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The Wizards Of Moz

For the Many Latino Fans of the Enigmatic Morrissey, Jose Maldonado and the Sweet and Tender Hooligans Are a Lifeline to Their Hero.

November 19, 2000|DAVID LOTT | David Lott is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. This is his first piece for the magazine

The sound is eerily '80s, pulsating from the jingling strains of British popsters The Smiths to the rockabilly-infused licks that Smiths frontman and cult hero Morrissey adopted when the band broke up late in the decade.

But your eyes are seeing something else. Where a Smiths concert would have drawn a crowd of gaunt and pale teenagers with British-government-issue black-rimmed glasses, well-worn poetry books, spiky hair and white gladiola flowers sprouting from their pockets, here the skin is a warm brown and the hair is more likely to be pompadours swept high.

At the Brave Bull in San Gabriel most Fridays, the role of the wry-melancholy Smiths is played by a band called the Sweet and Tender Hooligans, whose own frontman, a Mexican American singer named Jose Maldonado, stands in for Morrissey. He speaks Spanish, a language in which Morrissey is not fluent, to the audience--a handful of twentysomething Smiths fans amid a throng of teenage roots-rock fanatics enthralled by Morrissey's decade-long solo career. Under the Wild-West-meets-early-rock 'n' roll decor--buffalo heads and ox yokes competing with giant airbrushed images of Johnny Cash and James Dean--Maldonado's pompadour floats like a dollop of chocolate mousse and his silk shirt shines. He takes the microphone off the cradle. "Hola, amigos. Me llamo Jose Maldonado. Gracias por venir. We are the Sweet and Tender Hooligans." The crowd applauds. Then, in an extension of Morrissey's well-known acerbic wit, he says in Spanish: "You have incredibly good taste."

From the Latino enclaves of Boyle Heights, Alhambra, San Gabriel and Montebello they come to darkened clubs and back alleys at independent record stores such as Covina's Hot Rocks Records to see Maldonado reenact the voice, mannerisms and awkward dance moves of the moody British singer who continues to be a lifeline for the emotionally sensitive. Maldonado, a 31-year-old Los Angeles County lifeguard and TV extra who calls himself the "Mexican Morrissey," is the link between the pasty-skinned, pensive singer and his surprisingly strong Mexican American fan base in Southern California. He has portrayed Morrissey at scores of shows during the past eight years. He is the resident expert, the super-fan other fans look up to now that they rarely see their hero. Morrissey, now 41, lives in the Hollywood Hills and tours sporadically. And so Hooligans gigs become nights of desperate communion, a chance to demonstrate their love for their enigmatic recluse, who hasn't produced an album of original music since 1997's "Maladjusted."


COVER BANDS HAVE LONG TROD A CREATIVE LINE BETWEEN cheesy and captivating. At worst, they can be laughable; at best, they become pure time travel. There are the well-known incarnations of Beatlemania and the lesser-known tribute bands such as Wild Child (The Doors), Cold Gin (Kiss), Space Oddity (David Bowie) and Bjorn Again (ABBA). But the Sweet and Tender Hooligans are not just a group of musicians replaying the Morrissey songbook. The band's almost-exclusively Mexican American fans treat them as Morrissey's ambassadors, channeling his music directly to L.A.'s most fervent devotees.

But how to explain Morrissey's enduring popularity? Many of these teenagers and twentysomethings were in elementary school when The Smiths called it quits in 1987 and Morrissey launched a solo career that spawned seven albums of original music. What seems to span the age gap is the way Morrissey, or "Moz," as the British press named him, speaks to the emotional outsider with his droll, even sarcastic, views on loneliness, unrequited love and jealousy. There's also a sexual ambiguity that he flaunts that has attracted its own following of boys who watch in rapt adoration. They are fascinated with his professed celibacy, with the books he reads--most notably poetry by Oscar Wilde--and the British "kitchen sink" realism films from the early '60s that he likes (his favorite is "Taste of Honey"). They dress in the same '50s-style clothes and sport thin-Elvis pompadours identical to the one Morrissey cultivated for the 1991 "Kill Uncle" tour. They recite his lyrics like evangelical preachers quoting Bible passages. Ask about Moz's view on, say, depression, and expect the lyrics from "Yes, I Am Blind":

"Yes, I am blind/No, I can't see/The good things/Just the bad things, oh--God, come down/If you're really there/Well, you're the one who claims to care."

You can certainly shrug it off as the kind of phenomenon that explains why teens today tune in to alternative rock station KROQ's "Flashback Lunch" to hear "classic" songs from early '80s new-wavers such as Haircut 100 and Modern English. It was music played by their older brothers and sisters. But how do you account for the ethnic crossover? Could this be a generation's protest against Mexican culture's macho tradition? A shared identity that overpowers ethnic lines?

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