Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before

Published in Is It Really So Strange? (Los Angeles: David Kordansky Gallery, 2006).

One of my college friends introduced me to The Smiths at the end of March 1984. She had gone to London for spring break. During her trip, she walked into a record store and asked for something typically English, something that everyone was listening to. The clerk handed her a copy of the first album by The Smiths, which had been released a month before. Upon her return, she lent me her copy of The Smiths, and within twenty-four hours, I had my own.

As I listened to the first song on the album, “Reel Around the Fountain,” I wasn’t aware that this was the last record that would, as the saying goes, change my life. There is a limited window of time when this sort of thing can happen to a person. For me, it was roughly the period from 1974 to 1984, not a bad time to be coming of age, considering the deplorable state of pop music in subsequent years. I suppose this opinion is hard to defend, but there lies the problem of making any claims at all about pop music. Often, people who love it are searching for themselves, or more likely, an ideal version of themselves, in what they hear.

I understood very little of what I was hearing at first. The music, sounding simultaneously modern and old-fashioned, couldn’t have been more different from the dominant trend of the preceding years, manufactured pop groups playing electronic music. The Smiths were a traditional four-piece rock band, distinguished by the incandescent talent of guitarist Johnny Marr, who also composed the music. The words, full in equal measure of yearning and resentment, were written and sung by a character named Morrissey. The beautiful music seemed timeless, but the mournful tone of Morrissey’s voice, languid and occasionally maniacal, seemed exactly right for the times.

The only word I can use to describe the early 1980’s is a favorite of Morrissey: vile. The economic decline that had begun during my childhood showed no signs of reversing itself, though some people were getting very rich. In public life, an atmosphere of meanness and gratuitous cruelty came to appear normal, and more sensitive souls turned inward. A group of shy, isolated young people retreated to the only place their voices had any effect – their bedrooms – and for many of them, The Smiths provided the perfect theme music to accompany their private dramas.

In my youth, I had the habit of buying records for their covers. Before the internet made a wide variety of music available even to kids in the provinces, there were few alternatives. The cover artwork was often a reasonable way to gauge the merits of a record that got no radio airplay, that is to say, a record that might actually be worth buying. I had noticed the first single by The Smiths, “Hand in Glove,” in a record store near where I lived. The cover featured a picture by Jim French, a rear view of an anonymous nude man. The sentiments of the photographer seemed fairly unambiguous, and I was afraid to buy something that made such a blatant statement.

The Smiths, the album that followed this single, bore a cover image of Joe Dallesandro’s torso as it appeared in Flesh, produced by Andy Warhol. I had seen this movie. It was the first feature directed by Paul Morrissey, no relation to the singer, but the coincidence led me to take the image on the cover as a clue to the album’s contents. Flesh presents a day in the life of a male hustler. He is a beautifully proportioned example of trade. He has a wife and child, but most of his customers are men. He interacts with a number of Warholian types – aggressive women, desperate johns, fellow hustlers, tattered drag queens – but he remains rather passive throughout the film. Flesh is a comedy; everyone is on the make, and sex is a joke.

The Smiths’ first album suggests the world of a working class youth with a taste for revenge. There is no role for him to play in the industrial wasteland where he was raised, so he writes his own story. He assumes poses that will be useful when fame and fortune beckon. He tries to avoid being beaten up or ground down. He wants to relive the old school days, this time with a sense of mastery. He relies on the favors of older men and ultimately resents the situation, or perhaps he only fantasizes about it. He rejects the advances of well-meaning female friends. He falls into the abyss of unrequited passion. A sense of menace pervades the scene, but the action remains unconsummated.

These impressions occurred to me before I had read any publicity about The Smiths. Such was the work of Morrissey’s words on a young, impressionable mind. I bought this album decades ago, but my original memories of it are still vivid.

I must confess that the spell did not last. I bought and enjoyed Morrissey’s early solo albums, Viva Hate and Bona Drag, and in them I found consolation during an especially lonely period of my life. Then came Kill Uncle in 1991. I never bought that album, and my ignorance of what followed in the next ten years of Morrissey’s career was complete. I missed a number of his solo albums, some of them better than others; Morrissey’s array of problems and provocations, fascinating to members of the music press, at least for a while; a change in record labels, and after disappointing sales, no record label at all; finally, the move to Los Angeles. Morrissey in exile simply slipped from view. Widely dismissed as a has-been, Morrissey remained a star to hardcore fans who followed his every move and paid tribute to him in ways barely noticed by the media.

In November of 2001, I saw an ad for a club in Los Angeles called London Is Dead, which exclusively played Morrissey and Smiths music, and I thought to myself, I’ve got to see this. It was a surprise for a lot of reasons. At the event, I was surrounded by people in their twenties, dancing and singing along to music I had loved long ago. The atmosphere was quite joyous, and belied the popular perception of Morrissey as a poet of doom and gloom. Another surprise was that most of the crowd was Latino. A whole scene had developed around the work of an artist who hadn’t released a new record in several years. I was happy that my original opinion of this music was being confirmed, and more importantly, I felt that I had something in common with a group of young people to whom I would not normally be expected to have a connection. I decided that night to document the scene.

The first problem with this project was how I could manage to do it. For my work in photography and film up to this point I had shot very few images of people. I began to wonder if my commitment to this kind of circumspection was really just the result of shyness. Now I needed to solicit the cooperation of strangers who had no particular reason to trust me. Like many people reluctant to engage in the shameless social encounters necessary to get a documentary started, I resorted to the internet.

I found a Morrissey fan website called It was the personal project of Chris S, who wrote a tribute to his idol on the site: “I see Morrissey as a father figure mostly, the one who was always there when I needed him the most. He moved me in inexplicable ways, like no one ever did before. He spoke as if he was singing just for me and no one else, that’s when I realized that I was in total devotion to him. But I am going into too much detail, so I’ll stop.”

The site held contests, and I decided to enter one in an attempt to get to know this young man. The contest involved answering the question, “Why do you think Morrissey said ‘Because We Must’ in Introducing Morrissey and other live shows?”

My response was as follows: “When Morrissey quotes a literary or artistic work, he is usually doing so to alert his fans to some source of inspiration that they may not otherwise have encountered. The phrase ‘because we must’ is found in the work of the poet Emily Dickinson. Miss Dickinson composed poem number 114 around 1859. It was not published until many years later, when its modernity was not quite so shocking.

Good night, because we must,

How intricate the dust!

I would go, to know!

Oh incognito!

Saucy, Saucy Seraph

To elude me so!

Father! they won’t tell me,

Won’t you tell them to?

Morrissey’s lyrics echo various aspects of this untitled poem: its brevity; its irregular meter; its emphasis on secrecy; its juxtaposition of decay and sexual desire; and most of all, the address to an idealized figure, presumably male and definitely unattainable. Perhaps Morrissey was even thinking of Dickinson when he said, ‘There’s nobody modern I’m influenced by because I think poetry has died a long, long time ago… so it is generally people who lived and died a hundred years ago. It’s people who never experienced success, people who were never blinded by money or confused by breakfast television programs. People who just did their art silently, quietly and perhaps unhappily, and then died.’ Emily Dickinson died in relative obscurity in 1886, one hundred years before the release of The Queen Is Dead.”

I won the contest. My prize was a tape of a BBC program about Latino Morrissey fans. The segment began with a shot of a Mexican man singing a corrido in front of a Ritmo Latino store near Santa Monica and Western. There was also an interview conducted at a Mexican restaurant on Melrose. The location was presented as “East L. A.” This journalistic liberty reminded me of getting on a number 26 bus on Waterloo Bridge expecting to go to Shoreditch but ending up in Bloomsbury. The mistake made by my neophyte bus driver means nothing to people in Los Angeles, but Londoners recognize it immediately.

I had made contact with Chris S, but it took me another six months to meet him in person. On that day – appropriately enough, Morrissey’s birthday – I took a portrait photograph of Chris in his bedroom. He looked terrified. He hid a bit under the covers, but this precaution was unnecessary. I was a perfect gentleman during the shoot. By that time, I had been photographing Morrissey fans for a little while, and I had developed a reasonable sense of how to behave. I knew that there were boundaries to be respected. For instance, it was unwise to ask direct questions about anyone’s sexuality. Patience had its rewards, and I learned that when fans talked about Morrissey, they were sometimes talking about themselves in an oblique way. Intimidating greaser guys presented a tough exterior that often concealed a fragile interior, while in the case of their female companions, it tended to work the other way around. The people in the scene were reinventing a set of received symbols, and in the process, trying out various poses that would one day become something like identities. Outsiders usually got it all wrong, so I made an effort to be an insider, even if that meant returning to the follies of my youth.

I began taking pictures at the Smiths and Morrissey Convention held at the Hollywood Palace, and then at other tribute events, and at the concerts of Sweet and Tender Hooligans, the Los Angeles Smiths and Morrissey tribute band. As I got to know people, I would ask them if I could take portraits. Most of the fans I photographed approached the situation with ambivalence, a combination of shyness and exhibitionism. This seems curiously appropriate for fans of an entertainer who transforms solitude and social discomfort into spectacle.

From the beginning of the project, I found befriending people in the scene a bit of a challenge. Many were reluctant to talk to me, since I was a member of an older generation. I wondered how I could fit in at these events. I tried wearing a pompadour, and I was very pleasantly surprised. Not only was it much easier to take pictures of people who had the same style as I had, but potential subjects started asking me if they could take my picture, and as far as I was concerned, that was just fine. It was great fun, though some of my friends referred to it as my midlife crisis expressed in a hairstyle.

My pompadour was the creation of Jaysin, introduced to me by Dorian Gray, a drag king specializing in Morrissey impersonations. Jaysin had the distinction of being the one subject whom I didn’t have to beg to sit for a portrait. He was eager to be photographed so that he could have a gift to leave at Morrissey’s door. In Jaysin’s fantasy, Morrissey would see the phone number written on the back of the picture, would call Jaysin up, and would succumb to his considerable charms. Alas, Jaysin moved to New York before he had the opportunity to convince Morrissey to become his sugar daddy.

When I last saw Jaysin, he was hanging out with his friend Russell. Russell had the most severely plucked eyebrows I had ever seen on a boy, and his forearms were entirely covered with tattoos of the Garbage Pail Kids. Though Russell was not a hardcore Smiths fan, he did have his own special story to tell. He once went to the Hollywood Tattoo Convention wearing a Queen Is Dead t-shirt over his tattoos. This shirt caught the attention of a muscle-bound, heavily tattooed homeboy who insisted on walking Russell home. Russell soon found himself back at his apartment stripping off his clothes in front of the excited homeboy. His companion apparently saw too much of Russell’s anatomy and gasped, “You’re a guy!” Russell asked him how he hadn’t noticed the five o’clock shadow under the makeup. He answered, “With those lips, I thought you were a girl,” as he pulled up his pants. Russell had no time for a snappy comeback, since his trick vanished in an instant, leaving Russell to marvel at the power of The Smiths as well as the power of denial.

One can only guess what murky passions motivate the hordes of young men who show up at the concerts, but Morrissey plays the audience like a finely tuned instrument. In his between song patter, he knows just how far he can go so that he excludes no one and teases everyone.

When Morrissey asked the crowd at one of his shows at the Wiltern Theater, “How are things in San Bernardino?” he was doing more than making idle chatter. He was acknowledging the geography of his grassroots audience. During the hiatus of Morrissey’s career, the region where his fame was the greatest stretched from East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, and Highland Park in the west to San Bernardino and Riverside in the east. This corridor along the 10 and 60 Freeways is the eastern edge of the Los Angeles metropolis, formerly irrigated agricultural land, then a center of heavy industry, now old and new suburbs.

Unlike the West Side or the Hollywood Hills, this region is rarely chosen to represent Southern California in movies or television programs, perhaps because it offers a better sense of what it is actually like to live in the region. There is a lot of pollution, terrible traffic, and real estate is more affordable the farther east one travels. Most of the population is Latino, and several cities have Asian majorities. The outlying area of the region is called the Inland Empire, but its boundaries are vague and there is no emperor. Audiences all over the world see an image of Southern California in Beverly Hills 90210 or The O. C., but the true hotbed of youth culture is more likely to be Pomona 91766 or The I. E.

This leads to the unavoidable question: Why is Morrissey so popular with a Latino audience? While there are almost as many answers to this question as there are fans, I have noticed some patterns in the conversations I have had while documenting the scene. Some insist that what has been called a phenomenon is only a coincidence or an example of media hype, but I would say that it is indicative of wider changes taking place in youth culture. Although I concentrated on the metropolitan area of Los Angeles, I also attended events in Tijuana and El Paso, and I suspect I could have photographed scenes in any number of other cities, particularly in the American Southwest. Before the “Latino Morrissey fan” is relegated to a marketing profile used to shift a few more units of obscure items in monopoly capital’s back catalogue, I would like to mention some of the things I learned in the course of my project.

At least since the 1970’s, there has been a significant current of Anglophilia in the Los Angeles music scene, and not just because the area is a popular tax exile destination. The Smiths were played on mass-market radio in Los Angeles – unlike every other major U. S. city – and they are very much alive in the popular memory. The Anglophile tradition continues with ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones’s immensely popular noontime radio show Jonesy’s Jukebox, which provides Angelenos with daily doses of Northern Soul, Glam Rock, Ska, Reggae, and of course, Punk.

A demographic change has occurred in Los Angeles, and strictly in terms of numbers, Latino culture is (or soon will be) the dominant youth culture in the city. What form this culture will take is an open question. The combination of new demographics and old Anglophilia has some surprising consequences; for instance, anyone walking around Hollywood wearing a Union Jack on his jacket is almost certain to have a Spanish surname.

A sense of historical continuity is also an important aspect of the phenomenon. Among Chicanos who were born in Southern California, “oldies” music (e. g., Doo-Wop, American Soul and R & B) has been revered for generations, and the most recent generation has embraced the music of the Punk and post-Punk eras in its turn.

The phenomenon expresses itself somewhat differently among the children of immigrants. Though they may speak Spanish at home, they don’t necessarily feel a connection to Spanish language pop music. At the same time, the themes associated with a lot of great English pop music – especially sexual ambiguity and contempt for middle class respectability – speak volumes to them. A rebellion against conformity and traditional machismo enacted in a language poorly understood by parental figures proves irresistible.

The members of The Smiths were all sons of immigrants, and while Morrissey does not refer to this fact directly in his lyrics, the songs have a pervasive mood that strikes a chord with the children (and grandchildren) of immigrants. A line like, “I just can’t find my place in this world” (from “Ouija Board, Ouija Board”) is profoundly meaningful to this new generation of fans, though in ways that Morrissey could not have originally predicted.

Recently, Morrissey has capitalized on these cultural affinities. Some of his songs acknowledge a Latino audience, and his stage presentation would not be out of place on Mexican television. Latin American culture has traditionally had plenty of room for crooners belting out highly dramatic songs, and Morrissey seems to fit right in.

Many English pop stars are aware of the adoration they inspire among U. S. Latinos, but to my knowledge, Morrissey is the first one to change his image in an effort to cultivate this audience. The effect is appropriately recherché, and I sometimes find myself wondering if he will one day take his act to Vegas. I think that this may well be a case in which Morrissey, while appearing to be mired in nostalgia, is actually catching a wave of the future.

When I mentioned to an art student in my acquaintance that I had been photographing Smiths and Morrissey events, the tribute bands, and their audience, he responded, “Oh, wow, how ironic.” I certainly hope not. My young friend’s use of the term irony referred not so much to a literary strategy, but rather to the tendency of would-be sophisticates to disavow that which they most enjoy. When someone admits that he loves something, he becomes vulnerable; perhaps it isn’t cool. Ridicule descends on the heads of those embracing last year’s trend. I have always thought it was the signal virtue of The Smiths that they were not cool. They never insulated themselves from possible scorn by taking a step back that implied “we don’t really mean it.” They wore their hearts on their sleeves and dared the audience to accept them. The tribute bands of the present era approach their craft with total sincerity. There are no connoisseurs of the unfashionable at these shows; nobody announces his superiority to the material; and that is why the events are successful. It is a thrill to be in a room full of people who believe.

The frenzy of adulation that Morrissey provokes is part of a tradition that has been with us for a very long time. Had he lived a century longer, Friedrich Nietzsche would have been interested to see 1992’s Morrissey Live in Dallas. A venue’s surveillance camera recorded the absolute madness that engulfed Morrissey’s first American solo tour. The band can barely get through its set, but the spectacle of a man being physically attacked by his cult more than makes up for any musical deficiencies. Morrissey seems to be channeling a force that is beyond his control. His audience wants to be blessed by him. And they want to tear him limb from limb. If they can’t have his flesh, they will settle for bits of his shirt, and they put the precious shreds in their mouths for safekeeping. No wonder the mother of one of the people I photographed is convinced that her son is possessed by the devil!

Although there were moments when world domination seemed imminent, The Smiths and Morrissey never quite captured a mass audience. They have never been as famous as their gifts clearly indicated they could be. Even so, I still find it hard to believe that some people simply have no idea who they are. Others, left with a superficial impression of miserabilism or even self-loathing, know The Smiths but reject them. There seems to be little common ground on the subject, and conversations between fans and non-fans lead to the sort of irrational, emotionally fraught impasses usually experienced in discussions of religious dogma or sporting events.

I think that a crucial factor in the case of The Smiths is the complexity of the world they suggest. Their approach has an aura of self-deprecation, but this only serves to intensify the power of their seduction. The Smiths never appeared on their record covers. Their stand-ins were a series of “cover stars,” often figures from English popular culture of the 1960’s. Many fans (especially young Americans) find themselves researching who these people were, and thence are led down the path of true obsession. The world of The Smiths offers such a wealth of detail that a listener can get lost in it, just as a reader gets lost in his favorite novel.

The character of the box bedroom rebel, who made a cameo appearance in the Dickensian novel of Thatcher’s Britain, has reappeared in sunny California. This turn of events isn’t as strange as it seems. Wherever there are working class kids attempting to flee their suffocating families, yet incapable of leaving them behind, this figure will return. Morrissey described his favorite characters in movies as “people with their tails trapped in the door... trying to get out, trying to get on, trying to be somebody, trying to be seen” but held back by family expectations, old bonds of friendship, and simple lack of money. Many young people see themselves in this description, and they flock to Morrissey for moments of solace and imaginary escape.

My most intense memories of The Smiths are of their early work, a handful of singles and the debut album. They contain the last lyrics that Morrissey wrote before he knew he would be famous. In a sense, he spent his whole life up to that point preparing his material for a breathless, and by no means certain, bid for immortality. After that, Morrissey’s lyrics became more indirect and vague. Later still, Morrissey’s solo material resorts to self-conscious camp a lot more than The Smiths ever did, and the threat of self-parody looms.

Throughout his career, Morrissey has written succinct word portraits of types resurrected from the “kitchen sink” realist films produced in his childhood. In England, he mourned the disintegration of traditional working class culture, but when he moved to Los Angeles, he discovered aspects of this culture reinvented in a new landscape. The persona narrating his songs was originally that of a working class youth ambivalent about being admired by his betters, and it gradually became that of the older, successful man doing the admiring. This transition, partly artistic, partly geographic, and accomplished over nearly two decades, is extremely interesting in itself, but I would still maintain that Morrissey’s first, most urgent utterances were his greatest.

In my initial flush of adoration for The Smiths, I imagined an army of fans making their presence felt in a hostile world. Effeminate, bookish, incapable of sustaining gainful employment or of starting families of their own, they were disappointments to their fathers. But what made them failures in a conventional way of life made them splendidly successful in another realm of endeavor. They were modern dandies. They rarely banded together, but one can sometimes catch a glimpse of them in old concert footage.

A whole new generation of dandies has appeared to worship Morrissey, though the scene and its forms of expression have drastically changed. One thing remains constant: the people I met and befriended do what they do not because someone told them to buy a record or to go to a concert, but out of love and spontaneous enthusiasm. The events I attended were not planned or staged by publicists. They were organized by the fans themselves. They were expressions of popular culture in the truest and most admirable sense. It’s important to remember that the early Smiths records were released by an independent label with very little money for promotion. The band’s success was a surprising departure from business as usual, and a story unlikely to be repeated in a music industry dominated by a small handful of corporations.

While I was documenting the fan scene, Morrissey made a comeback – or should I say a return? – and an apparatus of publicity made it possible for him to reach a wide audience. He appeared on television and radio, and in countless magazines. He was described by the meaningless hyperbole and impoverished adjectives that are the stock in trade of mass culture. Morrissey went from being a fanatical cult’s object of worship to being just another celebrity. Among the fans, there was excitement about this development, but there was also the sense of an ending. The scene that was faithful to Morrissey during his period of relative obscurity continued to exist, but it just wasn’t the same. I loved the homemade quality of the events and the complete conviction of the people who attended them. An era has passed, but I can say I was there while it lasted, and I recorded some of what I saw.