Having not read a rock biography for years, so far this year I’ve read two: Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless and Morrissey’s Autobiography. I’ve admired Chrissie Hynde for many years and she was influencing my style by my late teens, whereas it took years for Morrissey to grow on me, and apart from an attempt to emulate his quiff at one point, I’m not sure he’s been a direct influence on me. It was interesting to pick up Reckless in the week that David Bowie died and find he’s one of the first people mentioned, and also interesting to note the crossover of adulation for Bowie and the New York Dolls (neither of whom I’ve ever been particularly enthused by) in both books. Hynde and Morrissey also make cameo appearances in each other’s memoirs. However, they’re really quite different affairs despite the pair of them being famous vegetarians whose bands began in the same country within a couple of years of each other.
Reckless is more what you’d expect from a rock biography. Drugs, squalid London squats, trouble with drummers, more drugs (I was actually shocked at the amount and variety, I guess she never struck me as the type). It’s written in a straightforward style that reflects how Chrissie Hynde’s frank persona comes across. We get lots of detail (sometimes maybe a bit more than we’d like) about the wild adventurous life she had even before she was in The Pretenders. She seems to be one of those people who’s on the fringes of history, her friend’s boyfriend was one of the four students shot at the Kent State University anti-war demo in 1970 (which Chrissie Hynde was also at, being a student there at the time), she seemed to meet quite a few big name rockers in Cleveland as a teenager, and she was in a band with 3 members of The Damned just before they left her to become The Damned (I’m not saying these are all comparable events, just trying to highlight the variety). You get a good flavour of the sixties and seventies alternative scene through the pages of Reckless.
Morrissey, on the other hand, though he definitely has trouble with drummers, doesn’t fit any of the other cliches. I picture him in hotel rooms bemoaning the substandard tea and paltry pair of shrink-wrapped custard creams. Not a rock star in the wild sense, and yet when you think about the headlines (tabloid as well as music press), the recognition, the adulation, the size of venues he’s played, it’s clear that he really is in every other sense.
At one point one of his neighbours (and, apparently, friends) was Alan Bennett, and once I’d read that I keep reading the odd line (e.g. no chance of a Rich Tea biscuit so don’t bother asking, when he visits Julie Burchill) in an Alan Bennett voice. I’m left with an urge to write a play in which Alan Bennett and Morrissey sit at a kitchen table with a pot of tea for an hour, playing the characters we think they are in real life.
Meanwhile, the shy, gawky boy is suddenly greying and avuncular and doesn’t know how that happened, and looking back on his life he catalogues the friends and relatives who died too young, from the uncle not much older than the teenage Morrissey to Kirsty MacColl twenty-five years later, and beyond. It is essentially a sad book full of loneliness, but laced with dry wit and flashes of the lyricism he’s always been admired for (by those who admire him). I can’t help but contrast Chrissie Hynde’s middle class upbringing and wasted stint at university with Morrissey’s Manchester-Irish family in and out of each other’s terraced houses, his depressing secondary modern and his stint on the dole. I know which one comes out of these memoirs seeming the more articulate and intelligent.
My dad, despite being the reason I got into both The Pretenders and The Smiths (we didn’t have many cassettes in the car during the 80s and I eventually grew to love most of them. Just not Roxy Music) groaned when I said I was reading Morrissey’s book. “But,” I said, “if you like Morrissey’s lyrics (which most Smiths/Morrissey fans do), and you have a sort of indulgent affection for him and the clangers he seems to drop in interviews (which again, I would say most Smiths/Morrissey fans do) I don’t see how you could help but love it. Unless it’s just that I’m still a pretentious fifteen-year-old at heart.” “Mmm,” said my dad. And really, there’s no answer to that.