Steven Patrick Morrissey of Manchester, England, a place “more brittle and less courteous than anywhere else on earth,” former singer for the Smiths, once and future hero for the misunderstood, and champion for powerless humans and animals, is also an inspired adman. The concept for the Smiths’ record covers, he explains in his new book, “Autobiography,” was “to take images that were the opposite of glamour and to pump enough heart and desire into them to show ordinariness as an instrument of power — or possibly, glamour.”
The best of them, with tinted black-and-white photographs and all-caps type, did exactly that. The cover for the single “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” in 1984, shows Viv Nicholson, a Yorkshire cake-factory worker, a winner and famously fast spender of a lucrative football pool in 1961, fully owning the middle of a rutted street. She has what looks like a camel’s-hair coat, teased and bleached hair, a grim face. In her apparent knowledge that she is fantastic amid wreckage, she radiates power. But the cover itself, declaring her importance as well as the band’s, radiates even more.
“Autobiography,” as sharp as it is tedious, both empathetic and pointlessly cruel, has been published in England as a Penguin Classics paperback. (No American publication date has been announced.) And its cover also radiates power. It follows the design template of Penguin’s pre-20th-century titles, with orange lettering on a black panel. Morrissey has talked himself into a special clique of the dead. He may be a British national treasure etc., but how did he manage that?
Morrissey’s operation is built on doing extraordinarily attention-getting things while intimating vestigial modesty. Who gave him permission to put a yellow streak in his hair while attending what he describes as pretty much the grimmest Catholic school of the global 1970s? Or to figure that “only classical composers were known by just their surnames, and this suited my mudlark temperament quite nicely”? Or to let himself, untutored in music, be “free as a hawk to paint the canvas as I wish” while recording with the Smiths, creating extravagantly mannered vocal melodies over Johnny Marr’s exact song constructions?
Or, as he did after the release of the book last week, to issue a statement about his sexual orientation, for those still confused after reading his story for 457 pages? “Unfortunately, I am not homosexual,” he declared. “In technical fact, I am humasexual. I am attracted to humans. But, of course … not many.”
He understands his own value — boy does he ever — and he understands the position of the superfan. The best stretches in this book, written in the excited present tense of teenage perceptions, comes from extremely close attention to music, movies, television and attitudes in England up to the late 1970s.
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