Sunday, July 20, 2014

Morrissey — ‘Autobiography’

When there is no matching of lives, and we live on a strict diet of the self, the most intimate bond can be with the words we write:
Oh often have I washed and dressed
     And what’s to show for all my pain?
Let me lie abed and rest:
Ten thousand times I’ve done my best
     And all’s to do again.
I ask myself if there is an irresponsible aspect in relaying thoughts of pain as inspiration, and I wonder whether [A. E.] Housman actually infected the sensitives further, and pulled them back into additional darkness. (p.96)
Whenever I have gone off Morrissey, this has been the reason. I never wondered the same thing about Joy Division or Throwing Muses, whose music is darker than The Smiths’, and which I discovered, as a tortured (not literally) teenager at about the same time. There is a peculiar complacency to Morrissey’s outlook which is much more rare than the ability to turn a depressive teenage anthem. ‘You should not go to them / Let them come to you’ is part of it: the attempt at self-sufficiency by a man so obviously in need of company. That line is good advice, though: the best way for the socially awkward to reach out is not to plunge into society and alienate everyone by being socially awkward. Far better to record a string of urgent, wounded pop LPs, sit back and hold court at interview, now that everyone wants your opinion. It’s also dangerous advice, because you could sit forever in your room waiting for the knock from Johnny Marr that never comes.

Autobiography gives real insight into the state Morrissey had got himself into before that knock. This is brave:
I am cross-examined at Stretford Sorting Office as there are postman vacancies, and this is the most I consider possible. Yet it isn’t, because I am turned down — deemed physically and psychologically incapable of delivering letters. There is now no escape but death. (p. 121)
How many people would put that in their autobiography? Without passing it off as a joke, because he is perfectly serious. A specific account of this sort is not something which could be easily fitted into a song, though there are several lines which surely link back to the experience (‘I was looking for a job…’; ‘I tried living in the real world instead of a shell / But before I began / I was bored before I even began’). It’s sad to read about such isolation, but… I used to hate job interviews. Now I just avoid them completely, knowing that there is no point. As per usual, it is at once a comfort and a dangerous invitation to apathy to get self-validation on the subject from Morrissey. But look what he can do, simultaneously:
The Ramones are models of ill health, playing backwards, human remains washed ashore, so much condensed into a single presentation, and it is outstanding. Change! Change! Change! It doesn’t happen by being the same as everybody else. (p. 112)
The pre-Smiths section is more vital than the Smiths section (just as Strangeways, Here We Come is no Meat is Murder), which mostly consists of side swipes at Geoff Travis and the hippies at Rough Trade. The break-up has no explanation. Johnny sees him a few years later and realises that Morrissey doesn’t know why it happened, but fails to elaborate. The widely reported section on the Mike Joyce trial wasn’t quite as stodgy as I’d feared, and presents a convincing page-by-page rebuttal of judge John Weeks’ conclusions. He says that Joyce was after 25% of The Smiths’ total income, rather than the 10% of the profits that he signed up to. He never says what the 10% or the 25% would be in pounds, though: I felt that a real Penguin Classic would have offered footnotes here, putting the argument in context.

Fortunately, Autobiography manages a second tour-de-force section as it draws to a close, and as Morrissey tours the world to adoring audiences. He reflects on the phenomenon of himself, much as he did previously on the nonentity of himself:
The streets flood with Morrissey. I do not know what to do with all this happiness. Viva Hate emblems; art-hound T’s, tank tops and bags graffitied in Morrissey-code. Most of all, every arm, every neck, every hand mobbered with a Morrissey tatoo. Fresno! Fresno! Fresno! Here is the light! And never go out. (p. 413)
This is not simply self-congratulation, it is fandom of fandom, it is communication on the grandest scale to and from someone incapable of it on the smallest. It is fascinating to see him feed on the love and the roar and the surge of the crowd, which is undeniably something, even if ultimately it becomes part of his solipsism. His saving grace is that he does not take them for granted, and he is up for the fight — as once he was not — to stave off irrelevance:
I will border on silliness — anything at all to avoid self-indulgence replacing the old hunger, for that is the route they all go, and can’t help but go. (p. 408)


Richard said...

I really hated this book, and came away thinking he was not only unpleasant but boring. Why ON EARTH did he think this was a good idea, other than as some kind of ego-boost?

Chris said...

Because it generated more interest / brought in more money than an LP, perhaps? I hated it at first, on the basis of opening it at random in Waterstone's and reading a passage where he slags off an NME editor. Oh, not AGAIN, I thought. But in the event I found it quite fascinating - partly because there are two long sections which have genuine merit (the early years / the touring years), and partly because it proves, while never getting close to realising it, that he writes best when not writing about himself. He should do more of that.

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