It's always interesting when you discover a friend or acquaintance is seriously into music that doesn't seem to fit their image -- the granny who digs OutKast, say, or the black hip-hop head with a Mars Volta jones, or the outlaw biker who jams Beethoven. Odder still when you discover that whole nations are fans of musicians that don't fit their stereotypes.
In Nigeria, genial country crooner Don Williams is just as much an icon as Bob Marley. In the 1950s and '60s in Tito's Yugoslavia, Mexican music was all the rage, so much so that Yu-Mex caballeros with names like Ljubomir Milic and Slavko Perovic made Eastern bloc ranchera records.
And now there's the Mexican-American Morrissey craze. In Morrissey's adopted hometown of Los Angeles, Morrissey Mania among young Hispanics is almost religious. There's a booming trade in his relics -- autographs trade for $60 and up, even those of dubious authenticity, and some even ascribe mystical powers to him. (It's said that the 1986 Smiths album The Queen Is Dead and other recordings foretold Princess Diana's death in 1997.) Vintage Chevy Impalas roll down the East L.A. streets, full of sinister-looking gangbanger types, and in place of English-script "Lopez" or "Rodriguez" stickers in the rear window are ones that read "Morrissey." There's a Hispanic Morrissey tribute band there called the Sweet and Tender Hooligans, and one Latin Morrissey fan there has a back-length tattoo of an iconic shot of a slouching James Dean with Morrissey's head.
And Moz has reciprocated. Recently the singer has taken to wearing Mexican-flag belt buckles on stage and has referred to himself as "Moz-car De La Hoya." His new song "The First in the Gang to Die" features a guy named Hector, and Mexican-Americans interpret this as being about them. "We didn't know we had that kind of power as a people," says one Mexican-American fan. "We didn't know we could change a pop star."
What is it about Morrissey that strikes such a chord with young Hispanics? It seems an improbable love affair. Morrissey's effeminate voice and persona and bleak, wimpy, perpetually adolescent lyrics wouldn't seem likely to resonate with what is perceived as a machismo-driven culture. And what does a 45-year-old Englishman have to offer Hispanic kids in the L.A. barrios?
Orange County Weekly writer Gustavo Arellano believes that Morrissey's music has something in common with ranchera. In a story written two years ago, Arellano cited Morrissey's falsetto, which he said was like that of Pedro Infante, and Morrissey's effeminate stage presence, which put him in mind of Juan Gabriel. Arellano also wrote that Morrissey's lyrics, like those of ranchera, rely on ambiguity, powerful imagery and metaphors, and that Morrissey's idealization of a simpler life and his rejection of all things bourgeois share a populist streak with ranchera. To Arellano, the most prominent parallel was Morrissey's "embrace of the uncertainty of life and love." As he wrote: "For all the machismo and virulent existentialism that Mexican music espouses, there is another side -- a morbid fascination with getting your heart and dreams broken by others, usually in death. In fact, Morrissey's most famous confession of unrequited love, 'There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,' ('And if a double-decker bus / Crashes into us / To die by your side / Would be a heavenly way to die') emulates almost sentiment for sentiment Cuco Sanchez's torch song 'Cama de Piedra' ('The day that they kill me / May it be with five bullets / And be close to you')."
"That does make sense," says Liz Santos, a 29-year-old Houston Morrissey fanatic. "Some of the Hispanic music is very much about your life, almost like country music. It's about your life, it's about your love. They may be singing about plants, but it's a metaphor for love."
Santos and her brother, 25-year-old musician and Houston Press employee Abrahán Garza, are rare Tex-Mex Morrissey maniacs, but for a couple of years Garza -- who wears his hair in a glistening pompadour and sports horn-rimmed specs -- lived among his partners-in-passion in the city that has come to be called "Moz Angeles." For Garza, to move to L.A. was to enter the Promised Land.
In short, it was a far cry from Houston, where Garza and Santos attended Reagan High School in the inner city. Where his classmates spray-painted gang signs, Garza tagged Morrissey's name. Since then, he has been interviewed in the documentary My Life with Morrissey and met his hero twice. During the second encounter, the singer wrote his name on Garza's arm, whereupon Garza hustled over to a tattoo shop and rendered his hero's scrawl permanent. "I know I'm not gonna wake up when I'm 50 and say, 'I hate Morrissey,' " he says. "He could do a song called 'I Hate Abrahán,' and I would be like, 'Man, he wrote that for me.' "
Both of the meetings took place in front of the singer's house. Garza says a highlight came on the second trip. The first time he met his idol, he was driving an old brown Volvo that was encrusted with unusual Morrissey stickers. The second time around, he was driving a different car. "He asked me where my old one was," Garza says. "He remembered. I told him I donated it to a nonprofit, and he said, 'Oh, that's really great.' I felt approval. I really felt like I was a great fan." Garza pauses. "I'm sure he wouldn't have been that nice if we had told him we were on the way to a barbecue, which is true," he adds. No, someone who released an album called Meat Is Murder probably wouldn't be amused.
Garza's Moz obsession was instigated by Santos. Around 1989, Santos had heard "How Soon Is Now" shuddering in the background of a live remote radio ad, and after some research, found it was by a band called the Smiths. Next she hunted down the tape. "This is terrible," she says. "But I finally found it in a record store in the mall and I stole it." That little act of pretty petty thievery was to have drastic consequences on several lives.
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A little later, while in the backseat on a family trip in Mexico, Santos stuck the tape in her Walkman and passed it over to little Abrahán. "Frankly, Mr. Shankly" was playing. Garza was not hooked right away. "At first, I kinda made fun of him," he says now. "I used to say he had a hairpiece. I'm not afraid to admit that." A couple of years later, though, he was hooked. "I sang 'Frankly, Mr. Shankly' in the fifth-grade talent show," he says. "The other kids were doing Biz Markie and stuff like that."
Needless to say, his heavy metal- and rap-loving schoolmates thought he was something of a freak. "If you liked him in my high school, you were weird and probably a nerd," he says. And his mom wasn't too happy about his fixation either. One time she ripped all of his Moz posters off his bedroom walls and tossed a stack of expensive bootlegs across the room.
Meanwhile, Garza's sister had taken a job in a local supermarket. A customer kept coming in, a Hispanic guy about her age named Frank who wore Morrissey concert shirts. Needless to say, a romance developed. "Even though we both lived in Houston, we would send each other letters," she says. "And he would always put 'Manchester, England' as the return address. My mom thought I was dating a guy from England." And of course they were married a short time later and remain so to this day. "Morrissey really brings people together," Santos says. "I wouldn't have looked twice at Frank if he wasn't wearing those shirts. If two strangers are both Morrissey fans, they're instant friends."
Garza says that his wife is a fan too, within limits. "Eight out of ten of the CDs in my car's changer are Morrissey or the Smiths," he says. "And sometimes she'll be like, 'Do we really have to listen this again?' And I say, 'Well, whose car are we in?' " If the situation ever arose where his wife gave him a "Morrissey or me" ultimatum, the consequences would be dire. "I would just leave," he says. "Let's end the article with that."