This past Saturday, while perched on a marble railing above the lobby of the beautiful recently restored Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York, before a sold-out concert from Morrissey, it was easy to find the former Smiths front-man’s face: on badges fans had stuck to their winter coats. It was there, after a fashion, in the many fans who had adopted some version of his famous floppy pompadour and it was there, more officially, on sale—posters, mouse pads, and somewhere between 14 and 18 different T-shirts. It was even on the drink tickets, which were in the style of tiny $1,000 bills with Moz’s face right in the center.
Once the show started, however, it was a bit harder to find. Morrissey, now 53 and almost halfway through his fourth decade as a pop icon, spent much of the show lit from behind or above, making him appear in silhouette. He ran off stage frequently (mostly to change shirts), and often turned his back on the audience. It wasn’t even entirely clear if the face in the center of the kickdrum was his or if it was the drummer, or someone else entirely.
At the same time, he spent long stretches of the show reaching out to touch the audience, as is his custom—holding hands, locking eyes, and accepting gifts. He ended this concert, as he does most, by pulling fans onto stage to hug him (anyone who jumped on stage unbidden during this portion was put in choke hold by security and hurled back into the crowd). It’s his show. His famously fanatically and devoted fans, who came in all ages and ethnicities, from gray-haired men in dad jeans to pink-haired seapunk 20-somethings, were there not just to see him, but to connect with him and bask in his presence. But then why did he seem to go to such lengths to take their eyes off of him?
Morrissey has spent these many years painting himself into a unique corner—wildly, internationally famous for being honest and introverted. These are two things that are hard to maintain; it’s much easier to be famous for playing the guitar, or having nice boobs. He’s paid the price for trying to maintain the former: his off-the-cuff comments and attempts to honestly engage with his interviewers have gotten him labeled everything from a racist to a xenophobe, a closeted thug, and a terrorist sympathizer. The latter is no less vexing—how can you be a pop star and still pose as a wilting wallflower? Part of his answer in the last decade and a half has been to largely abandon that pose, becoming in middle age more of a blustery bruiser, less the person the wallflower fan is than the person they might wish they were. No longer does he stand in the corner and mutter that someone ought to hang the DJ; now he defiantly says what he believes and dares anyone to disagree from within the broad-shouldered and square-jawed build of a Guy Ritchie character.
His legions fans and virtually unquestioning adulation among critics (separate from the tabloid journalists who seek to make a quick buck from stirring up controversy) are also something of an albatross. Walking into the show, my head was swimming with images of various hopelessly devoted Morrissey fans I’d know or seen over the years: the black haired, facially-pierced backpack patch-sporting girls I’d know in high school and college, the fanatically over-identifying Mexican-American fans in William E. Jones’s Is It Really So Strange, or the wafer-thin androgynous boys from just after college. I have been reading rapturous writing about the man most of my life. Take, for example, this quote from Simon Goddard, author of Songs That Saved Your Life, who told The Believer in 2004 that “Morrissey solo has become more of a religious experience. It’s all about what he represents. It’s sort of like kissing the papal ring.”
Could the man just put on a good show, have a beer, and go to bed? Is it possible for him to be other than transcendent? Given the show I saw Saturday, I’d say it definitely is—which I don’t mean as an insult. His voice is strong, he’s in great physical shape (unsurprising for relatively wealthy man in his fifties in 2013), and he seemed at times genuinely engaged, especially when showing graphic videos of animal cruelty as he sang “Meat is Murder.” Still, other times felt strongly rehearsed. The way he left the stage to change shirts just before launching into “Let Me Kiss You” so that he could tear it off and hurl it into the crowd at the moment he sings “Then you open your eyes / And see someone you physically despise,” felt as if it had been done thousands upon thousands of times before.
And, of course, it has. No matter what we might fool ourselves into believing, performances are rehearsed. We just don’t want them to feel that way. An audience wants to feel present at a spontaneous bit of electric presentness by their idol, to share a perfect bit of time together. And this weekend, they got to. If Morrissey didn’t perform exactly as someone might expect, well, I’m sure they could go fuck themselves, as far as he cared. He did exactly what he wanted. And in the end, that’s the most Morrissey thing he could have done, which is what everyone was after in the first place.
Illustration by Kevin Alvir.