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Morrissey In The Flesh

May 3, 2007

Within 10 minutes of being on stage, sweat marks from his nipples caused patches of damp to appear on his black silk shirt. He changed his shirt twice during the course of his act, but doing so only exacerbated the nipple stains -- they looked much worse on the red and white shirts he changed into than they did on the initial black one. And yet, when he removed the sweaty article of clothing and threw it out to the crowd, people descended upon it like piranhas in a near-death scene from a James Bond film.

Morrissey performed in Santa Rosa last night but the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts wasn't sold out. "What's going on tonight?" said the singer in his sonorous, Manchester-tinged voice. "Is Entourage on TV?" Seeing the performer was a bittersweet experience. It basically reaffirmed everything I wrote about him three years ago in an essay about Morrissey's transmogrification into a Messiah for The Believer. (Funnily enough, I spotted the magazine's editor, Vendela Vida in the crowd last night with her husband, writer Dave Eggers.)

He still has his voice -- the purring baritone bursting out like a boy on the cusp of manhood into a violent soprano. The fans were devout as usual. They clawed him. They tried to jump on stage and hug him. The shrieked words of adoration between songs. But the figure is definitely going, both in the literal and figurative sense.

The songs that made the most impact were the early ones. Every time Morrissey sang one of the songs that had made him famous as the lead singer of The Smiths in the 1980s, the auditorium seemed to expand and contract. Few of the newer numbers had the same impact.

Nostalgia was heavy, not just for the audience, some of whom turned up dressed up Rockabilly style in tight jeans and pompadours as is customary for the true Smiths fan. Morrissey's shows are an act of historic preservation in and of themselves. Before he came on, we were treated, as many past audiences of his have been, to snippets from old films he loves. Throughout the concert, the quizzical face of James Dean stared down at the stage from a huge backdrop poster. And all of Morrissey's band members were dressed in pale pink shirts, white pants, black shoes and red velvet dickie-bows, like waiters at a 1950s all-American burger joint.

The concert was a remarkably civilized affair. I sat in my seat throughout, along with most other people sitting in the balcony. Even though the fans were more rapacious below, they mostly swayed gently and the disruptive element was very small. People clapped politely and left quickly after one brief encore.

As I drove back to San Francisco after the concert, I began wondering if I'd actually enjoyed the concert I attended a few years ago in Los Angeles by Morrissey/Smiths cover band Sweet and Tender Hooligans more than this one -- the authentic Morrissey experience. Given that nostaglia plays such an important role in the business of experiencing a rock icon, seeing that icon perform live long after his sell-by date, with his sweat stains and love handles on show, somehow doesn't have the same impact as seeing a group of younger people reanimating the very best songs from the icon's cannon, with all the moves and style that made him famous. This is the experience of attending a Sweet and Tender Hooligans show. The experience of attending a Morrissey show these days is slightly sad. It makes you feel old and a little lost.

This probably explains why I won't be attending The Police's upcoming Bay Area performances. This band probably has more meaning for me than any other group during my formative years. My music collection began with a 45 of Walking on the Moon and I was obsessed with Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland. I even tried to dress like them and would write things like "The bed's too big without you" and "bring on the night" in my diary growing up. Seeing the band today would probably ruin those memories.

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