“It’s time the tale were told,” sang Morrissey on The Smiths’ “Reel Around The Fountain”, and almost 30 years later he has finally done it in a mammoth memoir that, on account of appearing as a Penguin Classic, has caused a commotion well before publication. Few could really be surprised; this is typical Morrissey hubris, similar to the time that he insisted his solo records go out on EMI’s HMV imprint, which then dealt exclusively in classical music.
The real problem lies in the heightened expectations that come with the word “classic”, which, in the event, are dashed by a work from a once-brilliant lyricist that has its amusing, poignant and, on occasion, poetic moments but also suffers from self-conscious stylistic tics, vertigo-inducing longueurs, and statements of outrageous pomposity. Not for nothing has a game emerged online inviting readers to guess whether the author of such statements as “Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big” originate from Morrissey or Alan Partridge.
Autobiography begins with an account of his childhood in Stretford and his desperately unhappy school days. Here Morrissey largely forgoes the use of paragraphs, instead railing against the iniquities of Seventies state education and the disenfranchised north in one exhausting breath. These are sad tales delivered stodgily.
The Smithsian sparkle appears later, however, as Morrissey discovers poetry and music, and recalls that “these were times when ... a personal music collection read as private medical records.” There is winning humour, too, in his attempts at gainful employment prior to the fateful meeting with guitarist Johnny Marr. He gets a job scraping human innards off surgeons’ scrubs, but flunks interviews at Sounds magazine and at a hairdresser where he is unable to differentiate between real hair and a wig.
His account of his Smiths tenure is fascinating, bearing testament to his unsinkable ambition, his clarity of vision and, alas, his pettiness. No grievances are deemed too small for inclusion. Both Geoff Travis, head of The Smiths’ label Rough Trade, and singer Sandie Shaw, who famously covered “How Soon is Now?”, are icily upbraided for never taking him to dinner.
This is small fry, though, next to Morrissey’s 50-page rant about the infamous court case in which Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, the Smiths’ bassist and drummer, sued Morrissey and Marr for unpaid royalties.
Whatever his issues with the final decree, all sympathy is lost through the astonishing tedium of reading about it.
Elsewhere, there are tender and surprisingly unambiguous revelations about personal relationships – one with Jake Walters and another with Tina Dehghani – and sweet reflections on family members. Most moving of all is a passage on the singer Kirsty MacColl who sends Morrissey a postcard from Mexico where she is on holiday at his recommendation, and where she dies, run over by a speedboat while snorkelling with her sons. He receives it a few weeks after her death.
One bathes in these moments when Morrissey drops the petulance and deals in honest human emotion, and it’s a relief, of sorts, to find a more peaceable figure in the final pages where, reflecting on his touring lifestyle, he observes: “I never found love from one, I instead find it from thousands.”