The gentleman with the impossibly high pompadour, cuffed jeans and scruffy leather jacket is sipping on a rum-and-Coke and snuggling with his girlfriend while the strains of Morrissey’s “November Spawned a Monster” clang in the background. He’s a first-timer to the Smiths-Morrissey convention, the 11th such event to be held in the Southland. This year, it’s all happening at Crash Mansion, a dark warren of rooms that is teeming with fans who have driven from Riverside, Rialto, Arizona, Las Vegas and elsewhere to commune as one under the righteous banner of their favorite defunct band.
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This charming man isn't Morrissey, but who cares?
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The ladies love their sexually ambiguous front men.
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No magnolias, but steel rings are the accessory of choice
The greaser manqué, a 20-something acolyte named Ramón, is typical of the kind of überfan the band’s legacy has spawned in Los Angeles. He’s Latino, as are about 80 percent of the fans here; he was born after the Smiths broke up; and he’s undying in his devotion.
“Man, I ain’t got no beef against Morrissey’s music, but it just can’t compare to the Smiths, dude,” he says over the din. “I wish I could have seen them, but, you know, this is cool too.” Just how cool the Smiths convention might be for the novitiate is open to debate, but for the proper insane-iac, it is a chance to commingle with spiritual kin and to sing along to their favorite songs somewhere other than in freeway traffic.
This isn’t a record swap teeming with pasty middle-aged white men; the crowd is decked out and looks ab-fab. Many of the girls are covering up their ink with cocktail dresses and sport magnolias in their hair. A couple of vendors are selling bows with the Smiths’ picture in the center, but no one’s biting. Merch is really beside the point. All of the prime stuff, like the import vinyl, is sold within an hour or so after the convention’s 7 p.m. start time. There’s plenty of B-grade goods, like countless fan-sourced CDs and DVDs of various shows, although the vendors don’t really seem to know which ones are any good.
But who cares? No one’s bothering to buy this stuff. The Smiths convention isn’t about stocking up on colored vinyl copies of Meat Is Murder; it’s more like a high school prom with a DJ who only owns Rough Trade singles. While two video screens play loops of old Smiths videos and TV appearances, couples are dancing as if they’re gunning for a cameo in a John Hughes film. Girls are using their free Morrissey posters (gone in a flash, btw) as makeshift microphones, shout-singing, “I haven’t got thing to weeearr!” and “Panic on the streets of Londo-on!” The male wallflowers, meanwhile, are chanting along as if it’s the upper deck at Dodger Stadium. Who knew the Smiths’ filigreed pop would ever inspire such boozy brio?
“Some of these folks have attended every convention since they were teenagers,” says the ever-affable Richard Blade. He’s tonight’s host, though it’s unclear if these kids know that he helped break the Smiths on KROQ back when their parents were rocking the stone-wash. “Now, they’re 28, 29. I’ve become e-mail buddies with some of them. They like to get in touch as the convention gets closer.”
Blade looks trim and fit, and perfectly happy to be the only vestigial link to any real member of the Smiths (he has Morrissey’s cell number, someone in the crowd offers). Right now, he’s conducting a “Name That Tune” contest, and this crowd is giving no quarter to the participants, a few of whom stumble on glaringly obvious song cues. “How can you not get ‘Ask’?” someone rebel-yells. “You dumb-ass!”
Ian, bespectacled and quietly intense, is one of the many rabid conventioneers here, a walking Smiths reliquary. “This is from the Queen Is Dead tour,” he says, pointing to the raised lettering on the right side of his jacket that reads “Smiths 1986 Tour.” When Ian’s asked if he’s ever caught a magnolia or two at a Smiths show, he carefully pulls out a small Mylar bag from his front pocket. Inside the bag is a shopworn ticket stub covered in Magic Marker scrawl. “See that? It’s a stub from the Smiths’ concert at the Amphitheatre. Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce signed it. Just 17 bucks! Those were the days.”
Everyone, it seems, is wearing some sartorial totem of their affection, many of them handmade. One clutch of tough-looking dudes is wearing what is by far the most creative shirt of the evening. Emblazoned in Old English font on the back of their black shirts is “Moz Krew: Westside, from L.A. to the South Bay.” “Oh, you know, we got these shirts made up at the mall,” says amateur shirt designer Ruben. “We’re not in a gang or anything like that. We’re just fans.”
After the crowd constructively spends a couple of hours pogoing and partying, Blade comes back onstage to introduce a Smiths cover band who have flown “all the way from Dublin” to play the convention. It’s clear that These Charming Men (catchy name, that) have got the repertoire down cold, but their Moz-alike is lame, missing cues and generally coming off like someone who’s being paid to care. They are miles from the Sweet and Tender Hooligans, the great cover band that even Morrissey himself has endorsed.
But Moz once said, What difference does it make? Everyone’s singing along anyway, locking arms and hearts in fealty to their mutual love. It’s a beautiful thing, this kind of collective ardor for the greatest band of the ’80s. They will all do it again next year, and hope the Sweet and Tender Hooligans show up.