At some point in the not-too-distant past, Arthur Kane and Steven Patrick Morrissey were sitting in Mel’s Drive-In on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. Mr. Kane is best known as the bass guitarist for the New York Dolls, 1970s pioneers of rock ’n’ roll transvestism who provided former Smiths front man Morrissey with a formative sexual experience: “Jerry Nolan on the front of the Dolls debut album is the first woman I ever fell in love with; the hussy-slut positioning of the legs is Playmate call girl, and the pink drum kit just might be a rock ’n’ roll first.”
Decades later, in Mel’s Drive-In, the roles are reversed. As Morrissey recalls, Mr. Kane asked him for a ride “to a few job interviews this week,” which Morrissey declined to grant. “Arthur tells me that he has been asked to write the music for an upcoming film called Josie and the Pussycats,” Morrissey writes. “It’s the kind of taradiddle you will hear nonstop in Los Angeles. If people only spoke of what they had done as opposed to what they were about to do, it would be the most silent city on the face of the Earth.” Morrissey’s Autobiography attests to the fact that he has accomplished much in his 54 years. Poetically crafted though the book may be, Morrissey, playfully nicknamed the Pope of Mope by the British press, has written a hefty self-apologia no less petty than the supposed “taradiddle” of his fellow Angelenos.
Of course, Moz is more famous for his tenure with the Smiths and the turbulent and mononymous solo career that followed than he is as a man of letters, but the much-anticipated appearance of Autobiography in the U.S. on Dec. 3 (the book is already a best-seller in the U.K.) continues a growing trend of rock stars turning to the written word as the hairs grow gray. It should come as no surprise that in 2013 the rock memoir has been firmly established as a legitimate genre of Anglo-American literature. Rock ’n’ roll itself is now a sexagenarian, and its foundational practitioners, if they’re still with us, are too advanced in age to front what has always ostensibly been a youth movement, newly released records from Paul McCartney, 71, and David Bowie, 66, notwithstanding. And many of these practitioners have long been heralded not only for their innovations in sound but for their lyrical commentaries on modern life, be they as all-encompassingly to-the-point as the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” or as obtuse as Lou Reed’s mutterings on the Velvet Underground’s “The Black Angel’s Death Song.” Indeed, the two rock memoirs most readily accepted as contemporary classics, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One (2004) and Patti Smith’s Just Kids (2010), were penned by musicians whose poetic abilities have long overshadowed their musical chops.
Morrissey is one such musician, and at first glance, Autobiography is a welcome addition to the rock memoir canon. Though a generation younger than Mr. Dylan and Ms. Smith (“the cynical voice radiating love”), Morrissey’s relative youth leaves him with no less to say. Where Ms. Smith focuses her memoir on a particular episode—her youthful friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe—and Mr. Dylan, always a subverter of conventions, takes his reader on a tour of the less legendary moments of his life in defiance of the mythology that has sprouted up around him, Morrissey stays true to form, presenting himself as a Franklinian self-made man, writing on the book’s final page, “It is quite true that I have never had anything in my life that I did not make for myself.” Regardless of whether Morrissey’s musical catalog, money and fame can be attributed solely to his ingenuity, the reader of Autobiography cannot help but get the impression that his enemies, of which there are many, are all of his making.
The first third of Autobiography, concerned with Morrissey’s dismal youth in bleakest Manchester up to the formation of the Smiths in 1982, is pure Dickensian genius––and the author seems to be fully aware of this, frequently referencing Oliver Twist throughout. His descriptions of growing up working class in a post-industrial wasteland, suffer unending loss of loved ones are as sad and beautiful as the best of the songs he wrote with his partner in the Smiths, guitarist Johnny Marr. Bemoaning his childhood, he writes, “Look around and see the gutter-bred––all doing as well as they can in circumstances they are not responsible for, but for which they are punished. Born unasked, their circumstantial sadness is their own fault, and is the agent of all of their problems.” His prose arouses the reader’s sympathies, and he becomes the great commiserator. Morrissey’s songs have always attracted listeners willing to feel as intensely and longingly as Morrissey’s theatrical words and vocals. Not depressives, per se—Morrissey has always had a keen sense of humor—but those willing to embrace the now-ness of “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.” Autobiography’s beginning is an enthralling portrait of the artist as a young man, developing an idiosyncratic identity through a rejection of societal norms and values that never made an effort to accept him.
But misery doesn’t age well. Despite his insistence that he is first and foremost an artist, Morrissey’s recollections of his musical career are shrouded in bitterness over disputes, both legal and personal, with the music industry, the press, the British courts, his collaborators and even his former idols: “I vomit profusely when I discover that the album [1984’s The Smiths] has been pressed in Japan with Sandie Shaw’s version of ‘Hand in Glove’ included. I am so disgusted by this that I beg people to kill me. Many rush forward.” Deploying hyperbole as his literary device of choice, Morrissey devotes more than 40 pages of Autobiography to his version of the 1996 trial in which Mike Joyce, the Smiths’ drummer, was awarded 25 percent of the band’s recording royalties by Judge John Weeks, ruling against Morrissey and Mr. Marr, the defendants. Morrissey does not mince his words about any of the parties involved (including Geoff Travis, the founder of the Smiths’ label, Rough Trade Records, for whom Morrissey has reserved a special place in hell), and the trial effectively becomes the main event of Morrissey’s life.
Financial woes aside, Morrissey is interested more in fame than money, and the book’s final pages present a meticulous record of the great amount of fame that he has achieved. He humble-brags his way through the list of celebrities he has befriended over the years, from Nancy Sinatra to Elton John, and keeps tally of the thousands of fans who have attended his international tours. Even as he is more forthcoming about his sexuality than he has ever been willing in interviews with the press, Morrissey—a longtime celibate, vegetarian and animal rights activist––seems no less ill at ease than he did in 1986, singing in “Unloveable,” “I know I’m unloveable / You don’t have to tell me / I don’t have much in my life.” Unloveable or not, the lyricism of Morrissey’s prose does not succeed in celebrating his artistic accomplishments above a mundane history of business failures. “The artist is the enemy,” he repeats throughout Autobiography, pointing fingers, placing blame. Unfortunately, as it appears to have always been with Morrissey, who readily admits that his “own name is by now synonymous with the word ‘miserable’ in the press,” the true enemy is within.