It’s a surreal moment. I’m sitting on a grotty stool in the toilet of a live music venue in downtown San Diego. A girl with long black hair is standing next to me waiting for a cubicle. She is visibly emotional. ‘Does everyone here love the Smiths as much as I do?’ she asks plaintively, with adoration shining in her eyes. I fidget on my stool for two reasons – my reserve is holding me back from screaming ‘yes’, and I am desperate for the bathroom. In the next two minutes I find out that this ardent fan is only 21 years old and had once seen Morrissey, vocalist of English 80s alternative rock band the Smiths, at a concert in Las Vegas. Tonight is the next best thing: a Smiths tribute band called the Sweet and Tender Hooligans, fronted by a Jose Maldonado, a Mexican-American who works as a Los Angeles County lifeguard by day. Yes, you read that right.
I’m not a massive fan of cover bands. They remind me of shabby, badly lit auditoriums and maybe wedding receptions. But when a cousin told me about tonight’s gig, I couldn’t resist seeing the Mexican Morrissey for myself. I was skeptical, though, and I was sincerely praying that this cover band wouldn’t sully my teenage memories. When I was a misunderstood (or so I thought) and bored teenager growing up in the suburbs of San Diego, I thought Morrissey’s lyrics were speaking directly to me. He captured the angst of anyone who has ever felt like they didn’t belong.
We’re having a drink in one of the venue’s smaller and less crowded bars when I first hear the familiar music starting up in another room. We rush over to the main bar in time to see Jose Maldonado strutting around the stage in a shiny red shirt, navy suit jacket and jeans. He’s singing the opening chords of Bigmouth Strikes Again. My brother and I look at each other, doubt clouding our expressions. We’re cynics at the best of times. A friend of ours says scornfully, ‘This cost $20?’ But the longer I hear Maldonado, the more I can’t help smiling.
The lead singer of the Sweet and Tender Hooligans is undoubtedly swarthier than Morrissey, but he has perfected the pompadour hair and he has nailed some of the Mancunian’s expressions and movements. Sometimes the similarity is eerie. Most surprising is that he has captured Morrissey’s unusual voice. He may not be the real thing, but he is not a bad facsimile. The 150-odd people gathered at the Casbah tonight are appreciative, and they clap enthusiastically. I spot the 21-year-old from the toilet in the crowd, filming Maldonado with her phone. She is enraptured and tries to reach out and touch him with her fingertips.
The Mexican connection
In California, it’s a pretty-well known fact that Morrissey has a huge Mexican following, with the epicenter in east Los Angeles. The two seem to be totally at odds with each other. How could a white boy from Northern England appeal to immigrants living on the gritty streets of an urban metropolis such as east LA? I didn’t really know, but an interview with Maldonado gives some insight. Responding to a question about it, he says: ‘We knew Morrissey grew up in Northern England from Irish parents. That experience, I’m told, is not unlike the experience growing up Mexican-American. Both of those cultures are similar— the Catholic upbringing, the love for boxing and soccer, the close-knit families, the working-class parents. Going to public school and feeling like an outsider because you’re not quite with the cool kids because you’re from someplace else. So even though he doesn’t necessarily sing about those things, somehow we relate to that guy who had a similar upbringing to what we did.’
A bit of research also reveals that Morrissey’s lyrics are not unlike Mexican ranchero songs, which talk about having your dreams destroyed by others, often in death. Morrissey’s large Mexican fan base has grown and has become the subject of several documentaries. A 2005 feature in the Guardian talks about the singer/songwriter’s resurgence of popularity in the unlikeliest of places.
A light that never goes out
Halfway through the show, Maldonado takes his shirt off. He is smaller and more pale than I thought he would be. In what is a trademark Morrissey flourish, he grabs some gladiolas and puts them in his back pocket. Even though this could descend into parody, I feel like he pulls it off. The only slightly annoying thing is that Maldonado tends to talk quite a bit between songs and makes repeated references to his fans.
After an hour and a half, I sense that the show is coming to a close. I wander the thinned-out crowd looking for my cousin, who I lost at the very beginning of the set. I spot her at the front, singing and dancing to the songs. Suddenly she is pulled up on stage, where she is hugged and touched by the lead singer. She later tells me that he grabbed her head and whispered in her ear, ‘Don’t go anywhere, please.’ I think she made a lasting impression.
The final song is one of my favorites, There is a light that never goes out. I look at my friends, who are swaying to the song and mumbling the lyrics. My brother’s girlfriend leans over and beams: ‘I love this song so much.’ I spot a burly Mexican-looking guy mouthing the words to himself. In a twist to the original, the Mexican Morrissey sings some of the final refrain, taken from the title of the song, in Spanish. It’s strange to watch someone like Maldonado imitate an artist you have admired half your life. My brother compared it to incest. I am not as uncomfortable with it as he is. The only sad note is that it left me wanting more. Not necessarily more of the Sweet and Tender Hooligans. I don’t know if I would see them again, because I’m not sure what I would get out of another show. It left me wanting to see the Smiths in a small club in Manchester. I was humming Everyday is like Sunday today in the shower when my five-year-old overheard me. ‘Mommy, why are you doing that?’ she asked. (I’m not much of a singer normally.) I didn’t know how to explain it to her, so I just laughed and told her I was humming for no reason.