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Now that Morrissey has fallen from grace—well, partway—you might expect him to emulate one of his models, Oscar Wilde, and hole up in a small hotel in Paris. Despite his flair for the dramatic, however, the exiled ex-Smith’s fate isn’t exactly Wildean: He was driven from Britain only by the New Musical Express’ disapproval of a few songs he wrote almost 10 years ago—and by his pique at the high-court judge who, in 1997, awarded 1 million pounds in back royalties to Smiths drummer Mike Joyce. And Morrissey fled not to Paris but to L.A., where his record label was shut down but the sun insists on shining and where, he informed Rolling Stone recently, he’s quite happy. Of course, if the singer ever wants to dream that somebody loves him, he need only undertake a tour like the one that brought him to the 9:30 Club Sunday and Monday for two shows before devoted, intermittently ecstatic capacity crowds.
Morrissey—Moz to the NME—is both the master and the prisoner of his image. Yet you need only hear the recorded music he chose to precede and follow his performance to realize that he’s not merely the wounded narcissist that both his detractors and his devotees imagine: Nico alternated with the Cockney Rejects, and the show’s chaser was “My Way,” the Frank Sinatra standard that suited Sid Vicious just fine. The selection showed the breadth of Morrissey’s enthusiasms: from arctic art-rock to stumblebum working-class punk to retro (but timelessly defiant) cocktail-lounge balladry. Too bad his own set didn’t show as much breadth.
That is, the music didn’t. A sniffles-stricken but reasonably energetic Moz emphasized midtempo power ballads from his solo career, and when he opened the Smiths’ songbook, he usually—though not always—chose the same sort of tune. The opening, “Tomorrow,” promised a livelier sort of show, but the set never returned to Your Arsenal, the 1992 release that yielded that song and remains the singer’s most energetic album. The Smiths flashbacks included not only the jaunty “Is It Really So Strange?” and “Half a Person,” but also the lumbering “Meat Is Murder,” “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” and “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” the tour’s nightly encore. The latter is clever and funny and surgingly rapturous, but also the precursor of such post-Johnny Marr extravaganzas as “November Spawned a Monster,” another tour staple. At their most lumpen, such songs suggest Bon Jovi with an English education.
Englishness is one of Morrissey’s obsessions, but the issue isn’t as straightforward as the NME’s inquisitors suggest. The trouble started with “Bengali in Platforms,” a song from Moz’s first solo album, Viva Hate: “Life is hard enough when you belong here,” he sang, expressing what seems at best a condescending view of Britain’s Indian residents. The controversy returned with Your Arsenal’s “The National Front Disco,” which contains the phrase—perhaps sung ironically—”English for the English.” When Moz then toured with a Union Jack backdrop, U.K. multiculturalists wrote him off.
Yet Morrissey is only first-generation English himself. His parents were born in Ireland, and indeed the Smiths (like Oasis) could be reasonably deemed an Anglo-Irish band. Moz is by no means unaware of this fact: The opening song on the Smiths’ final studio album, “Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours,” adapts its title from an old Irish-nationalist slogan. Besides, the England that interests Morrissey is a country of outsiders: He’s taken his texts from the kitchen-sink dramas of the early ’60s—especially Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, which is quoted repeatedly in the Smiths’ early songs—and other tales of the oppressed or at least alienated working class. For Morrissey, belonging somewhere is not a simple matter.
And then there’s that other thing. Morrissey has never stated any sexual orientation other than “celibate,” but he’s written a half-dozen songs that could serve as gay-rights anthems, including “I Am Hated for Loving,” which he performed at both 9:30 Club shows. His fascination with thugs, boxers, National Front followers, and other icons of savage masculinity is more in the spirit of Jean Genet than of Enoch Powell. Perhaps it’s appropriate that as he ages Morrissey is developing a resemblance to Quentin Tarantino, another nerd who’s fascinated by brutes.
“Welcome to Latino night,” Moz greeted the crowd on Monday, and the singer’s current excursion—which includes his first major expedition to Latin America—is billed as the “Oye! Esteban!” tour. (That’s “Mexican for ‘Yo! Steven!’” as one linguist helpfully explained on a Moz-fan Web site.) Latino culture is a new fascination, but one that needn’t supplant such longtime inspirations as Wilde, the New York Dolls, and the Moors Murders. After all, Morrissey uses a rockabilly band—discreetly supplemented by vocal reverb and what sounded like guitar synthesizer—to play his midtempo epics. “I Can Have Both,” announced one of Morrissey’s new compositions, which he introduced as “a dangerous song.”
It didn’t sound especially dangerous. By now, guitarist-melodists Boz Boorer and Alain Whyte have worked with Moz twice as long as Johnny Marr, and though they’ve helped write some two dozen fine songs, they clearly lack Marr’s restless imagination. Morrissey must know that his solo output is spotty: On Monday, he didn’t perform a single track from Kill Uncle or Maladjusted—although he’s sung the latter’s “Alma Matters” on other nights—and he turned to the Viva Hate sessions only for a B-side, “Hairdresser on Fire.”
The latter song embodies Moz’s considerable virtues: deft observation and genuine yearning laced with ironic wit, alongside a distinctive approach to song structure and vocal delivery. Celebrated (and reviled) as he is for his lyrics, it’s the singer’s musical qualities that are the key to the miracle of the Smiths: Morrissey and Marr found a symbiotic cadence that unified voice and guitar despite the band’s wide stylistic and thematic range. He’s only occasionally found that synergy since.
Chances are he won’t locate it often on his next album, for which he will surely get a label, although not necessarily a major one. In the meantime, fans could underwrite the singer’s legal fees with the Moz tour souvenirs on sale at the 9:30 Club: T-shirts, pillowcases, magnets, and condoms. It’s good to be prepared, just in case love turns out to be more than a dream. Not that anyone would expect Morrissey’s to ever be anything but unrequited. Love is hard enough when you belong here. CP