The Smiths are trying to be more than just a rock band. Under the leadership of the fragile flower known as Morrissey, the English group has taken on the air of a crusade, waving the banner of musical simplicity, naked emotion and fierce independence.
Rejecting punk's rage but embracing its rebellious idealism, replacing the image-making and show-biz manipulation of kindred acts like Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Boy George with a cultivated innocence, the Manchester quartet has built a following of fans seeking something that the cold synthesizer bands aren't providing: human contact.
This would all amount to mere rhetoric if the Smiths didn't have some great songs. But they do, and so the group is a legitimate candidate for major stardom. In their L.A. debut on Thursday at the Hollywood Palladium, though, the Smiths didn't quite take it over the top.
For someone who preaches an intense relationship between artist and audience, Morrissey was pretty remote. Perhaps intimidated by the punk holdouts who kept invading the stage from the packed crowd, the singer seemed withdrawn and a bit distracted. He may be a shy, sensitive artiste, but it's his job to deal with situations like this and turn them to his advantage.
While not without his conceits (such as jettisoning his first name, Steven), the beetle-browed Morrissey didn't come across as affected, and while there's a trembling sensitivity to his misfit persona, his stage stance and his music were tough and straightforward. He writhed and twisted with an endearing ungainliness, pulling his unbuttoned shirt around his head and generally carrying on like an insomniac on a hot night.
Aside from that, he pretty much left the emphasis on the music, which isn't a bad idea when you have an instrumental sound as rich and resonant as that churned out by guitarist Johnny Marr, bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce. In this chiming context, the dry monotony of Morrissey's voice seems less a drawback than a distinctive stylistic signature.
While rawer on stage than on record, the music was still clean and light enough to represent a real alternative to the electronic and hard-rock establishments. Morrissey writes mostly love songs, which are just ambiguous enough to allow him to claim that they're pansexual rather than gay.
Despite the absence of sparks at the Palladium, the Smiths still inspired a true sense of community with a young audience that seemed a bit like a wild-side counterpart to U2's clean-cut, equally earnest following. The first strong moment of contact came during a ballad, where Morrissey's sharp croon of "I have seen these things happening before, now they're happening to me" merged with the surging music, which in turn seemed to be synchronized with the crowd's tangible waves of response.
The spell was soon interrupted when a stage-diver snatched the radio transmitter from Marr's guitar and returned to the audience, followed closely by Marr and a squad of security men. It took a while to re-establish momentum, but things peaked again with "How Soon Is Now's" anthemic refrain: "I am human and I need to be loved / Just like everybody else does."
Morrissey and company seem to be telling their followers that if you work at it, you can maintain your individuality despite society's presures, and find beauty in the meanest circumstances. Not earthshakingly new ideas, perhaps, but the Smiths put them across with a revitalizing twist. Following its two-night Palladium stand, the group will play Irvine Meadows tonight
LIVE ACTION: Tickets go on sale Sunday for three shows at the Universal Amphitheatre: Laura Branigan (Aug. 17 ), Smokey Robinson (Aug. 23-24) and Jose Feliciano (Aug. 25). A July 8 date has been added to Luther Vandross' engagement there too. . . . Tickets go on sale Monday for an added date (Aug. 17) to Sting's Greek Theatre run. . . . Dio will be at the Pacific Amphitheatre on Aug. 16; tickets go on sale Monday. . . . Tickets also go on sale Monday for these Beverly Theatre shows: Bang Bang (July 21), David Grisman (Aug. 2), Jerry Lee Lewis (Aug. 10) and Peggy Lee (Aug. 17). . . . The Long Beach Blues Festival will take place on Sept. 14 and 15 at Cal State Long Beach; performers include Bo Diddley and the Blasters. . . . Suzanne Vega will be at the Roxy on July 29.