A Yard Sale Of The Mind

by Simon Goddard
(Ebury Press)

Andy Warhol surrounded himself with a variety of freaks, drag queens, and speed heads. The miscreants of Manhattan. He used them in his films, took Polaroids of them, and provided their short and tragic lives with a longevity they wouldn't otherwise have attained. There is a trace of Warhol in Morrissey's supporting cast of stragglers. The difference between him and the silver-wigged wonder is that his are obscure, misunderstood, and largely unknown to the person who admires them so.

Warhol hung out with his, and in most cases hung them out to dry, like the paint on his canvases. Morrissey, however, clings to his obsessions; sharing like a true fan, he blasts his audiences with PA obscurities. He passes round what he cares for and admires. A quiff-adorned, flower-waving Saint Francis of those who tried and largely failed. Morrissey, despite several attempts, never got to meet Charles Hawtrey, the spindly alcoholic English comedy actor who was notoriously waspish to fans. He only heard Jimmy Clitheroe -- another comedian who dressed as a schoolboy and committed suicide on the morning of his mother's funeral -- when he was a Mancunian child listening to the radio. Klaus Nomi, the sad little space clown with a voice of a diva, and Jobriath, the American cousin of David Bowie, who earned only ridicule for all his glittering ambition, were both lost to HIV in 1983 before fame would allow Morrissey a chance to importune them. James Dean had hit a tree long before the star in question was born. Marc Bolan proved another casualty of cars against bark. Oscar Wilde expired penniless in Paris, a victim of Victorian derision and his own brazen vanity. And so a thread of commonality emerges. The tragic outsider, the misfit as martyr, the long list of causes largely lost because they have been forgotten, marginalized, or rendered immortal through death.

There is a major air of mystery to Stephen Patrick Morrissey. People can't quite fathom him. They want to know what makes him tick, but he is a notorious chameleon, a wayward wit that will not be defined.

Mozipedia: The Encyclopaedia of Morrissey & The Smiths employs a more expansive swipe at his myriad of influences than Len Brown's Wildean driven, wonderfully readable Meetings with Morrissey, which attempted to diffuse his mystery by probing his obsessions. Simon Goddard's tome applies the same principle, but more widely so.

Every song is dissected, each obsession profiled. What emerges is a confetti of quirk, strangeness, and charm. There can't be another artist who has composed so many songs whose titles begin in the first person singular guise of "I." Thirty plus, and it won't end there. Goddard is never a fan adrift. He writes with detached determination and isn't frightened or bowed by his subject. In the wrong hands, a book like this could be utterly sickly, or bathed in the pretentious prose of the devoted scribe. Dylan has been subjected to such seriousness, and it proved a dull affair, weighted down by a sense of the author's respect and admiration for his sacred cow.

What awaits the reader in this case is a Pandora's box of earthy and ethereal delights. It never takes itself too seriously and is the perfect book for both the initiated and the obsessed to delve into. Obscure alcoholic actresses rub shoulders with the New York Dolls. Tragedy queens and might-have-beens are given equal billing to movie stars, murderers, Manchester legends, and obscurities. Indie also-ran bands get to hang around with Truman Capote. In Morrissey's mind, the party is a strange after-life of many who appear to be waiting for those who have survived.

This book is the ultimate yard sale of another's mind. Morrissey as the man who sold his world. At the end of 532 pages devoted to the songs and obsessions of a figure in the public gaze, the reader is informed. But the enigma code of Morrissey remains uncracked. He has that sense of other-worldliness old movie stars had when they seemed to live in a different world from the people who sat and gazed upon their likenesses in darkened picture palaces.

This is a devotional work, a lot of effort employed in the transcribing a singer's obsessions. We all require an artist to express something of ourselves that we do not understand till it is sung to us by a stranger. A lost love, the one that never arrived, the fear of just being alive. That is Morrissey's role. He is the mouthpiece of millions, and what remains the unknown part of him is the unknown part in us all.

It is all too appropriate that the last words in the book, by alphabetical chance, belong to Tim Yuro (1941-2004). She's just one of the many girl singers to transfix Morrissey, but the one with the most grace, pathos, and guts, and whose larynx was removed in a failed attempt to save her life. She could easily be explaining him, the man who many misguidedly consider miserable. "My greatest pleasure on earth was to go on stage and be sad. And when people would applaud it was the greatest thing in the world for me. Just going out there and crying and singing a song. It wasn't just to blow people away. It was to give them the truth of me."