ANGST FLOWS LIKE A giant aquifer unseen beneath the surface of the earth. It’s 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.
We get back to the dance floor in time for the encore (“Bigmouth Strikes Again”). Boys with huge pompadours jump on stage to grope the Moz stand-in. Pretty soon there are a dozen kids with him, singing along arm in arm, and the most genial mosh pit I've ever seen has formed on the floor. Pairs of smooth-faced boys, their arms around each other's shoulders, playfully prance and slam. The lights go up, then down again, and the DJ starts to spin. Most Smiths' songs lack an identifiable bass line, so dancing is a stretch. We do our best, though, and stick it out until the end of “Everyday Is Like Sunday.” As we leave, a couple hundred earnest faces glow in the joy of this transient togetherness. And they sing, their voices louder than the music itself: “Come Armageddon, come Armageddon, come . . .”
“I JUST SHOOK HIS HAND!”
“Goddamn!” And with that, the dude in white shorts and a horrible plaid peach shirt dashes away, presumably to get a handshake of his own.
“Where can we party?” The Adolescents' lumpy Rikk Agnew hollers. It's a good question. The scene at the premiere party for the skateboard documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys falls short of O.C. kegger and way short of premiere glitz. Thirty- and 40-somethings mill about the Vans Skatepark at “The Block” Mall in Orange as if they're at a neighborhood barbecue, munching on chicken wings and occasionally looking around to make sure their floppy-haired munchkin hasn't fallen into a half-pipe.
“Mine's the one in the Dead Kennedys shirt,” I hear one mother tell another, pointing out a kid who, with big eyes, board and sneer, could be Jay Adams circa '75.
“Are you motherfuckers feeling suicidal?” screams Suicidal Tendencies' thuggish front man, Mike Muir (brother of Z-Boy Jim Muir), when the band takes the stage.
I look around, and the answer seems to be, “No, not right now, thanks anyway.” Except for the requisite crew of shirtless skinheads (just bald, not Nazi) who will start a mosh pit if you turn the radio up too loud, the crowd seems content to perch on the ramps and pretend it's punk rock at the Hollywood Bowl.
“S! T! S! T! S! T!” the bands hollers, unabashedly trying to coerce the audience into chanting their initials. It's the kind of fanatical brand-name support that Vans hopes to drum up for its new Dogtown merchandise line.
Skating, of course, is a corporate world. Every shirt, beanie or shoe in the park is tagged: Hurley, Quiksilver, Vans. Same goes for the people. “I work for Vans. Graphic design,” a guy tells me.
“Me? Yeah, Vans,” another tells me.
Poolside, a pack of skaters, pro and amateur alike, takes turns dropping into the Skatepark's replica pool. A ruddy-faced middle-aged woman intently shoots the skaters with her wide-angle DV cam. She's in tacky white sneakers, Adidas trainer pants and a black Dogtown windbreaker.
“I've known these guys since they were kids,” she says proudly.
I ask her how she got involved.
“I was a skater!” she sounds offended. “Haven't you ever heard of the Skate Mom?”
“I've been in this world for a long time,” she says. “Yeah, I've been working for Vans for 25 years!”
A heavily tattooed, bare-chested skater in snow-camo shorts eats it hard on a grind, but rouses a loud cheer.
Sideline commentary: “Yowwww! Dwayne Peters! The Master of Disaster. That guy is about as O.G. as it gets. Look how flexible that fucker is at his age.”
It's hard for me to spot things like flexibility, but I can't help but gasp when Brain Patch grabs frontside air two inches in front of my nose, lands it and inverts on the far lip. The crowd is appreciative, but the single most amped group of people are the skaters themselves. Their eyes are glued to the action, shouting and clapping at every move; the really outrageous stuff gets boards banging on the pool rim. Watching the sweaty glow on their faces, it's suddenly easy to forget the branding, the aging punk rock, and remember, for a second, the fundamental joy of rolling around on a piece of wood with wheels.