[Music] The importance of seeing Morrissey

The former frontman of The Smiths, loosely nicknamed “Moz,” finally performs to Pinoy fans

AFTER 16 YEARS, Morrissey finally meets his fans in Manila. Photo by Kai Magsanoc

MANILA, Philippines – Given the proliferation of random video uploads, social networking, and other Internet-age privileges, there is technically no need for people to go to concerts anymore. Any given artist these days would have countless performance footage for easy viewing via YouTube, posted by eager concertgoers from all over the world from various dates. Such gig attendees would also often reveal not just what songs got played but also how they and fellow audience members felt watching the show.

These thoughts crossed my mind for admittedly selfish reasons last week, as I pondered whether to blow some hard-earned dough for a pricey ticket to the first ever concert in the Philippines by Steven Patrick Morrissey, a native of Manchester, England, best known as the vocalist-lyricist of the 1980s band The Smiths. The concert, organized by Music Management Live Inc., was announced and advertised a good two months before its Mother’s Day playdate of May 13, 2012, at Pasay City’s World Trade Center; yet it was only two days before “Mozzer’s day” when I finally took the here-goes-nothing plunge.  

As the much-anticipated concert itself was finally unfolding last Sunday night to an audience of a few thousand Pinoys and a smattering of American and European expats, I was reminded of a memorable quote from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction: “You will know where that extra money went.”

This night has opened our eyes

Word went around that night at the venue that, while no opening act was ever announced, Dead Pop Stars, a Filipino tribute band that covers Smiths and Morrissey tunes, would go onstage before the Moz himself. Alas, it was not to be, as Morrissey apparently had a different agenda in mind. 

Instead of having an opening act, viewers were treated to a succession of 8 music videos (projected onto a large, makeshift movie screen) from the ’60s and ’70s by a number of, um, dead pop stars — including German singer Nico, Dutch band Shocking Blue, and American protopunk legends New York Dolls. (Some members of those two bands are already deceased.)

During the waiting time before the show’s published 8 PM start, the filler music resounding throughout the cavernous WTC were part of a presumably Morrissey-approved playlist, featuring an eclectic mix of tunes that included a stray flamenco number and two classics by The Velvet Underground and Nico. 

While that was to be expected, little did most of us predict what came next: the aforesaid “opening acts,” kicked off by a video of Shocking Blue’s 1969 hit “Mighty Joe” (which was released right after their better-known, Bananarama-covered “Venus”), later on presenting 1974’s “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” by Sparks (who are better known for their ’83 electro-pop hit “Cool Places”), and ending with the 1973 rock blast “Looking for a Kiss” by the New York Dolls, Morrissey’s all-time favorite band. 

A co-viewer suggested on the spot that the segment, which zipped by for around 15 minutes, was a way for Morrissey to screw around with people’s minds. To the ardent fan, however, the underlying one-two message was clear: Not only was this a way for us to be further oriented with Morrissey’s sonic influences and heroes, it was also his means to underscore the very concept of the pop star, one whose physical features and showmanship are as much a source of admiration as is his/her actual musical talent.

This charming man

Then, boom, that big curtain was promptly dropped to reveal Morrissey’s 5-man band, thundering away with The Smiths gem “How Soon is Now?” — rousing viewers out of their seats to perch themselves closer to the barricades or atop the chairs. As Morrissey emerged right before our eyes, some such peepers could have been misty at the unbelievable sight of the man in the flesh and on Pinoy soil. Not surprisingly, as his familiar baritone vocal began spouting the song’s opening verse, so were the attendees’ screaming or shrieking voices spouting cheers — an outpouring of decades’ worth of pent-up adoration for this icon of “new wave” lovers since the ’80s and a model of “alternative” solo pop stardom since the ’90s. 

RAPPLER Life & Style editor Kai Magsanoc went on a “date” with Morrissey for Mother’s Day and shot this video:

And such is the man’s own charisma that, even if this one-night-only crowd had its share of Pinoy rock stars, the only star that night was up on stage. Everyone else, no matter their local repute or popularity, was reduced to bedazzled admirer. Morrissey may also look his age (he turns 53 on May 22), with his hairdo, once a tall quiff, reduced to a graying, humbler tuft, yet his presence remains commanding, even when viewed from several feet away.  

You’re the one for us, Mozzy

Compared to most chart-topping, radio-friendly hitmakers of the last 30 years, Morrissey has always been an acquired taste. 

His ditties — be it with The Smiths from 1982 to 1987 or on his so-called own since 1988 — have always had a tinge or wealth of uniqueness that often shunned conventional approaches to songwriting. Be it in the avoidance of the typical verse-chorus-verse motif, his use of words not so common to the pop canon, his lyrical themes that wallow in romantic or worldly lamentations and spiced with dark-humored self-deprecation, he has long been an atypical creature whom detractors may have dismissed as something along the lines of “morosey Morrissey,” a whiner instead of a winner.

Complicating matters is his own outspokenness, with Morrissey’s wicked, calculated way with words apparent in interviews as much as it is on his recordings. His often blunt, if perversely witty and sardonically high-brow, comments on the music industry, his peers, his government, his homeland, the world at large, et cetera are neither savory nor relevant to conservative sensibilities or narrow minds. He has, in effect, fashioned himself into a precursor to the comparatively pedestrian Simon Cowell or, better yet, into a modern-day Oscar Wilde, that esteemed poet who once replied to a customs officer that, “I have nothing to declare, except my genius.” 

But for numerous other souls, especially for many who were teenagers in the 1980s, Morrissey was a godsend. For those who would end up as his fans, Moz music — aided most significantly by his musical soul mate, guitarist and Smiths co-founder Johnny Marr — provided solace amid uncertainty, sympathy for the introverted, uncommon entertainment amid typical pop fodder or, most of all, an icon of individuality rising from a sea of conformity.

For many a devotee, he spoke to us, of us and for us.

Let them please you

That Sunday night, many such souls got spoken to in a big way, as Morrissey tore through a 19-song repertoire that broke down into 12 of his “solo” hits, six Smiths tunes and one cover number. 

Providing formidable, almost non-stop instrumental support were rhythm guitarist and Morrissey songwriting partner Martin James “Boz” Boorer, lead guitarist Jesse Tobias, bassist Solomon Walker, drummer and gong basher Matt Walker, and keyboardist-trumpeter Gustavo Manzur. These gentlemen were occasionally granted a spotlight moment here and there, but they mostly played away in the service of the show’s central figure — especially since, as with any of the Moz’s post-Smiths shows, they were never introduced and were dressed in identical, non-descript black wardrobe while Morrissey sashayed in, at least initially, a pink long-sleeved shirt. 

Morrissey’s crooning was in resplendent display that evening — alternating between the serenading on the likes of “Let Me Kiss You” and the Buddy Holly-inspired a-hey hiccups in “You’re the One for Me, Fatty,” between the torch song dramatics of something like “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” and his vocal cord-straining rendition of the Eddie Peregrina-esque “To Give (The Reason I Live),” an original of Frankie Valli’s. 

Moz lovers of this world unite

He likewise dispensed diva-like blurbs in between songs. For one thing, in between his angsty “Alma Matters” and the lilting “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris,” Morrissey quipped, “If you have any doubt about [my] music: It’s not rock. It’s not alternative. It’s not pop. It’s … opera.”

Also memorable, aside from the token lingua franca lines “Kumusta po?” and “Mahal ko kayo,” was his bitchy blurb in between the blazing tracks “The First of the Gang to Die” and “Speedway”:

“I have so much to say. It’s hard to know where to begin. Therefore, I won’t.”

Accentuating the visual drama were his initial donning of the Philippine flag as an improvised skirt and the predominant stage background featuring a photo of Oscar Wilde, who’s been gone since November 1900 but was presented here with a dialogue balloon that said, “Who is Morrissey?” That backdrop would give way halfway through to a series of rather graphic animal-cruelty videos that provided visual accompaniment to “Meat is Murder,” Morrissey’s Smiths-era dirge that, in its grave way, espouses vegetarianism. (Representatives of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals were standing by at the lobby for potential PETA converts.)

While there was hardly a dull moment for those present, it was noticeable that the attendees were more in sing-along or air-punching mood during The Smiths songs (which included “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” “I Know It’s Over” and the encore slash grand finale, “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”) or his pre-’90s solo single “Everyday is Like Sunday” — attributable either to lesser regard for much of Morrissey’s post-Smiths discography or the gaping absence of an outsider radio station like NU 107, which had provided much airtime to Moz music before it went off Manila’s airwaves in November 2010. 

That said, and even despite the relative brevity of the concert (finished a little before 10 PM, perhaps Morrissey’s way of conserving what remains of his touring energy and interest), this was one gig its viewers would prize for the rest of their lifetimes. Even with its “greatest hits” quotient, the concert was far from a nostalgia trip.

It was more of a grand occasion for mutual admiration: for us to see Morrissey perform, and for him to see us admire him right back. – Rappler.com

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