I did it. I tackled 450+ pages of stream-of-consciousness, packed-with-meaning, ultra-moody pages writted by Morrissey, maybe even more for Morrissey himself than for his fans. I struggled to like him, I often hated him in fact, and other times I wanted to, quoting my boss here, “hug the shit out of him.” I think it turns out that I love him.
Steven Morrissey, the person, is at least half-full of shit, and maybe he’d admit that, too. He wrote his whole memoir in mostly the present tense, and without chapter breaks, and he had to know that that would drive people nuts. He also had to know that his complaining about record deals and interpersonal relationships and fame would come across as whiny and spoiled. But it’s his story, told without a super-clear timeline or a super-clear motive, and yet despite its haziness, the whole lot of his stories paint a very clear picture of him. It all comes down to the fact that, really, he’s just a very sensitive boy.
I often find it difficult to take very emotional, deep passages from recent memoirs seriously, because I feel like I’m too connected to the current world for it to hold any weight yet. The past is unknown, and thus its meaning is much heavier and more powerful. In the present day, give or take 50 years, nothing’s had time to settle yet. The effects are still hard to measure. Morrissey’s way of crafting his story, as pretentious as it may be, provokes such a strong image of suffering, as he saw it, that it’s hard to deny the intensity of his experience. Here’s an example:
p. 11 // “There is no gentle therapy for these deprived and confused inner-city slum kids, and there is no response to anything they say other than violence and more hurt. It piles up. This is the Manchester school system of the 1960s, where sadness is habit-forming, and where shame is cattle-prodded into kids who are in pursuit of bliss amid the unrelenting disapproval. Look around and see the gutter-bred – all doing as well as they can in circumstances that they are not responsible for, but for which they are punished. Born unasked, their circumstantial sadness is their own fault, and is the agent of all their problems.”
See, that’s beautifully written. It’s too long, of course, because Morrissey either had no editor or a yes-man who pretended to be an editor, but it’s so poetic. Despite his selfishness, he is constantly thinking and writing about the plights of others. Maybe he’s projecting his own suffering onto these others, but at least he’s not saying “I” all the time. And he taps into a world I know nothing about, a world that maybe some but definitely not all of his fans know about, that of slummy London and growing up knowing you wanted to be an artist and being largely uninterested in other people and feeling frustrated with the limited resources at your disposal. Thinking about it that way, his story is quite admirable, and the fact that he has gone through his career as an underdog (except in Los Angeles!) is a little baffling.
Then again, it’s not. He shoots his mouth off. He’s a militant vegetarian. He says one hilarious charming thing about getting punished for innocently dying his hair as a teen (p. 83 // “‘Yes,’ snaps Miss Power, ‘and YOU’RE another one not content with the hair color given to you by Christ.’ Baffled, I immediately imagined Christ setting my hair beneath a blow-dryer, but of course this is in fact Miss Power’s boorish way of drawing attention to my 14th-year adventure of hair of canary-yellow streak.”) and then on the very next page, dismisses his love for a great band (p. 84 // “Roxy Music will drop quickly from the emotional radar soon, as singer Bryan Ferry announces that his favorite food is veal – second only to foie gras in savage cruelty.”). I think the only proper response is to roll one’s eyes and soldier on, unless you’re David Bowie (p. 245, to Morrissey // “Oh, you must be HELL to live with.”) or a comedic genius. I assume comments like these alienate most people, and I get it.
And yet, even though he proclaims and admits and scoffs and regularly disapproves of these aforementioned most people, he’s still got it. Morrissey has softened in his middle age. As the book wore on, he got less sour, probably because he was finished writing about the long post-Smiths legal battle, and could focus on writing about his insanely triumphant solo career, and the part of his life that has contained the most love and acceptance. He also began to lose people he truly cared about, and perhaps lost a bit of the ego that kept him so isolated. His emotions seem freer to spill out outside of his gorgeous voice and his deeply personal music. Here are two passages that I found particularly beautiful:
p. 210, on the loss of his Nannie // “The soul is not everything. Her face, her arms, her hands, they need us still, and they are what we know of someone, and all of these have gone. The soul is said to be somewhere, but the soul has only ever been visible through the eyes.”
p. 363, on the decline of his aunt Rita // “You catch yourself lying, and you are choking on your own in-built censorship, and you are only able to watch as Rita becomes less and less present in the body that she had meticulously maintained all her life.”
Once he let his readers get inside his head about a topic that we’ve all thought about, it’s easier to identify with him, and to read his sensitivity differently. Yes, he’s a misunderstood artist begging simultaneously to be understood and ignored, but after so many years, he’s found his audience, and they’ve found him. Passages like these below no longer feel like complaints; they’re truths in his grand, artistic, stark world, one that on some level, we all relate to.
p. 171 // “Never do we hear of an artist who rips off a firm of accountants; never do we hear of the artist who embezzles the record company; never do we hear of the artist who defrauds the lawyer; never do we hear of the artist who fleeces the management – but the ferocity of such situations reversed is characteristic of how the music industry works, and why it works.”
p. 397, on marriage // “I wonder why they even bother with the ceremony. It seems like such a great deal of trouble for everyone, and merely because two people have found themselves sexually compatible – but with no suspicion that their feelings might change with time.”
p. 417, whilst touring in Italy // “Italians are blunt, but this is because they are relaxed, whereas in Los Angeles a sickbed politeness permeates all conversation – rendering it not conversation at all. The very proximity of people happily walking so close to one another in Rome is in itself a revelation to most Americans, who live their lives at yardage distance from one another lest a slight brush instigate court action.”
What I’m trying to say is, Morrissey, I love you, you handsome, wretched weirdo.