Latinos love Morrissey, and why not?
Unlikely fans tap into his Irish outcast melancholy.
By A.D. Amorosi, The Philly Inquirer
There are some mysteries of fandom that cannot be easily fathomed.
Why do the French love Jerry Lewis and the Germans David Hasselhoff?
And here's yet a third unexpected fan-artist connection that has been going on since the early '90s: the Irish singer Morrissey's hold over the Latino community of the West Coast.
Since his days in the celebrated British band the Smiths, Morrissey has had a devoted following among Latinos in California, in L.A. in particular. Fans packed his concerts and emulated his slicked-back look. Morrissey, who plays the Academy of Music Sunday night, even has a Spanish nickname: El Moz.
Now with Years of Refusal, Morrissey's label, Lost Highway, has formed an alliance with Nacional Records, America's preeminent Latin alternative label, to promote the singer in Spanish-speaking markets throughout the United States.
"It's a no-brainer," says Rahsaan Lucas, 35, a Philadelphia percussionist and entrepreneur whose Afrotaino Productions runs events musical and nonmusical for Latino audiences.
"I got into him in the '80s, that 'Girlfriend in a Coma' moment. He tapped into and channeled this resident melancholy that we carry around with us internally."
Whether as front man of the Smiths (disbanded in 1987) or as solo artist, the British-born child of Irish Catholic parents has been a potent but flowery crooner. He's a sexual enigma whose literate, sarcastic lyrics speak of personal and social politics. He sings of wronged romance, alienation, and dysfunctional unions on a scale from intimate ("I Just Want to See the Boy Happy") to grand ("Irish Blood, English Heart"), with fanciful character studies in between.
At first, the Smiths' ringing new wave and the glam rock of his solo albums might seem a world away from the tastes of Latino listeners in East L.A.
Morrissey is conspicuously British-looking. His face and body, thicker now at 49, were waifish, even when topped by a high rockabilly do. Though today he wears natty suits, Morrissey was a model of billowy shirts and cuffed-jean cool.
But fans say his image, his message of trouble assimilating, his outcast appeal connect with Latino listeners.
"Latinos in the Southwest have a strong, complicated culture, so to branch into areas that are countercultural makes sense to me," says Philadelphian Heather Phillips, a Mexican American bartender and fine-art photographer who has friends in L.A. "So long as there are societal standards and cultural pressures, there'll be outsiders and oddballs who seek solace in a union with other like-minded folk." That's Morrissey, in her estimation.
She fell in love with images of Morrissey when she was 14 and watching MTV's alterna-rock 120 Minutes program. "I saw this video for 'Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before,' with legions of British kids styled like Morrissey riding around on bikes." That was romantic to Phillips, and gave her insight into style. "I grew up feeling like an outsider. When I found this outlet where I could dress differently and listen to music that spoke that language, I embraced it."
Kim Buie, vice president of artists and repertoire at Lost Highway, learned of the connection between Morrissey and his Latino fans while hanging in Mexico City in the '90s. "I was amazed to find amongst the kids and in the depths of the street markets of Mexico City Morrissey fans selling and trading music and T-shirts next to Menudo paraphernalia," Buie says.
"Ever since the Smiths, Morrissey was important to us - his music and image, the attitude of what he said onstage and offstage, how he rolled up his jeans and what motorcycle boots he wore," says Tomas Cookman, the Puerto Rican founder of Nacional and an organizer of the Latin Alternative Music Conference. In L.A., he says, he has seen men who resembled Morrissey but were proudly Latino. "They were not English-accent wannabes. They were into the fact that they were Latino - they just had a distinct Morrissey stamp."
Cookman notes that Mexican cowboy crooning legends like Vicente Fernandez are not so unlike Morrissey.
"They portray themselves as real knock-the-batteries-off-your-shoulder tough guys, but there's lots of sensitivity in their lyrics," he says. "As many songs as there are about sleeping with women cavalierly and riding horses, there are lyrics about how this is hurting my heart that people in different emotional stages . . . can relate to."
The same Latino audiences who understand that brand of hurt, lashing-out lyricism surely get Morrissey.
Ramon Martinez, a Venezuelan American pharmacist who lives in South Philly, doubles as on-air host for WXPN's Y-Rock Internacional. Martinez, 42, got into Morrissey when he was a teen.
"Morrissey opened my eyes to things I didn't understand: girls, being in love, falling out of love, living with pain, suicide, abandonment, misunderstanding, and silence," Martinez says. "I was a kid who grew up in a different society, and my parents sent me here to study, so I understood what he was saying about the 'Headmaster Ritual' and the feelings of anger and rebellion."
Between them, Cookman and Buie are testing the crossover currents in both directions. While Lost Highway markets Nacional's Manu Chao records to gringos, Nacional takes on Years of Refusal with pushes at Latino radio and listening parties across the United States. Cookman says Nacional couldn't keep up with the demand for them.
"Not just in Los Angeles but in Chicago and Philadelphia," says Cookman, who asked Lucas to showcase El Moz at Lucas' monthly Discoteca event at Fluid, which he did last night, premiering Morrissey music remixed by Mexican Institute of Sound as well as playing new records from Los Fabulosos Cadillacs.
"With all the broken-heart crooning as well as Mexican rancheras that wail in that corta vena [cut vein] style, it was no wonder Morrissey found a Southwestern Latino" audience, says Lucas, who has long spun new wave records in non-Latino clubs.
He finds in Morrissey's music a space for listeners to touch on feelings and thoughts that haunt them. "It's not a scary, dark melancholy that makes you want to dress in black and be depressed. It's uplifting. It's human experience to want to be appreciated for who you are and what you do, and he fleshes out that struggle, that experience, through his lyrics."