The new book by British singer Morrissey is a classic. It says so right on the cover. The memoir from the former frontman of The Smiths — titled simply “Autobiography” — is the first rock bio published under the venerable Penguin Classics imprint, home to Aeschylus, Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde. Morrissey has said he insisted on the “classic” label as a condition of signing with Penguin.
That has horrified some people in the publishing industry, but not the singer’s many fans, who drove the book to the top of Amazon’s U.K. chart the day after it was published Thursday.
Jon Howells, spokesman for the Waterstones book store chain, said Friday that the book is destined to be a Christmas-season best-seller.
“In Britain, he is one of our icons,” Howells said. “His is the great untold story from the ’80s generation of music heroes.”
The Smiths and their enigmatic, gladioli-waving singer had a huge impact in 1980s Britain with alternately giddy and melancholy songs such as “How Soon is Now” and “This Charming Man.” They weren’t quite so popular in the United States, where “Autobiography” does not yet have a publisher.
The quartet broke up in 1987, and Morrissey has used up some of his fans’ goodwill with increasingly curmudgeonly pronouncements during his solo career.
“Autobiography” opens with a vivid, verbose evocation of Steven Patrick Morrissey’s childhood as part of a sprawling Irish family in the damp, industrial northern English city of Manchester, and his awakening to the bright joys of pop music.
Fans will find mordant wit and evocative turns of phrase, while critics will see boundless self-indulgence and the absence of an editor’s trimming hand in the 457-page, single-chapter volume.
Reviewers have been sharply divided. Rock critic Neil McCormack gave the book a five-star review in the Daily Telegraph, calling it “the best-written musical autobiography since Bob Dylan’s ‘Chronicles.'” But the Independent’s literary editor, Boyd Tonkin, tired of Morrissey’s “droning narcissism” and “puerile litany of grievances.”
Fans though, will likely lap up the personal insights from a musician, now 54, who has long avoided talking about his private life. Morrissey has had periods of depression; he had his first serious relationship in his 30s, with a man he memorably describes as “an ex-schoolboy sadist with a flair for complicity”; he later discussed becoming a parent with a close female friend.
“Tina and I discuss the unthinkable act of producing a mewling miniature monster,” writes Morrissey, ever the romantic.
There are encounters — often awkward — with other famous people, moments of drama, including a 2007 kidnapping attempt in Mexico, and episodes of the absurd. Morrissey says he was once invited to appear on the sitcom “Friends,” where “I am requested to sing ‘in a really depressing voice.'”
And there is the inevitable score-settling. The Smiths’ former record label, Rough Trade, comes in for vitriol. So do the band’s bassist and drummer, with whom Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr fought a bitter royalties battle, recounted at length.
A Smiths reunion seems unlikely. Morrissey reveals that Marr once suggested reforming the band. But the singer said no.
“Surviving The Smiths is not something that should be attempted twice,” he writes.