Born of Irish stock, Morrissey paints a vulgar picture of his childhood in monochrome. His recollections of his home city are as grim and northern as the sight of Ena Sharples in her hairnet. Manchester in the ‘Swinging Sixties’ was still much the same as the place that had shocked Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century. Only the presence of Top of the Pops provided ‘a rare flash of glamor in our oh so very pale lives’.
School days offered no hope, only mindless violence. Mr Coleman, the head at St Wilfred’s, was ‘convincingly old, unable to praise and his military servitude is the murdered child within’. Miss Redmond ‘will never marry and will die smelling of attics’ and Miss Dudley was a ‘sexual hoax’. One supposes these are some of the ‘belligerent ghouls’ of the Headmaster Ritual from the Meat is Murder album.
St Mary’s Secondary Modern in Stretford was no better. Just more humiliating beatings dished out to th consoling sounds of a Glam Rock soundtrack. By then, Morrissey was into T Rex, Bowie, Mott the Hoople and Roxy Music, though the latter dropped in his estimations when ‘Bryan Ferry announces that his favourite food is veal – second only to foie gras in savage cruelty’.
Literary influences include Oscar Wilde of course. AE Housman also held great appeal: ‘Housman suffered throughout his life, and therefore (and not surprisingly) his life became an unyielding attempt not to cooperate.’ But it’s film, TV and other pop culture references of the period that predominate.
In his youth, Morrissey virtually stumbled onto the set of Coronation Street only to be labelled a ‘nuisance’ by Bernard Youens (aka Stan Ogden). It wouldn’t be the last time but the incident resulted in the soon-to-be-Smith getting a part as an extra in an Edwardian drama. Though an acting career never appealed, he’d turn down the chance to appear in Emmerdale and Eastenders many years hence: ‘The most fascinating aspect of both offers is that somebody somewhere had thought it was a good idea.’
He did have a stab at writing a script for Coronation Street, but, sadly, the powers-that-be were not impressed with a finale that had Violet Carson (playing the aforementioned Ena Sharples) turn to the camera, one eyebrow arched, asking, ‘Do I really look like a fan of X-Ray Spex?’.
His world expands a little with trips to visit friends in London and then to the USA to visit his aunt, who had emigrated there. Not an opportunity that would have presented itself to many young working-class Mancunians in the mid-70’s, I reckon.
Then Punk explodes and fizzles out before one Johnny Marr turns up at the door. Since the Smiths were my favourite band at the time, this story and others from those years are familiar. But even if you’ve grown up with the music of the Smiths, there are surprises in store.
Having already lived in a haunted flat in London, a very odd incident occurs on a drive with friends up to Saddleworth Moor. It’s one of the most evocative passages in this eloquently written and absorbing book. The story is so bizarre that you can’t help but wonder if Morrissey is toying with the reader, scattering a few red herrings around and chuckling to himself.
Some time after the breakup of The Smiths, Morrissey returns again, this time with Marr, to Saddleworth Moor; the setting for the controversial Suffer Little Children from the first album. The former does not seem to understand the breakup or is just not for telling. It seems it was all down to Marr: ‘I didn’t want to ever go solo… I thought The Smiths would run for at least thirty albums.’
Yet, it all fell apart so quickly after Strangeways Here We Come – an album both Morrissey and Marr considered the band’s best. It’s time to tell the tale of throwing it away at the peak of your powers.
Harsher criticsim is reserved for supremos Geoff Travis and Tony Wilson of Rough Trade and Factory Records respectively, Siouxsie Sioux, and perhaps most surprisingly, stingy Sandie Shaw. Don’t meet your idols! But Marr comes across as a decent bloke who, in his efforts to get on with everybody, is a little too slippery and elusive for his own good at times.
Morrissey’s true nemesis is Smiths drummer Mike Joyce, who took the songwriting duo to court in 1996 and won his case for a 25% cut of band royalties. According to the vocalist, ‘Johnny and I signed to Rough Trade as the Smiths’. He insists that 10% was the figure agreed with the additional members.
Although interesting to hear Morrissey’s perspective, the trial section gets quite tedious and for a time descends into a lengthy rant against High Court judge John Weeks (who found in Joyce’s favour). Even the quality of the prose seems to go out the window here. It was the only part of the book that bored me and takes up way more space in the story than it should as Morrissey repeats himself over and over to vent his spleen and hammer home his points. He dealt more creatively with this episode on his Maladjusted album. But the court case narrative does have its moments as Moz’s bitchiness reaches new heights in comedy and melodrama: ‘By now, Marr, Rourke and Joyce have magically transformed into the Beverly Sisters, each chanting how that awful Morrissey has destroyed their lives….’
After the decision was reached “Joyce Iscariot raced to the press caped in victory: ‘It’s not about money,’ he kept saying, which told everyone that it had purely and absolutely been about nothing but money. .. Johnny’s crime is that he watched it all and said nothing, hoping to avoid the noose already tight around my own neck…”
‘Sickened, I left England. The good life is out there somewhere…’
He been fortunate enough (or unlucky?) to work with some of his idols: Bowie is more than an acquaintance, ex –Spider Mick Ronson produced Your Arsenal shortly before his death, and Moz helped revive the career of the New York Dolls. Kirsty McColl was another dear friend and he seems quite close to Chrissie Hynde, who Marr worked with briefly in the Pretenders after the Smiths split.
Some of the people Morrissey gets on with, or respects, are surprising, including Elton John and Morten and the rest of those ‘inherently decent’ lads from Aha! There’s over two decades of solo work to delve into, as opposed to the handful of years the Smiths were together. Now understanding a little better the background to all that, and realising how much I have lost track of it all, has led me to revisit the back catalogue and discover many gems among consistently good albums. He’d only just started something he couldn’t finish. But that’s another story…