For fans, everyday is like Morrissey Day, to riff off the British singer’s famous post-Smiths song. But Los Angeles deigned to make it official on Friday by sending City Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez up to the Hollywood Bowl for a backstage, pre-concert ceremony presenting him with a plaque honoring Nov. 10 as Morrissey Day. No one read the fine print, or fine script, on the proclamation, but we can only guess that it urged all residents of the City of Angels to celebrate by spending the day bitterly swooning and going back to bed.
It hardly matters that Morrissey is a Mancunian candidate for the usually local honor. He’s one of L.A.’s favorite adopted sons, with southern California being his biggest market not only in America but maybe the world. On the remainder of his brief U.S. tour, he’s playing one-nighters in theaters in the 2500-to-5500-seat range. Locally, he sold out two nights at the 17,500-seat Hollywood Bowl and maybe should have considered adding a third. It doesn’t hurt that he has a well-known ethnic appeal in L.A. that might baffle other parts of the country. Anglos were in the minority at Friday night’s show, even though their numbers may have been boosted by the presence of Billy Idol as opening act, helping bring out the KROQ nostalgia crowd. If you’d been having trouble getting a reservation lately at a normally overpacked Latino restaurant that caters to young people in L.A., Friday or Saturday would’ve been an excellent time to try getting a table.
If you happen to be a vegetarian, then you were really in the demographic sweet spot for these shows. “Thanksgiving is murder!” he sang, repeatedly, and quite seriously, turning the Smiths oldie “Meat is Murder” into a not-so-cheerful holiday song while grisly footage of animals meeting their end in slaughterhouses played on the big screen behind him, climaxing with the printed message, “What’s your excuse now?” On a less disturbing note, the Bowl puts its money where Morrissey’s mouth is for the engagement, foregoing carnivore dishes for pre-publicized all-veggie menus at the venue’s array of food booths.
There was a decided chill in the air for Friday’s opening night, just enough to cause slight concern for fans who were well aware that their hero had canceled an outdoor gig five nights earlier in Paso Robles, refusing to go on stage in the cold without stage heaters. No such problems here: Morrissey spent most of the 22-song set performing in dress shoes and a pinstripe suit with no shirt underneath. After a costume change, toward the end of the encore, during the Smiths favorite “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” he even took off his shiny silver jacket and threw it into the front rows, going boldly bare-chested, as if to proclaim: Meat is magnificent!
The tone for the evening was set with a series of disparate music videos Morrissey put on between his and Idol’s sets, while the crowd sat waiting in the dark. Vintage girl group performances gave way to a clip of Lou Reed’s “Make Up” accompanied by footage of Joe Dallesandro, the sex symbol Andy Warhol gave the gay community in the ‘70s. Dionne Warwick singing “Don’t Make Me Over” segued directly into the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” He hadn’t exhausted all his iconography just during the intermission: Morrissey’s opening number was a cover of Elvis Presley’s “You’ll Be Gone,” and the photo of Elvis on the rear screen was soon replaced by another Morrissey crooner hero, Dean Martin. Before long, that gave way to an apparently Photoshopped image of Margaret Thatcher about to be clubbed from behind by a man on a horse. Later, he put up a famous photo of himself holding a baby, with Donald Trump’s face superimposed over the infant’s. Between all these touchstones, you could get a pretty good idea of what Morrissey is about, drifting somewhere between classic pop virtues, studied fabulousness, and a semi-political, coolly contained rock rage.
That Elvis opener gave way in the second number to a tribute to an act nearly as iconic for most of this crowd: the Smiths. “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” was one of just four numbers from his former band performed amid the 22 selections, but the trip through his solo catalog made a case that he’s done a pretty good job after all of finishing, or at least continuing, what he co-started in the 1980s. He’ll never find another Johnny Marr, but his band does a good enough job of replicating the core elements of that classic sound, and adding new elements, like the south-of-the-border interpolations in songs like “The Bullfighter Dies.” Given how effective he remains as a performer, the fact that the Smiths are never, ever getting back together may actually rank kind of low these days on fans’ Morrissey-esque lists of everyday tragedies.
Some fans still puzzle over Morrissey’s politics, as during a recent flare-up when he was quoted as signaling enthusiastic approval of Brexit back home. Toward the end of one of his brand new songs, “Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage,” which has been read as a metaphor for conditions in the UK, Morrissey sang, “Everybody’s running to the exit, exit, exit,” and we were to presume that the rhyme with the unspoken Brexit was intentional. But just in case anyone was worried Morrissey has gone alt-right on us, he updated the lyrics of “Glamorous Glue” from the Eurocentric “We won’t vote Conservative” to “We won’t vote Republican,” and introduced Trump to another refrain in a less-than-flattering way. Another aside: “Just when you think American politics can’t get any better… it doesn’t!”
If Morrissey does embrace both Brexit and Trump loathing, it may be that his political philosophy just boils down to a blow-it-all-up mentality. “Each time you vote you support the process,” he sang in “World Peace is None of Your Business.” He flashed the cover artwork for his forthcoming album, “Low in High School,” which shows a boy holding an “Axe the monarchy” sign. But the message of some of the new songs seemed to be: Exit politics. “Spent the Day in Bed,” an ode to exactly what the title suggests, offered some advice: “Stop watching the news! Because the news contrives to frighten you, to make you feel small and alone, to make you feel that your mind isn’t your own.” In “All the Young People Must Fall in Love,” he noted how “presidents come, presidents go,” while the young folk are attending to more important matters: “Fall in love… get depressed… stay depressed.”
Depression is a hallmark of the Morrissey ethos, to the point that when, during the encore, a succession of stage-crashers tried approaching the singer for a hug, Beatlemania-style, and one or two succeeded, you couldn’t be sure whether they wanted the love for themselves or to give him some assurance. But, of course, loneliness is usually hilariously barbed in Morrissey-land. One of his new songs came with a wish: “I wish you lonely, if only for one day, so that you might see routine for me since the day I was born.” Just when you were admiring the self-parody of that, he added — obviously quite seriously, given his animal rights concerns — “I wish you lonely, like the last tracked humpback whale chased by gunships from Bergen.”
For Morrissey and his fans, loneliness is murder. And also a lot of fun.