The image of Morrissey, shirt unbuttoned to the waist, waving a bunch of flowers around singing This Charming Man, is a defining moment in my teenage years. I utterly adored the Smiths. When one of my parents (or some other old fogey) said that Morrissey was so damn miserable, it was with glee that I noted that they had seemingly missed the brilliance of being THAT miserable. To me the obvious positives of Johnny Marr’s twangling guitar and the staggering lyrics eclipsed all the misery, but clearly some very short sighted people couldn’t see beyond it. Thus the teenage mind was oh so superior to the judgemental parent.
Thinking back to the lyrics of one of my favourite Smiths songs, The Headmaster Ritual, where “Sir thwacks you in the knee, knees you in the groin, elbow in the face, bruises bigger than dinner plates”, I wonder what was going on in my leafy Hertfordshire mind, for it didn’t register that the reason for all that misery was because this stuff actually happened to him! I thought we were dealing with the metaphorical. But the first 100 or so pages of the book are unremittingly dreadful in their account of life in the 1960s in Manchester. It makes me wonder how on earth someone who benefitted so very little from the education system managed to acquire such eloquent articulacy. The answer appears to be in his fascination for poetry, but surely no amount of poetry reading could endow a person with the ability to shot blast vocabulary at the reader in this fashion?
It’s over 100 pages before the introduction of Johnny Marr, and a relatively short section of the book about The Smiths, which is littered with mismanagement and achievements made despite the system and not because of it. In fact, the contents of this book make it quite clear what a filthy business the music industry is, never doing Morrissey right, and chockablock with ineptitude that would simply not be tolerated in other businesses. The saving grace is that no amount of botching can spoil the bond an artist and his fans have. There’s something about music that generates a loyalty and love that overrides virtually everything. With little airplay or promo, Morrissey travels the world revered and adored in a way that transcends all conspiracy theories – he’s clearly touched and carried by it.
Morrissey is generous to those he admires, but he makes you gasp out loud with his cutting commentary of those he despises. He saves particularly savage prose for Margaret Thatcher (“her leaking insanity would eventually force her own cabinet to boot her out”), Siouxsie Sioux (“Within eight seconds she seems to have alienated everyone in the room”) and Julie Birchill (“I shall be honoured to attend her funeral, and might even jump in her grave”). His section on Sarah Ferguson is so brilliant I found myself reading it aloud to anyone that crossed my path that day. But Judge John Weeks, who presided over the court case in which Smiths drummer Mike Joyce sued him for 25% of The Smiths performance and recording royalties, gets it with both considerably well armed barrels and is the subject of a monumental tirade. With some reason. From where I was observing, The Smiths WERE Morrissey and Marr – they were the song writers and the artistic force, and then there were two other blokes along for the ride. “Weeks wringing his creased little hangman’s hands whilst resembling a pile of untouched sandwiches, Joyce telling the world over and over again how he spent his Smiths years in a state of assuming and mis-hearing and mistaking and presuming, playing the daft-as-a-brush card up and out of the balcony, announcing “It’s not about the money’ and “I just a-shoe-mmmd” and “I just want my money”, as if his personal wishes were in themselves the law.” And so it goes on and on, reasoning until you wonder how Judge Weeks resisted his reasoned submissions, because he’s irresistible in what he says.
Without chapters, the book reflects the continuity of life, with the odd wander into the unexpected as Morrissey throws in titbits of detail – his interest in the Moors Murders, his celebrity encounters, his strict views on vegetarianism (he leaves many a restaurant table when a dinner companion orders meat) and his amazement at some of the odd things his fans do. The book ends slightly unexpectedly, leaving me feeling a bit bemused as I thought I was going somewhere but never quite reached it. I guess like life, you can’t always chose your ending.
Morrissey is undoubtably an awkward, complex, principled, uncompromising and unusual human being, with the gift of the gab whilst feeling no compunction to charm with it. On the spectrum of life, you need characters like this to push boundaries. I wouldn’t want to live with him, and would find him intimidating to meet, but as a wordsmith he remains peerless.