G.P. Putnam’s Sons
454 pages $30
By Jeff Miers
News Book reviewer
It really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, if you’ve been paying attention for the last 30 years or so. Still, the sheer eloquence of Morrissey’s writing throughout “Autobiography” is slightly jarring. We’re just not wholly accustomed to such bloody-minded, brilliant and masterful prose from erstwhile rock stars making their debut bid for literary immortality.
“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,” he writes breathlessly, immediately summoning before the reader’s inner eye the image of a young man, head bowed, on bended knee, before the majesty of the muse herself, already at this tender age envisioning himself as the David Bowie of his own generation.
“I had no idea that life could get worse... but the snarling stupidity at St. Mary’s is deathless, and its wearisome echo of negativity exhausts me to a permanent state of circumstantial sadness ... Vincent Morgan is the headmaster whose voice is a sigh, whose carriage is militantly empirical, and although a spectacle of suffering he is mysteriously tied to God ... rigorous in grey suit and gleaming black shoes, the sag of cruelty in his face a clue to the torrential capacity for violence,” writes Morrissey, and if you’ve had similar misfortunes of the Catholic school variety, he has painted them for you from memory, as if that memory was both yours and his own.
“The grand theaters of American Music Hall are now simply famous graveyards for that generation of trophy dancers and trombone jugglers, with Sophie Tucker and Julian Eltinge solidly under the sod, their place taken by such as I. This drops me into the dubious bracket of entertainer, and I will readily agree with anyone who argues against this observation. Yet no politician receives that love that greets me in Oregon, no court judge could ever possibly know what it is like, and no gee-whiz journalist should dare to understand it. Nowhere are there more natural smiles than those of a welcoming audience. In response, my heart sings and breaks,” we read, and wonder if any other has written as heartbreakingly beautiful a rumination on what it means to be a famous touring musician.
Of course, “Autobiography” floats by like a gorgeously tragic nightmare, its cadences musical, its meter audacious and sly, its turns of phrase echoing the jilted idealism of its author, who always seems to be in the midst of deciding whether to laugh or to cry. In this, the book is an awful lot like one of Morrissey’s great songs, be it the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” or a solo tragedy like “I Have Forgiven Jesus.”
Morrissey’s earliest memories – of childhood and adolescence spent in the bleakness of Manchester, England, where, it seems, every day was indeed like Sunday, a tight-lipped paean to the soulless and drab – suggest that he was born with a highly developed sensitivity to suffering, both that of others and his own.
He writes of these days with the rapier wit of Oscar Wilde and the sense of impending doom and deeply ingrained dread of Franz Kafka.
Happily, Morrissey considers the conventionally sordid rock star tell-all to be beneath him, and it is – he writes far too well to need the false structural support of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll squalor. He is honest and forthright, often painfully so, but aside from a lengthy (and emotionally devastating) recounting of the ’90s court case that found him doing battle with former Smiths band-mate Mike Joyce in court, Morrissey doesn’t stoop to dishing dirt. He has some reason to feel bitter, but instead of feeling sorry for himself, Morrissey writes as if he expected everything to go to hell in the end – for friends to die, for friendships to fade, for life to slip away with ever-growing rapidity. Such is the world-view of the slightly depressive romantic idealist. If not for the poetry – for clearly, Morrissey’s greatest gift is as a poet – one gets the sense that the author would find life unlivable.
And yet, “Autobiography” is far less interested in the act of settling scores than it is in taking an accounting of a life lived, of dreams dreamt, cradled over time, and occasionally realized, while others arrived stillborn or faded into twilight.
Morrissey appears at once befuddled, offended, and grateful as the book concludes. “All along , my private suffering felt like vision, urging me to die or go mad, yet it brings me here, to a wintry Chicago street-scene in December 2011 – I, a small boy of 52, clinging to the antiquated view that a song should mean something, and presenting himself everywhere by way of apology. It is quite true that I have never had anything in my life that I did not make for myself.”
This is powerful writing by anyone’s standards, and “Autobiography” overflows with it.
Jeff Miers is the News‘ pop music critic