By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
When John Lennon or Noel Gallagher proclaimed to the world--tongue-in-cheek, hopefully--that their respective bands were bigger than Jesus, it could be laughed off as harmless boasting from a pair of musicians drunk on their own success (and more than a few pints of lager, in the case of Oasis' Gallagher at least). Nothing too serious, just pop stars being pop stars. If Steven Patrick Morrissey were to make a similar claim, however, it wouldn't be as easy to dismiss. That's because--to a certain sensitive segment of alienated middle-class youth--Morrissey is bigger than Jesus or any religious figure. If his status as musical icon and cult figure were ever in doubt, Morrissey's performance November 4 at the Brady Theater in Tulsa, Oklahoma, proved that he is still pop music's answer to the Rev. Jim Jones, able to control the hearts and minds of more than 1,600 people with little more than a wave of his hand.
Although Morrissey did not take the stage until after 9 p.m., the show began much earlier. Traveling from as far away as Austin and Houston, fans began arriving at the theater around 1 p.m. By 4 p.m., a hundred or so people had convened at the venue, milling around the front and back doors, bearing flowers, books, shirts, and sundry other gifts they wished to bestow on Him. Other fans queued up patiently by the front door, swapping stories and debating the merits of various Smiths B-sides. A wall near the front entrance to the building was adorned with drawings, lyrics, and personal messages to Morrissey scrawled in chalk. Five hours before he was even to take the stage, Morrissey's performance in Tulsa already had transcended a mere concert and began to take on event status.
Hopes for a moment of personal contact with Morrissey were dashed when he finally arrived a couple of hours before the show began. Flanked by a team of broad-shouldered security personnel, he was hurried in through the back door of the building. The crowd--a mix of pasty-faced suburbanites and leather-jacketed punks--was disappointed and relieved; his arrival confirmed that the show was indeed a reality.
During the opening set by the Smoking Popes, the audience began jockeying for position at the foot of the stage. Except for the lucky few who had positioned themselves directly in front of the security barrier, the crowd focused its attention on whoever was standing in front of them, praying that the person would leave to use the rest room or buy a soda, allowing them to move two feet closer to the stage. The Popes' performance was received with indifference.
The Smoking Popes would not have performed at all had it not been for some (alleged) attempts at humor by original opener Elcka. A largely unknown band from the UK, Elcka was picked by Morrissey to perform on the American leg of his tour after he attended a concert by the band earlier this year. He described the show as "one of those gigs of a lifetime...one you never forget" to Melody Maker, a UK music weekly. Reportedly, members of the band thought it would be funny to eat hamburgers in front of Morrissey, a devout vegetarian who named one his albums Meat is Murder and chastised one of his idols, Joni Mitchell, for eating meat when he interviewed her for Spin. Shortly thereafter, the Smoking Popes had replaced the band on the bill. (According to other sources, Elcka left the tour because its record label could no longer afford it.)
After the Smoking Popes, the anticipation in the air became almost electric. Chants of "Morr-iss-ey!" sprang up every few minutes, and cheers erupted every time a guitar was tuned or the smoke machine belched forth another gout of fog. The audience showed no sympathy when a teenage girl fainted about five rows back from the stage. Instead, they used it as an opportunity to move closer. Savages. (The girl, by the way, was wearing a Beck T-shirt identical to the one Morrissey himself had on in the video for "Alma Matters," the first single off of his latest album Maladjusted. Apparently, his fans know no bounds when it comes to the minutiae of his career.)
When Morrissey and his band finally made their way to the stage, the room surged as fans scratched and clawed to get closer to their idol. Kicking off the show with two songs from 1995's Southpaw Grammar, "The Boy Racer" and "Do Your Best and Don't Worry," Morrissey appeared supremely confident, aware that he had the crowd in the palm of his hand from the outset. The only clue to any underlying nervousness was his constant habit of fidgeting with his thinning thatch of hair.
Midway through the set, the singer--in one of his few on-stage remarks--proclaimed that he had always been influenced by Glen Campbell and that he would now like to perform one of Campbell's songs. The band then launched into "Paint a Vulgar Picture," a song Morrissey made famous as a member of the Smiths. For an audience whose average age would have put them in their early teens when the Smiths broke up in 1987, it was a rare opportunity to revisit that era.
The atmosphere inside Brady Theater was a combination of tent revival and prison riot. Morrissey could have asked the crowd to rip the joint apart, and they would have done it gladly. On several occasions, mayhem threatened to erupt even without his instruction. What seemed to be moshing, on closer inspection, turned out to be kids simply trying to get close enough to shake hands with the singer or give him a hug. It didn't matter that their attempts were doomed from the beginning and would probably only succeed in getting them kicked out. To them, the opportunity was worth the risk. When an audience member finally succeeded in slipping by the hulking bouncers and giving Morrissey a hug--causing the singer to kneel in the middle of the stage for more than a minute--the floodgates threatened to open. Unfortunately, no one else got the chance.
The show ended with yet another Smiths song, "Shoplifters of the World Unite," after which most of the crowd ran outside to the back door, hoping again for a bit of contact. They were disappointed once again when Morrissey's tour bus pulled up next to the door, spoiling any and all chances.
Though Morrissey hadn't toured the United States in five years--the concert in Tulsa was five years to the day of his last appearance in Dallas--and was ostensibly here to promote his new album, only two songs from Maladjusted found their way onto the set list: "Alma Matters" and the theatrical "Ambitious Outsiders." A majority of the songs (seven) was taken from 1994's stellar Vauxhall and I.
Almost as strange as the set list was Morrissey's decision not to play a Dallas date. After all, in 1991 he released a video of one of his concerts filmed at Dallas' Starplex and the Dallas area has always been a Morrissey/Smiths stronghold. Was it because Morrissey's records no longer receive substantial (read: any) airplay on Dallas radio stations? The same could be said for many of the cities on his itinerary, and local station KDGE (94.5 FM) is home to one of Morrissey's biggest supporters in the United States, The Adventure Club's host, Josh Venable.
Venable not only made the trip to Tulsa, he also went to Lawrence, Kansas, the next night to see Morrissey again. In Lawrence, Venable got to do what so many of the audience members in Tulsa longed to do: give Morrissey a hug. After lurking outside of the hotel where the singer was staying, Venable finally got a chance to meet Morrissey, something he had been waiting to do for more than seven years.
"I started crying--I guess because it meant so much to me. He pulled away, and I told him that I loved him, and acting modest he said, 'No you don't,'" said Venable, who played every song on the Tulsa set list the following Sunday on The Adventure Club. "I said, 'No, you don't understand. This is something I've always wanted to say to you. I love you.' He was genuinely touched by it, and started to tear up as well. I think he was a little embarrassed for having shown some emotion, and also a little embarrassed for me because I was acting like I was 12 years old at a New Kids [on the Block] concert."
It's that kind of devotion that led many people to make the drive north to Tulsa. Morrissey's popularity may have waned in the past few years on both sides of the Atlantic, but still many people out there still think of the singer as a soul mate, the only one who truly understands them. And for that reason, no matter what the charts say, Morrissey still matters.