Nov. 10, 2017
For more than three decades, there have been music fans who claim they simply cannot listen to the Manchester-bred singer who calls himself Morrissey. His keening voice is too mannered, his phrasing too pretentious, his vibrato too extreme. Even the shimmering, folk-inspired guitar of onetime partner Johnny Marr, even the inspired songwriting he practiced with The Smiths and extended into his solo career, even lyrics that gave post-’60s rock its own Dylan or Lennon figure are not — for these folks — enough to overcome Moz’s distinctive vocal style, and the combination of self-pity and personal triumphalism that drives it. To them, apparently, the Manchester icon’s voice resembles nails on a blackboard.
These doubters likely would not have enjoyed Morrissey’s shows at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend. But for nearly everyone else — sensitive Gen X-ers who sang along to Smiths lyrics during their lonely teenage years, younger people who got to know him as the solo artist behind “Every Day Is Like Sunday” or “Suedehead,” rockabilly-clad California Latinos for whom he’s The Beatles and The Stones put together — this was the kind of solid, hard-rocking, persuasive show that made clear that Moz is, at the very least, a figure for the ages. The fact that Friday — the first of two nights at the Bowl and the one I attended — was declared Morrissey Day by the city of Los Angeles only made his ascension to the pantheon more explicit.
Morrissey is not content to see himself merely in the tradition of the great English rock artists. The sequence of films and videos that played after opener Billy Idol included Dionne Warwick singing Burt Bacharach’s “Don’t Make Me Over,” The New York Dolls, a homoerotic film of the young man from Warhol’s Factory who inspired a reference in Lou Reed’s ”Walk on the Wild Side,” The Four Tops dancing to Motown classic “It’s the Same Old Song,” and the Sex Pistols destroying the world that made them with “God Save the Queen.” Cue Morrissey!
Moz has always framed his work alongside his heroes — early Smiths album jackets and single covers riff on ’60s British film, Warhol imagery (again) and young Elvis Presley at his most pimply and awkward. But at this point, it was hard not to see the pregame show — and the photographs projected on the Bowl’s enormous screens once the concert started — as an assertion of parity. These were not just influences; these were peers, antecedents to the Great Figure you now see before you.
Any doubts were squelched with the opening number, for which Morrissey — looking lean in a pin-striped suit — crooned Presley’s “You’ll Be Gone,” a song the King wrote with his bodyguard that appeared in the movie Girl Happy. The song was as bombastic as much of what’s on Moz's upcoming LP, Low in High School, though he also put across winning new numbers such as “Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage” and “When You Open Your Legs.” Some previous Moz songs — like the lovelorn “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” — sounded great. Still, the highlight of Friday night’s show, besides a few songs from the Reagan-Thatcher years, may have been a cover of The Pretenders' “Back on the Chain Gang,” written by Morrissey associate Chrissie Hynde.
For Smiths fans, the night offered only four numbers, including a triumphant “I Started Something I Couldn't Finish,” a Bic-waving ”How Soon Is Now,” an encore of “Shoplifters of the World Unite” and a dirgelike “Meat Is Murder” complete with animal-slaughter videos. (“Thanksgiving is murder!”)
A more serious issue for a certain kind of ’80s O.G. diehard was the general tone of the show. It may be a bit late in the game to lament the disappearance of a kind of sensitive spirit from Moz’s repertoire. The English poet Simon Armitage commented, on meeting his hero a few years ago, on the ascendance of “the mobster and bare-knuckle boxer image he's cultivated of late [over] the stick-thin, knock-me-over-with-a-feather campness of yesteryear.” On Friday, indeed, Moz’s Rat Pack–style swagger and macho physicality were the rule, not swooning with flowers in his back pocket or Wilde quotes on his tongue.
It is, surely, hard to be intimate in a 17,000-seat venue. But the sensitive or “literary” side of Morrissey — the reflective spirit that led to a handful of songs that accomplish what, usually, only poetry can accomplish — is hard to find these days. There was no “This Charming Man” or “Half a Person” or “Ask” or even “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” the key number from The Queen Is Dead LP (just reissued, three decades later). You can find wit and melody and other good things at Morrissey’s arena shows and on his recent solo records, but that introverted artistry has long moved on to Belle & Sebastian and The Clientele and Frank Ocean and other places — not that the KROQ-loving crowd seemed to mind.
“California Republic, I hope I have lived up to my appalling reputation,” Moz offered, just before jumping into “Suedehead” near the end of the show. That line might seem incongruous to the uninitiated, or to a concertgoer who did not realize that he had forbidden the Bowl to serve meat, and that he had refused to take the stage a few nights ago in Paso Robles because it was too chilly. (Even on a cool night in the Hollywood Hills, he felt comfortable enough to don Elvis-in-Vegas sequins and to go, briefly, shirtless.)
But appalling? Probably a bit too strong. Morrissey in 2017 may be hard to love, but he’s earned a certain kind of dispensation for grumpy, erratic geniuses. Elvis and Sinatra declined far more sharply than this. With luck, Moz will keep crooning and drawing crowds without embarrassing himself for years to come.
Set list below.
You'll Be Gone (Elvis Presley cover)
I Started Something I Couldn't Finish
I Wish You Lonely
Jacky's Only Happy When She's Up on the Stage
Kiss Me a Lot
When You Open Your Legs
How Soon Is Now?
Spent the Day in Bed
The Bullfighter Dies
Jack the Ripper
Home Is a Question Mark
My Love, I'd Do Anything for You
I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris
Back on the Chain Gang (The Pretenders cover)
All the Young People Must Fall in Love
World Peace Is None of Your Business
Meat Is Murder
Everyday Is Like Sunday
Shoplifters of the World Unite