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It's 1999, and there's a hundreds-deep line around Tower Records in Hollywood, everyone hoping to meet and get autographs from '80s new wave deity Morrissey. José Maldonado is maybe No. 400, and when it's his turn to talk to the man, he begins mumbling some sort of introduction. But the dour Mancunian doesn't allow Maldonado to finish even his first sentence.
"I know who you are," Morrissey snaps at Maldonado in a tone simultaneously accusatory and congratulatory. "You're with the Sweet and Tender Hooligans."
Indeed, Maldonado was. The Los Angeles County lifeguard founded the Smiths/Morrissey tribute band around 1996, and had attracted worldwide media attention almost upon their inception. Spin, the Los Angeles Times, various British music mags, even the BBC featured the quintet, using their majority-Mexican membership as an opportunity to explain why so many Chicanos continued to pray at the altar of an artist the Anglo press had long ago turned into a punch line.
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But Maldonado was more bumbling fan than media phenom when he met Morrissey at Tower, and all he offered as a response to his hero's observation was an incredulous smile.
"After he identified me, he jokingly said, 'It's as if I'm looking at a mirror,'" Maldonado recalled over lunch, savoring that moment more than the nachos he was gobbling. "He then asked me about our show the Wednesday before his appearance. 'You heard about it?' I asked. 'Of course I did,' Morrissey replied. 'I hear about all your shows.'"
Finally, Maldonado had the approval he had long sought from the person of whom he says, "When I first got into Morrissey, I thought it was my life's goal to get as many people as possible to listen to the man."
There's an understood detachment between cover bands and their followers—the performers know they are mimicking a certain artist, channeling the artist, at best, and know that the listener focuses only on the output. But the Sweet and Tender Hooligans transcend this ontological limitation as the preeminent Smiths/Morrissey cover group, and one of the best tribute acts around, period. Seeing them in concert is like inhabiting a working-class English pub, circa 1985. When they're not storming the stage, fans at Hooligans shows liberally pass out gladioluses in honor of the Smiths' fondness for the flower. Motivating them is the almost too-perfect re-creation of the Smiths sound—David Collett's lead guitar twinkles with the same pretty rancor as Johnny Marr's original licks, while Mikael de Leon's quartz-watch bass would make Andy Rourke jealous.
But the soul of the Hooligans is unquestionably Maldonado. On stage and in real life, Maldonado exudes Morrissey—the whipping of the mic chord, the self-deprecating humor, and the affects of a masculine diva—"Don't list my age. Vanity reasons," Maldonado requests before our interview begins. He grooms the same fabulous pompadour that rises from Morrissey's forehead like a promontory, hosts the same sideburns that come to rest around the earlobes, projects the same falsetto that drips with confident pain. When Maldonado writhes across the stage, Morrissey/Smiths fans cry nostalgic tears.
"It's an honor when they want to hug me," Maldonado gushes, referring to the hallowed tradition of Morrissey fans eluding numerous security guards to rush their god. "What it's saying is that I'm doing my impersonation of Morrissey and they're doing their impersonation of loving Morrissey. Fans are as much a part of the show as we are."
The Hooligans' stunning Smiths simulacrum allows them to take their Morrissey love around the world. They've traveled throughout the United States, plan to tour Australia in the fall and are returning soon to England, where they played in six different cities during 2001—including Morrissey's hometown of Manchester.
"Let me tell you, you had better have your A game on if you're a band from LA and you're going to play Smiths songs in Manchester," remembers Maldonado with a laugh. "Before the set, the crowd had an anticipating look that said, 'Let's see what you've got.' By the third song, we'd won them over. By the end of the set, everyone had jumped upon the stage at least once."
Acceptance by two of the most important arbitrators of what constitutes the authentic Smiths/Morrissey sound is important. But the Hooligans also must please hyper-possessive Morrissey fans that bawl if the group doesn't play their song. "That's the problem with sets—it's hard to narrow down what we're not going to do," sighs Maldonado. "We have to be sure to play the standards like 'Ask,' 'Big Mouth Strikes Again,' and 'There Is a Light That Never Goes Out' because you don't have a tribute band and not play the famous hits. A Doors tribute band isn't going to forget 'Light My Fire,' a Zep band won't forget 'Stairway to Heaven.' But we still have to perform the songs that maybe only one person in the club likes but upon hearing it, makes their day.
"When it comes to other tribute bands, what separates the good ones is when there's fanship involved, when there's a personal investment," Maldonado adds. "That's why the Atomic Punks are such a good Van Halen tribute band. That's why Wild Child is a great Doors band. And we're all Morrissey fans. So, it's hard for us to play just the famous stuff—we all have our obscure gems, too. Nevertheless, we might have done 'This Charming Man' 5,000 times, but by the first five notes, we're doing somersaults along with everyone else."
And so, the Hooligans happily trudge on, bodhisattvas to the Morrissey cult, unconcerned that their career consists mainly of imitating and placating others at the expense of their own musical growth. "I haven't abandoned the idea of performing original stuff—there are 20 songs in my guitar case right now," says Maldonado. "Maybe they'll see the light of day someday. But as long as people ask us to play the Smiths and Morrissey, we'll always be happy to oblige. And if they don't, we'll be in a garage by ourselves doing this anyway."
Sweet And Tender Hooligans perform with Los Abandoned at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600. Sat., 8 p.m. $13.50. All ages.