Morrissey in Montclair
1) The Wellmont Theater is my kind of venue. Approximately 2,000 capacity, all standing on the lower level, with a couple of raised terraces towards the back, good sight lines, not oversold, high ceiling, and several bars at stage level. (My date went for a beer mid-set and was back in two minutes.) Security lax to the point of laissez-faire. Ushers and other staff very friendly (I should know: my 16-year old niece was among them). All in all, a throwback to great memories of the Electric Ballroom or Kilburn National in London or the former Academy in New York City. Drawbacks? Some people seem to think Montclair is out in the sticks. They may not realize it’s long been an out-of-Manhattan destination for music types and Upper West Siders alike. Besides, my in-laws come from there. I wore my deceased-father-in-law’s beautiful Dobbs hat in honor. Come on people, there’s a train station a few yards from the theater and the Garden State Parkway is all of two miles away. For me, it was a long round-trip drive – a hundred miles each way – but at least I didn’t have to encounter metropolitan traffic. I’ll be back. And next time, hopefully, to stay over, so I can actually have something stronger than a Diet Coke. (PS: The Wellmont is part of Bowery Ballroom’s increasingly expanding empire.)
2) Morrissey starts his set with “This Charming Man.” Maybe I don’t get out enough but I thought this was a solo Morrissey show, not a Smiths Greatest Hits.
3) The band all wears matching denim shirts and jeans. Very workmanlike. Boz Boorer is the long-standing musical director, but its drummer Matt Walker who catches the eye. Within a couple of songs – probably around the time of “How Soon Is Now” (ahem) – he’s demonstrated his powers both with hard-driving fills and some gong-crashing that takes serious strength. A kid to watch. (His brother Solomon plays bass.)
4) I haven’t seen Moz up close in many years. He’s looking more and more like the faded boxers he sings about – past his fighting fit prime, yet determined to keep going. When he takes off his shirt – he goes through at least three of them over the course of the night – it’s like one of those embarrassing moments at the local gym. The girls in the audience – and the boys too, as well as those inbetween – all scream at such moments. I laugh. It’s harmless enough. To be fair to Moz, he had to cancel a bunch of earlier shows because of the flu – he’s continually wiping his nose between songs like a street urchin.
5) Make no mistake, though. Morrissey the musician is on a roll. He doesn’t make records with the regularity of before, but new album Years of Refusal is a stormer. I wouldn’t have attended the gig otherwise. It’s uncompromisingly hard, up there with 2004’s You Are The Quarry return-to-form and who knows, maybe even better. As you’d hope for from an artist on a solo tour – though you certainly couldn’t guarantee from the opening Smiths classic of 1984 – he plays several songs from it. “Something Is Squeezing My Skull,” “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” (see YouTube clip below from someone in the front row), and “Black Cloud” are my favorites out of either six or seven.
6) Let’s get the other Smiths songs out of the way. “This Charming Man” and a rollicking “How Soon Is Now” (which needed three guitarists) aside, there’s a joyous “Ask” and a couple of curiosities. “Death of A Disco Dancer” is a group highlight, the five musicians retreating into themselves for a lengthy, almost orgiastic finale; if the Smiths ever played it this well, I’d like to hear evidence. “I Keep Mine Hidden” is so unfamiliar I completely fail to recognize it. My date has to inform me it’s a 12” b-side of “Girlfriend In A Coma” and I take his word for it. (I only own the 7”.) He tells me that apparently Johnny Marr always hated it, and that is surely why Morrissey performs it.
7) The rest of the set is admirably obscure, hand-selected from across the considerable catalogue of Morrissey albums and b-sides with a healthy disregard for his early hits. In fact, there is nothing from debut Bona Drag, by far his best-selling (or, surely, his most commercial) album, an omission that I suspect upsets the casual fans but fills me with perverse satisfaction. Even R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen, the two major acts with whom I maintain faith in the set list, are not quite so averse to the hits as Morrissey. Kudos.
8) Match these album tracks – “Seasick, Yet Still Docked” “How Can Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel?” “Best Friend On The Payroll” – with these albums: Southpaw Grammar, You Are The Quarry, Your Arsenal. Not easy if you’re not a fanatic, is it?
9) Bonus point for b-side “The Loop,” the one with the rockabilly instrumental intro.
10) Double bonus points for Boz Boorer’s curiously shaped bright blue Rickenbacker, which may have been a 12-string. Either way it’s a beauty.
11) Deduct points for Morrissey’s between-song banter. “What the fuck do you do in Montclair?” “Was I ever born?” “Thanks for supporting decent music.” The crowd, of course, lap it up. Morrissey is their God. Let it be known, I’m a Smiths fan to the core. I’m just, perhaps, a little older and a little less easily convinced that the sun shines out of his every word.
12) During the encore of “First of the Gang To Die,” the crowd starts body-surfing and a couple of guys do indeed make it up to the stage. In the process, the barrier (the stage is too high to do without one) very very nearly collapses. Rock’n’roll: always a hairs breadth between celebration and calamity.
13) Twenty songs plus one encore, ninety minutes on the dot. That’s a perfect length set, in an ideal venue. Did it change my life? Of Course not. Am I glad I made the road trip? Absolutely. Do I like asking myself rhetorical questions? Why, wouldn’t that last one make a great Morrissey song title?
14) I first saw Morrissey sing “This Charming Man” in 1983. Where oh where do the years go?