Their Charming Man
Illustration by Kathryn HyattYUMA
The crowd chants, "Me-xi-co! Me-xi-co!" in an attempt to get the singer to acknowledge that the majority of the audience is Latino. He does. "I'm going to sing a couple of more songs," he tells them, "then all of you can go back to Mexicali."
And the Yuma Convention Center explodes.
Only one white man in the world—and he's not the pope—can tell a group of Mexicans in the United States to return to Mexico and not only avert death, but be loved for saying so.
His name: Steven Patrick Morrissey, former lead singer of the Smiths, current saint among countless young Latinos.
The same convention-center audience demographic greets him wherever he performs: Los Angeles, Colorado Springs or this desolate desert town. So he always makes sure to yell out "Mexico" or perform some grand ethnic genuflection to his adoring fans, letting them know that he knows. They always respond in ecstasy; grateful.
By the time you read this, there will have been numerous television reports, radio interviews and newspaper stories revealing that many Morrissey fans are Latinos. They will tell you that history—musical, cultural, transnational—will take place this Friday at the Arrowhead Pond when Morrissey shares the stage with Mexican rock en español titans Jaguares in the biggest crossover attempt since Drake burned the Spanish Armada.
And they will tell you that you should be surprised. You shouldn't. There's something logical in this Latino Morrissey-worship. Morrissey knows it, his fans know it, and even academics know it. What exactly "it" is isn't exactly clear except that it's there, as plain as the Morrissey tattoo on the left shoulder of the muchacha crying on the floor of the Yuma Convention Center.
NEW WAVE'S SERMON ON THE MOUNT
I received the call at about 2 in the morning: a weak, almost slurring cry for help. "Hey, Gustavo. It's Ben. Man, I need my Morrissey CDs back. [Long pause] I really miss them. [Longer pause, voice now quivering the slightest bit] I need them."
Ben follows up the next day with an e-mail: "Please get me those CDs as soon as you can. I am being deprived."
Ben is Benjamín Escobedo, a 25-year-old Santa Ana Democratic Party stalwart. Across the back window of his car is the salute to Morrissey and his domination of the city in which the singer now makes his home, "Moz Angeles." He let me borrow his Morrissey/Smiths collection (every CD, even the bootlegs, imports and special editions) for only two days before sending those messages.
Ben's devotion to Morrissey is a lesser example of what Latino Morrissey fans feel for their god. They wear pins, patches or tattoos with their charming man's face. They dress like him (rockabilly chic to British mod), carry around his favorite flowers (gladiolas), and cite his songs as answers to every problem they might have. One particular favorite is ending e-mail messages with the line "It takes strength to be gentle and kind" from "I Know It's Over," New Wave's Sermon on the Mount.
Some fans, like Cal State Fullerton graduate student Patricia Godínez-Benjumea, go as far as visiting his house in the Hollywood Hills and dropping off stories they write about him. "His music is the soundtrack of my life," Godínez-Benjumea says. "He reaches my innermost thoughts and fears and aspirations and longing. For a long time, I felt isolated and alone. Only Morrissey comforted me."
Godínez-Benjumea wrote an article discussing how Morrissey saved her life for a school publication. "My friend Maggie told me where he lived and said I should go give it to him," she said. "Before, I never had the guts to do it. Even when we went to his house, Maggie put my story in his mailbox. I didn't even tell my husband that I did that."
Ben has yet to visit Morrissey's home, but he knows the address. His love affair with the Manchester native began when his brother and friends introduced him to Viva Hate. "When I first heard the album, it blew my mind," Ben says. "Every time I hear him now, he impresses me more and more."
Morrissey plays such a big role in Ben's life that he has a death pact with his friend: whoever dies first will make sure that "Well I Wonder" ("Please keep me in mind/Please keep me in mind") is played at the funeral.
"Moz speaks to me," Ben says. "For almost any problem in life, I can think of a Morrissey song. For example, 'Hand in Glove' has that line"—and, here, Ben sings—"'And if the people stare/Then the people stare/Oh, I really don't know, and I really don't care.' That taught me to not care about what others may think of who I love.
"From the very beginning, I knew that Latinos liked Morrissey," Ben remarks. "In fact, I cannot name one white person who likes Morrissey."
'A HEAVENLY WAY TO DIE'
What is it about Morrissey that attracts Latinos? It may be that it echoes the music of Mexico, the ranchera. His trembling falsetto brings to mind the rich, sad voice of Pedro Infante, while his effeminate stage presence makes him a U.K. version of Juan Gabriel. As in ranchera, Morrissey's lyrics rely on ambiguity, powerful imagery and metaphors. Thematically, the idealization of a simpler life and a rejection of all things bourgeois come from a populist impulse common to ranchera.
The most striking similarity, though, is Morrissey's signature beckoning and embrace of the uncertainty of life and love, something that at first glance might seem the opposite of macho Mexican music. But check it out: for all the machismo and virulent existentialism that Mexican music espouses, there is another side—a morbid fascination with getting your heart and dreams broken by others, usually in death. In fact, Morrissey's most famous confession of unrequited love, "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out," ("And if a double-decker bus/Crashes into us/To die by your side/Would be a heavenly way to die") emulates almost sentiment for sentiment Cuco Sanchez's torch song "Cama de Piedra" ("The day that they kill me/May it be with five bullets/And be close to you").
"I see Moz as something like Los Tigres del Norte," Ben says, referring to the conjunto norteño legends who've graphed and broadcast Mexican sentiment for the past quarter of a century. "They can take you through the day—make you laugh, smile and cry. And that's what Morrissey does."
Comparing Morrissey with Mexican music is an interesting game, but it's beside the point. Most of Morrissey's Latino fans, while growing up with ranchera, don't automatically relate Morrissey to anything Mexican. More immediate to them is the music of their Mexican-Americanized youth: 1980s New Wave, oldies-but-goodies, and the rockabilly rhythms that have been a part of Mexican culture in one form or another since the heyday of the zoot suit. It's natural, then, for Latinos to find Morrissey appealing: he incorporates all of these styles into his music, in the process singing their life.
"A lot of Latinos in Southern California grew up to oldies and rancheras," Ben says. "But everyone also listened to KROQ, especially the flashback lunches. A lot of those artists on KROQ were English, and the one that really stuck to people was Morrissey. His music had the style of a lot of the music we were already accustomed to."
'I WISH I WAS BORN MEXICAN'
Morrissey once told a Las Vegas audience composed of (what else?) mostly Latinos that "'Mexico' is the only Spanish word I know. But it's the best word."
That concert was part of 1999's "¡Oye Esteban!" tour. An advertisement for his concerts that year excitedly screamed, "¡El cantante! ¡El concierto! (The singer! The concert!)." On that tour, Morrissey performed wearing T-shirts and belt buckles emblazoned with "Mexico" and at times even the Virgen de Guadalupe, the spiritual embodiment of Catholic Mexico.
Morrissey's most famous acknowledgement of his Latino fans, though, came here in Orange County during that same tour. "I wish I was born Mexican," Morrissey told an overwhelmingly Latino audience at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center. "But it's too late for that now." This is the Dylan-at-Newport moment of the Latino Morrissey crowd, the defining moment of the scene, something that everyone attended even if they were somewhere else.
The argument can even be made that Morrissey's acknowledgement of his Latino lovers goes back as early as 1992's Your Arsenal; on "Glamorous Glue," he wondered, "We look to Los Angeles/For the language we use/London is dead/London is dead/Now I'm too much in love." Elizabethan English and its people have perished, he tells us; long live the Spanglish race of Nuestra Lady de los Ángeles.
Regardless of when Morrissey discovered his Latino worshipers, it's indisputable that he now tailors his career for them. He lives in Los Angeles, the second-largest city in Latin America, and attends rock en españolshows in Huntington Park to see Hispanic troubadour Mikel Erenxtun sing excellent Spanish versions of "Everyday Is Like Sunday" and "There Is a Light that Never Goes Out." His current tour eschews the East Coast and Midwest in favor of Latino or nearly Latino enclaves in Arizona, California and Las Vegas. Morrissey's participation in Jaguares' Revolución Tour is another show of solidarity with the people who've made him a king.
"It's no secret that he moved to Southern California where there's a huge Latino base," says Javier Castellanos, who's trying to get Morrissey to come to his Anaheim club, JC Fandango, and displays a smiling picture of the eternally dour Morrissey to prove it. "I told him, 'You know there're a lot of Latinos who love you.' And he just nodded his head."
Anyone attending Friday's show will most likely hear "Mexico," a new song he debuted on this tour. A slow ballad similar to the baroque horror of "Meat Is Murder," "Mexico" reads like a Chicano manifesto:
I went for a walk to inhale the tranquil cool lover's air.
I could taste a trace
Of American chemical waste.
And the small voice said, "What can I do?"
I lay on the grass
And I cried my heart out for want of my love.
Other stanzas are just as radical, with the most memorable passage observing that Mexicans in the United States face a situation in which "It seems if you're rich and you're white/You'll be all right./I just don't see why this should be so."
After years of searching for contentment, Morrissey found it in the Mexican republic of Moz Angeles.
"Morrissey found us, and we bumped into him, and we fell in love with him," Ben says. "And he loved us back."
TURNING MANLINESS ON ITS CABESA
Despite such a devoted fan base, media treatment of the Latino Morrissey phenomenon is universally condescending, if not outright racist. Typical is the following passage from Big Brother magazine on one reporter's attempt to try to crack the Latino Morrissey obsession at a Morrissey/Smiths convention:
As much as I enjoyed hanging out with Edwin and his friends, I have to admit I had an ulterior motive. I wanted to exhibit their acceptance of me, as a gringo who's down with the southerners, to gain admittance into some of the other, more thuggier Mexican cliques that were scattered throughout the convention. I was fascinated with the monsters that filled their ranks, and I wanted to photograph them without arousing anyone's suspicion that I was just another white man exploiting the beaners for his own gain . . . which, in a way, I was kind of doing.
Other articles on the Morrissey Latino phenomenon have called Latino Morrissey fans "an audience of East LA homeboys" (Spin) or "tattooed Hispanic LA gangs" (Select). They describe those fans as possessing "perfect Mayan features" and wearing "the standard barrio uniform of shaved head, baggy jeans and short-sleeved plaid shirt" (LA Weekly). They describe Morrissey's divine powers to save Latinos from gangs (the British TV show Passengers). Or they'll sum it up easily by saying that Morrissey's Latino fans are "warm brown" (Los Angeles Times Magazine).
"It's hard to tell if the [press is] more upset with Morrissey for not knowing when he was finished," writes academic Colin Snowsell, "or with the audience for not respecting—or being unfashionably oblivious, too—the tacit understanding that Morrissey was taboo."
Snowsell, a doctoral candidate at Montreal, Quebec's McGill University, has made a study not merely of the connection between Morrissey and his fans, but also of the media's perspective of both. He has presented his observations in major academic symposiums and in his master's thesis, soon to be a dissertation, "'My Only Mistake Is I'm Hoping': Monty, Morrissey, and the Importance of Being Mediatized."
Ben:"He loved us back."
Photo by James Bunoan
A lifelong Morrissey fan, the Canadian discovered the Latino Morrissey phenomenon through occasional articles in the press and his interest in Latin America popular culture. "I was interested first in the fan base itself, but after reading a lot of articles on the subject, I became fascinated with how it was reported," Snowsell says. "The media seemed to delight in pointing out this phenomenon so they could mock him and Latinos. They're reporting it as a circus side story: the faded star appealing to non-mainstream audiences. But I say it makes perfectly good sense. I think Latinos have better taste than everyone else."
Snowsell theorizes that Morrissey's appeal to Latinos lies in the fact that he represents for them the same hope that he offers to all: an opportunity to transcend your lot in life. "Morrissey was, in short, providing to lower- and middle-class Mexican-Americans the same dual utopian message that he had once provided a decade earlier to predominately Anglo fans in the United Kingdom," he writes. And what did he offer Anglos? "Escape from the injustices of a social order that confines them to the margin, but escape also from the limited identity options entrenched in peripheral, working- and middle-class culture."
"There's something to the fact that the audiences that have liked him weren't rich," he says. "His original British fans were poor and lower class. With Latinos, they're certainly considered peripheral in their country. When they see someone who had a comparable experience, those themes of alienation and disenfranchisement come through. And Latinos pick up on those things and are drawn to him."
More intriguing for Snowsell, though, is Morrissey's subversion of gender and sexual roles and what that means for Latinos in a culture where everything begins and ends with machismo.
"Morrissey's macho, but in a different way," Snowsell says. "When you think of the archetypal North American male sex symbol, you think of rockabilly icons like Elvis Presley and James Dean. But he's taken this most masculine of identities and remade it as a fey, wimpy, cardigan-wearing, gladiola-loving singer. When you present that to Latinos, whose culture offers very rigid gender models, it appeals to them because he uses this to show through actions that there are other identity options available. There's no right or wrong way, and people can choose for themselves. They can be tough and sensitive at the same time."
DESCENT INTO MORRISSEY
My cousins and many of my Latino friends are Morrissey freaks, but they never introduced me to him. It's as if people must discover Morrissey on their own terms.
I saw the light recently. With Ben as my Virgil, I descended into Morrissey as we drove through the Imperial Valley to his Yuma show. The plan was to listen to every Smiths album during the four-hour journey out and to Morrissey's solo work on the way back.
Ben was of no help; all he did throughout the journey was sing every lyric, mimic Johnny Marr's chiming guitars, and blurt from track to track "This song, only real Morrissey fans understand" or "This song is for Morrissey poseurs."
It didn't matter. I'm immediately enthralled by everything that is Morrissey—the gentle yet intensely morose instrumentation; the velvety voice that spoke to me, only me and no one else; his (and my) sad tales of getting picked on in school, despising your environment; the nagging aspiration to be something much more—and in another place.
At the concert, it's more of the same; the man wins me over, his words come to life and his acknowledgement of my culture is so beautiful. How could I not love Morrissey?
Morrissey sings to the disaffected, and God knows alienation is part of the assimilation tradition—the equal and opposite reaction of the immigrants drive to blend in. We ache; Morrissey soothes.
Morrissey fans pack LA's Knitting Factory and mouth every word that José Maldonado sings. He's the leader of the Sweet and Tender Hooligans, a Morrissey/Smiths cover band with its own cult following in Southern California. Perhaps it's because Maldonado sounds just like Moz, looks like him down to the pompadour and whipping of the mic wire. Or perhaps it's because Maldonado is Mexican.
There are non-Latinos in the audience. But the overwhelming majority cheers wildly when Maldonado introduces his new bass player by revealing, "Tonight, the band is 20 percent browner!"
I tell Ben this story, and he smiles. He can. I had returned his CDs, and now I was a believer, too. We stage an impromptu sing-along to "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side."
"I knew you were going to like Moz," he beams. "All Latinos end up liking him."
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