This charming man
Morrissey's music continues to captivate listeners from all walks of life
Their duration was fleeting -- a mere five years from start to rancorous finish -- and their output, four studio albums, meager. And yet 17 years after the Smiths, the defining British indie-rock band of the '80s, loosed their last acerbic, melancholy gem, the band's influence not only endures but grows wider and deeper.
The Smiths are the thread that connects soul-baring post-hardcore band Thursday, the Scottish folk-pop collective Belle & Sebastian, and the young art-punk quartet Read Yellow -- all of whom count themselves among the motley global crew of Smiths devotees. Rising modern rockers Interpol and Hot Hot Heat are courting fame with music that's heavily influenced by the Smiths, whose songs have made bizarre bedfellows of Ryan Adams, the Deftones, Bobby Bare Jr., Death Cab for Cutie, and Placebo -- Smiths cover artists all. And Morrissey, the Smiths' crooning, keening frontman, has become the unlikely icon to a massive Latino following. He performs a pair of shows at the Orpheum tomorrow and Tuesday.
Parsing the Smiths' mushrooming popularity among this vast swath of followers is surprisingly straightforward. It involves excellent chords and fearless poetry. Jangly guitar parts and sexual ambiguity. Sad teenagers and gladiolas. In short, it's about impeccable rock and disenfranchised youth, the emotion-stoked pairing of which goes to the heart of the Smiths' brief, luminous life and still grander legacy.
"If you feel different, there's huge empathy available with Morrissey's lyrics and the Smiths' music," says Marc Spitz, author of "How Soon Is Never?," a novelized account of his life-altering discovery of the Smiths, and senior writer at Spin magazine. "It's like they're speaking to you, but not in a creepy Charles Manson way. It's companionship, and that's the best thing a record can offer. That's why, I think, it crosses all sorts of boundaries -- racial, sexual, cultural, and generational."
Morrissey has made eight solo albums, including this year's "You Are the Quarry." But none has matched the heights he scaled with cofounder Johnny Marr in the Smiths, where he embodied a literate romanticism and incorrigible contrarianism that defied category. Morrissey was a highly sexual pop star of dubious orientation who practiced celibacy, wore flowers in his pockets, and sang in a forlorn, self-absorbed warble. He was a merciless satirist who conveyed the heaviness in his heart with skewed candor.
The song titles alone evoke Morrissey's unique way with words: "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side," "William, It Was Really Nothing," "Shoplifters of the World Unite," "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me." Set to guitarist Marr's lush, hook-filled screes and fueled by the crack rhythm section of bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, Morrissey's narratives became -- are still becoming -- mantras for a significant slice of the indie nation.
"You can mythologize him and treat him as a hero, but Morrissey is the anti-rock star," says Luke O'Neil, the 26-year-old frontman of the Boston band the Good North, who organized and played a sold-out Smiths tribute show several months ago with another local band, the Information, at the Middle East. "He's not debaucherous and he's not an idiot, and that's what attracted a lot of kids to him when I was in college. I think the reason he's more popular than ever has to do with the nature of the modern `emo' teenager, which is one of constant navel gazing, reflection, solipsism. Morrissey perfected that, but he was such a wit, no doubt from obsessing over Oscar Wilde, that he learned how to make all of that come across as charming as opposed to boorish. Lots of young bands owe everything to Morrissey."
While the Smiths were staples on the UK charts, they never became a mainstream radio band stateside. The group peaked on the Billboard charts in 1985 with "How Soon Is Now?," which reached No. 36. People were turned on mainly through word of mouth, from record store clerks to curious young music fans to like-minded friends, with strong support from alternative and college radio. Today the Smiths' musical legacy is passed down in similar fashion, from older sisters and brothers to younger siblings, from bass player to drummer, from alt-rock radio host to new listener. WFNX (101.7 FM) DJ and assistant music director Julie Kramer still spins the Smiths on 'FNX's "Leftover Lunch" program. (Kramer was, she believes, the first DJ in the US to play the Smiths when she returned to her job at UMass-Dartmouth's radio station from a year abroad with a vinyl 45 of the band's second single, "This Charming Man.") But unlike other nostalgia groups, the Smiths are also included in the station's regular-rotation playlist.
"The Smiths are definitely an image artist for us," says WFNX music director Paul Driscoll. "They have such a big influence on the music being played today, on bands like Hot Hot Heat and the Libertines and Interpol. People still want to hear them."
Evan Kenney, the 23-year-old singer and lyricist for Read Yellow, first encountered the Smiths as a young teen, when he heard the song "Bigmouth Strikes Again" wafting out of his sister's bedroom at home. His band now covers the tune in their live shows. But it took a while for Kenney, a budding headbanger, to come around.
"I was really into loud, fast punk," says Kenney, whose band recently played the Reading Festival in England alongside Morrissey. "I thought the Smiths were complete [garbage]. I was into Black Flag and the Misfits. I didn't understand the crooning. But eventually I started to realize how unique the message was, how blunt and honest Morrissey is. That's what inspires me as a writer. I don't think he really cares if he impresses anyone, and that's the most punk you can get."
Nobody is quite sure how Morrissey, an effete Brit from dreary Manchester, became a hero in the Mexican-American community. Latinos make up an increasing proportion of the 44-year-old singer's fan base, a phenomenon Morrissey acknowledged in a track from the new CD called "The First of the Gang to Die" and with a recent tour opening for the popular Mexican rock band Jaguares. Mexican-Americans make up an overwhelming majority of the audience that packs clubs to see Sweet and Tender Hooligans, a Smiths/Morrissey tribute band that's based in LA and led by Moz lookalike Jose Maldonado, who has a few theories on the subject.
"For Latinos, there's always this macho kind of attitude that we have to live by, and yet we're some of the most sensitive people you'll ever meet," says Maldonado, who works days as an LA county lifeguard. "Lyrics about being so happy that you could die in someone's arms, songs about isolation and loneliness and unrequited love, these are themes that you'll find in a lot of Spanish-language music. His upbringing, as the child of Irish parents in northern England with a strong Catholic background, is not unlike the experience we've had in Southern California as the children of working-class parents, in the minority, with these feelings of not belonging. He was singing our life story."
It's that feeling of otherness that Morrissey and Smiths fans across the board keep returning to. Immigrant families, insecure adolescents, and angry punks could all relate to this musician who was unafraid to be different, be himself, be funny and smart and reveal the heaviness in his heart. Joe Pernice, leader of the indie-pop band Pernice Brothers, discovered the Smiths when he was 15, growing up in Holbrook. Pernice's chiming guitars and dark, introspective lyrics are heavily influenced by the Smiths, and he chronicled his infatuation with the band in his 2003 book "Meat Is Murder," named after the Smiths' second album.
"It was perfect timing," says Pernice. "The words were romantic and gloomy in the way a teenager is wont to be, and the music was innovative and classic at the same time. Anybody worth their salt as a songwriter would recognize the hugeness of it. There was this loneliness, this universal longing in the songs, that anyone could apply."
And, according to Spin magazine's Spitz, will continue to apply.
"The Smiths are the equivalent of `Catcher in the Rye' or `Rebel Without a Cause,' " he says. "They're timeless, and will be around as long as there are sad boys and girls and a way to play the music."
Joan Anderman can be reached at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.