The biggest selling music biography this Christmas (and possibly the biggest selling music bio ever) is undoubtedly Morrissey’s “Autobiography.” Given the Manchurian singers propensity for making outlandish, sickness often hilarious comments, treat as well as his bona fide status as a cultural icon, a biography was always going to attract huge amounts of attention, and the expectations would always be lofty. Before a single line of text is read, two details stand out about Autobiography. Firstly its banal title and the (paperback) cover, a stock photo of the singer himself, instantly draw comparison to the Smiths singles and sleeves that made Morrissey a household name in the first place. The second detail that stands out is that the book is published under the penguin classics imprint. Penguin received a lot of criticism for this, and honestly it’s hard to understand why they choose to do this. From the perspective of Morrissey it makes sense. Apart from being an audacious press move, and putting the singer in the company of his “lover Wilde,” it has the effect of placing Morrissey into an institution as quintessentially British as himself. The title, sleeve
and publisher all have the effect of immersing the reader in Morrissey’s world before a single line of text is read. Immersion is the key word for this book. Much has been made already about the language and style that the biography employs. Instead of using chapters, Morrissey opts for elongated paragraphs, and focuses on the banalities of life as much as, if not more then, music. While some will be disappointed by this, I personally found it to be particularly interesting, especially the first half of the book, which deals almost exclusively with his youth in Manchester. Morrissey’s eye for imagery and detail makes you feel as though you’re walking the streets of inner city Manchester with him, and at times I felt like the music aspect was getting in the way of a more interesting story. His writing style has been criticised as being self indulgent and overtly flowery, but seriously, what else would one expect from Morrissey. The two aspects of a Morrissey Biography that will inevitably attract the most attention will undoubtedly be the Smiths and the singer’s sexuality. The Smiths have little more then a cameo in Autobiography. In the four hundred and fifty page book, they take up about seventy pages, not appearing until just over a third in. Morrissey is surprisingly acrimonious to his former band mates, praising the various members for their chemistry and creativity. The famous breakup is also blamed on record label shenanigans rather then infighting, and there are far fewer barbs thrown then one might expect. That’s not to say that everybody comes out unscathed. Drummer Mike Joyce (whose 1996 court case over unpaid royalties takes up the worst fifty pages) receives a number of brutal and wonderfully over the top insults. Morrissey has always been very coy about his sexuality, often claiming to be asexual in interviews. In Autobiography, things are alluded to and inferred, only to be contradicted pages later. This, along with the handling of the Smiths, is sure to upset fans, but there’s a distinct feeling that Morrissey is acutely aware of this fact, and, ever the showman, he enjoys playing with the expectations of him. Autobiography is not the best rock biography out there, and nor is it a penguin classic. At times it’s frustratingly ambiguous, narcissistic, self indulgent and judgmental toward its readers. However it’s a success because these traits are counterbalanced by its wit, charisma and eloquence. It has all the traits that define its author.
By Adam Duke