Saturday, November 02, 2013


Growing up in Manchester during the 1980’s demanded that you place yourself in a kind of  cultural planetary system. One could orbit the Fall, swing around the Joy Division/New Order nexus, but for this young man in rainy Cheadle, the Smiths were a black hole from which there was no escape. The power of Morrissey’s lyricism combined with Marr’s inspired guitar was a sound entirely right for the time if you were frequently caught in the rain while wearing an acrylic jumper from BHS. It spoke directly to me, thousands like me, and for us he made the intolerable bearable, illuminating the dreary and glamourising the greyness.  

I saw the Smiths play twice, and it was brilliant on both occasions;  electric, jubilant  performances that I’ll remember all my life. I bought all the records. I still have them, and play them. The songs sound fresh to me today, particularly after a couple of drinks, and I think The Queen is Dead is one of the best albums ever recorded. So this review is biased, but even to this unabashed supporter it’s clear that Morrissey, as a man and as a writer, has feet made if not of clay then some other pretty base material.
This autobiography is at times brilliant, at others utterly unreadable. It’s plain that the publisher’s rulebook has been jettisoned - nobody has edited this work. I don’t suppose he allowed them.Well, it needed editing. And there’s surely an element of self-mockery of his insistence that it should appear on the shelf dressed as a Penguin Classic, he must know he is no latter day Manchester Gaskell. Instead he is at times a stranger to paragraphs, flits between tenses, and the book has at best a shaky grip of structure and narrative.
And yet there’s much to enjoy. Perhaps predictably Morrissey is at his strongest talking about Manchester, his love/hate for the city burning through the text.  His childhood in Moss Side and his apparently awful schooling make for a great read, but he is plainly the most unreliable of narrators, even of his own story. A wise reader travels here with a bucket of Cheshire salt.  He makes his schools sound appalling but if they failed him it’s because they didn't spot his unusual intelligence, not an uncommon problem in big educational systems. He says he put no effort in, so infact he may have failed them. There are no even half-decent teachers depicted, all of them were alleged monsters, and yet someone - somewhere - must have taught him something. He can’t have sprung on us fully-formed and self designed.  It’s also clear he came from a big and loving Irish family, albeit with a disappearing dad. I suspect much of Morrissey’s so-marketable trauma is manufactured.

He’s at his strongest about his loves, weakest about his hatreds. Passions shine through; for the New York Dolls in particular, who he plays a part in re-uniting. For punk too; he is among those at the historic Sex Pistols gig at the Lower Free Trade Hall. There’s the sheer randomness of life as a rock star, like the mad drive over the moors during which he and his friends see what they think is a ghost who throws himself across their car semi naked; they ring the police who hilariously suggest they ‘keep an open mind’, when daylight comes they return to find the spectre’s Y-Fronts. A handful of friends are recorded, some of them die far too early and he communicates the blinding robbery of grief very effectively .

While the Smiths are characterised by their critics as tedious and miserable, if there’s a generic Smiths sin it’s more one of over sensitivity. Morrissey simply feels so intensely, about perceived slights, his talent, his music and so on and this is what comes through the whole of the book. Each entry chart position is listed, too low and it is always his record company’s fault, high and it’s simply what he’s due. And he hates with a terrible vengeance and liberality, playful gossip (bumping into Bowie, fencing musically with Bryan Ferry) at times replaced with seeping vitriol and score settling. His description of Rough Trade, who took him to the top, is unappetising and small minded. Sire records, a later home,also take a pounding, they simply never do anything for him, apparently. The press, even the NME,  is always horrendous in his view,  but I remember the Smiths being lionised, then revised, then lionised once again.

Even allowing for the fact that the music world is a bitchy place, Morrissey’s unrelenting take no prisoners approach alienates even the most sympathetic of readers. Stooping to conquer, he lambasts poor Nick Kent for criticising the band in some music paper, then plainly at a low point, he writes to Morrissey to ask to join it. There are countless more examples of long memory sideswipes at minor players in the Smiths saga. But the worst of this self indulgent stuff is the seemingly endless and turgid account of the law suit over Smiths finances, in which Mike Joyce successfully sued him and Marr. It is entirely tedious, pretty much indigestible and reader, I skipped it.

There’s a lot that’s not here. There is hardly any explanation or discussion of his much run-ins with reported and denied racism. It might have been a gargoyle worth finally slaying, although personally I don’t see him as racist.  His creativity with Marr is barely described. At least he’s honest when he describes the first Smiths album as atrocious. I still remember sitting on my rented couch numb with shock when I heard how the mishandled production had effectively blunted all the songs. I relied on a bootlegged cassette of the Peel and Jensen sessions to get me through my second year of University.    

And yet at the end of all the meticulously catalogued abuse, mismanagement and legal tedium he winds up rich, and we’re back in readable territory once more. He absents himself from the UK, taking to California like a duck to water, and rents the house next to Johnny Depp. Finding himself in love with a woman who can (miraculously) put up with him, he even contemplates children, then writes about our politics with all the dilettante authority of the ex-pat Mail reader. In the middle of this, he returns to Sale to watch his auntie die, and this passage is unbearably strong. Pages later he breaks off from an exhaustive account of a world tour to analyse the cultural contribution of Victoria Wood.

You have to winnow through the chaff. Is the exercise worth it? For me it is, but then I have a personal stake, as so many of us do from that time and that part of the world.   

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Neil Armstrong, 1930 – 2012

Modern methods of news delivery are rough on the sensibilities. At around eightish last night a notification surfaced on my iPhone from the NYT app; At 82, Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, dead. Then that odd sense of personal loss when the death occurs of someone who you didn't really know, had never met, but very much admired.

For people my age the loss of Armstrong closes a chapter strongly associated with the wonder of childhood and the sense of burgeoning possibility, that you too might be an astronaut and Space generally was going to be ours for the sampling. Remember that game around in the seventies, Careers? The best one was being an astronaut. Later you found out that actually this wasn't a job choice for you, but really for an elite within an elite, the very best pilots who were also tremendous scientists and analytical thinkers. It helped to be an American, or a Russian, or at least from a country that got on with them very well.

The original Gemini and Apollo astronauts were great fliers, but the factor that recommended Armstrong and his kin to NASA, and to the rest of us, was nerve. The Saturn V, and I have stood next to one lying flat on its side like a stricken white dinosaur, does not look safe. It is not safe. It is the nearest a vehicle can come to a controlled explosion. There was an escape system - you can see the handle on the schematics and it's featured in the film Apollo 13, but pulling it was unthinkable, I would guess. It wasn’t done. Nobody did it.

Armstrong and his brethren were the steely concentrated point of a spear thrown by a rattled superpower; Kennedy recognised that it was unacceptable for the Russians to pootle around space unchallenged with their spunky sputniks. He needed a Grand Slam to re-establish the proper order of things, ie with the USA at the top of the interstellar food chain. Hence the space programme, target: The Moon, developed at breakneck speed, with casualties along the way.

Armstrong had nerve, but was of the breed or maybe the generation of people who don’t bother speaking of it. Nothing much about NASA was safe. The training was particularly dangerous; NASA’s attempt to simulate the Lunar landing module was to build a kind of bedstead with a rocket in the middle and thrusters on the side; a pure deathtrap which Armstrong had to eject out of as it turned over and exploded. Most people would go home at that point, but not him, he just shrugged and got on with it. 

Did going to the Moon matter? I don’t think the Moon in itself matters a jot. Not to them at the time, or to us now. There was an audit of moon rock recently, the stuff dragged home in plastic bags at awe inspiring expense; some of it has gone missing. Nobody cares. It’s just geology. That’s what the astronauts did when they got there; bounced around with hammers examining the dust. And once they’d got there, and done this for a while, nobody cared to go back.

The shelved Space Programme illustrates how supremely self interested we are as a species; humans just wanted to know that they could get to such a place. The place itself was not important, the achievement of the journey was the thing. It was the madness of it that gripped. Images persist - at the end, out of fuel, hundreds of feet above the deadly lunar surface, far from rescue, the tiny computer going wonky, Armstrong standing at the window looking for a place to just put the Eagle down. He didn’t go on about it afterwards, leaving us to marvel at it all.

Armstrong and his colleagues dissatisfied in a modern way; having been a locked down individual, married to the mission, its challenges listed by countless dry checklists, he and the others found it problematic to communicate the wonder of it to those of us left down on the ground. Military men, trained to the nth degree, often find it tricky to emote in the right way for the media. He refused to be a trained seal, went off, lectured at a University and farmed. Others in the NASA astronaut office found it harder to come back to earth; divorces, drugs and other hazy questionable stuff sometimes ensued. You could see that making an alteration in our perspective was tricky for the people doing the altering.
Now it’s us that need to alter our perspectives once more; Armstrong and his generation are slowly leaving us. Must his kind of adventure be a thing of the past? It seems unthinkable but when you look at the bill for a manned Mars mission reality kicks in. If humans care to go to Mars ourselves, rather than sending clever cars with cameras (truly that planet is crying out for street view) it can’t be as a national mission done by one power or another for prestige; it must be a joint enterprise, because the cost and risk will be prohibitive. To pick up Armstrong’s gauntlet, national self-interest must be put aside. That would be some legacy.