This is a book that cries out like one of [Morrissey’s] maudlin ditties to be edited. But were an editor to start, there would be no stopping. It is a heavy tome, utterly devoid of insight, warmth, wisdom or likeability. It is a potential firelighter of vanity, self-pity and logorrhoeic dullness (Sunday Times)
I immediately set about my copy with the zeal of one on the warpath. The thought motivating me could have been expressed thus: “Come on Morrissey, what does this prat writing in a Tory newspaper know about anything? Let’s show him!” The problem, however, was that, unlike Gill, I had not yet read a word of Morrissey’s book, and, as I slogged my way through the first hundred pages, I began to feel like one betrayed – I had set out to wage war against Gill, only to find myself stabbed in the back by Morrissey.
The writing at the beginning of this book really is that bad; Morrissey takes his 1960s and 1970s Manchester upbringing and shrouds it in a fog of pseudo-poetic drivel so thick that the reader is left utterly bewildered. In his review, Gill accuses Morrissey of skirting apparently meaningful details of his childhood and belabouring distasteful ones (most notably, grudges against teachers), but the real problem with this early part of book has more to do with form than content: specifically, the louche and pithy lyrical approach Morrissey has spent years honing through his music is unsuited to his pretensions to write expansive literature.
These pretensions prove mercifully unsustainable; they break down into a much better conventional narrative 137 pages in, as we encounter a teenage Morrissey in existential crisis on how to make the move from “music fan” to “leader of band”. Here we have a topic strong enough in gravitational pull to anchor the writing, and rich enough in consequences to fill the next 250 pages with many tantalising moments: Morrissey’s remark that he initially “missed the value” of the Smiths classic There is a Light that Never Goes Out; the ways he skirts around Johnny Marr, framing him in terms at once condescending, loving, and bitter; or his (selective) recollection that the Smiths’ disbanding “happened as quickly and … unemotionally as this sentence took to describe it”. Granted, detail is patchy in places, and overlong in others (for example, the account of the 1996 court case against former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce is poisonous), nonetheless, the middle portion of this book is by far its strongest.
Covering the later years of Morrissey’s solo career, the closing 100 pages are something altogether different again; they read like a bizarre diary, as he intersperses global tours with comments on everything from vegetarianism and the fall of Baghdad to Kirk Douglas’ health. Where he allows attention to linger, however, strong passages do emerge, as when he assesses his shock at Kirsty MacColl’s death, or when he is eulogising his Mexican fans.
I discovered the Smiths late, at a time that coincided with one of the lowest points in Morrissey’s solo career (the wilderness years between 1997 and 2004). The fact I was unlikely to see either perform live made a defensive proselyte of me, yet I could find barely a sentence in the first 137 pages of this book to use as a weapon against a damning assessment of it. Happily, this changed as Morrissey focused on the music for which he is rightly famous. Given Morrissey’s legendary obtuseness, it is perhaps fitting that the best weapon I can now muster draws on a weakness: A.A. Gill failed to note just how inconsistent Morrissey’s writing is – what he had before him was not one monotonously bad ‘tome’, but three wildly errant vignettes, the latter two of which have many redeeming features.