J.C. is a distinguished-looking gentlemen with a square jaw and a well-coiffed shock of silver hair. From a small band stage, he’s belting out The Smith’s “This Charming Man” in Spanish. “Saldría esta noche, pero no tengo nada que ponerme,” he croons.
Latino love for Morrissey is well documented, so why not?
He finishes to applause and whoops from the packed crowd, and the emcee introduces the next singer, a younger guy named Julian, who wears a Morrissey-esque pompadour. Julian’s the lead singer of a Smiths tribute band called Strangeways, so his English-language performance of “Still Ill” is more polished than J.C.’s, but no less brimming with fanboy enthusiasm.
This is MorrisseyOKE, an all-Morrissey karaoke night at Boyle Heights bar Eastside Luv. Since it started up three years ago, MorrisseyOKE has become a monthly ritual for a close-knit group of Morrissey superfans, who make the trip to Mariachi Plaza to cheer each other on as they take turns singing Smiths and Moz tunes.
It’s not really karaoke in the traditional sense. There's no video screen with bouncing-ball lyrics; though participants are permitted to bring printed lyrics or use their phones, most everyone has every verse memorized. A DJ plays the original tracks with Morrissey’s vocals lowered in the mix. That is, unless the singer chooses to accompany himself or herself on guitar, which many do.
There’s a zero-tolerance policy towards hecklers. “If you boo, we boot you,” organizer/emcee Alexis De La Rocha explains at the start of the night. “Singing is very vulnerable, especially with Morrissey songs."
De La Rocha, a onetime employee of Eastside Luv, got the idea for MorrisseyOKE from another popular night at the bar, “Mariachi-Oke,” at which patrons could get up and sing boleros and rancheras in front of a live mariachi band. She was partly inspired by Morrissey’s popularity within East L.A.’s Latino community, but she says she always intended for the night to appeal to Moz fans of all backgrounds (and singing abilities).
The night was an instant hit, and it's easy to see why. Young or old, female or male, gay or straight, white or Latino, everyone who grabs the mic instantly channels, whether through outright mimicry or in subtler ways, Morrissey's enigmatic persona: defiant, wounded, bitchy, droll and earnest all at once.
About a year after it started, MorrisseyOKE was featured on KPCC’s The Madeleine Brand Show. The added publicity brought in a new influx of Moz fans. Levi Petree is one of those more recent arrivals. A singer-songwriter who fronts a band called Radio Publica, Petree met his guitarist, John Salgado, Jr., at the party.
“I’d never been in this neighborhood. But after the first time I came … as long as you love Morrissey, people really embrace you,” he says, after performing an admirably non-campy version of “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” with Salgado accompanying him on guitar. “I’ve been coming here long enough now to where people are like family.”
Some are literally family. J.C.’s son Andre begins the evening with The Smiths’ “The Headmaster Ritual,” a song almost certainly older than he. Sisters Melissa and Monica Hidalgo take the stage together and separately; Monica, after a sneering rendition of an early Morrissey solo track, “Sister I’m a Poet,” announces that she’s looking for a guitarist for her and Melissa's all-female Smiths/Morrissey cover band, Sheilas Take a Bow.
“Sorry, boys,” she says, “but you’ve monopolized the tribute bands for too long.”
De La Rocha introduces Melissa Hidalgo as “Doctor Melissa”; she’s an Assistant Professor of English and World Literature at the Claremont Colleges. Rocking a butch haircut and black East L.A. T-shirt (the same one El Moz himself was once spotted wearing), she rips through “Staircase the University,” a track off Morrissey’s latest album, World Peace Is None of Your Business. She struts out along the bar – which extends out from the band stage – and mimes along to the track’s flamenco-style guitar licks.
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After her performance, Hidalgo retreats to Eastside Luv’s smoking patio to talk about the book she’s writing about Morrissey fans and fan-generated culture in general. She acknowledges that MorrisseyOKE has added more white folks over the years, and welcomes it: "Yeah, come here to the Eastside! I'm tired of going to the Westside. Y'all live too far." But for her, it’s still a quintessentially Chicano/East L.A. event.
“There’s a reason why geographically it is where it is,” she says, adding professorially, “You can’t decontextualize it.”