Dec. 6, 2013 3:57 p.m. ET
Since the early 1980s, the man born Steven Patrick Morrissey has been the martyr-saint of sensitive, alienated youth everywhere, a vast company that loves misery. His manly, melancholy voice, a kind of bellowing croon, bears catchy tales of sadness and betrayal laced with seethingly witty wordplay that often recalls his hero, Oscar Wilde. With the Smiths and in an even more successful, long-running solo career, he has excelled at the sort of ennui that the English do so well, redolent of weak tea and overcast skies. There are other exemplars, including the Cure, Joy Division and Pet Shop Boys, who even wrote a song about it: “Miserablism.” But Morrissey is the king.
Morrissey is a preternaturally literate pop star, and his “Autobiography” was hotly anticipated, particularly for any tidbits about his enigmatic sexuality and for his side of the story about the breakup of the short-lived but beloved Smiths. In Britain, Morrissey is both a national treasure and, occasionally, something of a pariah, despised by some for his outspokenly progressive politics and adamant stance on animal rights, misunderstood by others for his ironic denunciations of things like racism and child abuse. He has turned the lead of alienation and despair into the gold of popularity, and “Autobiography,” painstakingly and not always flatteringly, traces the course of that miraculous alchemy. As he writes: “What I am saying to people is: ‘This is why I adapt poorly to the world, and by the way, let me kiss you.’ “
Morrissey lives as he sings: “Autobiography” is mostly a long series of disappointments and betrayals. Bitter memories, some nearly 50 years old, still sting, and Morrissey relates every sling and arrow in colorful detail. No amount of time—or honor, riches, fame, and the love of men and women—has stifled the outrage. But the memoir is nonetheless fascinating, first for its almost Dickensian vision of postindustrial Manchester in the 1960s and early ’70s—all tramps, street toughs and decaying infrastructure—and for the way it captures the transformational allure of the popular culture of the time, with its heady promises of transcendence and even escape.
Born working-class in 1959, into a soon-to-be-broken home, Morrissey is a sensitive, bookish kid who admires cross-dressing glam-rock bands in laddish Manchester, “a barbaric place where only headless savages can survive.” Wearing a bandage for a burn teaches him “all I shall ever need to know about attention and style”; years later, as the Smiths exploded in popularity, he would sport an unneeded hearing aid as he sang on TV’s “Top of the Pops.”
The early years are a “gothic horror” of dreary schools run by abusive teachers. In 1970, he enters St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Secondary Modern: “Its wearisome echo of negativity exhausts me to a permanent state of circumstantial sadness.” “I approach school each day with renewed fear,” Morrissey writes, “over the asphalt, treading underfoot the flattened remains of people’s lives, and bigger and blacker the school’s edifice rises above its bludgeoned parish like a rat refusing to die. We small kids see no warm lights to welcome, and no hope in the literal darkness.” The prose is rife with flourishes like that, as well as a self-conscious but often lyrical poetry laced with almost obsessive alliteration and a strong sense of place: Names like Royce Road, Bonsal Close and Jackson Crescent are all over the page. It’s about as excellently written a rock-star memoir as one could hope to read.
Morrissey’s school days not only provide the real-life story behind the Smiths classic “The Headmaster Ritual” and other songs in his oeuvre but explain his lifelong scorn for authority figures, from police officers to royals to record executives. But then, at 12, he sees an extraterrestrial David Bowie perform “Starman” on “Top of the Pops.” In Bowie, he sees an artist who “transcends our gloomy coal-fire existence.” Soon he discovers proto-punk rockers the New York Dolls, which is the occasion for an excellent six-page disquisition on their formidably tawdry charms. “The Dolls were the slum of all failures,” he writes, “had nothing to lose, and could scarcely differentiate between night and day.” He leaves out the fact that he started the U.K.’s first New York Dolls fan club and wrote a book about the band.
Even before he was a pop star, Morrissey was a pop fan—the U.K. music weeklies regularly published impassioned letters from the precocious Manchester teen—and he remains a preternaturally articulate pop critic. In “Autobiography” he rattles off a revelatory playlist of 1960s British girl-pop—including lost gems like Lulu’s “I’m a Tiger”—and also includes some great asides about ’60s TV shows like “Lost in Space,” from which he takes a cue from the catty Dr. Smith: “Effeminate men are very witty, whereas macho men are duller than death.” He singles out the 1950s British films “The Strange One” and “I’m a Stranger,” and his description of one of the characters in the latter sure seems like a self-portrait: His “weapon of words carries enough punch to alter the texture of every life around him, partly because, as a fanatic of himself, he has suffered enough to know better.”
Some of the best passages of “Autobiography” show an uncanny ability to recount the initial intoxication of encountering music that Morrissey heard decades before, like Bowie or Patti Smith. “So surly and stark and betrayed,” he writes, “Patti Smith was the cynical voice radiating love; pain sourced as inspiration, an individual mission drunk on words.” It makes you want to go back and listen to them again, and it makes you want go back and listen to Morrissey again too.
Morrissey also remains a fan of the English poets who influenced him in his youth. The book features insightful digressions about several, such as W.H. Auden, 17th-century poet Robert Herrick, his beloved Oscar Wilde and A.E. Housman. For this chronically depressed and alienated young man, the combined fascinations of pop music and poetry eventually come to their inevitable conclusion: “Unless I can combine poetry with recorded noise, have I any right to be?”
And just in the nick of time, his music career begins—though we have had to wait until page 140. A mutual friend—Billy Duffy, who went on to play guitar in minor MTV stars the Cult—tells local musician Johnny Marr about Morrissey, and Marr knocks on Morrissey’s door one day and asks whether he would like to write songs together. Marr proves to be an excellent songwriting partner as well as an exquisite guitarist. Although Morrissey was “someone whose natural bearing discouraged openness, … we get on very well. It is a matter of finding yourself in possession of the one vital facet that the other lacks, but needs.” But their music isn’t otherworldly like glam-era Bowie; nor is it raunchy like the New York Dolls; nor does it sound anything like the bleak, urban canyons of their fellow Mancunians Joy Division. It is something else again.
"It’s time the tale were told / of how you took a child / and you made him old," were the first words Morrissey sang on the Smiths’ self-titled 1984 debut album, setting the tone for so much of what was to follow. With Morrissey’s distinctive warbling baritone, Marr’s ingenious, lambent guitar, and a lithe rhythm section, the music was an amalgam of Morrissey’s beloved ’60s girl-pop, British Invasion sounds, a hint of Motown, and the wave of defiantly original U.K. bands who had sprung up in the post-punk era. Songs with titles like "Still Ill" and "Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now" deftly limn the indignities of living in a coarse and uncaring world, and they propelled the Smiths into becoming one of the greatest bands of the 1980s.
Although the accounts of his early life provide plenty of background to his lyrics, and Morrissey takes good care to sprinkle allusions to his own song titles throughout, don’t look to “Autobiography” for much direct exegesis about his songs or how they were written or recorded: Morrissey routinely spends far more time carping about disappointing chart positions and label fecklessness. The Smiths’ first album debuted at No. 2 in the U.K., held off the No. 1 spot by the Thompson Twins, but Morrissey thought it abysmally produced. Their second single, “This Charming Man,” was a modest hit—but Morrissey claims that it would have sold more if their label, Rough Trade, had managed to press up more copies.
As for the sudden breakup of the band only five years after it formed, Morrissey provides little insight. Marr was seemingly jealous of the attention paid to the Smiths’ ever-quotable lead singer, surely helping to seed the band’s dissolution, but there’s not much in “Autobiography” about the band’s interpersonal dynamics. Morrissey was aware that a lot of people felt he was “a bit much.” But then, he writes, “well, yes, of course I’m a bit much—if I weren’t, I would not be lit up by so many lights.” And that is the story of virtually any rock frontperson one could care to name.
Morrissey claims that there weren’t any stormy arguments, and, years later, Marr sends him a letter explaining why he left: “I honestly hated the sort of people we had become.” But what sort of people had they become, and why? There’s not much about that here. Morrissey is far more interested in a 1996 lawsuit brought by former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce, who insisted that he was due 25% of all Smiths income and not the 10% he had apparently signed for.
The author sees the lawsuit as the culmination of a vast and enduring conspiracy against him: “The ardent zest to finally topple and silence an outspoken pop artist,” he writes, “took its place firmly and unashamedly as this trial began.” It does seem to have been a kangaroo court; Joyce signed a document that clearly stated that he got a 10% cut of proceeds, with Morrissey and Marr, the songwriters and the only members of the band who were actually signed to the recording contract, receiving 40%. The judge seems to have it in for Morrissey, and calls him “devious, truculent and unreliable,” a line that still stings the singer so badly that he mockingly alludes to it several times.
Morrissey recounts the entire affair in close detail—for 50 pages—and repeats himself almost verbatim several times. It’s as if this lawsuit were Morrissey’s version of Oscar Wilde’s infamous trials. (Morrissey’s earlier screed about them seems like purposeful foreshadowing.) It’s true, the ordeal cost Morrissey well over a million pounds, but this prolix retelling will test the patience of even the most devoted Mozzaphile.
"The pop artist who complains about anything at all is universally damned as petty," Morrissey writes. In that case, he will reside in the most fiery precincts of hell. At one point he complains that "essential to any form of American business is the blame game. It is never one’s own fault—but always the fault of others." And yet "Autobiography" is rife with blame—it’s on virtually every page. His incessant trouncing of Rough Trade records chief Geoff Travis is a bitter running joke, and almost no one else escapes withering castigation. Legendary Manchester music impresario Tony Wilson is "of unmerited renown"; Morrissey destroys post-punk priestess Siouxsie Sioux, comparing her to Myra Hindley, who had been convicted of the horrific Moors child murders that traumatized Manchester in the mid-1960s; he even knocks the sainted British radio DJ John Peel for accepting an O.B.E. from the queen, a "moral prevarication."
Morrissey encounters many of his idols along the way, and even they inevitably betray or disappoint him. His boyhood favorite Sandie Shaw covered “Hand in Glove,” but she and Morrissey have a falling-out. David Bowie, the man who originally pointed the way out of Manchester, “feeds on the blood of living mammals,” while David Johansen, frontman of the New York Dolls, is “a man who had spent his entire life impersonating Simone Signoret.” In 2006, Morrissey’s single “I Have Forgiven Jesus” made the Top 10 in the U.K., but he was not invited to appear on “Top of the Pops.” “What is everybody so afraid of?” he wondered. Perhaps they’re afraid of getting a savagely witty tongue-lashing.
Amid all the spite, Morrissey does pay tribute to a few close friends and a handful of sainted relatives. (His account of his beloved Aunt Rita’s illness and death is very moving.) He also reveals a bit about his famously ambiguous and closely protected sexuality, but not much.
There are relationships with people both male and female, but he doesn’t spell it out in gory detail. At 35, he meets a man named Jake Walters; although this is apparently his first meaningful relationship, we hear nothing more about it, and their split after two years goes strangely unremarked. After Morrissey moves to Los Angeles, he talks of having a child (he calls it “the unthinkable act of producing a mewling miniature monster”) with a female friend, although whether she is a lover we don’t know. And then there is an Italian fellow he calls Gelato, who “had gone too far for me to spit him out.” Morrissey, who maintains that “the sex act [is] either a service or a personal favor,” is probably not someone who believes in romance.
In the end, the only people Morrissey seems to consistently and enduringly love are the members of his audience, and his story reads like some sort of old-school Hollywood caricature of the lonely star. “Having never found love from one,” he writes, “I instead find it from thousands.” The book’s final pages are largely devoted to recounting several world tours—a love song to those fans, “this magnificent stream of humanity,” as he calls the great masses of kids who tattoo his words and likeness on their bodies. “Nowhere are there more natural smiles than those of a welcoming audience,” he continues. “In response, my heart sings and breaks.” The love that radiates toward them redeems all the vindictiveness that has come before; as his own music perennially promises, there is indeed hope for the wretched.
Of course, sometimes the fans get a little overzealous. Backstage at a sold-out Madison Square Garden show, after Tom Hanks stops by, Morrissey is introduced to an admirer, a famous American football player whose name he never quite catches. “Suddenly this jockstrap hunk of studhorse has me in a crushed manful hug, into which I disappear like a pressed flower.”
This home stretch contains some of the most evocative and enlightening passages ever written about what it’s like to be a rock star playing huge shows full of some of the most adoring fans in the history of popular music. Morrissey isn’t jaded about this; deep down, he is merely and magnificently a fan who worked up the courage to get onstage. And so, to his legions of fans, Morrissey is One of Us—his appeal is aspirational. It’s kind of heartbreaking when he acknowledges that he could never wade into the crowds around the venue and hang out with them; they’d tear him to pieces.
But he can’t quite accept the adulation, his book suggests, because the old scars still abide. “Why, after all these years,” asks his keyboardist at one point during a 2006 tour, “do you question the love?” Morrissey’s response says it all. “I wave the question away, the heart stuck in an ice-cold morning of 1970.”
—Mr. Azerrad is the editor in chief of the Talkhouse, a music website.