There’s a quip I’m fond of busting out whenever Morrissey or the Smiths come up in conversation: “They always meant more to me as an angst-ridden preteen than they ever did as a world-weary adult.”
In all fairness to the band, my pithy little aside doesn’t paint a complete picture. The finished one is much more vulgar: a Meat Is Murder poster adorned my dorm room during my freshman year of college, and I’ve drunkenly belted “This Charming Man” and “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side” more than a handful of times at karaoke. The most incriminating evidence of my fandom might be an October 2015 video of comedian and noted Morrissey acolyte Chris Gethard performing a Smiths cover set in Gainesville — besides the fact that I'm sporadically sliding into the frame with closed eyes and an outstretched hand, my headbanging bob of hair is a near-constant presence in crowd shots.
But it was as a child that I first discovered the Smiths and that their music most resonated with me. I may not have experienced the austerity of Margaret Thatcher’s England, but as a self-conscious misfit languishing in South Florida’s suburban sprawl, I perfectly understood how it felt to be alone and alienated from your surroundings.
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If the past eight years have been any indication, the band resonated with the Ordinary Boys as well. Since its founding in 2010, the Miami-born-and-based group has gone on to become Florida’s best Smiths and Morrissey tribute act. Led by vocalist AJ Navarrete, Ordinary Boys have stormed through the state time and again, often offering pitch-perfect renditions of entire albums from the Smiths’ discography alongside deep cuts and selections from Morrissey’s solo career.
Ordinary Boys will assemble once more next Friday, May 25, at Gramps for A Miserable Morrissey Birthday, an observance of Moz’s May 22, 1959 birth date and all of the music that blessed occasion yielded.
But in light of recent remarks by Morrissey, an unreserved celebration of the man and his oeuvre has become a much more difficult prospect than it ought to be. Ridiculous and self-inflated public statements from the Smiths frontman are nothing new. Like a morose indie-rock Kanye West, Morrissey has always been one to (likely deliberately) court controversy by speaking his extremely opinionated mind. His contempt for the British royal family and select English officials is well documented both in interviews and songs — look no further than “The Queen Is Dead” and “Margaret on the Guillotine” — as is his distaste for dance music and those who propagate it. Fan favorite “Panic” is a call to both “burn down the disco” and “hang the blessed DJ”; need I say more?
The most frequent targets of Morrissey’s ire have undoubtedly been meat-eaters, both individually and collectively. Calling the Chinese a “subspecies” for their treatment and consumption of animals and having once said the 2011 Norway attacks that left 77 dead were “nothing compared to what happens in McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Shit every day," Morrissey has displayed a militant veganism that's dependably led him to make outlandish, quasi-racist, and insensitive comments over the years. Meat Is Murder isn’t just an album title for him; it’s an ethos.
But like the aforementioned rap superstar's comments, Morrissey’s public remarks have struck a darker and more unsettling chord as of late. In an April interview on his own website, Morrissey Central, the singer-songwriter expounded at length on the west’s present political climate in a manner more befitting a Breitbart commentator than the patron saint of the estranged and disaffected.
“As far as racism goes, the modern loony left seem to forget that Hitler was left wing! But of course, we are all called racist now, and the word is actually meaningless,” Morrissey told the interviewer, seemingly parroting the comment section of any given Daily Mail article. “When someone calls you racist, what they are saying is, ‘Hmm, you actually have a point, and I don’t know how to answer it, so perhaps if I distract you by calling you a bigot, we’ll both forget how enlightened your comment was.'”
The interview is brimming with similar gems: Morrissey compares animal consumption to racism, throws his weight behind the the far-right political party For Britain, and tosses not-so-subtle racist remarks in the direction of London Mayor Sadiq Khan (“London is debased. The mayor of London tells us about ‘neighbourhood policin’... This is the mayor of London! And he cannot talk properly!”)
Even as the environment continues its irreversible march toward collapse, the United States’ absurd culture war imperils the rest of the world and civilization’s prospects for long-term survival dwindle to nil, perhaps it was naive to believe that an artist already known for saying shitty things couldn’t possibly get any shittier. Chalk it up to the hyperpoliticized climate, but as so many pundits have pointed out, that joke — namely, Morrissey’s big mouth — isn’t funny anymore.
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If I were to try listening to the Smiths for the first time today, I’m not so sure I could get past Morrissey’s extensive history as a proper twat. I’ve long suspected my childhood love for the Smiths stemmed from the fact that for all of his witticisms and clever turns of phrase, Morrissey’s lyricism and worldview are essentially childlike, an exaggerated realm where every inconvenience is a misery and every naysayer a flatulent pain in the arse.
However, it’s in said grandiosity where the beauty of the Smiths lies. Whether it's in a contemplative romp through a graveyard or a lonely night spent at a club, there was a time when the incomparable size and scale of Morrissey’s feelings couldn’t help but produce some of the most compassionate songs ever recorded. The prevailing sentiment of “How Soon Is Now?” — that the narrator is human and needs to be loved, just like everybody else does — is as resounding a rebuttal to Morrissey’s recent xenophobic streak as they come.
Ultimately, it’s not a matter of separating the art from the artist; it’s about making peace with the fact that self-absorbed assholes can conjure meaningful work as readily as anyone else, and being able to reconcile the resulting dissonance. In that regard, an Ordinary Boys show might be the most ideal way to enjoy the Smiths — it's Morrissey without Morrissey.
A Miserable Morrissey Birthday. With Ordinary Boys. 10 p.m. Friday, May 25, at Gramps, 176 NW 24th St., Miami; 305-699-2669; gramps.com. Admission is free.