Tuesday, April 15, 2014

WGTB Reviews Morrissey's Biography

Morrissey has long been one of the most polarizing figures in alternative/indie music: at least that's the sentiment I've encountered over the years of being a fan of both him and the Smiths. I remember one day decades ago, humming "Everyday is like Sunday" in my elementary school classroom when the most popular girl in school walked by and snarkily remarked: "You like Morrissey? He's terrible." I was mortified: this type of thing could have really limit my social standing! It didn't, of course, but it would only dawn on me years later that if <name> could recognize my inaudible humming she must have been a fan herself! A year later when I arrived at high school it was like a falsetto breath of fresh air. Away from my hick town were legions of Smiths fans -- and after this almost everyday I could be seen sporting a Morrissey or Smiths t-shirt under my school uniform. Being a fan of Moz became a 24/7 thing!

Biography, Morrissey, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2013, pp. 459, US$30.00 C$34.95
So when Morrissey finally published a biography, I knew it was something that needed to be read. The book arrived here in North America a few months after its release in the UK, which is the reason for this relatively late review. The writing straddles between prose and poetry and reading Biography is in many ways like reading one long Morrissey song. (The text is even punctuated by an intermittent smattering of his remarkable and memorable lyrics.) Reading a 400 page song does take some time getting used to, but once one gets the hang of it, the book picks up and is easy to get through. An oddity that also takes some getting used to is that the book is devoid of chapters to assist the reader through the process. But like the tone, once the first 50 or so pages are read, it becomes somewhat normal.

But the book is so much more than its stylistic presentation and it's fascinating to see the world through the eyes of Morrissey. Biography starts with Morrissey's familial history: from his Irish roots to what can only be described as an upbringing in a very bleak mid 20th century Manchester.  From here it's onward to the certain hell that was his schooling experience and then his early career as a music fan. Along the way we learn interesting and mind-bending facts such as him being interviewed for a job in Denver, Colorado during a long-term visit (Imagine Morrissey as an American!) We also learn of his well known affection for the New York Dolls and his first hand experience with the Mancunian and early UK punk rock scene. All of these experiences clarify and explain lyrics like the Smiths' "Headmaster Ritual" or "Paint a Vulgar Picture" and later solo tracks like "Bengali in Platforms". If Morrissey experienced an injustice or oddity in his early years, he wrote about it during his peak and this has made for some of music's most remarkable lyrics.  

As someone who is legally inclined, the most interesting aspect of Biography was Morrissey's handling of the trial Royce v Morrissey & Others which was heard in the late 1990s. Here Morrissey saves serious scorn for the English legal system in general and Deputy Judge Weeks Q.C. and the Smiths drummer Mike Joyce in particular. In this legal case Joyce sought more than his originally allotted percentage of recording royalties and in Morrissey's opinion presented himself as a hapless and uninformed victim to win his case. This portion is obviously written from the perspective of someone who lost a significant amount of money as a result, but Morrissey's insights into England's justice system is very astute and not to be missed.  

Your humble reviewer with the ubiquitous Morrissey t-shirt on under his school uniform. This was uploaded from Facebook so the photographer is unknown.  
Biography is a good book. At times it drags and much of the latter portion is spent discussing Morrissey’s late 2000’s tours to a degree that is unnecessary. But that aside, the book contains the essence of who Morrissey is and although I've never conversed with him myself, this is how I would imagine him speaking. He is candid about the politics that has often found its way into his songs, his detestation of the monarchy and, naturally, the strident veganism of which he has long been a proponent. His personal relationships are also discussed, but very much in the not in the over-the-top way that so many have speculated about over the years and that was fine with this writer. I’ve never felt Morrissey's personal life was much of my business anyway.

And along the way we learn some very cool things. For example, did you know Moz was offered a cameo on Friends? He was to play Phoebe's weird boyfriend. Or that he was nearly kidnapped while being driven home after a gig in Mexico? These are only small aspects of the fascinating life of Steven Patrick Morrissey as he tells it in his own words. Of course, fans of our protagonist may approach this book hoping for an answer to the longstanding question: will the Smiths ever get back together? Well, Biography gives you the unfortunate truth that the damage done in that London courtroom is almost certainly irreparable. But this disheartening news aside, it's an enjoyable book and will be enjoyed by both fans indie rock, Moz and popular culture alike. 4/5 STARS

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