by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & t's Cinco de Mayo and the Big Easy's got some serious rock hardware onstage. Just in front of a curtain bearing the 15-foot visage of James Dean sits a six-foot gong. To its right is a trash cymbal. To the right of that, a massive marching bass drum. The joint's two-thirds full, and the fans have begun chanting impatiently. "Morrissey! Morrissey!" The noise, like the improbable drum kit, is like I haven't heard since Rush at White River Amphitheater, July of ought-four.
And yet, these aren't ex-quarterbacks in plum-smuggling, acid-washed cutoffs. These are the kids (and the kids of the kids) those jocks beat up all through the '80s and '90s. Many of them have aged well, become successful, grown into their awkwardness, much as Morrissey himself has. Many more, though, still look hopelessly hurt and isolated. Or, for the time being at least, not so isolated.
The chanting continues, rising and ebbing until the stage goes dark. Spotlights, moving left and right, paint the idle guitars and drum kit blood red. A British woman's voice starts up. "Mr. Jesse Helms," she says, beginning a long succession of impressionistic phrases, "Rednecks. Rape. Stupid, useless women. Tasteless A & amp;R wanker. The old American way." Meanwhile, a man in all black has walked onstage with a penlight, placed it between his teeth and gotten down on hands and knees, going over every inch of the stage, picking up debris. "Tiananmen Square," the voice continues, "forces of oppression," and on and on.
The man who sings so devastatingly about cruelty and domination has a roadie on hands and knees picking lint off the stage with his bare hands. If Moz is, as Andrew Matson suggested, "pop's champion of the self-conscious, unloved masses" (and I think he is), his live set is a study in contradiction.
He's bathed in a spotlight from the time he walks onstage until he walks off (three times to change shirts), swaggering despite songs about the most crippling insecurities. He unbuttons his shirt to the top of his not-so-svelte tummy and laments a sexual frustration that forces celibacy. Over the lyrics "then you open your eyes / and see someone that you physically despise," He tears his shirt off completely.
It all feels, as Matson argued, as if Morrissey is daring you to take him seriously, begging you to call his bluff. You can't be this big a megalomaniac and understand introversion the way he seems to. Then, though, hands dart up, the audience begging him to touch them. He reaches gingerly into the audience and obliges and the perspective shifts. That's the part of Morrissey you don't get piped through headphones. The messianic bit.
Anyone can write a sad song sad people will relate to. Pop is full of mediocre talents with mediocre voices screaming and cooing and threatening and weeping, hoping against hope that someone will identify with their plight. Moz, thinking quite highly of himself as the bard laureate of the homely and heartsick and sexually awkward, doesn't want to be identified with. He wants to be worshipped as golden calf; the outcast reborn. He made a good case for himself on Saturday night.