It takes time to get the hair just right. On a good day, when things cooperate, three minutes might do it, squeaking in just before the final strains of “Hand in Glove.” The tight pull back, the expert flick of the wrist that provides the loft to get it up there. Other days, when the pomade isn’t warm enough or the comb catches every snag, you might spend all 11:15 of “The Teachers are Afraid of the Pupils” sculpting to achieve the right height. Every hair in place, you step outside to greet the day, whether it’s the grey skies of Manchester or the brownish ones of East L.A.
Jonny’s been doing it since middle school. “I have the technique down,” he says in a quiet voice, barely more than a breath. The pompadour is flawless, rising close to three inches above his forehead, an imposing wall of hair. Match it with a cardigan, conspicuous t-shirt, slim jeans and some black-and-white wingtips, and he’s easy to describe and pick out in a crowd.
He’s a Smiths fan.
Dictators have a habit of making themselves larger than life. Monuments are erected, cities are renamed, official portraits hung on every wall in the land. Glowing, airbrushed biographies trumpet their humble beginnings and valiant struggles. They use the media, the arts, the schools, anything they can exert power over to craft themselves as gods in their own image. They—or the governments that follow them—create a cult of personality. From Stalin to Chairman Mao, from the tag team of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il to the (deceased) “President for Life” of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, they become self-styled “heroes of the people.”
Heroes are a funny thing. The word has come to mean larger-than-life, supernatural, unassailable—the idea still calls to mind tights, capes or Monday night television. But the definition is far simpler—“a person who is admired for their courage or outstanding achievements.” A hero is someone to look up to, to pattern yourself after, a touchstone in life that others, sometimes many others, can relate to.
“It’s a lifestyle,” Jonny says. “Morrissey is more than just an artist; he’s a way of life—for me and for a lot of people here.” He scans the room at the tenth annual Smiths/Morrissey convention at the Henry Fonda Theater in Los Angeles, surrounded by kindred spirits.
“There’s something about him that just grafts to people,” he says of his hero. “He’s so personal, he tells life the way it is: inside and out, good, bad, harsh and loving as well. He’s just truthful, and that’s basically what everyone wants—truth and compassion.”
“I’m here to celebrate the bliss of Morrissey,” he says, “his genius, his work, his life.”
Jonny’s not alone. The venue is overflowing with kids just like him, American kids who weren’t old enough to operate the radio dial when The Smiths released their first single in 1983—kids whose older brothers, sisters, even parents start the day with Stephen Patrick Morrissey’s voice on vinyl. Jonny spent $500 here last year—some of it on shirts, buttons and memorabilia, but mostly on records that weren’t in his collection yet. Each year the Morrissey disciples gather to swap stories and seven-inches, to shout out answers to trivia questions asked by the host, DJ Richard Blade.
Blade has his fair share of Morrissey anecdotes, and has recounted them over and over during the past ten years he has served as MC of the convention. His favorite is about a look-alike contest he hosted at a club, a contest that Morrissey himself asked to personally judge.
“He came down and got into the DJ booth with me,” Blade recalls. “People would come up and ask me for a song, and then they’d see Morrissey standing behind me and say ‘Hey, you’re really good,’ thinking he was a look-alike. Slowly this buzz went around the club that maybe it wasn’t a look-alike. So I came on the microphone and said ‘Look, I want to tell you something, but everyone has to promise that they are gonna be cool. Are you gonna be cool?’ and they all yelled ‘Yeah, we’re gonna be cool!’ I said ‘Great. In the booth with me: Stephen Patrick Morrissey.’ Absolute silence in the club for like three seconds, and then it was like everyone was on a rubber band and I was at the apex of the band. They all just rushed the booth, the Plexiglas smashed in, the turntables and CD players went everywhere, security came in, and Morrissey ended up locked in the office for the rest of the night. We did the look-alike contest, and we had to take the three finalists into the office because poor Morrissey couldn’t get out. That’s the kind of love and devotion fans have for Morrissey.”
The “civilized,” democratic world doesn’t cotton to dictators, but that doesn’t make us immune to hero worship. The tabloids, blogs, fansites and newsmagazines have all conspired to create new poster boys and girls out of our movie and television stars. We drool over them on screen and fall in love with their characters, but we rarely forget what they are characters; fictional constructs. We know that that doctor, that seductress, that mother and that friend aren’t real, that someone puts all the right words in their mouths and tells them where to go, who to hit, who to save, when to cry and when to smile.
But musicians are different. When they say “I,” we believe that we’re privy to their innermost thoughts. When they sing “you,” we know the song is directed at us and no one else. We want the stories to be true, we want the love to be real. Because our main interaction with them is passive, watching them as interpreters of song on a stage or in a music video, we’re free to imagine as much as we want. Half of the star’s identity is wrapped up in that space, the idle daydreaming of feverish fans. There’s a connection between artist and listener that’s unmatched in any other form of popular entertainment.
“I’ve seen Ozzy sixteen times. This will be seventeen,” he says. His ponytail is starting to streak with grey, and his forehead’s high and pink from the sun. “1987, Metallica opened for Ozzy at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington DC. I was 13-years-old. Ozzy makes it worth it. He may be a blithering idiot on TV, but once he gets onstage, it’s like he’s fucking 19-years-old again. He’s the fucking Prince of Darkness. Nobody rocks like Ozzy.”
He’s too many beers deep to introduce himself properly, but whether he’s Bill or Steve or James, his story is the same as many of the other guys out at Ozzfest. They’ve grown up with Ozzy, Tony, Geezer and Bill, and brought their kids along for the ride, sometimes literally. A car is in the parking lot, caked with dust like all the others, but with one significant difference: a license plate from Chile. Its owner stands proudly in a faded Sabbath t-shirt next to his son, who is shaking the wrinkles out of a Chilean flag.
“I’m from Chile,” the father proclaims. “Second time in the Ozzfest. Oh motherfuck is fantastic!”
The convergence of metal and a copious amount of booze (and other, less legal substances) creates a community of young and old alike. They’ve come to party, but Ozzy is the name on everyone’s lips. They all realize that, like Castro, Ozzy’s declining health means each performance may be his last. The refrain gets repeated throughout the day—“I first saw him in (insert year here, usually the 80s) with (insert any band that would make for an amazing bill)…and I haven’t missed a show since.”
It used to be metal that was corrupting the minds of America’s youth, but now rap and pop music have taken on that responsibility. Mothers call in to radio shows, railing against the loose morals and exposed thongs (or lack thereof) of our head-shaving teen pop icons, all the while forgetting that they once kissed their Jim Morrison posters goodnight before they drifted off to sleep. American Idol spawns Claymates, and kids black and white, urban and sub-, rich and poor all wear snowman t-shirts and repeat lyrics that they only slightly understand. Charles Barkley famously said “I am not a role model. Parents should be role models.” While the sentiment is real and admirable, let’s face it—no self-respecting teenager wants to be like his parents.
So they adopt what’s visible, what speaks to them, what their own idol is wearing. Whether it’s nautical star tattoos and chunky skate shoes, too-small t-shirts and pilled cardigans or Wranglers and boots, they just want someone to believe in. The music industry makes the idols, and the kids dutifully worship at their feet.
Carrie’s first convention was when she was 16. She’s 25 now, and has one more concert under her belt than she does years on her driver’s license. She has five Morrissey tattoos. “I got the first one when I was 18, the Morrissey cartoon I have on my back,” she says. “And when I met him, he signed my back, and I got it tattooed over.” The indelible, tattooed signature is practiced, the handiwork of a man who has signed various body parts many, many times.
Mark Kelly looks eerily like the man himself. He wants to make it clear he’s not a Morrissey impersonator.
“I don’t get into all of that stuff, because there is only one great man. I only looked like him within the last couple of years. Growing up I never looked like him. We kind of morphed into each other. I just turned 43, he’s 47.”
He’s already been mistaken for Morrissey more than once at the convention, even by Alain White, the guitarist on his post-Smiths solo albums. It’s something that happens to Kelly regularly.
“I’ve been here to the Cat & Fiddle,” Kelly says, “the British pub where he used to go, and when I walked in the bartenders would go ‘do you want the usual’ A guy came up to me in the Cat & Fiddle and said ‘I loved your 80s stuff, but I haven’t heard any of your later stuff.’”
“He says the lyrics hit you in the heart,” Kelly says between pictures with fans. They know he’s not the genuine article, but they don’t care. “I don’t know if he knows how they touch people, because they touch everybody differently. They touch me in a way, in how I grew up, that makes me say ‘Man, that is bang-on. How did you know how I lived my life?’ He’s the man, he’s the great man.”
Brian called in sick to work, and is fairly certain that his reward for going to Ozzfest will be a pink slip. His step-sister Vanessa is in tow, and as the lawn chairs get put away and people head toward the second stage for Ozzy’s performance, Brian explains to her why her second Ozzfest seems to lack the magical quality that her previous experience had.
“It’s just ‘cause it was your first Ozzfest last year, you made it up to be the fucking epiphany of your life.”
“The epiphany of my life,” she smirks. “Is that what it was?”
“Yeah,” he says, always the wise, older brother.
“If you insist, Brian”
Brian’s been the unofficial parking lot tour guide, wandering around all afternoon, pointing out the guys that are free with their beer and the girls that are free with their tops. He’s every bit the archetypal fan, in his Ozzfest T-shirt, long red shorts, shaved head and piercings, talking to everyone and debating line-ups, and album release dates with anyone who will spare an ear.
Brian, Vanessa and their friends have been parked at the picnic tables for most of the afternoon with a case of Budweiser and a gallon of Wild Turkey, enjoying the scene and the surprising cool of the afternoon. Some of them don’t have tickets, and are mostly there for the party. When Ozzy takes the stage, the group will split. Those with tickets will wade deep into the mosh pit and try to make good on their afternoon promises to “fuck some shit up.” The rest will poke noses and fingers through the cyclone fence, straining in the dying light for a glimpse of their favorite band.
“But musicians are different. When they say “I,” we believe that we’re privy to their innermost thoughts. When they sing “you,” we know the song is directed at us and no one else. We want the stories to be true, we want the love to be real.”