Steven Patrick Morrissey is best known as the enigmatic lead singer of the Smiths, the influential British band whose 1980s near-hits such as “How Soon Is Now?” and “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” prefigured a lush imaginary rock ’n’ roll future that didn’t come to pass but might have. Instead, Morrissey feuded with his litigious ex-bandmates, toured to sell-out crowds even when he didn’t have a new record to promote, and produced solo records not quite as good as anything he made with the Smiths.
One reason the audiobook edition of Morrissey’s “Autobiography” makes for such interesting listening is that while it addresses all of these matters at great length, it does so in such an inscrutably impressionistic manner that it is often unclear to the audiobook listener what, exactly, happened. What we’re left with, instead, is the feeling of ecstatic misery that the best of Morrissey’s music offers. Where there are specifics, they are vivid, but context is lacking, and as one episode tumbles into the next, sometimes without benefit of time markers, the experience of listening becomes mimetic of memory in its vagaries and strange juxtapositions.
"Unhinged" is a word that is often used to describe a story that proceeds in this way, but a more accurate descriptor might be hinged. We might be rolling along in a complaint about the response of St. Mary’s art teacher Miss Powers to a schoolboy Morrissey’s yellow streak dye job, suddenly take a left turn into a complaint about Roxy Music singer Bryan Ferry’s proclivity for eating veal — “second only,” Morrissey writes, “to foie gras in savage cruelty” — but that’s not the end of the thought, which still must proceed through an imaginary tryst between his mother and a teacher, a spasm of fear about the contamination on the shower floors, and another complaint about how in “mid-70’s Manchester there must be obsessive love of vagina, otherwise your life dooms itself forever.”
Of course these things are connected in memory, because all of every human being is present in every moment, and it is something of a miracle how Morrissey can offer all of it together without pronouncing upon it or even communicating much beyond the report of all his head was full with. Like so much of “Autobiography,” it is all observation, no setup, no reflection, no analysis, a freight train of utmost id.
In many celebrity biographies and memoirs, the reader might as well skip the first third — birth, family, childhood, adolescence, school, the neighborhood — and get to the good stuff — the path to achievement, the rise to fame, the fat years, the sad decline or the precipitous fall. That’s because most celebrity books are about relaying information, a thing in which Morrissey has little interest. Perhaps that’s why the best parts of “Autobiography” are all the parts that precede the Smiths. When the world is new and the experiencer has little control over anything, the wash of impressions and the catalog of grievances is unpredictable and ever-new. After fame, after riches, after power, that act runs thin. The listener wants to shake Morrissey, and say: You’re all right, you can do anything you want in the world, you can make anything you want. Grow up. Stretch out into your life. Enjoy it a little.
It’s a thing that the singer can’t quite bring himself to embrace, except in the brief hours allowed onstage, as in the beautiful moment at a 2011 concert in Chicago in which “the audience heaves with responding kindness, and I am immobilized by singing voices of love.”
More often, in the Morrissey vision, life is one part self-pity, one part self-regard, one part enabling defiance. “All along,” he writes, “my private suffering felt like vision, urging me to die or go mad, yet it brings me here, to a wintry Chicago street-scene in December 2011 — I, a small boy of 52, clinging to the antiquated view that a song should mean something, and presenting himself everywhere by way of apology. It is quite true that I have never had anything in my life that I did not make for myself.”