Sing Your Life: Morrissey’s Autobiography

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person,” Oscar Wilde wrote in “The Critic as Artist” in 1890. “Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”  And there is no better arena to see this observation in practice than popular music, awash as it is with characters that perform, in song and on stage, those thoughts, feelings and ideas that most resonate with our lives and our selves. Whether we guessed his name or not, we really want Lucifer to have moves like Jagger, and Bowie to be floating in his tin can high above the world, and any number of hardcore punks to be the rage-filled political revolutionaries that they lyrically portray themselves to be. It is the mask that excites us, that draws us in, that gets in our ears and our hearts in equal measure and it is ultimately the mask that keeps us coming back to that song, that story, that moment. But it doesn’t last, and so we endeavor to find meaning behind the mask and motivation behind the music. “Reader,” as Morrissey, singer, songwriter and creative force behind the seminal UK band The Smiths, once sang, “meet author.”

For years, the pages of glossy mainstream music publications and bespoke Xeroxed zines fed the pervasive need for more information, through interview and exposé, cover story and capsule review. For the most part, this was still second-hand news, as critics abounded with interpretation upon interpretation, densely layered with opinion, be it enthusiasm or invective. For many years, the very thought of a musician penning their own story was a remote one. These days, the request for that kind of authenticity among our pop-music icons has been heard, the winds of publishing have shifted, and the faithful rewarded with the release of several high-profile autobiographies. Indeed the celebrity musician’s autobiography has, just in the last few years, become a fixture in the marketplace with the recent publication of works by Bob Dylan (Chronicles, Vol. 1), Keith Richards (Life), Patti Smith (Just Kids), Neil Young (Waging Heavy Peace) and Peter Hook of Joy Division and New Order (Unknown Pleasures) and shows no signs of abating. It is into this heady fray that Morrissey himself has jumped, with the publication of his Autobiography.

The very best of the lot have followed one of two literary forms that align with the standard music press that surround them. The first are those narratives that contribute directly to the myth-making hype machine that endlessly churns up the stuff of rock and roll legend. The rebels are more rebellious, the poets more poetic, and the critical praise all the more warranted in light of “the facts.” The second form is much more persuasive, grounding the artistry in everyday life. The reminiscences of the musician-as-biographer are more thoughtful, more visceral, and more like us making the talent and tenacity palpable and, moreover, making the music seem almost other-worldly by its very existence. When placed alongside the accompanying critical rants and raves, such memoirs make us not only return to the music again and again, but really appreciate from whence it came. When placed at the center of this literary crossroads between making myth and telling fact, Morrissey steadfastly does neither.

Autobiography is, rather, a determinedly difficult book. And it comes by its difficulty honestly, knowingly eschewing a few time-honored literary conventions along the way. Among these are the book’s lack of chapters which, rather than plop us down in neatly arranged historical and chronological episodes, seem to propel the narrator forward through life, with all of its fits and starts, assignations and asides, with us along for the ride. Coupling this is Morrissey’s multiple references—to his reader and himself—including first, second, and third person. Though much has been made of the book’s apparent lack of editing, the stream-of-consciousness format of the book allows Morrissey to repeatedly break down the authorial fourth wall, examining his own thoughts and actions with a scrutiny that, in places, borders on Tristram Shandy-esque digression. Alas, he is born but, in the first third of the book, never lets the reader mistake his narrative for mere Bildungsroman. From the outset, Morrissey is ambivalent of his upbringing in “post-war industrial” Manchester, at once seething at dreadful Dickensian school days and social decline whilst celebrating the closeness of the family and friends that buoy him above the harshness of his reality.

It is those early connections, not just to people, but also to literature, film, and music, that take center stage as the narrative progresses, outpacing even the flow of facts. Literary references especially abound, from Shakespeare to poets like Auden, Belloc, Herrick, Housman, MacGill and, of course, Wilde. The rhyme and meter of formal verse blends seamlessly into the pulsating rhythms and lyrical stylings of the Four Tops and saccharine girl groups of the 1960s to the clang and clamor of glam rock and punk in the 1970s, all setting the stage for the Morrissey’s eventual forays into what would become his own world.

One would think that once we arrived at the moment in which Morrissey, the near shut-in twenty-something on the dole gets the (literal and proverbial) knock on the door from youthful guitar slinger-come-lately Johnny Marr of Wythenshawe, 146 pages in, the narrative would politely pause to take in the profundity of that moment. It does not. The Smiths, as a band, are born, live and die rather acrimoniously in a dense 60 pages, with one getting the sense that, if Morrissey could conceivably turn the reader’s attention back to A.E. Housman, he would. Those wishing to find explanation must settle, in Autobiography, for a maddening method, rather than some easily catalogued method in the madness. Again, the author is aware of what he is doing, and the narrative finds it’s most probative voice in detailing the myriad rises and falls of The Smiths, juxtaposing chart-topping album success with a near constant stream of failed singles, album production mishaps, managerial shenanigans, and record label imbroglios peppering the page, juxtaposed, as it were, with the band’s lasting legacy and influence. Here we find Morrissey as provocateur in the extreme, taking on the critical establishment that would either lionize or demonize him from that moment on. And, as Autobiography makes clear, the man himself wouldn’t have it any other way.

In its middle third, Morrissey’s book takes up an argument similar to that of German literary theorist Peter Bürger, detailed in his Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974). In that book, Bürger theorizes what conditions bring about outsider art, against the backdrop of more commercial artistic movements. For Bürger, there is always a push and pull relationship between modernism, which seeks to establish concrete genres and schools, be it “Expressionism” or “New Wave,” and those artists who are, quite literally, ahead of their time—the avant-garde. Modernist institutions like the recording industry, or pop radio, might initially take on experimentation, but only to the degree that it is supported by the potential for eventual mainstream acceptance. The Smiths are initially taken in by the BBC’s celebrity DJs, John Peel and David Jenson, for being so resolutely different that to ignore them entirely was impossible.

Autobiography provides a clipped rendition of the musical and lyrical experimentalism of the Smiths, already supported, and more carefully surveyed, by numerous books about the band, including Simon Goddard’s Songs That Saved Your Life and Tony Fletcher’s A Light That Never Goes Out. Rather than seek to invent a genre to sustain them, the Smiths studio work eschews genre altogether, hearkening back to the guitar-based pop that once dominated the UK charts but seemed all but vanished by the time Michael Jackson’s Thriller ruled the airwaves and the sales figures. Marr’s ramping up of disco-inspired funk to Stooges-like intensity (“The Headmaster Ritual”) then lurching into a borrowed Elvis Presley rockabilly riff (“Rusholme Ruffians”), or foregoing the 1-3-5 style entirely in favor of more folk and jazz-inflected fringe bands like Pentangle or Fairport Convention (“That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”)—occurs all in the space of one album, 1985’s Meat Is Murder. And this genre-inspired play was not the only thing differentiating The Smiths from their peers. Morrissey alludes, in Autobiography, to the band’s willingness to differentiate with vocal styles, with Morrissey taking on everything from spoken word to near operatic falsetto and contralto elements on their self-titled debut in 1984, and experimenting in the studio with vocal pitch shifting, most notably in “Bigmouth Strikes Again” from 1986’s The Queen Is Dead, which also featured multiple sampled drum loops on its title-track.

Morrissey’s belletrist lyrical palette was equally matched, in many ways, by Marr’s talent and breadth of musical knowledge that complemented, if not rivaled, his writing partner’s, from Bert Jansch and Bo Diddley to T-Rex and Patti Smith. The Smiths proved, in a sense, that to be avant-garde, you didn’t need the latest technology, as so many synth-driven bands seemed to think, but that your experimentation needed to be ingrained, embodied, and, above all, stubbornly resolute. At that moment, in Morrissey’s telling, the music establishment breathed a heavy sigh, realizing this was not the next Wham! after all. Still, the rock audiences of the time, whether weaned on more staid radio fare of the day or even the high points of glam, punk or early New Wave from years previous, may not have found more of the same with The Smiths, but they found something, and they bought records, attended shows, and began the following that would propel the band to center stage.

The musical wanderlust and studio sensibilities were accompanied by Morrissey’s willingness to experiment lyrically, both in terms of content and structure. In the latter respect, the songwriting method of the Morrissey-Marr partnership consisted of Morrissey producing lyrics before even hearing the first note of its potential accompaniment. Morrissey’s singing would then, in turn, shape the song, when the two were married in the vocal booth, with Morrissey producing a chorus over the as-written bridge, or simply failing to sing at all when the anthemic major progressions would signal a chorus or refrain. Morrissey alludes only briefly to all of this in Autobiography, although it would be a stylistic hallmark of his work, to greater or lesser effect, throughout his recording career. Instead, more emphasis is placed on lyrical content, and, indeed, it is lyrics of The Smiths that have contributed much to creating the Morrissey “persona” that fans and the music press find most familiar. And yet, by Morrissey’s position, the band sought only to authentically portray the reality of themselves and their surroundings even when such references stung conservative sensibilities of the time, whether by intoning the terrifying cackles of Manchester serial child murderer Myra Hindley or bemoaning their stultifying origins in rented rooms in Whalley Range.

Coupling the music and lyrics together with a style more suited to the East End stage than Top of the Pops, Morrissey as vocalist would use the musical elements of his voice—the odd operatic inflections, the grunts and non-lexical sounds, and winking use of innuendo and aside, over-enunciating words for comic or dramatic effect, or seeming to go sotto voce mid-song, to convey multiple roles, be they characters or points of view to exacerbate the lyrical content. Far from simply purveying his proclaimed “authenticity,” borrowed from the popular “kitchen sink” realism of popular British films and plays, such as Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey or Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Morrissey’s lyrics seem to subvert the ordinary fodder of this style into an intellectual reach for something greater beyond their trappings. Though inspired by Bowie, Bolan, and Jobriath, Morrissey’s means of escape from the ordinary doesn’t lead him to a stylized and stylish outer space, but rather an inner space of art and artifice.

The commitment to outsider status is one constantly reaffirmed in Autobiography, from the inception of the Smiths through the detailing of Morrissey’s solo career. Bürger’s theory clearly focuses on Surrealism and the work of Andy Warhol as touchstones of the avant-garde, and connections between the two abound in Morrissey’s book. For example, early Smiths singles, laid out and designed by Morrissey himself, often featured stills from the films of Jean Cocteau and Warhol “superstars” like Candy Darling and Joe Dallesandro on the cover in place of pictures of the band themselves. As Morrissey writes:

An excitingly arch London magazine called Film and Filming has versed me in the Warholian, with all of its guiding principles of self-determination and autonomy. I cried for poetic language and I cried out to find those who were unafraid, those free agents, unbigoted and unshackled. I didn’t want to live unseen, camouflaged within the crowd. I knew then that life could only ever be changed for the better because somebody somewhere had taken a risk – often with their own life.

As Bürger noted, the avant-garde comes in as the first moment that artists became self-conscious of the effects of mainstream support and seek to destroy it, stating that “the vanity press, the same as the institution, does not take on the experimental unless there is money to be made in it.” Thus, the avant-garde artist is at constant war with the institutions and subsequent critical apparatuses that make dissemination of their art possible in the first place. And as soon as something is accepted (or co-opted), it must therefore be refused or remade.  In Morrissey’s telling, the truth lay in the ever-changing masks—to the press, to the fans, to the revolving assortment of managers, executives and publicists eager to hitch their own careers to Morrissey’s already Icarus-like trajectory.

Autobiography claims neither precognitive praise nor knowing blame, foresight and hindsight being equally blind in the mercurial present of the avant-garde. Is such an artistic temperament sustainable? No, and Morrissey admits as much, and, post-Smiths, his solo career is launched by ignoring everybody (including his own conscience). At first skeptical of performing as a solo act at all, contractual commitments force Morrissey’s hand. Then, wishing to maintain some semblance of The Smiths while taking the avant-gardist notions of refusal and remaking to heart, Morrissey reluctantly accepts the submission of demos from longtime Smiths engineer Stephen Street and enlisted, as guitarist, the experimental musician Vini Reilly of The Durutti Column. Contrary to the template of the Smiths, Morrissey dispenses with the genre hopping in favor of the disparate elements that the trio (joined by the jazz-influenced Andrew Paresi on drums). One can only imagine the pearl-clutching reaction to the squall of dissonant feedback that begins “Alsatian Cousin” and this embrace carries forward into the structure of the album itself, from its paean to 1970’s England album-length storyline to its Warhol-influenced decision to feature Morrissey as its cover star for the first time.  The story of Viva Hate, as with the story of The Smiths, makes for only a small set-piece in Autobiography, but is an important marker in the book nonetheless.  Though, as Morrissey ascends in his narrative, the wax begins to melt.

Much has been made in both celebrity biography and music criticism about an artist having “wilderness years.” The term is given to a period of artistic and critical decline, but one that is ultimately forgiven by critics, as it leads to an artistic or creative renaissance and newly forged relationship with the mainstream—the artist comes back, new label, or record, or world tour in tow: chastened, wizened and ready for their close-up. Autobiography, like L.L. Cool J, ever-so-tactfully tells you where to proverbially stick your notion of “comeback.” Morrissey rushes headlong from long periods of hiatus to new creative peaks and record label contracts with the same unbridled ambition, producing records that seem to defy the “wilderness years” logic of “decline,” reclusion and rapprochement and “comeback” and its attendant sell-out tours and chart success to a vertiginous degree.

The resulting final section of the book is an intricate travelogue of ebbs and flows, providing almost graphic depictions of what Morrissey’s career had ultimately wrought: protracted legal and financial wrangling with ex-Smiths drummer Mike Joyce which all but overshadows their greatest shared accomplishments, and reflecting on relocations from Manchester, London and Dublin to Los Angeles, Paris and Rome that render “home” ever-elusive, outside of the road and the stage. It also showers love and praise on the fans and followers in every town from Austin to Zagreb. Moreover, it is this section that contains some of Morrissey’s most heartfelt writing, touching elegies to fellow artists who pass away, including Mick Ronson, Tim Broad, and Jerry Finn. All this lavish detail—the love and the loss—provides little in the way of revelation, just as the court decisions or real estate sales do little to settle the questions of truth or place in Morrissey’s mind. This section is eerily reminiscent of Warhol’s Diaries, when intellectual arguments trail off in a list of magazine, gum, and hairspray purchases at a local store, or a Cambridge-era Ludwig Wittgenstein storming out mid-lecture to illustrate that further discussion of a point won’t help you understand the point any better. Pouring language on a problem, Morrissey seems to be saying, won’t make it go away, or keep it from happening again. The best thing is simply to refuse the urge to explain any further.

But to paint Morrissey as some pop music Bartleby is the miss his point. As Morrissey says, around the time the narrative gets to his tellingly titled 2009 record, Years of Refusal, “the refusal in question was the refusal to be knocked out.” By life, one would suspect, but this being Morrissey, the sentiment remains elliptical. Again, we find a similar sentiment in Bürger, who stated that: “this refusal to provide meaning is experienced as shock by the recipient.” – and the reader opening the pages of Autobiography hoping to gain some insight left continually deferred by Morrissey’s resoundingly obstinate relationship to the press, to critics, to labels, to radio DJs, to his lawyers, to his accountants, to his current and former band members and, in one bizarre turn, the entire cast and crew of Friends, only to find the refusal rekindled and redoubled with a deadly efficiency, does experience quite a shock indeed. Where the shock comes from is perhaps the most shocking of all.

The Morrissey that is presented in the book, at its weakest moments, is one which reaffirms the “persona” that adoring fans and detractors alike seem to take to heart. The most shocking passages of warmth and wit are all-but-obliterated by elements which seem carefully crafted to “shock”, but fall flat when placed aside the former. The unexpected mildly self-deprecating and quotidian aspects of Autobiography are stunted by self-important rants and pages upon pages of antipathy and axe-grinding. Despite this, Morrissey deserves some praise, in the final analysis, for trumping expectations, if only at a briefest glimpse, but it is, as Wilde predicted, not the truth that prevails, but the mask.

What Autobiography does force its reader to re-examine, closely, is that which had been right in front of them all along—Morrissey’s lyrics. No review of the book—even the most damning—ever raises doubts on Morrissey’s ability to write, and his prose style, while “full” is neither labored nor forced. The book is, for all its refusing, quite giving in providing context to the lyrics that many readers would know by heart. Autobiography, quite subtly in places, works in a delicate bricolage of Morrissey’s lyrical output. Its rendering avoids the knowing too-cleverness or punning quality that one would expect, and the self-referential quality of this actually serves the music far more than some run-on sentence detailing the writing or recording of the song being referenced ever could accomplish. More endearing is that, where Morrissey shies away from stepping too far between the reader and the lyrical reference, he coyly acknowledges the relationship between his life and work in the book’s final sentence, which occurs after the narrative ends, and indeed, after the obligatory copyright verbiage and acknowledgements. There, in lowercase italics, is Autobiography’s stated raison d’être: “whatever is sung is the case.” The playful Wittgenstein reference, likely to be overlooked by so many, is the key to unlocking much of what can be savored in reading Morrissey’s book. Those who come seeking some edited, sanitized, sterilized, “official” telling of the story are bound, as ever, to be frustrated or disappointed. Those who have come to expect the virulent, malcontented contrarian should be equally so. For those who simply wish to listen, Morrissey’s voice is as strong as ever.

– – –

John R. Barner is a writer, teacher and musician living in Athens, Georgia. His writing can be found in the book Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan’s Road from Minnesota to the World (2009: University of Minnesota Press), the journal Flow and the Athens Banner-Herald newspaper. He is author and co-founder of the web essay series Holmes Under the Glass. Write to him at jrbarner@gmail.com 

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