The Smiths, the Manchester-born guitar band who between 1983 and 1987 made some of the best pop Britain has ever produced, had a song called “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.” That line perfectly sums up how I, and many others, I’m sure, feel about Morrissey, the Smiths’ bequiffed, big-chinned, ostentatiously miserable frontman. His shtick—which consisted largely of what we might call witty self-pity—was fun, original, quite standout in the otherwise chirpy ’80s, in which girls just wanted to have fun and men dressed like girls who just wanted to have fun. But today, more than 25 years after the Smiths split and with Morrissey knocking on the door of 55, his woe-is-me act feels tired, knackered in fact. And sadly his new autobiography—titled simply Autobiography, because he’s that iconic, people—is full of it. It ain’t funny anymore, Moz.
Imagine a Smiths song denuded of tunesmith Johnny Marr’s dazzling jangly guitars, slowed down to catatonic levels, and stretched from three minutes to three days—reading Morrissey’s autobiography is what it must be like to listen to such a warped song. All the Morrissey traits are here—the Moz voice is palpable: his unique and often contradictory combo of wit and miserabilism, arrogance and self-effacement, shines through in startling sentences like “Naturally my birth almost kills my mother” and “My face had by now taken on the demeanour of continual deep regret.” (That’s how he describes the moment he became a teenager.) But where Morrissey’s lines are normally accompanied by a toe-tapping tune, giving them an instantly curious and comic feel—there’s nothing quite like dancing with gay abandon to Smiths’ lines like “Heaven knows I’m miserable now!”—here they stare blankly and silently from the page.
This brutal printing as opposed to musicification of Morrissey’s words makes you realize two things: 1) Morrissey isn’t as good a writer as he thinks he is; and 2) the stuff he was famous for during the ’80s—being miserable, advertising his awkwardness, talking up his travails—is now so commonplace in this downbeat, self-loathing new millennium that his sad life story, far from feeling fresh, comes across like any of the other millions of misery memoirs that clog up modern bookshops.
Steven Patrick Morrissey was born in Manchester in the north of England in 1959. Perhaps auditioning for a part in “Four Yorkshiremen”—the Monty Python skit in which four seemingly well-off gentlemen try to outdo each other with tales of the deprivations they suffered in childhood—he frequently goes into hyperbolic overdrive to describe his upbringing. He writes about hanging out in “Manchester’s armpit,” in “Victorian knife-plunging Manchester,” among “the pickled poor … with missing eyes,” insisting “Dickens himself would be lost for words.” He grew up in “Dickensian drear,” he tells us.
Page after page of the first chapter is devoted to describing in pornographic detail the squalor Morrissey was apparently dragged up in. His aim seems less to inform than to repel, to make his reader balk at the allegedly unspeakable horror and inhumanity of it all, of life in early ‘60s Manchester. (I say allegedly because I know people who grew up in Manchester at the same time, and they tell me it wasn’t nearly as desperate as Moz makes out.) On the very first page of the book, he describes playing as a child, “racing into wet black cellars, underground cavities where murder and sex and self-destruction seep from cracks of local stone and shifting brickwork where aborted babies found deathly peace instead of unforgiving life,” and the effect is less to induce feelings of sympathy for the author than to make one think: “That reminds me, I must check out the new Stephen King.”
It’s all too much, too bleak, too ladled with adjective-heavy horrors, as if satirist Craig Brown of Private Eye was doing a diary in the style of Dickens himself taking a daytrip to Victorian Whitechapel.
Every part of Morrissey’s childhood seems to have been tinged with dread. Even something as simple as watching “Thunderbirds” appears to have induced in young Moz an existential crisis: “They are, of course, animated puppets, yet they are as real as I am. But how real am I?” Of the nightmares that greeted him daily in his school lunch hall, Morrissey wails: “Putrid smells reduce me to a pitiful pile, and none are more vomitarian than school dinners.” (That sentence, with its promiscuous alliteration and passive structure, sums up Morrissey’s often embarrassingly teenage literary style.)
On being taught to swim, Morrissey says, “I was lifted up and thrown into the water in an act that, these days, would count as extreme physical and psychological assault.” He describes his first job—at a hospital in the Whalley Range district of Manchester—as a “prank played by God.” Even the simple act of going shopping sounds punishing under Morrissey’s pen. “For reasons too terrifying to analyse I had found myself walking around Macclesfield town center one sorry-assed Saturday in 1975,” he says of the day he bought the Patti Smith album “Horses.”
Thankfully, his purchasing of Patti Smith represents a turning point in his black, tortured life. He starts getting serious about music. He goes to gigs. He writes fanboy letters to the New Musical Express, Britain’s weekly rock/pop mag, about his favorite bands, most notably the New York Dolls. He starts actually joining bands, kicking off with one that has an oh-so-’70s name: The Nosebleeds. Then, in 1982, he meets “a boy called Johnny Marr,” and the rest is history.
Morrissey and Marr, together with Andy Rourke on bass and Mike Joyce on drums, make up the Smiths. Morrissey tells us he chose that name for the band precisely because it is so common; Smith is the most prevalent surname in Britain, Australia, and America. It’s a “timeless name, unlikely to date,” Morrissey says, with a “primitive” feel to it, speaking to “the servitude of the hard-working.” This was to be a band for the common man not the New Romantic twats hanging out in über-exclusive clubs.
Moz and Marr were a pairing made in heaven, the youthful boy-about-town Marr bringing beautiful, Byrds-like melodies and the old-before-his-time Moz bringing lyrics that mashed together humor and harrumphing to produce such classic songs as “Still Ill,” “Miserable Lie,” “What Difference Does It Make?”, “Rusholme Ruffians,” “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side,” “Girlfriend in a Coma,” and too many more to mention. In some ways, Morrissey and Marr were a tighter, truer songwriting partnership than Lennon and McCartney—where John and Paul mostly wrote songs apart, Johnny and Steven couldn’t have done what they did without each other, Marr doing only music and Moz doing only words. This made it an intensely personal, profoundly creative union; it’s astonishing to think Marr was a mere 23 years-old when the Smiths split up, meaning he produced all those era-defining songs and four studio albums—“The Smiths,” “Meat Is Murder,” “The Queen is Dead,” and “Strangeways, Here We Come”—in the period that most of us spend recovering from teenagedom.
Remarkably—actually, maybe it’s to be expected, given his penchant for navel-gazing and raking over his sorrowful life—Morrissey spends just 70 pages out of 457 on the Smiths. That’s a shame because I’m sure most of the people who pick up this book will be more interested in the stirring story of the Smiths than in the hours Morrissey spent traipsing through the streets of Manchester thinking about serial killer Myra Hindley, comedian Tony Hancock, and pop star Cilla Black. Of course, even the section on the Smiths contains classic hyperbole from our author: he tells us that he “vomits profusely” when he discovers that the Smiths’ first album is being released in a different version in Japan, including Sandie Shaw’s version of “Hand in Glove.” “I am so disgusted by this that I beg people to kill me,” he writes. Who talks like that? Only teenagers and Morrissey.
That Morrissey spends almost as many pages (54) on the late 1990s court case in which drummer Joyce sued him over Smiths royalties suggests this autobiography is designed as much to settle bitchy scores with the Smiths as it is to tell their story. It also confirms that there will never, ever be a Smiths reunion—no bad thing.
This simultaneously pompous and unwittingly witty tome, where you sometimes can’t tell if Morrissey is being serious about his terrible life or is camping up all the misery for effect, highlights a problem for modern-day Moz: his “unique selling point”—I know, he’d hate that phrase—is no longer so unique. Indeed, what we might call the Moz outlook, his old Smiths-era feeling of exhaustion with modernity and the masses who partake in it, is now thoroughly mainstream. Moz the geeky outsider, who once pranced about on “Top of the Pops” wearing a hearing aid to show just how unhip he was, is in many ways the Mozfather of mainstream popular culture where now everyone flags up their failures; everyone is cagey about consumerism; everyone thinks the modern world is harsh and unforgiving; everyone feels bad about eating meat; everyone is a Smiths song personified.
When the Smiths burst onto the scene, they were new and daring. Where it was the fashion in the early ’80s to use synths, the Smiths played good old-fashioned guitar. Where that era’s pop stars wore grey, sported tons of make-up (especially the men), and seemed to have earnest looks permanently tattooed on their faces, the Smiths waved flowers and made jokes. Where pop had become terribly sectional—pitching New Romantics against post-punks against Ska against dance—the Smiths produced everyman music under an everyman name. And their music remains bracing: just listen to “The Headmaster Ritual,” the opening song on “Meat Is Murder,” and I guarantee you’ll feel your heart race and your pants swing.
But today, the Smiths vibe, the Smiths outlook—the Smiths’ prejudices, I’m afraid to say—is no longer the preserve of four talented men from Manchester; it’s now rife, such thinking is the coursing lifeblood of modern political and cultural chatter. “I don’t like anything new. I’m really not modern to any degree at all,” said Morrissey in an interview in the mid-’80s. That anti-modern outlook was expressed in Smiths songs like “Nowhere Fast”: “Each household appliance is like a new science in my town,” Morrissey sang, mockingly, of the ignoramuses who lapped up mod-cons. Today, such anti-consumerist snootiness is a mainstay of both edgier pop—think of Lorde’s annoying ditty “Royals”—and what passes for radical left-wing politics. Morrissey’s mid-’80s rants against both factory farming and industrialization, which he saw as a blight on his beloved north of England, now find expression in the casual anti-McDonald’s and anti-factory prejudices of every Greenie and young person on earth. Even his self-imposed sobriety and sex-avoidance during the ’80s are today echoed in mainstream campaigns against youthful boozing and “unsafe sex.”
The Morrissey approach—to withdraw from the modern throng; to hark back to a mythical, rose-tinted past (think of all those glorious ’60s stills that adorned the Smiths’ album covers); to bemoan humanity’s wickedness to beasts and nature—is now as commonplace as was that soul-deadening synth music that the Smiths originally emerged to challenge. Far from being a sad sap whom nobody loves, as his autobiography suggests, Morrissey has in fact provided the soundtrack to our downbeat era: everyone from British PM David Cameron to modern-day Hollywood has fulsomely embraced his music and the Smiths’ back catalogue.
And now we have his autobiography, bizarrely published in the UK as a Penguin Classic. That’s embarrassing because it isn’t a classic; it’s just another wordy misery memoir, a tale of a tortured childhood, which are legion in these Oprahfied times in which everyone is strong-armed into obsessing over dark past experiences and how they might have screwed you up. Morrissey’s misery, even with its witty edges, is no longer fresh, or even particularly interesting—it’s just another woeful life story in an era awash with them.
Brendan O’Neill is the editor of spiked (www.spiked-online.com).