'Autobiography' by Morrissey review: Dazzling bleakness

"Autobiography" by Morrissey (Putnam, December 2013).

"Autobiography" by Morrissey (Putnam, December 2013).

AUTOBIOGRAPHY, by Morrissey. G.P. Putnam's Sons. 459 pp. $30.

This book begins the only way a Steven Patrick Morrissey autobiography should: with gorgeously excessive descriptions of decay and despair.

"More brittle and less courteous than anywhere else on earth, Manchester is the old fire wheezing its last, where we all worry ourselves soulless, forbidden to be romantic," the notoriously melancholy pop star writes of the English city of his youth. "The dark stone of the terraced houses is black with soot, and the house is a metaphor for the soul because beyond the house there is nothing, and there are scant communications to keep track of anyone should they leave it. You bang the door behind you and you may be gone forever, or never seen again, oh untraceable you."

It's a passage of virtuoso bleakness that could have been ripped directly from the scrawled notes in Morrissey's songwriting journal. It's also typical of the spectacularly unbridled "Autobiography" by the solo artist and front man for the influential '80s British brood-rock band the Smiths.

"Autobiography" is filled with prose of dazzling, poetic excess that unspools without regard for conventional organizational tools, such paragraphs of reasonable length. Like the man, "Autobiography" sometimes doesn't know when to shut up, marinating too long -- specifically, for about 50 pages -- in the bitters of a highly publicized trial on the division of royalty payments among the Smiths' ex-band members.

But what sings out most from "Autobiography" is Morrissey's flair for expression and the same wicked humor present in much of his music. In the evocative sections of the book that flash back to his spirit-breaking days in primary school, he recalls one teacher "who is aging, and will never marry, and will die smelling of attics." Later, he wryly remembers a TV newsman saying, "Morrissey conveys all the worst elements of homosexuality and bestiality."

"It is not enough, I note, to represent homosexuality fused with bestiality," Morrissey quips, "but indeed I apparently convey all the very worst elements of both."

As memorable as his words are, though, Morrissey doesn't use them to reveal certain details his fans might crave. At one point, he discusses a two-year, seemingly romantic relationship with a man named Jake Owen Walters: "Every minute has the high drama of first love, only far more exhilarating, and at last I have someone to answer the telephone." Curiously, as many media outlets have noted, some additional references to that relationship have been excised from the U.S. edition.

At his essence, Morrissey is someone who managed to carve tunnels out of his Manchester childhood gloom by opening his mouth to make music. In doing so, he carved similar tunnels for others, a fact that will forever permit his fans to forgive their beloved Morrissey when he waxes a little too vaguely poetic or goes off on egotistic rants.

As the man himself writes: "Whenever I'd overhear how people found me to be 'a bit much' (which is a gentle way of saying the word 'unbearable'), I understood why. To myself I would say: Well, yes, of course I'm a bit much -- if I weren't, I would not be lit up by so many lights."

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