Morrissey's autobiography: charmless sniping and quasi-erotic raptures

The book issues a clarification of his sexuality – his two-year live-in relationship with the photographer Jake Walters – so obscure that it needed a clarification of its own after the book was published.

Autobiography
Morrissey
Penguin Classics, 480pp, £8.99

Two days after Morrissey’s Autobiography came out, I went to see Johnny Marr play at the Roundhouse in London. In what is no longer a surprise but is still a treat, he performed a handful of Smiths tunes, the divebombing drama and release of “Panic” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again” demonstrating how this band towered over not just the atrophied pop of the mid-1980s but the timid independent rock, too.

Beer and elbows flew, my glasses got broken and there were tears on adult faces when Marr broke into “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want”, the Smiths at their most deliciously melancholy. What everyone misses now – but was obvious at the time – is that the Smiths were not simply the wallowers in sadness they have been caricatured as but also bitterly funny and exuberant. The music that they played said everything to us about our lives.

“It is the song of the unresolved heart,” is how the singer-lyricist describes his musical ideal in Autobiography. “[It] is so disconnected with sorrow that the sorrow turns in on itself and becomes triumph.”

That heroic spirit and inverted lust for life are hard to find in Morrissey’s memoir, a dense, witty but self-serving work released – presumably because publishers are the last people left for Morrissey to upset – as a Penguin Classic. Nobody should be surprised at this, as he issues his records on antique labels such as HMV and Decca. Just be glad that he didn’t demand to be published by Virago, Target or Left Book Club.

Autobiography relates Steven Patrick Morrissey’s struggle through “the schoolmasterly dullness of detestable poverty” in “Victorian knife-plunging Manchester” to epiphany through punk rock and the discovery of his (a)sexuality and self-actualisation with Marr and the Smiths. Then come the fallings-out – uniformly portrayed by Morrissey as “betrayals” – followed by an ugly court case over the Smiths’ royalties and the singer’s evolution from the droll and provocative two-up-two-down Oscar Wilde of The Queen Is Dead into today’s curmudgeonly figure.

The first third is incredibly funny, a Les Dawson-goes-Gormenghast vision of northern purgatory, with a belly laugh on every page. Young Steven’s teachers are presented as vengeful monsters who read newspapers as pupils attempt to hang themselves and salvation is only to be found on TV – “Could there be hope? Animal Magic offers none at all” – or black vinyl.

When one of his favourite records is played to his classmates, their “nits sway in rhythm”. The story of how he and the guitarist Marr find one another is told with a great warmth that sadly soon evaporates. Though the language is heavily over-egged with some vegan substitute or other, this is surely part of the whole Moz package. He would never write, “Coronation Street asked me to write a script,” if he can write instead: “The weekly crawl through northern morals needed a new knight of the pen.”

Yet his prose is also obfuscatory, as is his approach to facts. While he lionises his materfamilias, Nannie Dwyer, and his mother, Elizabeth, we learn more about Trafford Park Baths than we do about Morrissey’s father, a fist-handy ducker and diver who sounds rather fascinating but remains unnamed throughout.

Any autobiography surely has a duty to inform but evidently not this one. It skims over the career of the Smiths, neglects swaths of Morrissey’s solo work, has nothing to say about the core of his art (his lyrics) and issues a clarification of his sexuality – his two-year live-in relationship with the photographer Jake Walters – so obscure that it needed a clarification of its own after the book was published. In place of the detail that would have entertained fans and made Morrissey’s case to the unconverted, there is only charmless sniping against old enemies (Factory Records’ Tony Wilson, Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis, various traitors and malefactors) and a rising tone of self-pity. At times, one is put in mind of Father Ted Crilly’s lengthy scoresettling acceptance speech for the Priest of the Year award.

This self-indulgence reaches its limit in the yawning tedium of 50 pages on the court case in 1996 in which the Smiths’ drummer, Mike Joyce, retrospectively sued Morrissey and Marr for 25 per cent of the band’s earnings and Judge John Weeks found in his favour. “How can someone who is not creative pass judgement on someone who is?” writes Morrissey and it is this adolescent silliness that fatally holes Autobiography’s claim to be a Penguin Classic – or anyone’s classic.

The book fades out with a focusless travelogue of shows played and countries visited. Here, Morrissey enters quasi-erotic raptures over the bad-lad fans and tough-girl followers who constitute his final uncritical fan base. He has run out of things to say and can only be. This is fine if you are a Morrissey votary; less so for the general reader, who will perhaps best enjoy Autobiography as A Confederacy of Dunces with Ignatious J Reilly as the narrator instead of the subject: the citizen of a better world condemned to live among the gruesome likes of you and me, blind to the comedy of existence. Morrissey is a narcissist by confession and this book, initially entertaining but ultimately dispiriting, is his autohagiography.

Andrew Harrison is a cultural critic and former magazine editor

Blood on the tracks: Morrissey's memoir is predictably narcissistic and self-indulgent. Image: Frank Bauer/Countour/Getty

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Moving on up: why Ira Sachs is king of the "Rightmovie"

Little Men reminds us that Sachs is the the cinematic poet laureate of the gentrification drama.

There’s a nauseating moment at the end of the 1986 film Stand By Me when the narrator reflects on his childhood. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12,” he sighs. “Jesus, does anyone?” That sort of retroactive idealism is a temptation for any coming-of-age movie, but the writer-director Ira Sachs resists it in Little Men. His film charts the blossoming friendship between two 13-year-old boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), without stooping to suggest that what they have is somehow purer than anything in the adult world. It isn’t – it’s just subject to different forces. Sachs captures the concentrated joy of youthful larks and loyalty but he is as wise as Fassbinder ever was to the impact of economic and social pressures on our emotional choices.

It’s clear that the film will be discreet from the way the cinematographer, Óscar Durán, shoots Jake and Tony from behind during their first meeting, as though permitting the boys a modicum of privacy away from our prying eyes. Sachs has a knack for finding those pockets of quiet in the hubbub. The opening shot puts the reserved, feminine-faced Jake at his school desk; he’s the still point in the midst of chaos. He takes whatever life – or, in this case, his classmates – can throw at him.

Then Jake gets a bombshell: his grand­father has died. His father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), and mother, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), move with him into the old man’s building in Brooklyn. Downstairs is a cluttered dress shop that was being leased to Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina García), at a cut-price rate that failed to take into account the property boom. Jake’s father considers himself a sensitive man – he is an actor – ­preparing for a production of The Seagull but his life has just become The Cherry Orchard. Family members advise him to jack up the rent or boot out Leonor.

Kinnear conveys the honest terror of a kind man staring into the depths of his conscience and not liking what he finds. García, the star of the superb Gloria, is brave enough to make her character actively disagreeable at times. In her most complex scene, she sacrifices the moral high ground and overplays her hand with a single rash remark.

Yet Little Men belongs to the little men. Sensing the tremors of discord between their families, Jake and Tony stick together. They skate through the streets in a blur as the camera struggles to keep sight of them behind trees and parked cars while the propulsive score by Dickon Hinchliffe of Tindersticks urges them on.

As Tony, Barbieri is the find of the film. He’s twitchy and gangly, his voice a scratchy drawl that belongs to a bourbon-soaked barfly. No one has swaggered through Brooklyn with such aplomb since John Travolta at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. Then he’ll do something impulsive, such as hugging his sobbing mother by wrapping his long arms all the way around her and clutching her head to his chest, and suddenly he’s a baby again.

With this and Love Is Strange – about a middle-aged gay couple forced to live separately due to financial difficulties – Sachs has appointed himself the cinematic poet laureate of gentrification-based drama. (Call it the dawn of the Rightmovie.) But he isn’t a tub-thumper. He and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, show simply and plainly how money alters everything. Durán shoots the Brooklyn locations in a crisp, summery light that mirrors this straightforwardness. Any poetry springs from the everyday, such as the night-time shot in which blurred blobs of colour from streetlights and headlamps suggest dabs of paint on a palette.

Even the editing (by Mollie Goldstein) speaks volumes. The sudden cut from the gaudy clamour of a disco, where Tony wears a glow band around his neck like a fallen halo, to the chill calm of the subway platform evokes acutely that plunging feeling when the fun is over. As the boys wait for the train, their faces are framed in unsmiling repose in a shot that calls to mind Simon and Garfunkel on the cover of Bookends. And we all know what happened to them. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times