Monday, 24 March 2014
Patrick West doesn't know whether to laugh or cry at The Smiths' lead singer's autobiography
Penguin Classics £8.99
Even before most people had read Morrissey’s autobiography, it had caused a stir, owing to Penguin’s decision to publish it as a Classic. How could the musings of a mere pop star be placed in the same category as Virgil and Homer? While Penguin tried to pass it off as a literary joke, others weren’t convinced. Morrissey, lead singer for the seminal 1980s group the Smiths, is notorious for his sense of self-importance. He is a legend in his own head, and like all divas, he is surrounded by acolytes who cater for every whim and fantasy. “Penguin Classic” indeed.
Steven Morrissey forged a career singing about loneliness, alienation and despair - a famous Smiths songs is called Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now - so one might expect Autobiography to read like the diary of maudlin, bookish teenager. In this department, it does not disappoint.
“My childhood is streets upon streets upon streets upon streets. Streets to define you and streets to confine you, with no sign of motorway, freeway or highway,” it opens sonorously, like an aspiring T. S. Eliot. He morosely depicts the Manchester of his youth, “where aborted babies found deathly peace instead of unforgiving life”, peppering his prose with alliteration and rhyme, writing of “shells of shabby shops” and “glamour and clamor” (he insists on American English spelling throughout).
From the outset, it‘s clear this isn’t to be a regular self-aggrandising autobiography or a misery memoir. One of his teachers, Miss Redmond, “is aging, and will never marry, and will die smelling of attics”. He is confronted by Vanessa Redgrave, who “goes on about social injustice in Namibia, and how we must all build a raft by late afternoon - preferably out of coconut matting“. Bad artwork for one of his album covers was “enough to have made van Gogh chop of both ears” (he also insists on italics for emphasis).
Elsewhere, Julie Burchill arouses “loud yawns of national disinterest“, while Sarah Ferguson is the “overly untalented… Duchess of Nothing”, an ungallant if irrefutable observation. When and old friend Simon Topping appeared on the cover of the NME he exclaims: “I died a thousand deaths of sorry and lay down on the woods to die.” I found myself laughing aloud uneasily at these passages, unsure whether Autobiography was adolescent dross, something close to genius or some meta-ironic joke going over my head.
Perhaps it‘s because Morrissey is so candid and lacking in self-censorship. Morrissey decided to drop his first name, Steven, because “classical composers were known by just their surnames, and this suited my mud lark temperament quite nicely.” He knows that he’s seen for his “intolerable egocentricity and dramatized depression” and strikes back by announcing early: “Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big.”
Autobiography is thin on details and chronology, and he tells us little about the music that made his name. His bitter, whiny, self-pity and ingratitude can be grating, and a braver editor would have cut the tedious court struggle that mar a solid fifty pages towards the end. And the only genuinely conventional passages are those in relation to his Irish-Catholic background. “Catholicism has you tracked and trailed for life with an overwhelming sense of self-doubt”, he laments, as many have done before him.
Yet the memoir is genuinely affecting in parts. His friend, the singer Kirsty MacColl, died in 2000 in a boating accident in Mexico, after he had urged her to go there. Morrissey’s palpable feeling of guilt is compounded when he receives from her a posthumous postcard. “I cry myself blind for yet another lost friend“, he writes, and you believe him. Upon the death of his aunt Rita, he reflects with some profundity: “I shall catch up with you in the afterlife, and if there is not to be one at all, then neither of us shall be alert enough to be disappointed.”
Morrissey - blunt, queeny, self-absorbed - has by accident or design created an absurd, brilliant and disconcertingly hilarious memoir. It’s like reading the diary of a teenage Alan Partridge who wants to be Oscar Wilde. It’s probably the best and worst book I read in the past year.