A Mexican Morrissey

Jose Maldonado

The Mexican Morrissey - an international playboy?

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.

l-r: Brother's girlfriend, me, the brother and the cousin

Warming ourselves up in the bar of the Casbah

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 fan

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. Drum kit

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.

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6 Comments

Filed under American life

6 responses to “A Mexican Morrissey

  1. Juliana

    I know what you mean about being cynical about cover bands. It seems like you’re there, just waiting for the sequence of screw ups to happen on stage, ruining your favourite beloved songs.
    So frustrating…not to mention the members of the bands trying too hard and making embarassing spectacles of themselves. I remember I used to hate them all! Never found a decent cover band for Iron Maiden or Deep Purple back in Brazil.
    Glad your story has a different ending, though 🙂

  2. Cousin

    I did it for the blog mention!! Mission accomplished 🙂

  3. Vivian

    The first CD I ever bought was The Smiths…I think it was either a compilation (Louder than Bombs) or maybe it was Meat is Murder. Either way, they were one of my first true musical loves after MJ, Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Duran Duran…but I don’t think 5th grade counts so really it WAS the Smiths!

    • I have no idea what my first CD was, but I suspect it was nothing near as cool as the Smiths. A friend in England tells me that Jonny Marr has remastered all the Smiths albums and that you can get them, plus some extras, for less than 30 quid. He says some sound a lot better than the original CDs. Going to look into it on Amazon.

  4. Love this. My friend Emily and I snuck into a bar in podunk, CT when we were in high school to be able to see a Doors cover band, Riders on the Storm!

  5. Fantastic post – I was there with you in the Casbah! I saw the real Morrissey at a festival once and to be honest, it sounds like you got a better deal…

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