It’s a grey UK autumn; Morrissey’s autobiography has just been published as a Penguin Classic, with a blue photo of him looking fey and fetching on the front. The marketing strategy alone, which plants Morrissey snugly next to Ovid, Plato, and Nabokov on the bookshelf, is brilliant. And yet the people squirm.
I’m bemused, watching reviewers and friends on Facebook fall over each other to say how much they worshipped the Smiths as adolescents (“nobody loves the Smiths more than I,” said in petulant online tones); what a travesty of his former self he is now; how his politics are appalling, weird, nationalist, verging on racist (see here and here); how self-serving and whiney the book is (only 70 pages on the Smiths! More on various court cases); how everything of genius he ever did was really Johnny Marr; and most hilariously, how this book degrades other Penguin Classics. (Really? Does it? Is the canon suddenly so important to you, former punk-subversive?) Hysterical ex- and present Smiths’ fanatics pull out, “Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before” and “That Joke isn’t Funny Any More” as their statuses to twist the knife, because, of course, like Wilde, Morrissey had all the best lines. To insult him, you have to quote him. I do it too, on automatic pilot, posting, “I didn’t realise you wrote such bloody awful poetry, Mr Shankly,” without having read a word of the book, hardly having read a review. Oddly, even as I post the line I know I will love the book, however badly written it is, however nakedly narcissistic. It’s not like badness or narcissism has ever stopped me from being riveted by Morrissey’s words before.
I am now an ex-pat American living in England, and have been for 16 years. Although I grew up in suburban Philadelphia, a long psychic distance from the Smiths, I loved them. They were exotic; they hemorrhaged a version of Englishness I coveted. So clever, camp and literary, they were the opposite of bombastic; full of outrage, but not the way punk had taught me. Self-deprecating to the point of self-loathing, and so, so funny. No American music was funny that way: “And if a double decker bus crashes into us/To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” It was 1986, and Moz had me at double decker bus. Before that year, in which I came to London to do a junior semester abroad, I’d never been on a double decker bus. As I rode the top of the 24, listening to the Smiths on my Walkman, the pleasure, the privilege was mine.
But then, maybe I didn’t really get them. It turned out I was labouring under many misapprehensions. Morrissey wasn’t really English (like Wilde, his Irishness gave him that ability to see Englishness slant) and, according to most of my English friends who loved them, the Smiths weren’t funny either. The Smiths, these friends said, were a straight up dose of unmediated, unfiltered, adolescent pain; every Brit I knew seemed to be living Smiths lyrics or had lived them quite recently. What I experienced as ironic and distanced, sometimes over-the-top hilarious, they experienced as excruciating and present. Evidently, I was missing a lot. I felt (and still feel) a little vulgar, a little American, when it comes to the Smiths.
But their greatest song, “How Soon is Now?” tore apart all structuring dichotomies. Funny or serious? Dance or Die? Yes. Its resonating dancefloor vibrato sound is totally uncharacteristic of them, and yet can stand in for everything they’ve done. I find myself returning to play it again and again in the midst of the ongoing Moz autobiography brouhaha.
It is etched on hearts here; all my contemporaries (we of a certain age, who hid behind our Walkmans in 1986) can pound out every word: “I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar/I am the son and heir of nothing in particular.” (Taken from a line from Middlemarch! Describing the undistinguished, ploddingly middle class, totally unfabulous, Fred Vincy, “To be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular…” [George Eliot, Middlemarch, Chapter 12, p. 119] Who else quotes that Eliot? No one does. Take that Robert Zimmerman.)
“When you say it’s going to happen soon, what exactly do you mean? Because I’ve already waited too long, and all my hope is gone.” “How soon is now?” is crushing, it seethes excruciation. Its very title makes waiting for a future, any future, seem like torture. And then, suddenly, when you think it can’t get any better/worse, there is this:
“There’s a club if you’d like to go
you could meet somebody who really loves you
so you go, and you stand on your own,
and you leave on your own,
and you go home, and you cry
and you want to die.”
Even now it’s hard to write the lyrics. It was too close to the bone for an entire generation—Brits, Americans, everyone, except, I guess, the A-list teens who didn’t need the Smiths.
Wilde wrote “The Importance of Being Earnest” and later “Reading Gaol”; Morrissey made verbal panache and pain impossible to distinguish from each other. And then, “How Soon is Now?” took that all back. You go home, you cry and you want to die. You can’t get less metaphorical than that.
Of course, though, you don’t die. You write, twenty-five years later, your autobiography.
I’ve only now cracked the cover, but knew before I did that Moz’s autobiography was going to be worth reading. The confusion he causes in his fans, who love him and hate him—he’s still making them crazy after all these years—is a sight to see and to savour. I like the many confusions he causes in me.
He’s so good at making us shudder and then love him because, whatever his blindnesses and insights, one thing Morrissey does know about is what it’s like to be a fan. I turn to page 66. His description of his meeting with Bowie might stand in for all our imagined meetings, and missed connections to him: “At midday he emerges from a black Mercedes, every inch the eighth dimension, teetering on high heels, with all the wisdom of our ancestors. Smiling keenly, he accepts the note of a dull schoolboy whose overblown soul is more ablaze than the school blazer he wears, and thus I touch the hand of this inexplicably liberating reformer; he, a Wildean visionary about to re-mold England, and I, a spectacle of suffering in a blue school uniform.”
That “I, a spectacle of suffering”, that is what you, if you are me, love him for. Shine on, you crazy Wildean visionary; long may you sell (out).
Pam Thurshwell: just a wave, not the water.