Colin Meloy is the singer and songwriter for the band the Decemberists. He is the author of The Wildwood Chronicles, a series of illustrated novels for children. He lives in Portland, Oregon. He, despite what you may think, continues to slavishly adore Morrissey.
(photo credit: Autumn De Wilde)
How to even begin?
I mean, how?
How did this even come to be?
It just appeared, out of nowhere: Morrissey’s Autobiography. And here it is, arriving wrapped in a Penguin Classics jacket, the sort of thing you typically see enclosing some fusty text like Middlemarch or Bleak House. What sort of publishing coup was that? How did that ever get past the leather elbow patches at Penguin? Well, applause, gentlemen.
No need to even crack the spine. This thing is already a rampaging success. Morrissey, once again, is shown to be the master of the perception manipulation, this amazing sleight of hand that invites you, tricks you, into helping him assemble just who Morrissey is.
Which reminds me: when I was a teenager I had a Morrissey t-shirt (worn threadbare, bought through some newsprint “alternative” catalogue). I had taken the trouble to write on the back, in Sharpie, the lyrics to the refrain of “Morrissey Rides a Cockhorse” by the Warlock Pinchers. I won’t write them out here. You can google it if you’d like.
And there was something to that — as a proud Morrissey fanatic (the sort who was as enamored of the solo stuff as the Smiths stuff), I’d gone so far as to lose the CD booklet to Viva Hate at a late-night poetry reading on some rocky outcrop on Mt. Helena in the early ’90s. Such are my bona fides. Imagine, for a terrifying moment, a breathless reading of “Late Night, Maudlin Street” in this huddled group of pimply, awkward drama brats. I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible.
But there was something about being a true Morrissey obsessive that gave you license to also luxuriate in the mountainous pile of slander that was being heaped on the poor Mozfather in those halcyon days of 1991 and 1992. Even the Pride of Alternative Bro-dom, Henry Rollins, took time out to unleash a murderous rant about our man from Manchester. Everyone was in on the game.
Thing is, Morrissey was always the ringleader of his own tormentors, a master of ironic (or unironic?) self-flagellation. Little did Mr. Rollins know, he was merely playing into Morrissey’s hands. Ha HA! We all aided and abetted Morrissey’s misery-maven-identity, by alternately lumping loathing and love, in equal measure, onto his sorry shoulders.
And now here, seemingly out of nowhere, arrives his Autobiography, already a “Classic” by dint of its imprint. Is it really necessary to open and read the thing?
But open and read the thing we must! If only because we are on deadline to review it for the Talkhouse and it would behoove us to read it – which is not something we exactly haven’t done before, not reading a thing and reviewing it, but we figure it’d be a good idea.
And guess what? It’s fucking brilliant. I mean, really, really good.
At least the first 150 pages.
And what a first 150 pages it is! As a veteran appreciator of the rock memoir milieu, I’m accustomed to suffering the first twenty thousand words as we meet the author’s great-great-grandparents, walk the creaking floorboards of their childhood home, and learn where they were when they first saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show/witnessed the Sex Pistols on Bill Grundy/heard the Replacements for the first time on a dubbed cassette from their uncle. It’s all relatively interchangeable and often devoid of anything very interesting. Let’s get to the BAND, MAN! But Morrissey, incredibly and unexpectedly (though was there ever really any doubt?) manages this morass of childhood remembrance with the studied eye of a true memoirist. He nails the descriptions of his upbringing, his tortured pre-adolescence in depressed and depressing Manchester with all the vicious wit of his beloved ’60s kitchen sink dramas. Here are the humdrum, rain-swept streets of this industrial northern city! Here is its newly hatched post-war generation! Here is the educational-industrial complex with its sadistic teachers and [dominatrix] gym teachers! It’s all so real on the page, so really real, — you can see the roots branching out from beneath the monolithic Morrissey this child was to one day become. And more! There’s a kind of lit-crit excursion into Auden and a few of the leading-light War Poets that is surprisingly readable as well as a lucid and insightful bit on the mid-’70s New York glam/proto-punk scene. It’s good, heady, funny, clever stuff. I wanted to stay, I wanted to stave off that initial rise to stardom; I wanted to remain alongside poor, aimless Steven Patrick Morrissey before he summarily lopped off his forenames.
Because then he meets Johnny Marr and the whole thing goes to shit in just a heartbreaking kind of way. I mean, how many recriminations can one man fit into a 460-page book? Fair question; I can answer it.
A lot. A lot a lot.
Every business associate, every confidante, every artist-peer — they all have had some hand in the putting-upon of poor put-upon Moz; they’ve all done him wrong in some slight or overblown way. They’ve all failed to understand the fragility of his feelings — or somehow let down the genius of his creations. To have him tell it, every Smiths song was destined for chart-topping success and it is the unspeakable incompetency of his confederates to blame for their inability to act on that promise. To have him tell it, Rough Trade Records, the fledgling Smiths’ first label, is a dusty hippie-haven and it is Morrissey and Marr who bring it into the modern day. Poor Geoff Travis tends to get the worst of the character assassination as he is relentlessly tagged with unflattering descriptors. (At one point he is described as having a “whooping cough smile” — whatever that is) We, the reader, are left to roll our eyes and nod, exasperated — we get it, Morrissey. Can we please move on now? Morrissey has described himself as an “animal protectionist” — after wading through a few hundred pages of this book, one wishes he cared about his fellow humans as much.
It’s relentless, a literary slog in the true sense of the word. And it only gets worse: The 100-some-odd pages he spends recounting, in bitterest detail, his legal battles with former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce is virtually unreadable, a literary tangent that would make the most incidental reader long for Melville’s epic whaling digression in Moby Dick. It’d be comical if it weren’t so desperately sad.
So desperately sad to see the man spend so much time and spill so much ink announcing how much he’d been wronged and end up being the one who undercuts his own argument. Clearly, once we’ve moved past the delicious opening pages, we ascertain that Morrissey did not take on this project, this Autobiography, to somehow create something beautiful and true — the promise of those first handfuls of pages. No, he wanted to set the record straight. Standing in the dock, with his innocent hand on his heart, it’s pitiable that it’s his own deposition that ultimately sinks him. His case, sadly, does not hold water. We, the jury, must come back definitively: GUILTY, GUILTY, GUILTY.
But that’s the verdict he’d wanted all along, wasn’t it?
Which reminds me: I was wearing that selfsame Morrissey t-shirt, with the damning lyrics written on the back, when I, a 17-year-old scofflaw, sneaked into the Crocodile Café in Seattle after the My Bloody Valentine show at the Moore Theater. The members of R.E.M. were there and I ended up on the receiving end of a very annoyed handshake when I introduced myself to Michael Stipe. Sidling up to the bar, I heard Stipe’s voice over my shoulder, mumble out the lyrics that had been written on the back of my shirt. He laughed a little, and intoned, “If you can’t make fun of yourself, who can you make fun of?”