his bandmates – who nevertheless were grammar school educated whilst Moz went to a secondary modern school – he is painfully aware of class divisions, and doesn't need an Owen Jones to point out the discrepancy between the huge media attention given to the Madeleine McCann case as opposed to that of Keith Bennett, the working-class child murdered by Brady and Hindley whose remains on Saddleworth Moor have still not been found.
L'esprit de l'escalier rules in this book as Morrissey looks back and fires salvo after salvo at – the reader is given to think – anyone who has ever harmed him in any way throughout his life. This book is the perfect opportunity to settle old scores. As expected, much venom is hurled at Geoff Travis, the Rough Trade record company creator Morrissey attacked years before in his song 'Frankly, Mr Shankly' as 'a flatulent pain in the arse': Travis is criticised here for everything from poor management to flying the band across the Atlantic in 'cattle class'. Less seriously, Moz is never a man to resist the offer of a slice of toast, although he remarks that the 'Dagenham Doll' Sandie Shaw hands him a cold toasted exhibit of one of the smallest pieces of bread he's ever seen.
In his sarcasm and his biting howls of hatred, Morrissey seems to spare no one and nothing: the NME (at one time nicknamed 'New Morrissey Express'1) was sued by Morrissey for calling him a racist; John Peel, once the rebel uncle (or grandfather) millions would have loved to have, justifiably comes out badly here for accepting the OBE from the UK's, er, gracious queen, and for half-believing the NME's senseless 'racist' slur; but how's this for really nasty bitchery – 'Manchester Man' Tony Wilson 'managed a lengthy and slow decline which some thought was actually an ongoing career'; and of Julie Burchill he says 'she will one day be found dead [...] having been burned and hanged and stuffed on the legitimate grounds of having been an irritable woman'.
Exaggeration, of course, is this man's favored weapon. And Moz can be as coruscating when attacking institutional shibboleths: he aims at the judicial system, the royal family, the education system, big business, the political establishment, and so on.
The importance of Autobiography would have been considerably lessened if it were merely a hate rant, but it is far more, and a serious love of music and literature shines throughout the book. The (original) New York Dolls seem to remain his all-time favorites – one of the major attractions here undoubtedly being their androgynous appeal, and Mozzer – a man who is not a homosexual but a 'humasexual' – delights in the sexually ambivalent: the camp not only of the Dolls but also Jobriath, Marc Bolan and David Bowie, and the spunkiness of Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde and Kristeen Young. A number of the authors he mentions are homosexual or (occasionally) sexually ambivalent: for instance, A. E. Housman, Oscar Wilde, W. H. Auden, Stevie Smith, and he shows his appreciation for a homo-social verse by Patrick MacGill.
There are three photos of important friends from younger days, each jokingly labeled 'trouble': James Maker of Raymonde and RPLA, who (in similar joking mood) told biographer Pat Reid he knew Morrissey would either become an international pop star or a notorious mass murderer; feminist photographer Linder Sterling of Ludus, who shot Morrissey (she loved that expression) for the album Your Arsenal (1992); and Jake Owen Walker – also a photographer – who did the album cover for Years of Refusal (2009), and who lived with Morrissey for two years many years before the cover shoot; there appears to be almost no information on the Iranian Tina Dehghani, with whom Morrissey says he discussed 'the unthinkable act of producing a mewling miniature monster'.
It comes as quite a surprise to realise how some of Moz's song titles must have come across as quite provocative: 'The Queen Is Dead' (as an album title to boot); 'Shoplifters of the World Unite and Take Over'; and 'Margaret on the Guillotine', which earned him an hour-long grilling from Special Branch, the farcical nature of which is underlined when at the end one of them asked him to sign a photo 'for a neighbor'.
Morrissey is many things but he is no hypocrite, and his beliefs are consistent: he has always hated Thatcher and shortly after her death said:
'Thatcher was not a strong or formidable leader. She simply did not give a shit about people, and this coarseness has been neatly transformed into bravery by the British press who are attempting to re-write history in order to protect patriotism.'
How absolutely true, and how spiritedly different this is from the unbelievable bullshit eulogies that came from the weak-as-water Ed Miliband* on reacting to Thatcher's death.
It is sad, then, that during a criticism of Geoff Travis, Morrissey should write in such a dismissive way of Robert Wyatt and his version of Elvis Costello's 'Shipbuilding', particularly as it is one of the great anti-Thatcher songs, far superior to Morrissey's 'Margaret on the Guillotine'. Morrissey, in his eagerness to pour vitriol on Travis, seems to have forgotten the strength of 'Shipbuilding', if in fact he knew what the song is about, if he knew that Robert Wyatt's politics in general are in fact probably not so very different from Morrissey's own. For instance, how about Wyatt's 'The United States of Amnesia'?
There are some minor schoolboy howlers of the 'between you and I' nature in Autobiography, I don't like the italicized direct speech and track (as opposed to album) titles. Those who don't know Manchester and area will find a few parts a little hard-going, and those who don't have a love of rock history will find parts incomprehensible, but then why would they be reading it in the first place?
This is a book to treasure, a generally very well written, very funny, and highly commendable work by one of the greatest popular lyricists of all time, certainly one of the most literate lead singers of all time. My favorite comment is on p. 196 about James Baldwin:
'[H]is honesty ignited irrational fear in an America where men were draped with medals for killing other men yet imprisoned for loving one another.'
1 NME recently nominated The Queen Is Dead as all-time best album, and they also gave this book a very favorable review.
Below is an earlier post of mine of Morrissey sites in Manchester:
Morrissey in Manchester