There are studies in contrast, and then there are studies in contrast. During the past six months I’ve read two autobiographies—of sorts—and the similarities and differences have been striking. The two authors work in very different fields, both of which I follow assiduously. Neither is professionally an author, and partly for this reason their written reflections on their careers are especially interesting. The authors are long-time sports broadcaster Al Michaels and singer-songwriter Morrissey.
Michaels’ book, entitled You Can’t Make This Up (William Morrow, 2014), recounts his journey from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York through a long career at ABC sports to his present position at NBC. Michaels is perhaps most well-known for his iconic call at the conclusion of the dramatic U.S. hockey team upset of the Soviets at the 1980 Olympic games: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” He also recounts his experience at the earthquake-interrupted 1989 World Series and his relationship with O.J. Simpson, as well as many riveting on-the-field anecdotes.
One of the themes of his book is how Michaels’ has managed to abide by the advice that legendary NBC announcer Kurt Gowdy gave him back in the 1970s: “Don’t ever get jaded.” Michaels is correct in his self-assessment that he’s followed this advice. Although critical of some sports and network personalities with whom he’s worked, such as the self-possessed Boomer Esiason and the pompous but fascinating Howard Cosell, Michaels has maintained a boyish enthusiasm. And his critical assessments of some of his peers are far outshone by his genuine appreciation of others with whom he’s worked, from John Madden to Cris Collinsworth—whom most would agree are two of the greats in NFL television broadcasting.
Michaels does note along the way that he is the most widely exposed person in the history of live television—no one has spent more hours on the air (because of his broadcasting all of the major team sports, the Olympics, etc.) than Michaels. But somehow this doesn’t come across as anything but a truthful observation. Perhaps because an attitude of gratefulness permeates the pages of You Can’t Make this Up.
Whereas Michaels’ book is calculated to entertain and endear the reader (as well as educate him or her about the history of sports broadcasting), Morrissey’s Autobiography (Penguin, 2014) seems more bent on venting and indulging grudges. Former front man of the legendary 1980s band The Smiths, Morrissey set out on his own after a media-fueled rift between him and guitarist Johnny Marr. Since going solo, Morrissey has made consistently high-quality records, featuring his trademark introspectively brooding lyrics, though his later albums have increasingly tackled social and political issues.
The Moz’s prose is, by turns, mesmerizing, tedious, obscure, and hysterical, but always interesting and too often indulgent. It is, in the end, a book of complaints (especially about the music corporation rip-off machine) and self-justifications, only brightened occasionally by a tersely-put word of admiration about one of Morrissey’s musical heroes or (usually deceased) friends who somehow managed to avoid severely offending him. Tellingly, more than fifty pages of the book are devoted to the much publicized legal case involving Smiths drummer Mike Joyce who prevailed in his suit for a higher share of the band’s royalties. While the Moz does seem to have been treated unjustly, his seething over it (even referring to his former band mate as “Joyce Iscariot”—really?) isn’t helping anyone. Sadly, Morrissey only succeeds in typifying someone who willfully grants others the ability to steal his joy.
There are certain similarities between Michaels and Morrissey. For one thing, both men are commentators and analysts who are regarded as compelling “voices” in their respective fields. Furthermore, both are gifted at getting to the essence of aspects of the human drama. Michaels is a master at his craft of describing compelling sports narratives, and the Moz, too, is a master in his realm of lyrical composition and vocal delivery. And in their books they reflect on their careers in a way that sheds a certain light on their genius and also reveals their own sense of their significance.
But the contrasts are glaring. Michaels’ sense of his significance is more measured and humble than that of the Morrissey, always reminding the reader of his own simple beginnings and the fortunate turns along his professional path. Morrissey’s is an attitude of self-importance and exasperation that others have so often failed to properly appreciate his talent. Both are witty, but Morrissey’s humor is famously sardonic, and this is relentlessly displayed in his Autobiography. As mentioned, Michaels, too, takes time to critique his peers and make note of those who betrayed him, but these are brief and never with the tenacious vindictiveness of Morrissey. Finally, and this is the key difference, Michaels seems to be a genuinely thankful man, repeatedly expressing his gratitude to those have helped him achieve all he has in his profession. Not so the Moz.
Here are two famous, talented, and productive individuals who will go down as towering figures in their respective professions. But just one of them seems genuinely happy. That same man, not coincidentally, is the one who has managed to follow the old adage to “count your blessings.” Hopefully, Morrissey will somehow learn to do this as well, and thus find that all-too-elusive joy in this life. But once one becomes jaded, that’s a hard thing to do.