Mozza wrote a tome: I know, I know, its bilious
Autobiography, by Morrissey, Penguin 2013
‘I loved Morrissey with a devotion which outweighed anything I’d felt for a rock singer before,’ writes Tracey Thorn in Bedsit Disco Queen, reviewed last month.
‘It wasn’t that I wanted to sleep with him (well no I did actually but that seemed unlikely to happen, what with one thing and another) I wanted to be him…’
Morrissey does seem to have that kind of mesmerising effect on some people.
He currently has his first novel out, and as usual is causing a stir. There is a couple of sex scenes in it, which of course has attracted a great deal of attention, partly because they so awfully written.
Caligula would have blushed, apparently.
And as usual there is a heated discussion as to whether Morrissey is taking the piss. Personally: I think he must be.
‘Twas ever thus.
In 1984 it seemed as though, to borrow a phrase from 20 years earlier, groups of guitars were on the way out. Most of what was on the airwaves was synth-based or boppy keyboard stuff – Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Wham, Madonna. Or Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.
Hated them. I hated them all.
True, there were some locally based renegades, producing some deliciously throwback-like stuff from Dunedin, but the likes of the Verlaines or the Chills had to be hunted out in the singles and EP bins of the rekkid stores.
You certainly didn’t hear ’em on the radio, and in those days – for any youngsters who have stumbled across this – you had to get your music from the radio, pretty much.
Oh, there was Radio With Pictures on the telly on Sunday nights. You got a sense of something different from that. And of course if you were fortunate enough to be living in a university town, there was student radio.
I wasn’t fortunate enough. Not at that point, anyway.
There was this band from the US with Byrd-like guitars, a silly name, and incomprehensible lyrics who had a recent, interesting song called Radio Free Europe.
Then one afternoon at a mate’s place in Whakatane this filigree riff tumbles out of the speakers, followed by an unmistakably Motown-ish beat, and this warbly, not-quite-in-tune vocal sort-of-sings across the song,
On a hillside, desolate….
Will nature make a man of me yet?’
The lyrics were…well, uncommonly lyrical for the time.
The blokier musical fan often had a problem with this about the Smiths. I know people – well, blokes – who will happily punch up the volume button for the B-52s or Queen but who find the Smiths a bit too gay.
I suspect its not so much the gay aspect, actually: its the emotional rawness of some of Morrissey’s lyrics, especially when combined with Johnny Marr’s guitar.
But then, one should not play down the obvious cause. It was, after all, hardly calculated to comfort your average, 20 year old, vaguely blokey music fan who had been hankering for a decent guitar-based band and who thought he’d found it, only to find it was accompanied by a singer prancing about the place with gladioli sticking out the top of his trou and singing about the sun shining out of his behind.
It was a bit like the Mountie chorus in Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song, when they suddenly realise what they’re singing.
But, beyond that rather obvious issue, there were others. Morrissey’s lyrics are bleakly, bluntly honest about the desolation of rejection and depression, often to the point of self-parody.
Often well beyond that point, in fact.
A personal fave is Cemetry Gates , (yeah, that’s how Morrissey spelt it) with its clean, shuffling rhythm (borrowed from this 1970s pop hit?) and Mozza deliberately over-doing the negative ions, or negative irony:
‘A dreaded sunny day, and I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates/ Keats and Yeats are on your side…’
A song full of poetic allusions, it wears its lyrical cleverness on its floppy, foppish sleeve.
But it isn’t just about the words.
The reason the Smiths worked so well was Marr’s guitar work sounded like what Morrissey’s words were trying to convey.
That grim rumbling low guitar chord which announces ‘How Soon Is Now?‘ is like a twist in the stomach: Marr’s zooming, lurching runs down the fretboard sound like it feels to be on your own in the big city and unable to connect with anyone. It’s a recording full of deep-in-the-gut lurches of dread and despair.
Or ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’ – the long, melancholy, withdrawing roar towards the end, as Morrissey croons ‘I’ve seen this happen in other people’s lives, and now it’s happening in mine….’ over Marr’s waves of rising, receding, melancholy guitars.
The desolate, shimmering (and it is very difficult to write about the Smiths without using either of those words) opening to ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ sounds like a wide, empty rain-coated ashfelt road on a Sunday morning would sound if it could play the guitar.
It is the sound of wandering home the morning after a lousy, unenjoyable party.
This is all conveyed even before Morrissey opens his mush to warble that great opening line
‘I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour…’.
The words fit together like well-sculpted brickwork. As Aussie singer Paul Kelly notes in his book (reviewed here, btw…) , almost every opening line of a Smiths song is a killer.
Marr’s guitars always grab the attention, signalling something deeper than the normal pop song. Combined with Morrissey’s literate, allusive, and often just plain sad lyrics, they pack a powerful emotional punch.
It can be uncomfortable to listen to.
There is a better musical analysis than I can manage here: parts of this documentary are a bit over-wrought and far too sociological for my tastes, but there’s a great piece with composer Charles Hazelwood at around 19 minutes where he talks about the way Marr used chords and and the effect they have.
Morrissey’s Autobiography caused a stir even before it was published: his demand that it be issued as a ‘Penguin Classic’ topped a career of fairly notorious primma donna-ish behaviour.
He got his way. It isn’t a classic: it is a fascinating book in bits and a real bore in other bits.
….So, okay, its a bit like a lot of ‘classics’, I suppose.
At its best, it is a work of a musical fan, and a very thoughtful one. There is a lot here if you like the New York Dolls (I don’t), there are other more obvious influences.
Here is Morrissey on Patti Smith and her ‘Horses’ album:
“singing and looking and saying absolutely everything that would be thought to go against the listener’s sympathy. But the reverse happened .. however heavy hearted and impossible you might feel about yourself, you can still bestow love through recorded song. …the fact you do not look like a pop star in-waiting should not dishearten you because your oddness could become the decisive wind of change for theirs.
There is nothing obvious about Patti Smith….the female voice in rock music had rattled with fathomless depths of insincerity,whereas Patti Smith spoke with a boy’s bluntness, and she looked for squabbles wherever she went.”
Projection? Whatever. Morrissey writes of Patti Smith as though she’d written his own, personal, artistic manifesto.
For all that, he recalls that when he and Marr decide to form a band, “I suggest to Johnny that we call ourselves The Smiths, and he agrees. Neither of us can come up with anything else.”
Going back further, there is a touch of Misery Memoir about his schooldays….later mined in the opening track of the Smiths second album.
“Belligerent ghouls run/Manchester schools” he was to warble, weaving over the top of one of the most magnificent, meandering rhythm and guitar tracks Marr, Joyce and Rourke were ever to lay down).
When of the more granite faced, wounded and wounding of his teachers spies a particular piece of music on Morrissey’s desk, the wintry face splits into a hitherto unseen smile and the teacher fetches a record player so they all can listen to it.
“Music, you see, is the key.” Morrissey muses.
It is a rare snatch of warmth. Much of the Autobiography is a settling of scores: with record company staff some of the big targets “Rough Trade personnel in the early 1980s need never have feared sexual assault” Morrissey says, and he has fun with kind of self defeating mindset, overlaid with political justifications, which hung in the air.
Everything was question of personal identity and Rough Trade set out to assert autonomy whilst at the same time challenging the established order.
They did this largely by pressing records that no one wanted to buy….
Although the existing Rough Trade catalogue was known to be anti everything it was also anti listenability. It would take the Smiths to bring a level of success …and suddenly he smell of money replaced the smell of overcooked rice in the Rough Trade cloisters.”
That shows – contra the evidence of his recent novel – how well Morrissey can write. Not only is it funny, the use of ‘cloisters’ at the end of that sentence is deftly deployed.
And of course the former bandmates, with whom he had a lengthy court case in the mid ’90s, cop it in the neck, not only in the odd bitchy aside, but in several lengthy chapters. I ended up feeling sorry for them – especially as I feel the rhythm section’s contribution to the band has been underrated (again, check out the drum and bass work on ‘Cemetry Gates’).
Better, much better, is the first half of the book, where even where Morrissey is being waspish he is also being very funny, often at his own expense. In his late teens he had some keen ideas about how Coronation Street should be revamped to meet the post-punk generation, and sent in a script which ended with Ena Sharples snorting ‘Do I really look like a fan of X Ray Spex?’
The link up with Marr is described in still-baffled but appreciative terms: the two might be, in the title of a biography of the two by writer Johnny Rogan, ‘a severed alliance’ but Morrissey is uncharacteristically generous about his former partner.
He reflects on Marr’s obvious, huge talent and asks why Marr has teamed up with him and not ‘with others less scarred….It seemed to me that Johnny had enough spark and determination to push his way in amongst Manchester headhunters – yet here he was, with someone whose natural bearing discouraged openness.’
That shows an honesty, a self awareness and a generosity of spirit not always on display.
I kept thinking of an exchange quoted, not here, but in Tony Fletcher’s great history of the Smiths, ‘A Light That Never Goes Out’ where Morrissey, in a note to some rekkid company executive, tells him to ‘Accept me as I am – completely unacceptable!’
But the music: certainly.