“Hair I Am: My Life As Morrissey’s Personal Stylist,” by Alex Nunes

Apr 30th, 2014 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

“Hair I Am: My Life As Morrissey’s Personal Stylist”
By Benjamin James Bartles
Published by Penguin Books
Reviewed by Alex Nunes

The celebrity memoir that doesn’t live up to its expectations has become as ubiquitous as the genre itself. Even more disappointing are the tell-alls penned by authors looking to cash-in on their often-tenuous associations to figures of public curiosity.

Rarely do these books by jilted lovers, former friends or estranged children deliver on their claims.

Within this context, “Hair I Am: My Life As Morrissey’s Personal Stylist” by Benjamin James Bartles is as much an exception as it is a revelation.

Bartles and his ghostwriter, David William Motte, tell a story that is both penetrating and insightful. Fans of the musician, widely known as the lead singer of the English rock band The Smiths, will marvel at a narrative that takes the reader nearly all the way back to the band’s founding in 1982 and through to 1998, when Bartles and the famed singer had their falling out.

The tone is one of elegiac nostalgia, evident in Bartles’ recollection of the chance meeting he had with the musician on a Manchester bus in 1984.

“That first time I met Steven he told me he was in a band,” Bartles writes, referring to the iconic singer by his first name. “But The Smiths’ self-titled debut was still months away from release. That day we were both two guys taking public transport to work– nothing more, nothing less.”

He continues, “I could tell Steven had a unique style, but he hadn’t yet figured out the hair piece. He was going for a shaggy look– it just wasn’t clicking.”

The most pivotal point in the narrative is recounted on page 22, when Bartles describes the first time he cut Morrissey’s hair.

“He was nervous,” Bartles writes in a conversational tone he takes throughout the book. “He kept saying it needed to be original, but he didn’t want it look like he was trying too hard.”

The anxiousness was mutual. Bartles had heard The Smiths may be on the brink of stardom.

“I kept thinking,” Bartles writes, “that I could be a part of something big. This could be my chance to influence the consciousness of millions of young people– and it was.”

On the actual hair cut, he writes, “I knew I had to go close on the sides, because Steven had– still has– an outstanding jaw line. It had to be accentuated. But when I got to the top, I was stuck. Then it hit me: just leave it. I got some mousse and started shaping it upward. That was it.”

Bartles recalls Morrissey being disappointed with the haircut initially.

“He kept saying, ‘I look like that fool from Eraserhead!” Bartles writes. “Steven hated David Lynch. I kept telling him, ‘Trust me. I have a feeling about this.’ Time proved my instincts correct.”

(This is one of several undeniably self-congratulatory passages.)

Within a year, The Smiths’ first album reached number two on the UK Album Chart, and Bartles was riding high on the band’s success. He left his job at the salon, and Morrissey became his only client, requiring three to four stylings a week.

But the picture didn’t stay rosy. What emerges in the second-half of the book is a stunning portrait of an artist as temperamental as he is genius.

“Steven was highly possessive of his look,” Bartles writes. “He became obsessed with anyone whose hair style remotely resemble his.”

Bartles recalls a time when Morrissey attached a photo of NFL linebacker Brian Bosworth to a dartboard.

“He was winging darts at this picture,” Bartles writes. “He kept shouting, ‘You meathead, you don’t know what this haircut is about!’ It was insane, because the man’s hair hardly looked like his. It was such a stretch.”

The worst, Bartles writes, was the recording of the 1987 music video for “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before.”

The concept was for everyone to remain on their bicycles the entire shoot. However, Morrissey kept falling off his bike, unable to balance the handlebars and touch his hair at the same time. The producers compromised by having the singer walk around instead.

“It was embarrassing to watch,” Bartles recalls. “Everyone’s on their bikes, and Steven is strolling around on foot, running his hands through his hair. I kept thinking, ‘What the hell is he doing?'”

The most riveting passage recounts the final meeting between the musician and his hair stylist. Bartles, feeling perpetually underappreciated at this point, interrupted an otherwise routine styling when he suddenly took a buzzer to the top of the musician’s head.

Morrissey, Bartles says, responded by throwing a container of Barbicide at the stylist and storming out of the room. The two have not been in contact since.

The timing of this spat, 1998, coincides with the start of a recording hiatus the musician remained in until 2003, a fact that will certainly provide observers with a source of speculation.

The memoir’s strengths– its candor and its unflinching portrayal of the English musician– are also its weaknesses. Morrissey comes off as a caricature rather than the complicated and sensitive soul who brought us songs like “This Charming Man” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.”

Bartles is obviously perceptive, yet he appears incapable of self-reflection. The result is a book devoid of accountability.

His credibility is also undermined by the occasional cheap shot.

“Steven’s hair is obviously not what it used to be,” he writes in the final chapter. “It looks sloppy– way too much gel.”

In spite of these flaws, Bartles has broadened our understanding of a singular musician. If the author set out to demystify one of popular music’s most enigmatic figures, he has done just that– possibly more.


Defenestration-Alex NunesAlex Nunes is Associate Professor of music history at Davidson College. His book, “Cut it Up: Big Hair, Big Money and the 1980s Corporate Music Machine” (Macmillan) is available in paperback.


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