I never expected Morrissey to be a hopeless romantic. But then again, I never expected that I would be one, too. As a struggling queer growing up a generation after the moody singer, I relied on our shared disdain for conventionality and lack of imagination. The misunderstanding and abuse inflicted on him by dumb, unloving peers, by his own family, by strangers desperate to manage or destroy the odd pale-skinned creature swaying before them, were mine as well. In last year’s Autobiography Morrissey writes of possessing “the swirling soul within [that] seemed to speak up for the most awkward people on the planet.” I needed him to speak for me, and he did the job with great aplomb. His music made the pain and awkwardness not just endurable but enjoyable, and his voice and lyrics made them seem like sophistication and brilliance—feelings to hold on to because they made you seem as special as you hoped you’d be.
Morrissey, in other words, was compensation for high school.
So the chance to sit with his memoir was the next best thing to meeting the man himself. Sure enough, the book, as a whole, is shockingly good. And I first want to tell you why it’s so good. But goodness, as we know, never lasts, and for reasons I’ll explain in a bit, Autobiography’s shortcomings make us wonder about the disastrous tolls that celebrity takes on not just Morrissey himself, but on all of us within reach of his book. He wants us to think of his story as something bigger than just his life, which is probably why he insisted that Autobiography be published as part of the Penguin Classics imprint in the UK, putting him in the company of such greats as George Eliot, Saint Augustine, and Walt Whitman. Inevitably, you wonder if this book really is a classic. Does it belong to the ages? Let’s see.
Morrissey is an astounding writer, with a mania for stunning, pleasurable description, for aphorisms and axioms appended to astute social commentary. On his childhood in Manchester:
Here, behind the shells of shabby shops, that foul animal-waste waft from which no one can fail but to cover their mouths as they race past. These back-entries once so dutifully swept and swilled and donkey-stoned to death by the honest poor now have no future, for this now is their future, that moment when time runs out.
No wonder Terry Eagleton, in The Guardian, called Autobiography “superb,” concluding that Morrissey could one day “walk away with the Booker Prize.”1 Morrissey’s references are meticulously chosen, his readings of film and poetry impressive, his erudition, intimidating. You might be inclined to believe him when he claims he wants to spend most of his time alone, reading: “Finally aware of ourselves as forever being in opposition, the solution to all predicaments is the goodness of privacy in a warm room with books.” If he had been a professor rather than a pop star, I would have written in support of his tenure.
But he’s not just surprisingly brainy and eloquent. Morrissey’s prose—especially when he describes his childhood and adolescence—strikes chords of genuine, moving feeling. Writing about a teenage friend:
Simon appears to be the first person who likes me for all the reasons that others usually dislike me. It had been a long hard war. It was enough just to sit there minus the usual nonsense of trying to make myself interesting. Simon takes me to his parents’ house in Flixton. I hitch up onto the back of his bike – a fastened position of proximity that throws an entirely new light on seething hurt.
Indeed, I was so captivated by his style—the exacting commentary, the devastating insight, the rhythm of the sentences—that I found myself caring very little about the information whose like we presumably seek when reading a superstar’s memoirs: his time with the Smiths, all the celebrities he’s met, even the juicy details about David Bowie or Johnny Marr or the men he might have had “deeper” relations with—men like a companion called Gelato in Rome or the photographer Jake Walters (the possibly romantic specifics about whom are excluded, without explanation, in the North American edition). His under-narrated vignettes—some of which shift violently from one moment to the next, without warning or transition—build and build, seemingly without end, and perhaps without a point. And I didn’t care.
Morrissey’s success, we’re told over and over again, happens in spite of all the forces conspiring to stop him, and the casualty is what could have been.
The events of Morrissey’s life pale against the originality of his sensibility and style as he navigates what it means to become, and then to remain, a celebrity. Not surprisingly, then, the second half of the book, devoted as it is to his struggles with the music business and the cult and culture of celebrity, was far less exhilarating than the first half—more proof, as if any were needed, that “Fame, fame, fatal fame,” as Morrissey puts it, is no real antidote to adolescent alienation. The music business and the touring life are hideous pursuits, and Morrissey spends much of the second half of the book dragging us through band infighting, tour tragedies, tour banalities, royalty disputes, and press horrors. It might very well be that working on being famous damns you to a life where there will never be enough people in the audience. Never enough number one singles or albums. Never enough good press. Never enough sleep. Morrissey had fans storming the stage at every concert, just to touch him, throwing beautiful flowers, which he sometimes stuffed into the back pocket of his baggy jeans. He has friends all over the world. And still he always feels loveless, paranoid, and lonely.
Tellingly, the parts of Autobiography about fame, the music industry, and the trials of celebrity are where Morrissey tends to lose his tremendous voice. It’s where petty, mindless details accumulate in too-generous portions and delicious phrasings appear less frequently. We spend pages stranded in the wars of betrayal that will likely always occupy his mind: the mismanagement by every record label (especially Rough Trade); the avarice of the Smiths’ drummer, Mike Joyce, and the royalties trial that Morrissey more or less retries, coercing us, too, into feeling that Judge John Weeks is a vindictive idiot; and his rage at a press seemingly hell-bent on slandering and destroying him. Morrissey’s success, we’re told over and over again, happens in spite of all the forces conspiring to stop him, and the casualty is what could have been. He could have been bigger if the right kind of PR were in place; if radio stations ever played his songs; if the press would give him a fair chance; and if others would treat him with the honesty and reason with which he treated them, even if sometimes Morrissey’s self-avowed snarkiness overshadowed that good treatment.
We know we shouldn’t crave fame, but we do. Why is this now the preeminent desire of so many people? In this social-mediated world, one now need not start a band in Manchester to achieve the piercing glare of public attention—“likes” building on “likes” validate a value-less self-esteem that puts a premium on quantity rather than quality. I was astonished by Morrissey’s fixation on record sales, by how most of his commentary about each one of his gorgeous albums is less about the music and mostly about the numbers. Morrissey, in my imagination, didn’t trifle with such worries as he waited to meet me “at the cemetry gates.” But when an album or single doesn’t enter the charts at number one, he mopes, as if everyone, everything in the world had been taken from him. In a way, it had. When a recent single “flops in at number 21,” he writes, “the child within is finally murdered.”
Morrissey is only buoyed when he feels his fans adore him. But not just a few fans—as many as possible. Sentences like these are not uncommon:
All 6,000 tickets have sold, and the night is full of trenches tension and a call to arms.… Bodies vault an impossibly high barrier and lunge at the edge of the stage – howling as they land into the holy mess of the front row. Some heads are squashed. Some aren’t. The security struggles in the mix, but all I see is one great caress.
Over time, we begin to understand that quantity of adoration is what delights Morrissey more than anything else, and it seems that he only trusts anonymous fans, perhaps because so many closer contacts have proven false or disappointing: “Nowhere are there more natural smiles than those of a welcoming audience. In response, my heart sings and breaks.” Hence the book’s steamiest passage occurs when he thinks about how his devoted fans’ collective flesh is irrevocably marked by his face, his words: “Arms and arms and chests and hands of Morrissey messages inked in for life – tattooed across nakedness, each one an essay, and it’s all I can do to take deep breaths. A tattoo means I am always there – even when people shower, my words or pasty face will gaze up from soaped bodies.” Mostly no one, we’re told, meets Morrissey when he climbs into bed, but at least he’ll always be looking up from his fans’ bodies, and it’s his face (not theirs) that always awaits him in his imagination of their wet, soapy nakedness.
You could call Morrissey a “narcissist,” but that doesn’t get us far in understanding what is surprisingly innovative about this memoir. However unaware, the book functions as a critique of narcissism in our “age of meaninglessness.” We are being taught not to want him, or at least not to want what he now has, which seems exactly opposite to what a narcissist typically craves. Autobiography knows perfectly well what kinds of self-exposure and disclosure are at work in the act of writing any memoir now, at a time when so many are caught in the trap of making autobiography a daily feature of obsessive self-curation and documentation in the mediated sphere that now constitutes social life as we know it. As Morrissey achieves more and more elusive success in spite of the constant obstacles, he expresses precarious satisfaction: “Jesus, I am loved. Having never found love from one, I instead find it from thousands – at the same time, in the same room.”
These happy epiphanies, however, are short-lived (fans inevitably disperse), and throughout the last 50 pages of the book, we are made increasingly aware of how Morrissey is anxious about his appearance, his weight gain, and his desirability. He undercuts how he has “everything now” by persistently returning to his waning physical appeal: “But my body is changing once again, and I now look avuncular, and it can’t be helped, and I can’t measure the love they transmit as being to the sexual or to the paternal”; “I feel fat and ugly”; “His belly is flat and mine is fat”; and so on. That’s the dilemma that the pursuit of fame has brought him: he can’t measure; he can’t evaluate; he can’t trust any assessment for too long. Something about being so visibly wanted for so long by so many (and yet by so few whom he actually knows) has maimed him for good. He is attractive and hideous at the same time. While looking in disbelief at a “sky-scraping image of [his] face” hung down the front of the Riverside Auditorium, he is asked how he can doubt it, “after all these years… [W]hy do you still question the love?” The answer is simple: he can’t do anything but doubt. Nothing could give him enough of more.
It’s as if Morrissey knows that people’s attention spans are not short, but crave an endless feed of unedited more.
In other words—and in Morrissey’s world, there are always other words—his sense of scale is wrong, and this might be his big tragedy. The world isn’t large enough for his love, which was never small enough. So we’re treated to insights, witticisms, and quick anecdotes that keep accumulating, almost pointlessly—but not quite. On the one hand, you want him to edit some of his insights down: eliminate some of the alliteration; reduce the volume of witty and mean assessments of people’s characters; at least cut two-thirds of the analysis of the Smiths trial. On the other, you feel his anxiety and mania as your own as he builds all the attractive and loveable sentences into a tome—a Penguin Classic. It’s as if Morrissey knows that people’s attention spans, contrary to popular belief, are not short, but crave an endless feed of unedited more. To register as important, as lovable, as viable in today’s celebrity-fixated madness, one has to keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger, generating more and more content, so the fans out there won’t get distracted by someone or something else on whom they can binge and waste time. And Moz crushes the competition, leaving you deeply aware of how he can only love the many, but never the one. Never you. The book’s final lines: “As I board the tour bus, a fired encore is still ringing in my ears, and then suddenly a separated female voice calls out to me – full of cracked now-or-never embarrassment above the still Illinois winter atmosphere of midnight, and it was dark, and I looked the other way.” His lonely child’s life, then, does not get better with age: “the lonely season must return, for that is what it does.”
The part of me that has always loved this man without hope wants to remind him and the whole world that I love him, and that I always will. He was so important to my adolescence. His music will always delight. And certainly a gang of outcasts shares a special bond. But the part of me that read the book knows, now more than ever before, that he could never be capable of loving me back—especially if we knew one another. Morrissey needs everyone or no one. That’s the impossible, depressed condition of someone trying so hard to hold onto an audience. And although loving those who can’t be loved rarely discourages me—I, too, am a romantic—Morrissey’s elegant, absurd, sparkling, intelligent, amusing, and pathetic sentences stop me, reminding me that I’ve heard this one before—the one about the neglected boy who grows up to be famous, beautiful, tragic, and irrevocably damaged. As he revealed years ago in song, he knows he’s unlovable. And it only took 454 pages—and nearly 25 years—for me finally to believe him.