Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Morrissey’s “Autobiography,” which Penguin published in Britain and the rest of Europe last week, is that it exists at all. It has been rumored roughly forever. As recently as September, the Atlantic put together a convincing case that its imminent publication was a hoax. In fact, the British pop icon’s memoir was merely delayed, reportedly over his insistence on a Penguin Classics designation — a black-border badge of literary immortality assigned, in this exceptional case, before the book’s actual birth, which is rather a royalist attitude for someone who once made a great record called “The Queen Is Dead.” What links other Penguin Classics authors is death and veneration; Morrissey has always longed for both, first as lead singer of the Smiths — the greatest band to emerge from the extraordinary British postpunk renaissance of the 1980s — and then in his resilient solo career. If the reports are true that he held Penguin to ransom over the Classics imprimatur and won, then “Autobiography” is an act of hubris at once appalling, hilarious and diabolically brilliant, much like the writer himself.
Whether as the sneering wraith twirling gladioli during the Smiths’ first appearance on Top of the Pops in 1983 or in his beefed-up, rockabilly-mechanic guise of today, Morrissey, now 54, has held fast to the mindset of late-20th-century pop music’s great object and subject: the existentially bewildered adolescent. It’s a state of morbid petulance and persecution, of sensational narcissism and wild emotions keenly felt, of Eros and Thanatos fumbling eternally in the backseat. It’s a state of mind that produces lyrics such as “If a double-decker bus crashes into us/ To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die” and “I wear black on the outside/ Because black is how I feel on the inside.” It’s also the state of mind of “Autobiography.” Alone and misunderstood, his passions unrequited or confused, the mopey teen in his bedroom carves out a jealously guarded sanctuary of rebellious beauty and sullen wit — and for this one mopey teen, emotional penury becomes a life force, straight through to middle age. “Autobiography” has no dedication page, which is one of the many very Morrissey things about it.
Steven Patrick Morrissey is a legendary control freak, which reinforces the impression that “Autobiography” had no editor. It has no chapters or index; its chronology is linear except when it isn’t; its first paragraph is 4 1/2 pages long. Early on, the apparent lack of a guiding hand isn’t a drawback — it’s sometimes even a virtue. Morrissey writes with fondness and fierce loyalty of his Irish Catholic family, but with terrified revulsion of their hometown, “forgotten Victorian knife-plunging Manchester, where everything lies where it was left over one hundred years ago.” He renders his childhood with a mordant wit reminiscent of his hero Oscar Wilde; his entry into the world is a perfect egomaniac’s epigram (“Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big”), while his only sibling whets his appetite for paranoid melodrama (“My sister Jackie, older by two years, is interrupted four times as she tries to kill me; whether this be rivalry or visionary no one knows”).
An editor may have compressed Morrissey’s operatic eviscerations of 1960s and ’70s Manchester and its ghastly state school system, one powered by beatings, privation and occasional sexual predation. (Lest one might think Morrissey is exaggerating for effect, a complementary account of St. Mary’s Secondary Modern can be found in Tony Fletcher’s excellent recent Smiths biography “A Light That Never Goes Out.”) An editor may have trimmed the 13 pages of summaries of Morrissey’s favorite poets (birth and death dates helpfully included), or hacked away at the five-page disquisition on British children’s television of the 1960s. But all of these passages are more moving for being so voluminous and obsessive. “Television flickers and fleets, and must be watched closely lest what you see is never seen again,” says Morrissey, who writes as incisively on his heroes David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith as he does on “Lost in Space,” “where all the secrets of masculinity are meted out in the ping-pong clash between Dr. Smith and Major West.”
We can thank St. Mary’s for shaping Morrissey’s lyrical temperament (“Its wearisome echo of negativity exhausts me to a permanent state of circumstantial sadness”) and for rendering him unfit for further schooling or gainful employment; we can also thank Sounds magazine and his local postal office for turning him down for jobs and intensifying his fruitful malaise. Then one day in 1982, 18-year-old guitarist and songwriting prodigy Johnny Marr knocks on the door of an eccentric loner he barely knows and, improbably, asks him to start a band. With or without Morrissey, Johnny Marr would have been a star; but without Marr, Morrissey still would be in his bedroom, writing spec scripts for soaps and Instagramming his vinyl collection. (That Morrissey clearly recognizes this but can’t fully bring himself to admit it is also very Morrissey.)
The miracle of the Marr visitation is the moment that “Autobiography” begins to curdle, and when the dearth of editorial supervision begins to show. It’s here that Morrissey’s account of the Smiths necessarily begins to compete with other, more reliable narratives, and here that his miserablism turns out to be congenital instead of contextual. A scant two years after the first Morrissey-Marr meeting, the Smiths’ self-titled debut album, released on seminal postpunk label Rough Trade, hits the U.K. charts at No. 2, but because it is not No. 1, Morrissey writes, “My life sinks.”
“Autobiography” is at times so relentlessly whiny and misanthropic that it’s startling when Morrissey shares a flash of sober self-awareness. “Undernourished and growing out of the wrong soil,” he writes of himself circa 1984, “I knew at this time that a lot of people found me hard to take, and for the most part I understood why. Although a passably human creature on the outside, the swirling soul within seemed to speak up for the most awkward people on the planet.” That was once true — exhilaratingly true, true enough to save a life. But “Autobiography” only speaks up for its author, and never more than in his next line. “Somewhere deep within,” he confesses, “my only pleasure was to out-endure people’s patience.”
© 2013, Slate