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Tony Wilson gets the biography he wanted
After fourteen years, the 'greatest writer of his generation' delivers his magnum opus
It’s not clear exactly when and where Tony Wilson cast a spell over the music critic Paul Morley, but it must have been around about the mid-1970s and it was probably in one of the dingy clubs where Manchester’s music scene was feverishly mustering ahead of its epic punk-inspired revival.
Morley was a teenage punk fan and the author of a fanzine, Out There, which Wilson somehow came across. Morley had produced it, aged 18, on the floor of his bedroom in Stockport — one of a series of homemade magazines that appeared at the time.
Wilson, who was in his mid-twenties, was a charismatic, Salford-born, Cambridge-educated star of Granada, the company that was blazing a new trail with a more personal, risk-taking television in the rebranded North-west, Granadaland. His presence at gigs, where he seemed to be nosing around for new and groundbreaking acts to feature on his late-night music show So It Goes, aroused suspicion among younger, not-famous punk fans like Morley.
Morley was at the Sex Pistols' legendary first gig in Manchester at the Lesser Free Trade Hall — the poorly-attended performance that is widely credited with inspiring a generation of Manchester musicians. Wilson claimed he was also present but no one remembers him being there, says Morley, and “it would have been impossible to miss him in a crowd of forty."
Wilson had intuited the revolution that was sweeping through town, and many people could feel it. But Morley could put it into words. Quickly he was recognised not just as a nerdy fan with an encyclopedic musical knowledge but also a joyous prose stylist out of whom tumbled soulful, slightly surrealist descriptions of the emerging Manchester scene. Take for example his evocation of "the glistening sound of star-kissed otherness," of the Durutti Column, which "made it appear as though broken, bruising Wythenshawe, home to the largest council estate in the world in the 1950s, was within touching distance of golden Malibu.” Music at the time, he writes, "was a matter of life or death because it seemed to exist to save you life from straightness, from sameness, from blind authority, from simply following your parents into various oppressed emotional and financial cul-de-sacs.”
When Wilson started taking an interest in Morley, the young writer was starstruck. One day he came home to be told that Wilson had popped by — a story his mum talked about for the rest of her life. Soon Morley was writing music reviews for the influential NME magazine, and Wilson was dipping his toe in the project that would become Factory Records, which meant the two men needed each other for business reasons. In Morley’s telling, his relationship with Wilson wasn’t entirely transactional, but it also wasn’t relaxed either. “I didn't believe I ever had a comfortable face-to-face conversation with him, because I wasn't sure if he was playing a game I didn't know the rules of,” Morley writes. “The way he blessed you with opportunity could one way or another be irresistible,” he says. “When he was interested in you, he could place you at the centre of his world. If the infatuation ended, usually overnight, it was like being ejected into space.”
In late 1978, the relationship went sour when Morley left Manchester and took up the golden opportunity of a full-time job at the NME. Wilson tried to keep him around by getting him an interview at Granada. Morley fluffed the interview and headed south. “Wilson seethed for years at my betrayal,” says Morley. He had been ejected into space.
And yet, Morley kept on writing about Factory as the new independent record label began to make its mark after Joy Division’s first album in 1979. “In fact, I covered Factory so extensively and favourably over the next couple of years that my editor at the NME, Neil Spencer, thought I must be somehow formally connected to the label,” Morley remembers. Eventually, he was banned from reviewing Factory’s acts, because he was considered too obviously biased.
The men were seven years apart in age, but Morley saw the TV presenter and music impresario as a god-like figure who was capable of determining his fate. “Some of the most awkward, embarrassing things I have done in public involved Tony Wilson – trying to keep up with him, to compete with him, understand him,” Morley writes. “Even if you were in one of those periods with Tony when he was giving you the silent treatment or busy enough for years to pass by with little contact, you would still catch yourself thinking about some piece of writing or appearance on television, I wonder what Tony will think of this.” In 1982, to try to win back Wilson’s affection, Morley wrote a “manifesto” in the NME about Factory’s star band New Order, quoting Blake and Yeats.
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At times, the relationship between them comes across as exploitative — one in which Morley had become captive to Wilson’s power. “He always made me feel like I knew nothing about anything,” Morley writes, sounding like a lover being gaslit by their partner. “This was good in one way. I had to keep finding out. I had to keep proving to him that I did. I had to keep remaking myself. On the other hand, it always made me think I could never catch up.” Morley would come onto TV shows that Wilson was hosting, and remembers that he was “always on the back foot, not sure whether I was competing with him or being promoted into some new position that would help me in my professional career.”
By the time Wilson died of cancer in 2007, Morley emerged as his “elected choice” to write his biography. Quite what that means is unclear. In the press release circulated by the publisher Faber, the anointing of Morley as the official biographer is described as follows: “It was Morley to whom Wilson left a daunting final request: to write this book.” According to the book itself, that never happened. “There was no official confirmation as such, no grand ceremonial commission, no meeting to go through the details,” Morley writes. “He never directly asked me. The suggestion he wanted me to be his official biographer was more to do with the way he behaved towards me over the years, supportively, sympathetically and sarcastically.”
That book, From Manchester with Love, is out this week, fourteen years after Wilson’s demise. Morley has been working on it, on and off between publishing other books, for more than a decade. It runs to almost 600 pages, and very early on there are clear indications that we are in the hands of a narrator whose personal relationship with Wilson — his intense need to please him and be loved by him — will determine the book.
“He would consistently describe me as ‘the greatest writer of his generation’, not necessarily because it was objectively true but to clarify to those whom it may concern that the person commissioned, or condemned, to write his authorised biography was of course the greatest writer of his generation,” Morley writes on page seven. He knows he is being flattered because he catches Wilson referring to Greil Marcus as the greatest rock writer. “Ah,” Wilson clarifies. “Greil is the greatest American writer. You are the greatest British writer.” But Morley’s inclusion of the anecdote (it returns again later in the book) is revealing.
Very soon, as if to immediately put the notion that he is the greatest writer of his generation to bed, we start getting paragraphs like this:
The city as wandered through and wondered about by Wilson was what it seemed to be, made up of shops, roads, stations, libraries, offices, bus stops, cafes, parks, canals, bridges, factories, skyscrapers, markets, halls, car parks, pubs and arenas, but it was also a poem, an hallucination, a series of philosophies emerging in the shadows, centuries of colossal history colliding sometimes even exploding in one street, radical energy secreted in darkness, over the border of legality, a place not only mapped out and organised by the politicians, businessmen, entrepreneurs, planners and academics, but by those progressive, iconoclastic, problem-solving thinkers, pleasure-seekers, artists, outlaws, vandals, psychedelic explorers and conceptualists who ultimately contribute the most to how things sound, feel, move, appear, warp and illuminate our lives.
Or, somehow even more tedious, this:
And the ‘H’ was something even the great Anthony Burgess didn’t have, even though he had the Wilson. The ‘H’ could put him out on top. The ‘H’ was the real wind-up. The ‘H’ was the extra splash of defiance that really got under some people’s skin; where the ‘H’ might stand for Howard, history, heavenly, humble, humanist, hack, hex, han, hothead, hauteur, Huxley, horsing around, hyped, host, Hamnet, help, heuristic, honey-tongued, hector, has-been, him, habit, halcyon, Hegelian, high-minded, humility, Hardy, hellion, ha ha ha, hegemonic, hippy, hot air, H from Steps, Horace, hoop-la, hearer, headliner, hybrid, Homer, Haçienda, hero, hope, hands down, hysterical, hallelujah, holistic, hacker, holier than thou, hapless, halo, hydra-headed, Hidden Gem, honourable, horror, heart, high as a kite, honest, honesty, honestly, hamartia or nothing at all.
Unencumbered by the limitations of a magazine word count, Morley peppers his readers with dozens and dozens of stream-of-consciousness lists, some of which stretch to half a page. Because Morley doesn't know much about Wilson's upbringing, he is always on the lookout for off-ramps to stuff he does know about, however tenuous the connection is. If there's a chance to talk about another old boy from Wilson's school who created Lenny the Lion and whose show Pops and Lenny featured the second BBC TV appearance by the Beatles, Morley will take it.
In the chapter about Wilson going to university, we learn almost nothing about Wilson but masses about writers and thinkers who exist within one or two clicks from Wilson on Wikipedia. We can’t even get through a page before the twin plagues of tenuous links and lists begin again, this time because Laurence Sterne also attended Wilson’s Jesus College:
…writer of one of the North of England’s, and the world’s, great books, the relentlessly self-conscious and slippery novel and anti-novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. While rooted in the cornucopian energies of Renaissance prose and steeped in the ornate literariness of Rabelais, Montaigne and Burton, based on a model by Cervantes, Sterne’s dazzling, quizzical and self-reflective conception all at once invented or influenced Balzac, De Quincey, Dickens, Tolstoy, Lautréamont, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Mann, Thomas Bernhard, Flann O’Brien, vaudeville, Romantic autobiography and how to fashion a narrative self, surrealism, Proust’s great works of intellect and intimacy, the many planes of narrative in Joyce, the shifting perspectives and tricks of memory of Virginia Woolf, the many feigns of storytelling in Burgess, meta-narrative, existentialism, structuralism, deconstructionist theory, situationism, all forms of literary shoplifting, i.e. plagiarism, the idea that what goes on in our heads is literature, Marvel comics, the songs of Bob Dylan, the films of Charlie Kaufman, the television of Vince Gilligan, the rhythms of Björk, the fourth-wall-busting flair of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Michaela Coel, and ultimately remains hard to place.
Morley admits he doesn’t know much about Wilson’s surely-formative years at Cambridge — “it was difficult to understand the nature of the adventures Wilson actually had there,” he writes. We learn in passing that Wilson felt excluded “by the humbling, painful condescension of the ex-public-school students,” but get no examples. No quotes.
Then the two words “would have” start cropping up: Wilson “would have been defensive” Morley reckons, he “would have” been inspired by what was happening in the late-1960s world of student protest. On one page we get “would have” four times. We get page after page about situationism, but then Morley admits he doesn't really know how interested in it the student Wilson was. Wilson’s contemporaries at Cambridge will now be in their late sixties, but there’s no evidence Morley has bothered to track any of them down. So much of his coverage of the university years feel lazy like this — rattling off former editors of student newspaper Varsity because Wilson was briefly involved. Describing a hippy student film he’s found but that Wilson wasn't in. We get pages on a socialist newspaper Wilson never wrote for. Wilson left university with a 2:2, or perhaps a third. Did Morley check?
The price we pay for this lack of research — and consequent lack of focus — is a conspicuous absence of biographical scrutiny. What happened in Tony Wilson’s formative years to produce such a brilliant and contradictory man? I would gladly trade 50 pages about Tristram Shandy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Dadaists for a few focusing on his relationship with his actor dad, who turned out to be gay, or how being a northern boy at Cambridge affected his confidence. Was Wilson’s extraordinary bravado masking deep self-doubt? At one point Morley writes that after public disasters, Wilson was "seemingly untouched by embarrassment or shame." Is that the case? Others quoted in the book, including his second wife Hilary Wilson, refer to him as insecure. Morley never stops to probe it. These themes crop up in passing, but they never get any sustained attention. Instead, Morley hurries on to quote another situationist thinker — Wilson style.
Interestingly, the post-Factory half of the book is entirely different — presumably because this is the stuff Morley knows about. The mind-numbing lists and Wikipedia tours disappear and we get Morley’s rather good, sometimes very special, music writing. This is the period of Wilson’s life that is much better documented and understood. Morley witnessed much of it first-hand and has chronicled it in hundreds of articles and several books, including two about Joy Division. He takes us inside the room in the founding days of Factory. He knows some of the first members of the Hacienda.
Some of the most moving moments come from Morley’s decision to quote his interviewees — generally the most famous names in Wilson’s world — at length. Morley knows these people well and his interviews with them are revealing and sometimes extremely poignant. Like when Wilson’s Granada colleague Andy Harries talks about the moment Wilson learned of Ian Curtis’s suicide:
I pushed the door open, and he was there on the floor of an edit room, in the foetal position, just crying his eyes out... He was absolutely devastated. It's why I always hated how he was portrayed in 24 Hour Party People, as if he took it in his stride, glibly hearing the news in the middle of a piece to camera.
Or when he quotes Wilson’s first wife and Factory colleague Lindsay Reade:
I hated Factory. I didn't want it to carry on after Ian died. I felt this thing that Factory had become is what destroyed Ian, so I wanted to destroy Factory. I did. I wanted to destroy it... I felt that's what killed him, the chaos that Factory had been built on, the weird energy of these weird men running riot, let loose on something a little beyond them.
One of the revelations of the book is hearing from Factory co-founder Alan Erasmus — here’s how he describes his falling out with Wilson and their eventual rapprochement:
I thought the way he behaved as Factory ended was wrong. We didn’t talk for years. Maybe once, when he rang me to tell me Rob’s [Gretton] dead, after about seven, eight years. We kept our distance at the funeral. Nothing else after that. Until he was ill. I saw this Evening News poster outside a newsagent on the Stockport Road – ‘Music mogul dying of cancer’ – and I thought, Well, that’s either going to be Peter Waterman or Tony Wilson – maybe what’s-his-name, the Take That manager. I went into the shop and there was a picture of Tony in the newspaper. So then I knew. I immediately thought maybe we should sort things out. Sort it out, and then go our separate ways.
Wilson’s last message to Morley is cheery despite his rapidly declining health. “He’s entering another great adventure, all will be revealed, upwards and onwards, God bless,” writes Morley. “These are the last words he says to me, as they often had been at the end of a conversation over the phone, or at the end of a message he had left.” As the book winds down, we get some beautiful descriptions of Wilson’s final days in the hospital, facing his illness calmly with his old gang of friends and partners circling his bed.
You feel that even if he isn’t the right biographer for this life, Morley is at least the right protector of Wilson’s flame. He worries that in the new Manchester, the real Wilson — the "mercurial, obnoxious, fanciful Wilson" — is being "buried under mundane memorialising as sanctioned by dull men in ill-fitting suits.” "Wilson believed,” Morley goes on, “that worlds need to exist outside artificial, corporate, commercial, governmental culture, and the need for those worlds is even more necessary now that this culture slickly, emptily absorbs the once avant-garde and the cool.”
Given what Morley reveals about his relationship with Wilson, it’s not exactly surprising that he shies away from subjecting Wilson to forensic examination; that he’s happy to throw out endless interpretations, dodging the fundamental job of the biographer, which is to choose. To zero in. To unpick. To take us from the froth and the gossip and the nonsense to the heart of things. Morley begins many of his chapters with a description of Wilson, followed by the words “who can also be described as,” and then followed by a free-wheeling list of character traits: “like Faust, greedy for knowledge and ready to trade punishment for it”; “sectarian cultist”; “consulting Camus, synthesising Marcuse, mulling over McLuhan”; “taking the greatest pleasure in being what he was”. Some of them contradict each other, but who cares — Morley is steeped in the water much too deep to tell you what caused the flood.
On the night of Wilson’s death, Paul Morley appeared on Newsnight to pay tribute to “this weird metaphysical mayor of Manchester”. Only now that Wilson had died, he told viewers, “can we begin to work out who the hell and what the hell he actually was.” It will take years, he seemed to be saying, to unpick decades of contradictions and myth-making.
And yet, fourteen years later, Morley has chosen to continue the myth-making. Over almost 600 pages, he’s shown all the other writers that he can do it better than them; more sumptuously; more elaborately; with more quotes from Seneca and Werner Herzog and the French Marxist-Situationist Guy Debord. Called to write the great biography of Mr Manchester, Morley battled with himself and a powerful spell that has shaped his adult life and has written the book Wilson would have written about himself.
From Manchester with Love: The Life and Opinions of Tony Wilson, by Paul Morley, is out this week, published by Faber.