Saturday, October 26, 2013

Autobiography by Morrissey

The first hundred or so pages of "Autobiography" by Morrissey are stunning. A rich, evocative retelling of life in Manchester in the sixties and seventies. (Morrissey was born in 1959.) Several times he calls it a resolutely Victorian city, but the abandoned buildings, slums are bomb sites are unblemished memories of the post-war decline. The urban working class - often large Irish families cramped into small terrace houses in unforgiving urban squares - live an unexamined life. Yet, Coronation Street and "A Taste of Honey" have immortalised these slums - and the sense of community that exists even as outsiders are grimly bullied,  is at the heart of Morrissey's literary vision. The characters of songs like "The Headmaster Ritual" and "Rusholme Ruffians" are brought to life in this extended piece of memory. Yet Morrissey writes more like an 18th century Defoe, a first person ingenue, a male Moll Flanders, always at the heart of the action but somewhat distant from it.
The oft-mythologised youth of this self-proclaimed outsider is not quite so unbearable as you might imagine. At the heart is his large Irish family, full of vivid older sisters. The tragedy is not just their poverty, but the poverty of imagination that faces any sensitive kid during that time - particularly one dumped into the sadistic nothingness of the Secondary Modern, where even the usual sanctuary of the art teacher's class offers no  respite from the greyness. Left to his own devices as Manchester's Victorian slums get crushed and emptied and replaced with the dreadful crescents and tower blocks of the late 60s, these memories are wonderfully rich. I wasn't born here, but I know these streets, and I know these half-stories, of old traditions slow to die, and a Manchester that is only slowly peeping into the modern world.

Yet there is not hopelessness for the young Morrissey. There are other outsiders - particularly in the peculiarly working class subculture of 70s glam - where hefty male bricklayers wear platform heels and glitter. For Morrissey, like so many of his generation, it is not prog rock or the solo Beatles that are his soundtrack but Bolan, Bowie and Mott the Hoople. The sixties took along time to make it to the working class inner city suburbs of Manchester, but by his teens, Morrissey could see glamour through the soot and it was outsider artists like the androgynous New York Dolls and Patti Smith who offered a way out. As his Desert Island Discs from a few years showed, its the classic alternative rock acts of the 70s that were his formation.

In 70s Manchester punk rock gave a voice to the voiceless and like-minded individuals ended up at those early punk gigs like Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols and the Fall. Morrissey's lifetime friend Linder Sterling was going out with Howard Devoto, then of Buzzcocks, later of Magazine, but she was a notably rare female presence in the male-dominated Manchester punk scene. (Still thriving in its gender homogeneity to this day!) 18 year old Morrissey, singing at home, was nowhere near ready enough to become the rock and roll star that he so wanted to become; and in retrospect its obvious that his great vocal talents wouldn't have lasted too well in the harshness of seventies punk and new wave. Finally singing with a band that are erroneously (thanks Paul Morley) known as the Nosebleeds, it leads onto an introduction to a young Johnny Marr. Abruptly the book changes. The leisurely ennui of that unachieved life takes a different turn as Marr pulls in Rourke and Joyce and suddenly the outsider from Kings Road becomes Morrissey, lead singer in the Smiths. Those hoping for a detailed breakdown of that time will be disappointed. Morrissey goes through those years at breakneck speed, their success instant, but also immediately soured by his complaints and grumbles about Rough Trade records. I remember when the Smiths appeared, with a single "Hand in Glove" and a remarkable Peel session - the effect was almost instant - but it was those early gigs that were legendary as well - and despite Morrissey's complaints about being ignored by radio; they were almost unprecedently filmed for a BBC live broadcast at Derby Assembly Rooms before they'd recorded their second single.

A disappointing (to Morrissey) first album lead to the alternate version, the Peel sessions plus "Hatfull of Holllow"; yet we didn't really complain. "The Smiths" and its associated singles were played to death, more so, than the follow up "Meat is Murder". Unheard of for indie or guitar bands, the Smiths had top twenty singles and albums that went in at one or two in the charts. In Morrissey's telling he was constantly asking why Rough Trade wasn't doing more - the complaints that were written in song on their last album in "Paint a Vulgar Picture." From a fan's point of view; it wasn't like that at the time - that "How Soon is Now" was a b-side didn't really matter; we just flipped the 12" and played that instead of the briefer-than-anything "William, it was Really Nothing."

Its a shame that Morrissey puts less of the Smiths period into the book - perhaps its an attempt to even things out - his solo career has lasted so much longer  - yet there's surely more to be said on the creation of that wonderful run of songs, where every b-side was a wonder. It did happen so quick and by 1988, for reasons Morrissey still isn't sure about, the Smiths had broken up. Whether Marr really wanted to replace Morrissey with Bryan Ferry or just be a sideman, who knows? It seems that Morrissey was both lucky and unlucky in his collaborators - lucky musically as they offered such as foil, but unlucky personally as they were just there for the ride, as another rock and roll band; not realising what a pearl Morrissey was. Those things the fans adored: the gladioli, the arch interviews, the political songs, the vegetarianism; weren't shared by his bandmates - almost unaware of how much Morrissey's mythos was vital to them being more than just another band.

After the band broke, Morrissey, forever without a wise old head to advise him on legal matters, quickly recorded a solo album with Smiths' engineer Stephen Street. Unless I missed it, Vini Reilly, the Mancunian legend whose guitar playing was such a wonderful addition to "Viva Hate" doesn't even get a mention - which is a shame. Morrissey rarely talks about the music; though he acknowledges the disappointment of the session musicians on the poor "Kill Uncle" and talks with wonder of Alain Whyte's songwriting on later albums like "Ringleader of the Tormentors" and his last (to date) album "Years of Refusal."  Moving almost permanently to London, the five years of the Smiths is skipped by much too quickly. There's little about how feverish the fans were at that time or how vital the Smiths were to British music during those years - did Morrissey really not realise? Or is he still just wondering why a song like "Shoplifters of the world Unite" wasn't in the top 5? The top 5 hits came (though never, ever a number one), but this was the solo Morrissey - signed to EMI before the Smiths had broke. There's a lot to be said about those early solo years: Morrissey certainly had to prove himself, and after "Kill Uncle" he pulled together a workmanlike but reliably anonymous rockabilly band that has been his mainstay ever since (occasional components changing over time.) Reaching some kind of American success with the excellent "Your Arsenal" the manufactured controversy of the NME's "is Morrissey racist?" campaign is one of several bugbears that take up far too many pages of what is otherwise an excellent book.

Perhaps aware that the last twenty years aren't quite as interesting a story as the early years, Morrissey peppers his prose with incident: seeing a ghost boy on Saddleworth moor; occasional rescuing of wounded animals; overlong mini-essays on his favourite poetry and films. Its an odd book in that sense; yet though that first wonderful hundred pages isn't matched in the rest of the memoir, its not without its pleasures - as the narrative bops along reasonably sardonically. Morrissey in his self-telling is always the awkward man in the room; making jokes that no-one gets, sadly unaware when friends blank him; winningly sensitive when he's writing about friends and colleagues who have died. Heartbreaking in remembering Kirsty Maccoll for instance, who he sang with a number of times, and advised to holiday in Cancun, where she was so awfully killed by an errant speedboat. Whether we need a full chapter on his solo video work - an erstwhile tribute to the videomaker Tim Broad, who also died young - is another matter.

Despite the success of his albums "Your Arsenal" and "Vauxhall and I" there was a sense of diminishing returns with the 2 albums that followed; and having moved to Los Angeles to live, Morrissey seemed to have disappeared from the British pop scene in the late 90s; seen more as an anachronism than an elder statesman in an age of Britpop, grunge and big beat. The dancefloor hardly gets a mention in the book - but the dominance of house music in the UK and the club scene, meant that for a decade or more Morrissey was very unfashionable; even as his back catalogue sold and reissued compilations kept the Smiths in the memory.

The defining episode of the post-Smiths life for Morrissey was Mike Joyce's winning of the court case against Morrissey for "earnings" from the Smiths. Told here in a detail that I frankly skipped through,  it was obviously an important incident for Morrissey - and means that the Smiths are the one band who will certainly never reform.

When Morrissey did reappear in the early 2000s he had a second life and his absence had turned him into a legend. Audiences were not just the old fans, but younger fans, especially in Europe, America and amazingly Mexico. Somehow Morrissey and the Smiths had remained the band of choice for the dispossessed. Its fascinating reading about his mid 90s American tours, where "Your Arsenal" briefly turned him into a major American star - though he's scathing of the uselessness of his record label. Yet could Morrissey ever have become as compliant as the megastars? It seems unlikely. Peppered throughout the biography, we realise that the "sexless" Morrissey of the Smiths days wasn't a pose. "Never loved no one ever" couldn't last of course - and there's a reasonable amount of candour of several relationships, with men and women, that seem to last intensely, and privately for two or three years before coming to an end. Lifelong friendships with Linder and other old friends and business acquaintances tell of a different kind of loyalty. Like a successful businessman at a university reunion, you get the feeling Morrissey struggles to remember why those few years as a Smith are so important - apart from the music, of course, which, thankfully, amazingly, his new band started to resurrect during the 21st century. The renaissance that came with signing to Sanctuary records (on the Atttack! imprint, relaunched at Morrissey's request), with "You are the Quarry" and the albums that followed, gave him the biggest records of his career and more than that led to a near-non-stop touring schedule.

For more than anything, Morrissey became the star that he'd always wanted to be - and yet this "Autobiography" still seems genuinely surprised by this, whilst at the same time wondering about the level of fame. There's still something of the disappointed Morrissey even as he marvels at being chauffeured to Old Trafford Cricket Ground for a sold out concert through streets he'd once cycled as an ignored teenager. Is it this level of fame he really wants? He visits old heroes like Charles Hawtrey and is almost always disappointed; he helps the New York Dolls reform and is once more a fan but touring with them in Tel Aviv is frustrated by their unprofessionalism. Its a long way from Moss Side and Stretford to London, Rome and Los Angeles, and the last chapters (there are no chapters by the way - its one long narrative!) - tell of Morrissey's life on the road, as if this in itself is a valediction of what's gone before. The world seems to want to see Morrissey, and his fans are manic, obsessive, loyal - exactly as he'd have wanted. Yet he's acute on the contradictions of fame.

Its a fascinating book and I wonder of the precedents. Dylan's "Chronicles" was far more detailed on the writing and working life, yet was heavily selective. Keith Richards, Neil Young and Ray Davis wrote books that were about putting the record straight. Morrissey seems less interested in such a task. The best bit of the book is the first hundred pages:  a childhood memoir which seems of genuine literary merit, made more poignant and vital because we know the songs that these memories feed into. Morrissey the fan was a great believer in the mystique of rock and roll and still seems intrigued by that. His own life is a mix of candour and calculation - it would be hard to turn this memoir into a day-by-day timeline; it seems a series of impressions, some that work remarkably well, some to even scores or tell his side of the story, some digressive without being necessarily vital.

Where does Morrissey go now? The late career renaissance ended with those 3 impressive albums, and he's still touring on the back of it, almost as a heritage act, but again, never quite going along with expectations.  A worldwide fan base would appear to mean that he can always perform to large crowds, but he's recently hinted at stopping touring, as the economics don't add up - and health problems - only vaguely touched on - have led to the cancellation of  a number of concerts. The book doesn't seem an end of career statement - more a piece of desk clearing before he moves onto whatever the next phase of his life and careers. Worth reading for the concentration on the sixties and seventies Manchester which was always at the heart of his lyrical vision, its still remarkable that those songs of urban blight, with their downbeat lyrics and wry humour have travelled so widely. Those tropes for which he's so well known, his committed vegetarianism for instance, are ever constants. There's some self-serving parts of the book, but though Morrissey is, in his own words, never at fault, he's intelligent and honest enough to be unsurprised by a world that doesn't always see his way.

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