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The patron saint of outsiders

The patron saint of outsiders — With legions of loyal fans, British rocker Morrissey still yearns for an American hit

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By 8 p.m., there is not a gladiolus to be bought in Toronto. Morrissey, the high-lonesome statesman of alternative rock, is in town, and the fans who have devoutly followed him for nearly a decade — the fans whose obsessional devotion puts Morrissey in a melancholy universe of his own — know the ritual by heart: Bring a batch of the flowers to the concert (a tradition dating back to his days with the ’80s British pop band the Smiths) to show you care about and support him. So on this muggy September night, there they are — thousands of T-shirted teens and twentysomethings, looking as if they were awaiting their driver’s-license tests, somberly making the pilgrimage to the 15,000-seat Maple Leaf Gardens while cradling the long-stemmed flowers in their arms. It could be a local production of Children of the Corn.

Standing near the entrance, Russ, 22, doesn’t have any flowers, but only because he’s too busy hawking copies of Sing Your Life, one of nearly 20 Morrissey fanzines published around the world that analyze Mozz’s every move and lyric. ”He’s so passionate, and he sings about everyday life,” says Russ. If you need proof of Morrissey’s impact on the Youth of Today, just scroll through the personal ads in Sing Your Life or its sister ‘zines: ”Horribly lonely and dying from it. Anyone kind, cruel, write to me, wretched here, in my bedsit gloom. In love with Mozzer…” ”Morrissey is the God of my pathetic life. Please write to…”

In person, Morrissey fans are less effusive but no less devoted. With his glasses and serious demeanor, Russ looks like an undergraduate — and he is, except he’s taken this semester off from the University of Arizona in order to follow the entire tour. With five Morrissey pen pals from around the country, he plans to pursue Mozz from the tour’s mid-September opening in Minneapolis through its final date in Raleigh, N.C., on Nov. 18. Even with free tickets supplied by the singer’s obliging management (who encourage the fanzine network), it will cost them each about $1,000, but, adds David, 22, a UCLA student who has also dropped out for a semester, ”You don’t think about money when it comes to Morrissey.”

In his dressing room backstage, as a TV monitor plays a rerun of Happy Days with no sound, the object of their devotion ponders this intense, Deadhead-like cult. ”I get a bit nervous sometimes,” says the soft-voiced Morrissey, 33, whose fourth and latest solo album, ”Your Arsenal,” adds some pumped-up rock & roll muscle to his canon of mope rock. ”It seems that every eyelash has been examined and documented. But for the most part, it’s these people — which I hope is not a derogatory term — who actually follow every single concert around the country. It’s an astonishing thing to do.”

Down to his use of just one name, Steven Patrick Morrissey is the god you’ve never heard of. Raised in Manchester, England, the second child of Irish-born parents, he was just another lonely British kid menaced by local biker gangs in the mid-’60s. He sought refuge in British pop hits, James Dean, and later, the androgynous glitter rock of David Bowie and the New York Dolls. In 1982 he met a kindred spirit, guitarist Johnny Marr, and later that year the Smiths were born. Morrissey, the band’s lead singer and mouthpiece, claimed to be celibate and vegetarian and wrote songs with titles like ”Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and ”Unloveable” to the Smiths’ gothic guitar pop.

When the band dissolved in 1987 (with Marr graduating to a career as a member of Electronic, among other groups), its fervent followers transferred their feelings to Morrissey. The narrators of his songs, both with the Smiths and on four subsequent solo albums, are tortured, bittersweet souls grappling with insecurity and solitude, people for whom love is a cruel joke: ”Sleep on and dream of love/Because it’s the closest you will get to love, poor twisted child” goes a typical line.

Both in the States and in Britain, Morrissey has become the patron saint of outsiders everywhere — the soul-searching and the sexually confused who are trying to decipher how they can be different yet still fit in. Last year Morrissey embarked on his first solo tour of the U.S. and sold out arenas the size of New York’s Madison Square Garden. This July he trekked to Grand Rapids, Mich., for a midnight record-store signing. More than 2,000 kids — four times as many as expected — showed up. The first U.S. Morrissey convention is planned for Oct. 12 just outside Los Angeles; 1,500 devotees are expected to attend. ”He has something to say we can all identify with, like the hardships in life,” says Rob Nebeker, 24, coeditor of Morri’Zine, another fanzine.

Tall, stately, with thick eyebrows, a shaggy pompadour, and an intense stare, Morrissey looks the part of the sensitive artist. And he plays into the role even when it comes to his career. ”American radio just seems like complete junk to me,” he says backstage in a preshow tan suit with straw moccasins. ”There’s a huge sector of music lovers that are never catered to. There seems to be a certain embarrassment — in the music industry — about any music that is thoughtful.”

”I want it, though,” he chuckles to himself, before turning more characteristically introspective. ”A lot of people avoid talking about their feelings. A lot of people can’t talk about sex in a personal way, or about loneliness or the prospect of death. Daily conversation is very, very restrictive. So with the few friends I have, I tend to make sure we can be very open, and not assume we are strange simply because we want to talk about the long night of the soul.”

Of course, being the troubadour of overlooked, angst-struck, post-baby boom loners has its commercial drawbacks. Morrissey yearns for a hit in America, yet he receives virtually no radio or video play — perhaps because his music can be too ornate (his 1991 album, ”Kill Uncle,” sounds like postmodern British music hall) or too offbeat (listen to the metal-billy of ”Your Arsenal,” which peaked at No. 21 on the U.S. album charts). Still proclaiming celibacy, he has never been linked even in the notorious British tabs with another human. He shuns record-industry schmooze parties and lives a seemingly sedate life in London’s Primrose Hill.

”As far as I can tell, any fool can have a hit record in America — except me,” he says only half-jokingly. In particular, he feels the charts are jammed with acts who ”haven’t earned it,” and he openly loathes rap and dance music (a stand that led the British music newspaper New Musical Express to accuse him of using ”racist imagery,” an allegation he denies). ”I don’t want to be the biggest star in the universe, but I do feel deliberately slighted,” he says of the record industry. On the other hand, massive success would be ”a Morrissey fan’s worst nightmare,” says Nebeker. ”If he gets on the Top 40, it’ll change him, and his fan base.”

”I don’t like it when people think of me as a wimpy, poetic, easily crushed softy,” Morrissey says. ”Because I’m not. I’m quite the opposite. I’m” — he breaks into a rare relaxed smile — ”a construction worker.”

A construction worker’s build might come in handy tonight. A standard part of a Morrissey concert is the Hug, where fans male and female scramble on stage and embrace him. Tonight is no exception. At 9:15, the arena lights go down, the gladiolus are thrust into the air, and the crowd starts ramrodding its way toward the stage. Morrissey appears, wearing a red satin shirt and jeans. No sooner has he finished one verse than a male fan leaps on stage, hugs Morrissey from behind, and is dragged off by the singer’s ever-vigilant, crewcut bodyguard.

But three songs in, the affection gets out of control. The stage is overrun by about 10 kids, and the security guards can’t keep up. With a horrible thunk, Morrissey’s microphone hits the stage floor and he crumples beneath the fans. He momentarily breaks free and runs to the side of the stage, but the kids follow him. Finally, a clearly exasperated Morrissey pushes his way off stage. After five minutes, relative order is restored, and he returns to finish the show. ”When he’s up there, he’s ours, and he knows it,” says Phil, 22, who has taken a leave of absence from his job managing a Sacramento grocery store to follow the tour for three weeks.

”People assume I’m a club act, that I sit on a stool with an acoustic guitar,” Morrissey says. ”And that’s not right. The appearances have always been very lively, very expressive, and almost violent.” Whether the city is Toronto, Minneapolis, or hip New York, his concerts do walk a thin line — between love and suffocation, between identification with a hero and the will to destroy him, between an idol and a sacrificial lamb.

The concert is over, and the main floor is strewn with crushed gladiolus and smashed folding chairs. It’s time for Phil to leave and get ready for the next show, in Buffalo. First, though, he is meeting a pen pal outside, and they plan to try to find out which Toronto hotel is housing Morrissey for the night. ”I lead a normal life,” Phil says. ”I pay the bills; I have a job. But what better way to see the world?”