Penguin Classics, the publishing imprint of Homer, Dante and Dickens, has a new author: Steven Patrick Morrissey, former frontman of The Smiths, whose Autobiography arrived in bookshops last week to take its place alongside The Iliad and The Inferno.
What a shame Penguin failed to publish it a few weeks earlier, then Moz might have been eligible for this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Instead – is that a wail of despair from the much put-upon singer? – it goes to some second-rate scribbler called Alice Munro. Typical!
It was apparently Morrissey who insisted that his memoir appear as a Penguin Classic. Lack of self-belief has never handicapped him. When The Smiths’ first album came out in 1984, he informed an interviewer that it was “absolute perfection” and a “total baring of the soul”. “I think,” the “tall, sallow youth of 24” added, “it must be seen as some kind of landmark in music, and I do expect the highest praise.”
The highest praise duly came his way. Formed in Manchester, The Smiths were the most important indie band of the 1980s, an alternative to the glossy pop dominating the charts. They inspired extraordinary devotion, and Morrissey was its focal point – witty and highly literate, projecting a fragile air of vulnerability yet utterly bold in his opinions. Without doubt he and his ex-bandmates are in the musical equivalent of Penguin Classics. But does Autobiography belong in the real literary thing?
Characteristically, the book comes shrouded in opacity. A mysterious dispute last month with Penguin almost derailed its publication. No review copies were made available before its arrival at 00.01am on Thursday. There is no index in the finished product, nor any chapter breaks.
Instead we get over 450 unbroken pages of Morrissey’s life story, from dismal beginnings in south Manchester (“a barbaric place where only headless savages can survive”) to an abrupt ending in 2011, which conveniently sidesteps the 54-year-old’s recent bouts of ill health. (Earlier this year he cancelled a North American tour after being diagnosed with double pneumonia, an ulcer and a throat condition. Doctors, he later revealed, told him he might die.)
A disciple of Oscar Wilde and David Bowie, Morrissey is a peculiar mix of outspokenness and secrecy. Autobiography is not without revelations, but they’re carefully rationed and held from us at arm’s length. We learn that the self-declared “celibate” – who in The Smiths’ heyday was bombarded with questions about his sexuality – had a gay relationship in his late thirties. We also learn that he once discussed having a baby with a female partner; or in Moz-speak, “the unthinkable act of producing a mewling miniature monster”.
Neither confidence is explored closely. The gay relationship drops off the book’s radar after a few pages; a few other affairs are hinted at in the vaguest terms. Meanwhile the outcome of the baby discussions is never divulged – although it is clear that no “miniature mewling” mini-Morrissey ensued.
It is bizarre that someone capable of such profundity in his songs should be so lacking in desire to understand himself. How can this be the same writer who, in The Smiths’ “Still Ill”, summed up Descartes with a droll flourish: “Does the body rule the mind/Or does the mind rule the body?/I don’t know … ”?
The best section of Autobiography covers his upbringing in an Irish immigrant family in working-class south Manchester, which he depicts as an unrelenting grind of poverty and crushed aspirations. The writing is grotesque and gothic, like a satirical version of Frank McCourt’s Irish misery memoir Angela’s Ashes.
There are laugh-out loud moments. “Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big …” “Throughout these years I am a largely bedridden child unwilling to keep death at bay.” Yet real substance eludes him. Descriptions of his family are fleeting, with his parents’ divorce when he was a child meriting only a throwaway line.
The Smiths’ brief but glorious five-year existence is covered in a scant 80 pages, mostly notable for a wonderfully vicious portrait of his record label boss, Geoff Travis of Rough Trade. His co-songwriter Johnny Marr is justly lauded for his guitar skills, but the songs’ composition and lyrics are barely mentioned.
Meanwhile a court case over royalties, brought by the band’s drummer Mike Joyce after The Smiths split up, is minutely examined over the course of 40 obsessive pages, again mostly notable for invective. “Crucified by his own enormous teeth,” we are told of the prosecuting lawyer, “[he] is further weighed down by a colony of purple boils decorating the back of his neck.”
Pop music was Morrissey’s salvation from his dreary childhood. “These small black discs are the first things that are truly mine,” he writes of the first records he bought, in the late 1960s. “In a dream, I watch them spin and spin, calling out, pointing the way.”
As with his hero Wilde, it’s all a game of surface and depth. But Morrissey’s ideal depth is the needle touching down on the groove of a vinyl record, not the 450-plus pages of the latest Penguin Classic.