Two spirits hovered over Morrissey’s hugely entertaining Hollywood Bowl concert Friday night — James Dean, whose soulful portrait stared down in triplicate, Warhol style, from the back of the stage, and the New York Dolls’ David Johansen, who appeared in an early-’70s interview (possibly by the headliner, the onetime Dolls’ fan club president) on the video screens just before the former Smiths lead singer took the stage.
The screen icon provides Morrissey with a romantic’s sense of tragic melodrama. Death came in many flavors over the show’s two-hour running time: suicide (the jaunty “All You Need Is Me,” with the bratty refrain “you’re going to miss me when I’m gone”); gang warfare (“The First of the Gang to Die”); hate crime (“Boy With a Thorn in His Side); that rock ‘n’ roll evergreen, a car crash (“There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”); even martyrdom (“You Have Killed Me,” but not to worry, the saint-like singer “forgives you”).
The songs have the highly stylized melodrama of a telenovela (which could account for the large proportion of Latinos in his audience). The long-lined melodies yearn, and every emotion is over the top. In “Every Day Is Like Sunday,” the boredom of living in a gray seaside town, so “insignificant they forgot to bomb,” is so exquisite, only an atomic bomb will finish the job. Unrequited love and rejection abound; “Can I please get someone I want tonight,” he pleads.
What keeps the evening from becoming a pity party is Johansen’s liberating force. His example let the young Morrissey know that talent is not necessarily a prerequisite when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll; even someone with severe limitations (his dying quail of a voice rarely hits a note square on) can be a star if they perform with conviction. The Dolls influence can be felt in the music, as guitarist Boz Boorer’s teetering whiplash leads tug at the song’s sleeves, pulling the music forward like a drunk through a crowd.
Johansen’s influence is clearly felt in Morrissey’s humor and humanity. Almost reflectively self-deprecating (he notes that appearing at the Bowl puts him in the company of Bob Hope, Phyllis Diller and the late Charles Nelson Reilly), he loves the losers and outcasts that populate his songs. And the aud’s identification with him is even stronger in Los Angeles, where Morrissey lived until recently. He identifies the new “Ganglord” as a song about Sweetzer Avenue, and he jokes easily about different neighborhoods. The crowd eats this up, and as some two dozen clamber up onstage to embrace him, he looks kindly upon them even as slips from their grasp with the grace of a toreador.
He returns their affection in kind. His last two albums, 2004’s “You Are the Quarry” and last year’s “Ringleader of the Tormentors” (both Sanctuary), were a return to form both musically and commercially, and he sounded genuinely humble as he thanked the crowd for selling out his first Bowl appearance in 15 years.
The well-chosen set covered his entire career. What came across, in addition to the high quality of material, is his thematic and musical consistency. If nothing else, Morrissey had remained true to himself.
Morrissey plays Gotham’s Madison Square Garden on June 30.