“Loudly and wildly the music played, always pointing to the light, to the way out, or the way in, to individualism, and to the remarkable if unsettling notion that life could possibly be lived as you might wish it to be lived.”
This lovingly worded leitmotif of English pop singer Morrissey’s Autobiography is not one of the more controversial or barbarous sentences in its 457 alternately inspiring and infuriating pages. Heaven knows there are plenty of those, and they’re often indefensible, if at times bitchily amusing: “Her naked self probably kills off marine plankton in the North Sea,” he writes of rock critic Julie Burchill. “Crucified by his own enormous teeth, Davis is further weighed down by a colony of purple boils decorating the back of his neck,” he says of Nigel Davis, the lawyer who represented Mike Joyce, former drummer of the Smiths, who sued Morrissey and his songwriting collaborator, Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, for an equal share of performance and recording royalties. (This comes only six short sentences after Morrissey remarks that Davis possesses “a face I could never be cruel enough to describe.”)
Yet there’s plenty of cruelty amidst Autobiography, which should come as no surprise. It sits in the background of his greatest songs, provoking his protagonists to seek solace, however fleeting, in its opposite: compassion. Without it, Smiths classics like, “Hand in Glove,” “This Charming Man,” “How Soon Is Now?” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” wouldn’t be nearly as poignant. It motivates the gravity of Morrissey’s delivery, the moaning of his lower register and the minor keys that dominate Smiths and Morrissey solo material alike. And it animates his poetic overstatement: Every day is silent and grey in Morrisseyland, and, although we know that this cannot be true, we appreciate the darkness of his perspective, for it makes ours seem lighter. Yes, we’re painfully aware that we should always look on the brighter side of life, but for those times when there’s nothing more depressing than an optimist, Morrissey’s our man.
Cruelty gets foregrounded in Autobiography — so much so that it’s bound to test the patience of even the most forgiving Mozophile. A sensitive soul born into an insensitive world, Steven Patrick Morrissey had from early childhood his innocence crushed. Those who’ve never understood why such a quintessentially English singer would charm a disproportionately large Mexican-American fanbase might be surprised to read that his inner-city Manchester childhood was mired in poverty; routinely classmates fainted from malnutrition. Songs like “The Headmaster Ritual” come to life as Morrissey recalls routine floggings: “By 9:40 each morning, we shall all have witnessed several humiliating beatings at St Mary’s, and this is how we begin our day of knowledge.”
If Morrissey learned to be cruel early on, there’s no evidence of it here, or even during the relatively brief passages devoted to his interactions with his fellow Smiths during their short but fruitful existence. Nevertheless, Morrissey’s capacity for cutting remarks swells as the timeline extends through his solo career. It’s not that his complaints aren’t justified — nearly everything he’s recorded sold a fraction of its artistic worth. But belaboring this while ranting endlessly about the incompetence of his record labels, and, particularly, the personal shortcomings of nearly every single one of his collaborators does grow wearisome.
For if you enjoy Morrissey enough to engage more than casually with him, chances are you also admire his cohorts, particularly his fellow former Smiths, whom at best he pays the briefest of compliments. Maybe it made him feel better to write page after page of score-settling lacerations. But reading them is only rarely illuminating, and even less fun. If he encountered anyone else writing the same kind of stuff about him, you can bet he’d be railing.
The passages that drew the most attention when the original UK edition of Autobiography was published last October are by contrast slim and far more refrained descriptions of two adult relationships with men — British photographer Jake Walters, whose intimate works adorn several Morrissey releases, and someone known only as “Gelato,” a younger Italian — that were likely physical, and one with a woman, Iranian-American Tina Dehghani, that’s characterized not by words of passion but by descriptions of domestic dependability. Re-edited just like recent reissues of Moz solo albums, the U.S. edition of published Dec. 3 removes a photo of Walters, and pares down references to him even further. Conspicuously missing are most lines cited by The Observer, including one quoted in the paper’s headline: “Morrissey describes moment ‘the eternal “I” became “we.”’” Such cowardice is out of character from the singer who wrote “This Charming Man” and paired much of the Smiths’ output with imagery that might’ve been exotic to outsiders but instantly registered as drawn from gay culture by anyone who shares Morrissey’s reference points.
That gleeful image of Truman Capote leaping across the sleeve of “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side,” the somber still of Candy Darling from Warhol’s Women in Revolt that decorates “Sheila Take a Bow” — these are the shimmers of the light that led the singer through oppression’s fog, and therein lies the beauty of Autobiography. For although Morrissey is less than generous with praise for his former colleagues, he’s unreservedly bighearted toward his favorite films, actors, TV shows and above all, vinyl records. “Song made a difference to everything, and permitted expressions that otherwise had no way through,” he notes, introducing the book’s central theme. “All human activity is fruitless when pitted against the girls and boys singing on pop television,” young Morrissey realizes, “for they have found the answer as the rest of us search for the question. I will sing, too. If not, I will have to die.”
Morrissey jests darkly throughout, but he’s serious here; life offers him no alternative. “If I can sing, I am free, and no legislation can stop me,” he reasons, ever pointedly. Moz finds liberation even in the easy-listening command of Matt Monro, Shirley Bassey and Tommy Körberg, whose glitz paves the way for the glam-rockers who awaken possibilities previously suppressed. “As David Bowie appears, the child dies,” he announces. “The vision is profound — a sanity heralding the coming of consciousness from someone who — at last! — transcends our gloomy coal-fire existence. David Bowie is detached from everything, yet open to everything; stripped of the notion that both art and life are impossible. He is quite real, impossibly glamorous, fearless, and quite British. How could this possibly be?”
Time and time again Morrissey zeroes in on gentlemen offering alternative masculinities. On the rare occasion that his attention drifts to footballers, it’s to charismatic rebels like George Best. Morrissey treats his own success in school sports — yes, you read that right, sports, particularly track — as incidental. Far more attention is devoted to deconstructing Lost in Space, the camp ‘60s sci-fi TV show, which fascinated the author by setting Major Don West, “who is of track and field physical,” against evil enemy agent Dr. Zachary Smith, whose voice, he writes, possesses “the caustic cattiness of a tetchy dowager rising in pitch as each line ends, hands a-flutter with away with you, my child intolerance.” But here’s the kicker: “My notepad resting on my lap takes the scribbles of unspoken truth: effeminate men are very witty, whereas macho men are duller than death.”
No wonder Morrissey reveled in early ‘70s proto-punkers the New York Dolls — these urbane toughs in near-drag bring together what’s femme and butch. “On face value, the Dolls are menacing rent boys who are forcing the world to deal with them,” he quips, taking note of a music magazine headline of the time that warned, “Lock up your sons, it’s the New York Dolls!” As he points out, these Dolls were ostensibly hetero, but the antagonism of their stance — rebelliousness through flamboyance, masculinity via femininity — stokes Moz’s fire, and sets his mind dreaming. Breathlessly stream-of-conscious, Autobiography is entirely bereft of chapters; there’s no index, and his opening paragraph is four-and-a-half pages long. But beloved topics like the Dolls ignite his most feverish prose: “Malodorously 24-carat, the Dolls are legless realism — wired and rigged honest trash scraped up off New York’s back alleys, banished from the communities of the living.”
By the time he and Marr had assembled the Smiths a decade later, MTV turned gender-benders like Boy George and Annie Lennox into superstars. Pop’s closet doors still generally swung shut, but this second wave of Bowie-emboldened fops reveled in sexual ambiguity more emphatically than ever. The Smiths both reflected this freedom and stood apart from it. For although Morrissey dropped Oscar Wilde’s name relentlessly and wielded gladioli onstage as if literally hitting people with flowers a la Lou Reed’s “Vicious,” the band’s music and much of Morrissey’s lyrics were far more akin to England’s kitchen sink dramas of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Administering the grimly comedic verity of bitter pills like “Reel Around the Fountain,” the Smiths offered rock’s answer to UK playwright Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey.
That’s a singular achievement — embracing a young woman’s play about class, gender, race, sexual orientation, addiction and female desire, and cloaking its pioneering social realist aesthetic in traditional rock ‘n’ roll. Moz doesn’t reveal how he and his bandmates did that, or how much of his solo career reflected influences blunter on the surface, yet similarly complex beneath, like the racial ambiguities of rockabilly, or the volatile vulnerability of James Dean. Even today Moz dodges pat delineations: A week after Autobiography‘s UK publication, Moz issued the statement, “Unfortunately, I am not homosexual. In technical fact, I am humasexual. I am attracted to humans. But, of course … not many, ” which is simply the most Morrissey-esque statement of all time.
Yet the book rhapsodizes over one LGBT icon after the other — glam-rocker Jobriath, poet A. E. Housman, writer-activist James Baldwin and drag artist Lypsinka, to name four. It recounts with particular glee the moment when Richard Davalos, the bequiffed gallant who played Dean’s brother in East of Eden, silently slips a ring on Moz’s wedding finger backstage at a Smiths show. Just as Smiths sleeves revealed the stars of his own particular galaxy, Morrissey defines himself by whom he loves.
Most of us, like it or not, remain products of our environment, and we either resign ourselves to that fate, or spend a lifetime struggling to rise above it. There’s ample evidence that Moz is, to quote his early song, still ill. His tome ends hollowly when the author documents one rapturous ovation after the other, as if gathering evidence that even though he can’t find a major label to release his next album, he remains a living legend. We know this already.
Morrissey’s prickly sensitivity was from the start threatening. In 1985, esteemed rock critic Robert Christgau wrote that “it begs for a belt in the chops.” Even today it provokes a gay-bashing stance from some. Just last month, Pitchfork critic Ian Cohen characterized Moz torch bearers The Killers as “a band whose campiness often appears to be some sort of glandular problem rather than a product of artistic intent.” As ever, the usual prescription for unconventional males is bullying, and, at its worst, Autobiography bullies back.
But its most finessed passages illustrate how its author adored the music and literature and films of his youth so very much that they radically altered the course of what would otherwise been an entirely grim destiny, not just for Moz, but for all those his willfully adversarial art touched. Re-radicalizing rock via the feminine, the queer and the downtrodden, and thereby preserving its status as the protest music of genuine outsiders, Moz remains a fighter, though he’s a far more articulate lover.
“I’m holding the torch in the corner of your room,” he sang in “Rubber Ring,” the precursor to Terence Davies films like Distant Voices, Still Lives that illuminate how music cradles us through life’s horrors. “Do you love me like you used to?” You make it hard, dear Morrissey, but some of us cannot do otherwise.