Don’t forget the songs that made you cry, and the songs that saved your life.
There’s no reason to talk about the books I read, but still I do.
Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before. Morrissey: No other artist has been so desperately idolized, so romantically adored, so sincerely emulated by so devoted, albeit so marginal a fan-base. It’s a paradox that undoubtedly has more than a few pop-culture junkies, baffled parents, and burgeoning teenage indie rockers wondering, “Who was that weirdo playing the Letterman show dressed like a priest, and didn’t I see his face on the cover of Spin a few months back?”
How are curious individuals such as these to become acquainted with rock’s most “enigmatic” performer? A logical answer, it seems, would be to read a book about him, and fortunately the latest Morrissey biography, Saint Morrissey saw its publication coincide with the recent success of the Mozzer’s seventh solo effort, You Are the Quarry. Unfortunately, this book will only further confuse the aforementioned demographic. In other words, unless you are a diehard this book will do nothing more that introduce you to the obsessive, borderline psychotic nature of Morrissey fans.
You can forget about objectivity. In fact any reader unable to quote Smiths’ lyrics like his life depended on it will not fare very well in an attempt to navigate through 200 pages of insiders’ paradigms and fan club trivia. It therefore goes without saying that author Mark Simpson, appropriately called “the skinhead Oscar Wilde,” is a fan of the highest measure.
In many ways Saint Morrissey is a failure. It fails to merely elaborate a story. It fails to maintain a narrative balance between fact and emotion. All clarity of how the tale is told collapses under the author’s propensity to deconstruct almost everything Morrissey has said or written in the past twenty years. It alienates all readers who cannot, or who refuse to understand alienation in and of itself, (not to mention anyone who bought the Smiths’ Singles and decided to call it a day).
With that said if you are anything like Mark Simpson, or myself for that matter, chances are you won’t be able to put this book down. You may not love it. You may even hate it, but in either case, Saint Morrissey will saturate your intellect with anything and everything you’ve ever suspected, theorized, or wanted to know about one famously solitary and historically inscrutable blue-eyed man from Manchester.
Originally published in 2003, the book was made more widely available in soft-cover this past October, less than a week before Morrissey kicked off his much anticipated U.S. tour.
The thesis is simple. As Simpson claims at the onset, “To get to the melancholic heart of Morrissey’s condition, to get inside the wasteland of his head-or his bed-there is only one thing you need to do. Listen to him.” The problem is Morrissey has a lot to say, and with the continuous citation of lyrics and interviews the reader is sure to hear just about all of it.
Before he immerses us in Smiths/Morrissey literary theory and psychoanalysis, Simpson discusses the history and extent of his own fandom, ironically portraying himself as the victim of “Bloody poetry which spoke directly and assuredly to a happy-sad part of [him] that [he] barely knew existed.” It’s no wonder he can hardly go a single paragraph without referencing various lyrics. His shameless appropriation may seem excessive, if not excessively trite, but it effectively highlights Morrissey’s universality. Morrissey is loved because he feels unloved. His followers revel helplessly in the romanticized hyperbole of self-pity, assured by the fact that there is at least one other person on the face of the earth who is just like them.
From Morrissey’s early childhood to the present day (Stephen Patrick to Moz), the book cites countless lyrics and interviews relevant to the various stages of his emotional, psychological, and professional development. Simpson takes his reader from Morrissey’s childhood experience of formal education (“Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools.”), to his Oedipal complex, (“Smother me mother.”), to his gender-bending (“I’m a girl and you’re a boy.”); from his subversive sexual project (“On a desk is where I want you”), to his evocation of homoerotic imagery (“How can they see the love in our eyes, and still they don’t believe us?”), to his celibacy (“Sex is a waste of batteries”).
Also discussed at length is Morrissey’s all too familiar list of personal heroes—Oscar Wilde, Shelagh Delaney, James Dean, Marc Bolan, etc.—revealing a paradoxical duality in his relationship to iconography. He is at once celebrity and fan, envious and envied, deity and disciple.
Simpson meticulously dissects Morrissey’s solo career, casting his lyrical concerns with condemnation, solitude, and resentment against a backdrop of working class disillusionment, changes in British society, and the decline of pop music. Topics of particular interest include his fluctuating position in the charts, his love-hate relationships with England and America, and the media’s infamous (not to mention entirely misdirected) allegations of racism following the release of Your Arsenal.
The last Morrisseyism Simpson accounts for is his relationship to fame, or the lack thereof. Morrissey fans will be the first to argue that the man is painfully underrated; that a music industry as banal as it is profit-driven has robbed him of the success and recognition he deserves. Then again, it is through his refusal of conventional celebrity status that Morrissey preserves the loyalty of his fans, and as Simpson notes, “It is this peculiar, decidedly unhealthy relationship with his fans that explains the oddly intense nature of Morrissey’s cult fame.”
With the introduction of this final paradox Simpson completes Morrissey’s canonization. His sainthood manifests itself in the image of men and women “flattening hefty security guards [to] succeed in wrapping themselves around the indulgent singer.” Simpson writes:
He has achieved in life the transcendence that other performers have only achieved in death This is the twisted miracle of Morrissey’s life that his fans, his congregation of Beautiful Bastards, bears witness to. Morrissey is the only ‘saint’ to be canonized before his death, and the only one to intercede on the behalf of his supplicants not from heaven but from his bedroom.
So chances are if you’ve made it through this review you might just be willing to give Simpson’s biography a go, and if not be thankful that you never got sucked in like the rest of us. There are also those of you who never thought someone would actually have gone so far as to proclaim Morrissey a saint, however tongue in cheek his intentions were.
But ask yourselves this: Who would have thought that within a year of this book’s initial publication Morrissey would be strutting around in priestly regalia at his concerts and on national television? Kind of makes you think.
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