ANGST FLOWS LIKE A giant aquifer unseen beneath the surface of the earth. Its there for everyone, regardless of height, weight, skin-color and gender, but only when humans reach a certain age not coincidentally around the same time they become capable of having sex do they gain the sensitivity to detect its tides and rhythms, and the ability to mine it from beneath the crust of ordinary things. Some humans lose these skills as they grow older. Others, for better or worse, retain them. The lucky ones know about the Smiths.
When I was 19 I lost all my Smiths tapes in a single morning. They were in a house, and the house burned down. Morrissey was at a particularly embarrassing stage of his solo career (he'd just released "Ouija Board, Ouija Board"), and I told myself that I didn't need to replace my collection, that I was past all that. Over the years, though, breakups and bad days have sent me running to the record store, and I've restocked, upgrading to compact disc and re-cementing my loyalties to the point that I am happy, more than happy, overjoyed, to be spending a Saturday evening at the Palace for the 2002 Smiths/Morrissey Convention.
I am here with my friend Adam, his girlfriend Christy and her friend Jenny. Adam and I have been friends since high school, and it was the Smiths that brought us together. I was walking down the E Hall steps after physics class, humming "How Soon Is Now?" when Adam stopped me. "You like the Smiths?" he asked, somewhat desperately. We've been tight ever since. Back in the mid-'80s, in the suburbs of New York, Smiths fans were generally sullen kids with floppy hair and oversized thrift-store overcoats. "Sixteen, clumsy and shy," as Morrissey put it, we read too much, consumed the usual amounts of drugs and drink, and smoked unfiltered cigarettes because romantic indifference was a key part of the look. We overlapped slightly with goths and punks, but were too nerdy to really hang.
Times have changed. When we arrive at the Palace, These Charming Men, a Smiths cover band, have already begun their three-hour set. The singer, his hair cut in a low-key version of the Morrissey pompadour, is pumping the microphone in the air with fey bravado, crooning "Ask" ("If it's not love, then it's the bomb that will bring us together . . . "). The ballroom is nearly full -- not with pallid white kids like me who remember precisely where they were when they heard about the Smiths' 1987 breakup, but with a new crop of fans. Many of them were still fresh from the uterus in '87, and almost all are Latino.
It's a curious phenomenon -- all over the sunny Southwest, Latino teens enthralled with the mope-rock saint of Manchester -- but it's no weirder than middle-class white boys thumping along to "Fuck Tha Police." Alienation knows no borders. And it's thrilling to see it, a subculture free of all the strained nostalgia and wink-wink irony that accompany most retro trends. These kids aren't in it for the camp. They love the Smiths. They need Morrissey, alchemist and worker of wonders, to make their misery a source of pride, to take away their loneliness and give it back to them transformed into something noble, beautiful even.
And they are beautiful. Look at the girl in the blue dress, with Morrissey's moniker (Moz), his name and his face tattooed on her back. Or the kid in the Smiths jacket bobbing his head in front of me, no older than 16, with perfect Mayan features and a mustache of adolescent fuzz, his hair gelled up into an enormous puff. Check out the girl behind me, her hair dyed red, mouthing the words to "Girlfriend in a Coma" with painful conviction. Or the sensitive-football-player type with the chorus to "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" printed on his T-shirt ("And if a double-decker bus/crashes into us/to die by your side/is such a heavenly way to die"). Or the heavy guy in the standard barrio uniform of shaved head, baggy jeans and short-sleeved plaid shirt. He's holding his girlfriend tight and swaying blissfully, his eyes shut, singing along to the consummately geeky "Cemetery Gates" ("Keats and Yeats are on your side, but you lose, because Wilde is on mine . . . ").
I go upstairs and find Adam, who has just purchased the sheet music to The World Won't Listen. There are Smiths and Morrissey T-shirts for sale, and posters, pins, 45s, rare import 12-inches, beanies, mouse pads, old copies of Creem, Melody Maker and NME with Moz on the cover (the readers of NME, bless them, just voted the Smiths the most important group of all time, just ahead of some band called the Beatles). We order drinks and grab a table in the smoking lounge, where we sit and eavesdrop on a Spin reporter, nominally conducting interviews about "the Latino angle," but mainly just macking on the ladies. And of course we talk about the Smiths. Christy, I am pleased to learn, also spent many adolescent hours pouring her soul into a letter to Morrissey. He didn't write back to her either.