BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

"everyday is silent and grey"

I'm not exactly sure how Morrissey's Autobiography got on my radar … it evidently took a few years (this came out in 2013, and I only ordered it this past fall), but somewhere I read something that was singing its praises, and, being a fairly long-term Morrissey fan (and having recently indulged in another rock autobiography by a guy of similar vintage, which I enjoyed), I snagged a copy. While this is a remarkable book, it could well be three (or four) books, and might benefit by at least being internally divided (this runs on for 450 pages with only a rare extra space between paragraphs, let alone any chapters or clearly delineated sections) along those lines.

When I started in on this, I was blown away. Morrissey was sort of “channeling James Joyce” and producing prose of richness, complexity, art and wit that had me raving about it and thinking that this was going to be featured on English departments' curriculums in the very near future. The first couple of hundred pages takes the story from his family's roots, his childhood, on through the early years of The Smiths and are an enchanting piece of writing. Tellingly, all the little bookmarks I put in here are from that part of the book. To give you a sense of what was so appealing here, the following is the very start of the book, a small part of a paragraph that runs four and half pages:
My childhood is streets upon streets upon streets upon streets. Streets to define you and streets to confine you, with no sign of motorway, freeway, or highway. Somewhere beyond hides the treat of the countryside, for hour-less days when rains and reins life, permitting us to be amongst people who live surrounded by space and are irked by our faces. Until then we live in forgotten Victorian knife-plunging Manchester, where everything lies where ever it was left over one hundred years ago. The safe streets are dimly lit, the others not lit at all, but both represent a danger that you're asking for should you find yourself out there once the curtains have closed for tea. ...
While telling the story of his youth and school years, it is generally like this … perhaps having the task of recreating the past being an opening for literary flourish. Part of me wishes this went for the rest of the book. However, when the story turns to the demise of The Smiths, and into a vastly ugly court case where former band members are trying (ultimately, successfully) to essentially re-write the agreements of many years previous, the tone of the writing also changes, and those are very difficult parts to read. The last part of the book is also less lyrical, with a long wander through shows here, shows there, places Morrissey lived, people Morrissey hung out with, and random details on the reception of his solo albums. Now, I suppose that hard-core Morrissey fans would eat up the latter part, but it, and the claustrophobic, panic-inducing, press of the industry/court phases, makes one wish those first couple of hundred pages were a thing unto themselves.

Speaking of fan info … I'm guessing that others knew this before it got in here, but I was surprised to read the origin of Morrissey's nickname “Moz” … which I had sort of assumed had been something that had “organically” arose out of The Smiths' fandom or the press, but it's a bit different:
... My own name is by now synonymous with the word ‘miserable’ in the press, so Johnny {Marr} putters with ‘misery’ and playfully arrives at ‘misery mozzery’, which truncates to Moz, and I am classified ever after. ...
As I only have a small smattering of my bookmarks pointing back to particular sections, and they're all up front, I guess I'll deal with them now, and get into the rest of the book after. Now, another “comment” here (not really intended as a criticism), the flow of his early years, while having random contextifying data, are not particularly linear, or anchored to ages, dates, or events, so it's often fairly hard to pin down how old he was in things he's covering. In a section discussing various acts and albums of which he's enamored, he mentions “It is considered odd that a boy so young should care so much.”, which leads into the following:
... Here and there my eyes and ears are caught only by the solo singers; town-crying to all people at all times, television troubadours minus jingle-jangled nodding musicians. The song bears witness, the body weaves, and there are no camera cuts to blandly smiling session-players when all we want to see is the sculpted singer – alone, carrying all, sub-plot and sub-text, the physical autobiography; simultaneously, subjectively and objectively at the same time. There is no way out for the solo singer; introduction, statement, conclusion, quick death – all conveyed in the pop sonnet, with no winking glance over to guitarists in order to ease the setting. There are visions of divine things … I still don't know what it's all about, but like the science of signs, I am called to, because the song is the art of using language as persuasion, and with that allowance and hope, I want to cry. I am caught and I am devoted to a fault. Snobbery jumps in. If I can sing, I am free, and no legislation can stop me. ...
The next section is easier to pin down, as he cites the date of his first concert (T.Rex in 1972, when he would have been 13), and this bit relates to a number of acts and songs he's discussing:
It seemed to me that it was only within British pop music that almost anything could happen. Every other mode of expression seemed fixed and predictable and slow. … Marc Bolan's lyrics are steeped in the quietly insane world of the gothic English novel, and are too deeply eccentric to survive any explanation. On earlier records, Bolan sounds as if singing in Olde English – incomprehensible to the modern ear. Yes, but the Bible speaks of ‘a whole earth of one language’, and this is something that only pop singers can manage. …
At one point he gets into discussing the poetry of a number of writers (possibly idiosyncratically English, as I only recognized a few of the names), and drifts into this rather florid exposition (which is presented leading up to the purchase of an instrument … albeit a drum kit):
… The will surrenders to the resolve and dignity of the written word, and I, the gentle self, step forward, pattering up the ramp, one half of an incomplete person, knowing with certainty that I cannot live – yet wondering if I could possibly write? Slight and weary and full of angularity, my heart is never unbroken, but I am unable to call out. I have a sudden urge to write something down, but this time they are words that must take a lead. Unless I an combine poetry with recorded noise, have I any right to be? Yet, let it begin, for who is to say what you should or shouldn't do? In fact, everyone tries to knot your desires lest your success highlight their own failure. Better, it is thought, that we all swill in the same bucket, just making do. But I have no intention of surviving for eighteen years in order that I might be strangled to death in my nineteenth. I will never be lacking if the clash of sounds collide, with refinement and logic bursting from a cone of manful blast. Here, from the weeds, the situation worsens since each abiding art-form lacks one essential ingredient – and that ingredient is the small and bowed passionate I. Since there is no living being as recipient of my whispers, and since there are no certainties that one shall ever appear, then the off-balance distortion of my everyday feeling must edge into the un-cooperative world somehow.
A somebody who has written a vast lot of poetry in certain phases of my life, Morrissey's phrase: “the off-balance distortion of my everyday feeling” certainly echoes in my core. Given the length of the above quote, I am hesitant to add another, but one of the questions that arose while reading the descriptions of the music business, and especially as it related to The Smiths, was “why is it that all bands seem to end up getting screwed?”, and Morrissey has a scathing dissection of this (long after the fact, of course), which runs from page 170 to 172 … far too long for this space, so let me dust off some more ellipses and at least dole out the high points:
We signed virtually anything without looking. … The specifics of finance and the gluttonous snakes-and-ladders legalities were deliberately complicated snares that all pop artists are expected to understand immediately. … The basic rule, though, is to keep the musician in the dark at all costs, so that the musician might call upon the lawyer repeatedly. … A vast industry of music lawyers and managers and accountants therefore flourish unchecked due to the musician's lack of business grasp. … pop stars come and go with lightning speed, while the fraternity of managers and lawyers remain in place forevermore ...
Etc., etc., etc. … it is quite a rant, and somewhat reminiscent of a song he penned regarding the later court case. This takes me both to the last of my bookmarks, and the point where the tone changes. The Smiths were classically clueless on the business angles, and basically got ripped off at every point, including when they got lured away from their initial record company. One interesting thing in here was the later near-remorse (perhaps just bitterness) of Factory Records (home of Joy Division, etc.) head Anthony H. Wilson who seemed to rather hate The Smiths for his having not signed them early on, with at least one letter from him to Morrissey reproduced in its entirety. Unfortunately, communications with The Smiths' original label, Rough Trade, and its head Geoff Travis, were rarely much more civil, and many of these missives are quoted here.

These are hard to read, because, despite the band making some iconic albums at the time, they are evidently being bled at every turn. Plus, they seem (at least in Morrissey's telling) to be much hated in the press, and faced with radio programmers who seemingly outright refused to play their records (despite having reasonably robust sales). I guess if Morrissey wasn't depressed before all this, one can't fault him for being morose because of it all. However, worse stuff was on the horizon. One of the initial band members, drummer Michael Joyce, had attempted (through “an array of legal firms”, most of whom soon dropped his case) to try to retroactively increase his stake in the band, now nearly a decade past its end. He eventually managed to get a trial and a very sympathetic judge and prosecutor (or, perhaps, just ones hostile to Morrissey). Now, I have no information on this trial outside of what Morrissey writes, so it's his version, and he is certainly painting himself as the victim of a fraudulent claim pushed through an incompetent court, but who knows. The tale told in this part of the book (which was hardly a pleasant read), suggests that Joyce' claim had no backing, that “corporately” the band was Morrissey and Marr (the latter was only peripherally involved in the trial – although one assumes he had the same financial stake in it – lending credence to the idea that this was an effort to “get” Morrissey), and that the other band members had been operating under an agreement which were paid them a 10% cut with no interest in any additional monies. The judge invoked some rulings from 1890, and agreed that Joyce, although having no documentation, a long string of legal firms that opted out of representing him, and a story that changed repeatedly, had been an “equal partner” in The Smiths, and so due 25% of those (long-gone) funds. On top of how the deck was stacked against Morrissey, his lawyers faded off and passed the case down to less-seasoned (and informed) representation at the last minute. The details presented in this part of the book are horrific (if what Morrissey is writing is, indeed, correct – and I have no grounds to doubt him – any sane person would have thrown Joyce's case out with even a cursory look at the specifics), and the writing is far less poetic, and seethes with the author's justified frustration.

I guess later success, however, is its best revenge, and once he gets past the trial, most of the remainder of the book deals with his solo career. While this was still not smooth sailing, it has obviously been a lot more lucrative than The Smiths ended up being. While interesting in a music-magazine sort of mode, this is full of way more information than I really needed to know: concerts, tours, festivals, events, and the famous people he interacted with. Needless to say, this latter element is in full swing when he moved to Los Angeles, even featuring a picture of Nancy Sinatra posing with a Morrissey poster (why?). I hate to say it, but that last section is more “Tiger Beat” than Dubliners, but that, I suspect, is “just me”, and that the sort of detail in there is likely to appeal to a lot of people.

Again, I was disappointed that the whole of Autobiography wasn't the literary delight of the first third, but it's Morrissey going through his life experiences, and the icky bits with the industry, with the media, with the lawsuits, and the rest are part of that. While the writing isn't as special in the latter parts of the book, it never devolves down into the “newspaper reporting” voice that frequently shows up in biographies. If the whole was like the start, I'd be telling you that you absolutely had to get a copy, but as it is, I'd suggest that you should at least consider it. Needless to say, it would help if you were a Smiths/Morrissey fan.

It appears that the hardcover is out of print at this point (although you can get “new” copies from the new/used guys for as little as the assorted grades of “used”), but there's a paperback available, which has a good likelihood of being on the shelf at your local surviving brick-and-mortar book store. This is an interesting read throughout, with parts of it being brilliant … so it could well be worth your while to make the effort (it is 450 pages) to give it a read!

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Tags: book review
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