The last two music books I reviewed favourably on Just Backdated had a combined total of over 1,400 pages but it would be wrong to assume that bulk equals quality. This relatively slim memoir, a paperback cheekily (mis)titled after a book and subsequent film about a girl’s experiences in a mental institution, contains only 248 pages but still manages to pack a serious punch, simultaneously evoking the Manchester music scene of the early eighties from which The Smiths and others emerged, paint a fascinating portrait of the young but knowing Morrissey, and offer a compelling account of the characteristically rootless life of an Asperger sufferer who just happened to be a founding member of Morrissey’s group. It is also remarkably literate, for which Dale Hibbert can thank his ghost writer, the Lancashire-based journalist, author and publisher Mark Hodkinson.
Those who suffer from Asperger syndrome have difficulty reading signals from those with whom they come into contact and, as a result, sometimes react in ways that can confuse and repel them. Often regarded as ‘odd’ by others, they find it difficult to make small talk and do many things that are considered ‘normal’. This can lead to lapses of judgement and rash risk-taking, sometimes catastrophic, sometimes advantageous. So while Hibbert’s brief association with The Smiths provides a hook on which to hang his story – and promote the book – it is by no means the whole of the story. As the back cover blurb informs, Hibbert has been married four times, has eight children, been both penniless and a millionaire, and lived in a car and a mansion. He’s also lived in Australia and the Czech Republic, ran nightclubs and eateries, is an expert on coffee, been a highly paid IT consultant and ‘died’ twice, meaning that when he recovered from two potentially fatal episodes his doctors were as amazed as I was at the life he has led.
Hibbert’s mother died eight days after he was born, a precursor to a lonely and confused childhood exacerbated by a difficult relationship with his father but eased by closeness to his paternal grandmother. Unable to progress academically, he drifted into music, buying a bass guitar at the age of 14 and teaching himself to play alongside friends. He encountered Johnny Marr through his work as a recording engineer and association with a group called Freak Party. Invited to play bass in Marr’s next group, after a few rehearsals he wound up on stage as a Smith during their debut appearance, supporting Blue Rondo A La Turk at Manchester’s Ritz Club in 1982. He never played with them again and is at pains to correct not only misunderstandings that may have circulated amongst fans with regard to his role in the group but also that this was by no means a life-altering setback. The sincerity of the writing, especially about his own life before and after his brief tenure as a Smith, stamps clear validity on his version of events as presented here.
Of more interest than this simple twist of fate, however, are Dale’s observations of Morrissey and Marr. This, from his first meeting with them: “Within an hour or so I realised that they each had a very different relationship with silence. Johnny appeared afraid of it, even slight pauses, and was impelled to fill any gaps in the conversation. Steven was comfortable with it, more so than anyone I had known until that point in my life. It was almost as if he had been instructed in how to use it, the empowerment it might offer. If this wasn’t so, and he had an innate understanding of its possible use and effect, he had been shrewd enough to embrace it because I sensed he used it cleverly to alter the space and mood in the room.”
And again, later: “It was as if he [Morrissey] could see into the future and was able to shape it to fit himself. He knew absolutely what he wanted and the lifestyle to go with it. He had unerring confidence in himself. There was no doubt in his mind that he would become the person he became.”
Paragraphs like this indicate that although Hibbert’s Asperger handicapped him in many ways, it enabled him to read the mind of this most perverse of rock stars, and reach conclusions other may have failed to grasp. It’s said those who suffer in certain ways develop extraordinary talents in others, that the blind can hear better than most, that dyslexia is a gift not a burden. Aside from the fascinating insights into the origins of the best UK band of the eighties, Boy, Interrupted describes movingly how Hibbert overcame hardship and, somehow, invented a topsy-turvy life for himself that many would envy. Today Dale Hibbert runs a vegan café in Todmorden and if I’m ever in the neighbourhood I’ll call in for a veg samosa. I won’t expect small talk, though.