Saturday, 12 April 2014

Autobiography - Morrissey


After writing a thousand-plus word review of the greatest book ever - as in Ulysses - where do you go from there? What do you review next? Well, it's obvious really, you just go from one Penguin Classic to another. From James Joyce to Stephen Patrick Morrissey. In a single bound.

Now, I must admit, I wouldn't say I was really a big fan of Morrissey and I once even belonged to the school of thought that believed he should have killed himself years ago. Ian Curtis did it so what might possibly be stopping Morrissey? Why the reluctance to enter that pantheon of pop heroes who (unlike Pete Townsend) died before they got old? More so than Spike Milligan, could the grave stone epitaph 'I told you I was ill' be any more fitting? If Morrissey had indeed 'flung his skinny body down to the rocks below' would he not now be fixed forever with the likes of Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, James Dean, Ian Curtis, etc, etc? Would it have been a shock to anyone if Morrissey had killed himself years ago? Hardly.

I'm so glad now, however, that Morrissey did choose to stay because if he had left us we would not now have this very wonderful book. And I mean that most sincerely.

There was a time that The Smiths were untouchable. They could do no wrong. They ruled the roost. In hindsight, they can now be viewed as one of the greatest English bands of all time which when you consider the competition, is no mean feat. What made them into one of the most iconic of bands was the combination of individuals and what each one brought to the party. The kind of combination that is always a happy accident, forged not by man (or manager) but by some almost unspoken greater power. For all his words, for all his wit and for all his charm, however, the enigma was always Morrissey. He gave so much of himself away - his influences, his passions, his darkest thoughts - but still he remained a puzzle. Who was Morrissey? What made him tick in the way he did? What had made him so? What maketh such a man? What maketh such a genius? The answer, or part of it at least, lies within this book.

'Manchester, so much to answer for' as the lyric goes and indeed it's true though it's not the only factor to consider when considering Morrissey. There is also, for example, the school education system of the early 1970s if it can be called an education or even a system because after reading Morrissey's memories of it, a far better description might be 'criminal behaviour' on the part it must immediately be noted of the teachers alone.
'Exactly why I am here, and what it is I am meant to do, is beyond me.' Morrissey writes 'Each day is Kafka-esque in its nightmare, and the school offers nothing at all except a lifelong awareness of hate as a general truth.'
His tales of the perpetual floggings of children by the adults into whose 'care' they have been put is shocking as is the unspoken yet barely concealed homosexual desires of the male teachers.
'What could it possibly all be for?' he asks 'The fruitlessness of such overactive repulsion, in modern times, would of course suggest the starkest sexual overtures... for what else? What job did he (the Headmaster) think he was doing? And.. for whom?'
So this was the inferno from whence Morrissey came. A psycho-sexual killing field where all hope, curiosity and aspiration was beaten out of tiny children in a display of State-sponsored sadism. Evidently the experience scarred Morrissey though through it all he managed to find salvation in music and free expression but what of all the other children? What scars do they now bear as adults? How does the horrific experience of their school days now manifest itself?
It's a troubling thought.

It was the power and beauty of song that saved Morrissey and pointed the way to a better life and his observations of some of his favourite proponents of the craft are absolutely wonderful:
'As David Bowie appears, the child dies. The vision is profound - a sanity heralding the coming of consciousness from someone who - at last! - transcends our gloomy coal-fire existence.'
'Roxy Music are resolutely odd, and Agatha Christie queer; the smile of Ferry is Hiroshima mean, as he shuffles crab-style from stage right to stage left... like someone who's had his food dish removed.'
'The New York Dolls were the slum of all failures, had nothing to lose, and could scarcely differentiate between night and day. For the Dolls, it could never be dark enough.'
'So surly and stark and betrayed, Patti Smith was the cynical voice radiating love; pain sourced as inspiration, an individual mission drunk on words. Horses pinned all opponents to the ground. It shook the very laws of existence, and was part musical recording and part throwing up.'
'The Ramones are models of ill-health, playing backwards, human remains washed ashore, so much condensed into a single presentation, and it is outstanding.'
'Iggy Pop does not so much sing as relieve himself. "Your pretty face is going to Hell" has a quality of emotion in line with Paul Robeson, and this is why I am still writing about it forty years on.'
'The Sex Pistols are the first British band whose social importance appears to be instantly recognized, and their immediate success is an exhilarating danger to behold.'
And so on and so forth taking in also the likes of Marc Bolan, Sparks, and Nico. But just as Morrissey is adept at offering praise where deserved so too can he bury with cruel delight and it is here that he can be at his most hilarious:
'Wherever I go I seem to see the Duchess of Nothing, Sarah Ferguson... She is a little bundle of orange crawling out of a frothy dress, the drone of Sloane, blessed with two daughters of Queen Victoria pot-dog pudginess. A thousand embarrassing press exposes will not persuade her to back off... (chasing) the limelight until it will kill her - or you. It is the unfortunate drive of the overly untalented.'
'(Julie Burchill's) naked self probably kills off marine plankton in the North Sea. God stopped her body from being right. Unchained from the cellar, Burchill will make sure that you remember her. I imagine she crawls out onto the scaffold outside the living room window in order to sleep at night. Burchill will one day be found dead... having been burned and hanged and stuffed on the legitimate grounds of being an irritable woman. I shall be honoured to attend her funeral, and I might even jump into the grave.'

Like many a miserabalist, Morrissey can be an extremely witty person and this was always an aspect of his song writing that many, many critics failed to recognise and still to this day continue to do so. Though crippled with 'a shyness that is criminally vulgar', Morrissey has never been anyone’s fool and for all these years it appears that he's been taking notes. Here then is him slaying all those same critics, his detractors, those who have crossed him and those who have done him wrong. Here is their comeuppance and it's a dish served cold though garnished with all kinds of lovingly tendered herbs and spices. Tony Wilson of Factory Records gets it right between the eyes. Geoff Travis of Rough Trade is pummelled into an unrecognisable heap. The NME is outed as an extremely dubious organ. Smiths drummer Mike Joyce is destroyed by his own reflection. Judge John Weeks is ridiculed from off the face of the earth.

Relaying his many encounters with celebrities, neighbours, his fans and all others whose orbits he falls, the tale that lingers, however, is that of his encounter with something up on Saddleworth Moor one foggy, freezing evening whilst in a car with friends. A spectre of a tall, thin, teenage boy; naked save for a short anorak, pleading Christ-like for them to stop. Frightened out of their wits, they accelerate away as quickly as possible and call the police who tell them that a lot of strange things have been reported up on the Moor and that they should keep an open mind. In other words, they are told that what they have seen is commonly known as a ghost...

Morrissey's whole journey through life has been a haunted one; very long and in his own eyes quite tortuous. He now resides in Rome where hopefully he is far happier than he's ever been in England or America. Morrissey chose not to kill himself and for his pains has been voted by viewers of the BBC the second greatest living British icon, losing out only to Sir David Attenborough. Is it too late for anyone to offer him any advice? Does he need any? He must now certainly be rich enough to be able to buy a form of happiness or to at least fortress himself against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
"Get up off the ground and stop whining, you wuss." said Beavis whilst watching a Morrissey video. "Yeah." added Butthead "Quit whining, go out and get a job and some good clothes. And quit humping rocks."
Slightly better advice might have been that of Bill Hicks when he tried to explain that life was "just a ride", so don't worry and don't be afraid.
But the best advice, of course, is Morrissey's own which he long ago offered up but has himself resolutely failed to heed and it goes something like:
'Why pamper life's complexity when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat?....La la la la la, this charming man..'

Morrissey is a troubled man. He always has been and he probably always will be but he's also very charming and this - his Autobiography - is a very charming book.

Morrissey when visiting Exmouth tries to get served in the Powder Monkey
John Serpico

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