It is almost impossible to deny Steven Patrick Morrissey’s contribution to popular culture over the last 30 years. His lilting voice and foreboding vocals earned him a place atop the U.K. Music charts for three straight decades, as well as a place in the hearts of melancholy teenagers the world over.
Always regarded as a wordsmith among pop stars, Morrissey’s autobiography, wryly titled “Autobiography,” reads like it was ghostwritten by Shakespeare himself. The book’s opening sentences, “My childhood is streets upon streets upon streets upon streets. Streets to define you and streets to confine you,” set the stage for a tale that soars far above an eighth grade reading level.
As he has done in his music since 1983, Morrissey proudly stands atop his soapbox and derides everything from Britain’s education system to music journalists to his own bandmates. Naturally, this being Morrissey, he does so in as sophisticated a manner as possible. In fact, it is rare for the brooding icon to compliment anyone at all, and when he does, it feels innately backhanded.
Like Morrissey the singer, Morrissey the man apparently has a propensity for misery. He takes the reader on a long, heartbreaking stroll through a childhood rife with death and neglect, with music and poetry as his only saving graces. He introduces lines of verse from some of his favorite poets, and the dedicated Morrissey fan can see how crucial these poets are to what would become his most unforgettable lyrics.
Conversely, Morrissey spends a scant 75 pages recounting his time with The Smiths, a period he describes as an overall happy time of expression. Yet he gallops through those five years, and even then dedicates most of those sparse pages to lampooning NME and a host of other music media for misrepresenting The Smiths.
Perhaps his harshest critic, Morrissey is quick to decry most of The Smiths’ work for its lack of production or “richness.” But as The Smiths reached the end of their rope, they apparently managed to get it right, with the staunch artist describing “Strangeways, Here We Come” as “The Smiths’ masterpiece, with everything in its perfect place.” Just as the group hit its artistic stride, they elected to separate in 1987, with no ill will. That will come in the 90s.
Morrissey temporarily abandons his audience later in the book, as he recounts the 1996 and 1999 cases pitting himself and Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr against bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce in a heatedly tedious lawsuit over royalties. If ever there were a part of Morrissey’s life to be glossed over, it would be this. Instead he spends 40 mind-numbing pages addressing every testimonial and how the courts and his incompetent legal team conspired against him from the beginning. This, inevitably, is the stake that is driven between him and the rest of the band, not their amicable breakup nine years earlier. This could have all been said in a few short paragraphs, of course, but it is not like Morrissey to be succinct in anything.
As the perspective shifts back from court drama to music memoir, the reader rejoices in, at last, the melancholy Morrissey is content with himself. His solo career kickstarted just months after The Smiths ended, but Morrissey described the period starting in 2003 as, “The most fruitful period of my life.” He emphatically dives into a series of sold-out American shows with fans so passionate, he laments, “The most extraordinary tours of my life are never made known back in England.” Ironically, the country that took the longest to accept him was England, while America welcomed The Smiths and then later Morrissey alone with open arms.
As it reaches its end, the memoir turns into something gratifying. At the thought of connecting with such a ravenous fanbase and uniting so many hearts, the ice-cold Morrissey becomes human, washing the remaining few pages with a wave of emotion so intense it almost makes his 40-page courtroom diatribe feel worth it. Morrissey is asked, “Did you see the scrappers in the foyer?” to which the singer replies, “Yes, and love them I do, with noble heart.”
The 460-page memoir is, in the end, very Morrissey, and his fans would take it no other way. His humor is dark, his rants biting. British tabloids delight in mocking Morrissey by parodying an old Smiths song in headlines reading, “Heaven Knows He’s Miserable Now.” After reading his memoir, Morrissey fans can rebut with “Not anymore. Or at least not as often.”
“Autobiography” hits U.S. shelves in hardcover Dec. 3.
Des Delgadillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.