Books

12.23.13

Viva Hate: Inside the World of Morrissey

The former Smiths frontman’s autobiography is brilliant, funny, occasionally cruel, frequently tedious, and often maddening.

When Morrissey’s Autobiography was published in the U.K. in October, the British press — being the British press — seized instantly upon the revelation (or confirmation) that one of the most sexually ambiguous performers of the last thirty years had a two-year relationship with another man. Photographer Jake Owen Walters makes two first impressions on our author, first by ordering meat at a restaurant, thereby disgusting Morrissey into fleeing the premises; then by displaying the word “Battersea” tattooed on his (Walters’) inner-lip and inquiring as to why sthis South London district is mentioned in one of the singer-songwriter’s most frivolous solo tracks. “Because it rhymed with Fatty” comes the reply to his future live-in partner, delivered, we are informed, with “magnanimous Philip Larkin don’t-trouble-me-now-child eminence.”

For an artist whose lyrics have actually grown more hetero-erotic as he’s gotten older, Morrissey’s characteristic coyness in finding “someone at last to answer the telephone” is far less intriguing than this sole reference to Larkin, the postwar English poet whom he most resembles in both sensibility and temperament. Yet a book festooned with references to Betjeman, Auden, Housman, and, of course, his beloved Oscar Wilde, never properly establishes the discipleship of one nostalgic ironist from another. The bequiffed, vegan bard of misery is most definitely the son and heir of the bald, bicycle-clipped poet of deprivation. I’ve speculated about this long-hidden kinship before, but now I’m convinced.

Both Larkin and Morrissey, after all, value, but also undervalue, their intense male friendships — the first with the equally brilliant but envied Kingsley Amis, the second with the The Smiths lead guitarist Johnny Marr, who is remembered here fondly as the genius that he is and who, when he sins, sins only out of “cowardice” rather than malice, the motive of all other traitors and back-stabbers in Morrissey’s life. Both decline--or rather escape--a life of marriage and children for similar reasons.  Larkin famously said: “To have no son, no wife, / No house or land still seemed quite natural;” “Get out as early as you can, / And don’t have any kids yourself;” and “He married a woman to stop her getting away / Now she's there all day…” Now here’s Morrissey, spying on a wedding in Croatia, of all places: “Hidden behind the huge plant, I cannot imagine giving any more to life than I have already given. I can see through the human heart, and I know that life’s biggest prize is to have the day before you as yours alone to do with as you wish.”  And even when this judgment is momentarily appealed in introducing Tina Dehghani, the Iranian daughter of an exiled former official of the shah, a new friend made in “Moz Angeles” in the early aughts during his seven-year residence on the West Coast, the results are similarly Larkinesque: “Tina and I discuss the unthinkable act of producing a mewling miniature monster.” That is indeed unthinkable. The world can barely handle one Morrissey as it is.

“The tribune of adolescent sensitivity and longing has suddenly transformed into a macho bully”

As for the “act” itself, both poet and pop star share a low farceur’s opinion of how terribly uncivilized and clinical it all is. “[G]etting someone else to blow your nose” is how Larkin unfortunately described coitus, even though he was obsessed with spank mags and even dabbled in schoolgirl smut himself under the unimprovable pseudonym Brunette Coleman. Morrissey dilates on the “bearded clam” or the “mangled jungle of tangled hair” and, wherever tabloid salacity may tend, it’s the boy-girl encounters that receive the most spilled ink. Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before: “Honeypots sprawled like open graves, their owners doing nothing at all other than letting you. The call of duty is all yours—to turn on and get off; to hit the spot and know the ropes; to please and be pleased; the owners of such Bermuda Triangles do… nothing.” Never has someone so uninterested in pussy thought so long and hard about it.

Margaret Thatcher’s favorite versifier and her most outspoken musical nemesis also share a “quintessentially English” fascination in the penny-dreadful, industrial macabre aspects of the lower orders. Morrissey writes of the infamous Moors murders, which were preceded by kidnappings and sexual assaults: “It is factual Hindley and Brady [the murderers], and not our spirited Lake poets or cozy tram-trammeled novelists, who supply the unspoken and who take the travelling mind further than it ever ought to have gone, sealing modern Manchester as a place of Dickensian drear.”  From this dark fixation comes the song “Suffer Little Children,” off The Smiths’ eponymous debut album in 1984: “Oh John, you’ll never be a man / And you’ll never see your home again / Oh Manchester, so much to answer for.”

Larkin reached back into actual Dickensian drear in “Deceptions,” his poem about the rape of a low-born Victorian woman whose case was first documented in Henry Mayhew’s 19th-century volume of reportage about the lumpen and the lost, London Labour and the London Poor.Even so distant, I can taste the grief, / Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp…Where bridal London bows the other way.” (By terrifying coincidence, this was the one poem that Thatcher herself thought to recall and misquote when she first met Larkin.)

Larkin thought America “vast deserts of bigotry” interrupted by two coasts. Morrissey duly clarifies that in 1971, Marc Bolan of T. Rex is “struggling to break in America, but it doesn’t work in a country whose fiercely conservative partners cannot allow a small and effeminate man to attempt to direct and influence their unknotted Ivy League WASPS.”  This would be the same year in which Madman Across the Water by Princeton’s very own Mayflower alpha male Elton John went double-platinum in the U.S. and Morrissey’s favorite tranny punk outfit the New York Dolls debuted — in New York. 

Lazy stereotypes about foreign prejudice attach to both lyricist and poet who have themselves struggled with the career-ending charges of racism, sexism, and Little Englander provincialism. While I happen to agree with Morrissey that his much-controversialized songs “Bengali in Platforms” and “National Front Disco” are meant as parodies of hatred rather than examples of it, large chunks of the Autobiography read as overly defensive briefs against long-running Fleet Street accusations. Did he ever really ever say the following? “If you travel to Germany, it’s still absolutely Germany. If you travel to Sweden, it still has a Swedish identity. But travel to England and you have no idea where you are. . . . If you walk through Knightsbridge you’ll hear every accent apart from an English accent.” This observation, allegedly delivered not too long ago about the state of Britain’s immigration, is not quoted in the present memoir because the publication in which it first appeared — the music magazine New Musical Express — is rendered as little more than a obsessed Pravda of anti-Moz denunciations, distortions, and lies. But we receive no explanation for why Morrissey keeps granting NME’s invidious scribblers interview upon interview after being serially scorned by them.

Particularly nasty treatment is reserved for the feminist prodigy Julie Burchill, who started writing for NME at the age of 17, but has since turned on Patti Smith and many other icons including the author, and so is dismissed as “an irritable woman, so loaded with secrets and folds and folds of H&M outer garments, having never been anybody, yet having understood the glacial power of the written word to its greatest disadvantage. I shall be honored to attend her funeral, and I might even jump into the grave.” You’re not the one for me, fatty, and you might as well die is crass and charmless, by any standard. The tribune of adolescent sensitivity and longing has suddenly transformed into a macho bully.

Martin Amis once called Larkin “psychopathically cheap.” Morrissey complains of penuriousness at every turn, while professing to have no real facility with money, that squatting toad in every man’s life. This marks him out as a mug for the shysters, sharks and commission-takers of the music industry (and never mind that financial naiveté is how he later assails a former bandmate looking to cash in). How often the Pope of Mope grades into the Archbishop of Accountancy, reflecting numerically on a four-decade career apparently only stifled by insufficient promotional budgets and a fatweh on radio play by philistine Top of the Pop taste-makers. When Morrissey’s 2004 comeback solo album You Are the Quarry debuts just behind an album by Keane, “I argue to [new label] Sanctuary that, since Quarry had been released on a Monday it had had six days of sales assessed, whereas the Keane album had had seven days assessed, because it had been available on the Sunday prior to the Quarry Monday.” For a minute there, I actually thought I was reading Larkin’s diaries.

Legal fees amount to $58,000, then 200,000 euro. $250,000, we are told, goes to manager Nigel Thomas, who has sold his client’s visage for $1 million before unexpectedly and rather inconveniently dying. Morrissey then asks his bookkeeper to demand that sum back from Thomas’ grieving family and wonders why this instruction is met with jaw-dropping incredulity. When he is sued in L.A. Supreme Court by a man we’re asked to believe is really called Irving Handsoff, we get this unflattering self-assessment, which crept by the editors at Penguin Classics (who perhaps for a moment thought they had an genuine Dickensian tract on their hands): “It was true that the art of getting money and acknowledging no superior was the rock on which the black hands of Handsoff had built his empire, and I was gooey putty against his Israelites.” Well, no snot-nosed cub reporter at NME can plausibly be blamed for that ugly formulation. But the odd Israelite doesn’t stand a chance against legions of adoring Israelis. Morrissey was gooey putty, too, when presented the Keys to the City of Tel Aviv in 2012, an event happily chronicled on the Autobiography’s very own flap jacket. He also expresses happy befuddlement, in the tail-end of the book — basically a venue-to-venue concert diary — at his enormous Hispanic following.

My analogy falls down when Morrissey decides to cast himself in the role of his preferred literary progenitor — Wilde — albeit without the wit and poignancy of Oscar's famous decline and fall. A decade-long civil suit initiated by former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce against Morrissey and Marr, alleging that he was owed a quarter percentage of all band royalties is treated as a mixture of “Berezovsky v. Abramovich” and De Profundis. Our narrator insists that such a dispensation was never on offer or agreed to in 1982 when the band came together. Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke, here relegated to the status of sessions musicians, were only meant to get 10 percent apiece because the Smiths were only really ever Morrissey and Marr. Joyce “Iscariot” (making Morrissey whom, exactly?) nevertheless wins big the first time, then on appeal, and this crime cannot go without heaving, empurpled redress.

The court case, minuted in 50 pages of mock retrial, finds Morrissey at his bitterest and most self-pitying, scuppering any chance the reader might have of feeling sorry for him as the victim of a genuine swindle. The wickedness of judges past and present is a leaden theme throughout the Autobiography: not only are bewigged verdict-dealers hunters and fisherman and “terrorists” but their only function is to be “remembered somewhere (anywhere!) in history’s grubby footnotes.” This is in fact referring to Alfred Wills, the man who locked up Wilde for sodomizing Bosie, not about John Weeks, the man who gave Joyce his 25 percent cut.

Weeks is a lonely High Court judge bearing many a grudge, living in a mansion, and looking like “a pile of untouched sandwiches,” whatever that means.  “Unable to get his way with his mother, Nigel Davis” is the actual beginning of a sentence about Joyce’s attorney.  Bedeviled by treachery within and without —  the “barrister chosen to guard my human rights,” Morrissey types, “also steps down” — and our hero is finally undone because “the ardent zeal to finally topple and silence an outspoken pop artist took its place firmly and unashamedly as this trial began.” I have nothing to declare but my genius and my 40% interest.

The insipidity of these sections — there are no chapters in the Autobiography, just a wall of text from the first page to the last — only detracts from the hilarity on display from someone who might have otherwise made it as one of England’s finest satirists (and here we come back to Larkin).

At St. Wilfred’s, Morrissey’s Catholic primary school in Hulme, we find a “bearded nun who beats children from dawn to dusk” and a woman teacher who is a “sexual hoax.” Morrissey and the artist Linder Sterling attend the opening night of “meat-fed” Tony Wilson’s Hacienda Club (since captured on celluloid in the not-bad Steve Coogan-vehicle 24 Hour Party People), “which was initially for the secret agony of the secret public, but soon stuffed coaches from Blackburn and Bolton would pull up outside, unloading disfigured disco dancers and goblinesque pork-pie chubbos with carroty-red curls smelling of pickled pig who claimed the Hacienda as their own public toilet.” Roxy Music is… “Agatha Christie queer; the smile of [Bryan] Ferry is Hiroshima mean, as he shuffled from crab-style from stage right to stage left… like someone who’s had his food dish removed.” Nico’s body is “eighty-five parts anti-freeze and fifteen parts first-degree aitch.” When fame arrives in the ‘80s, and Morrissey is upgraded from mom’s house in Manchester to a decent pile in London, the “doorbell rings and there stands Vanessa Redgrave. ‘Marcie,’ she begins, and then goes on about social injustice in Namibia, and how we must all build a raft by late afternoon — preferably out of coconut matting.”

A pity this Moz didn’t win out over the the mean-spirited score-settler who afflicts so much of the Autobiography.