We gave it an A-
The French Baroque cathedral in Flatbush known as Kings Theatre has been open for about a year now, gloriously renovated to operatic grandeur. It’s like the old Ziegfeld Theater in midtown Manhattan, except more and better. Burgundy and gold are the colors that dominate, but this isn’t Trump’s gold; it’s warmer, everywhere. The foyer, where the hipsters and the fiftysomethings passed through metal detectors on their way to the Morrissey merch stand and the bars pouring craft beers, is a vaulting space that somehow feels welcoming. The theater itself seats more than 3,000. Rows and rows of orchestra seats stretch back from the stage till they almost seem to merge right into a balcony that’s not far overhead. Kings Theatre is a grand space with equally grand sound. When it’s packed with a sold-out crowd that adores the performer, you can feel the connection even if you’re back in row II, as I was on Saturday night.
Morrissey, like the theater, is a survivor. He made his name as the lead singer of the influential band The Smiths, who were together for just five years from 1982 to 1987. Their sound was edgy and sharp and jangly, propelled in furious and mesmerizing fashion by Johnny Marr’s guitar and Andy Rourke’s bass. But Morrissey was the show.
I first saw him in concert with The Smiths in 1985, at a small theater outside Detroit. I was wrapping up a year of teaching English at a private school in Grosse Pointe, and was counting the days until my classes were over and I could flee to Manhattan. There wasn’t much for a single 23-year-old to do in Grosse Pointe. One of the highlights were the spring afternoons a few of us young teachers had spent hanging out on the front lawn of our house, knocking back Stroh’s beer while listening to The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder album blare from the big speakers in the windows. It was our own little rebellion, the volume of that music assaulting our cozy suburban block with 15 other identical homes.
On stage, Morrissey embodied that minor rebellion. He wasn’t pure sex, like Prince, who also came to Detroit that year. And The Smiths weren’t as raw as punk. Somewhere in between those extremes, Morrissey challenged his audience: to hate conformity, especially Reaganism and Thatcherism; to become a vegetarian; and to f— who you wanted to, boy or girl (or to not f—, since Morrissey is supposedly celibate). It was always a seductive challenge, a come-on to take risks, with him by your side. Whether the songs were about failed love, stalkers, or politics, his sly, gorgeous, and full voice begged us to pay attention to him. We did. Toward the end of the concert, a couple of my students rushed the stage. Sitting in the cheap seats, I couldn’t blame them.
The crowd at Kings Theatre had plenty of old-timers like me, who might have seen him decades ago. But this wasn’t a Bruce Springsteen show or a Grateful Dead tribute. There were hipsters, a smattering of tattooed and pierced twentysomethings, a couple of punks who were more stylish than threatening, and a representative contingent of the fans who have made Morrissey a gay icon over the years. Morrissey didn’t talk to the audience all that much during the show. There were a couple of disparaging comments about American politics today, and early on he told us that, “I’m really happy to be here — so far.” He let videos, which played big on the screen behind him, make the most overt statements. The one accompanying “Meat Is Murder” featured one horrific slaughterhouse scene after another. Another ran clip after clip of police shootings and beatings. “I’ve seen this before,” a woman near me complained. Morrissey isn’t subtle.
Morrissey, who is now 57, still rules the stage, but differently from that sexy youth I saw 31 years ago. He has said that he has esophageal cancer, but it doesn’t seem to have harmed his vocal chords. Unlike most of his contemporaries, his voice doesn’t crack or strain in a way that recalls their better days. Instead, it’s pure and strong, reaching everywhere in that beautiful theater. On stage, Morrissey is extraordinarily extroverted, even for a lead singer. Prince put on a show. Morrissey just seems to be himself, begging for attention with that voice of his. The show he does put on is almost awkward, endearingly sincere. He stands with his legs spread wide, his shirt unbuttoned to his navel. He whips the mic wire around like a bullfighter maneuvering his cape — a shade more and he’d be Bill Murray’s Saturday Night Live lounge singer. When he took off his shirt towards the end of his set, it came in fits and tugs. He whipped that around, too, before throwing it into the crowd. It wasn’t camp, or silly, but it also wasn’t sexy. His torso’s thick and sturdy now, far from lithe.
Watching Morrissey on that Flatbush stage reminded me of another Brooklyn experience: Reading Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude. Like that novel, Morrissey is sincere, operatic, and admirably messy. Contradictions abound. A left-winger who’s a self-proclaimed “humasexual,” he’s also been called a homophobe and fascist. He wants our love and he wants to preach, but he wants his privacy. He’ll tour here, but he says he’s done performing in England. He ended his main set with “Irish Blood, English Heart,” a tribute to his own mixed-up heritage. Born in England to Irish parents, he’s an anti-royalist who has aged so successfully he’s become music royalty. Take all his songs together and it’s clear that he’s singing for your right to be the confused, free, messed-up, tragic, and occasionally happy person you probably are.
Morrissey’s security has improved over the years. Several fans tried to rush the stage, but most were rebuffed before they got all the way up, thrust right back into the crowd they came. The last time someone tried, a security guard flew at him like a linebacker making an open field tackle. The fan and the guard disappeared into the crowd. It was a quick and brutal moment. Morrissey seemed unperturbed. He was the king of Kings Theatre.
Rick Tetzeli is the former Managing Editor of Entertainment Weekly.
You Have Killed Me
Ouija Board, Ouija Board
The Bullfighter Dies
I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris
World Peace Is None of Your Business
Kiss Me a Lot
How Can Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel?
All the Lazy Dykes
Meat Is Murder
Everyday Is Like Sunday
The World Is Full of Crashing Bores
All You Need Is Me
You’re the One for Me, Fatty
How Soon Is Now?
Jack the Ripper
What She Said
Judy Is a Punk (Ramones cover)
Irish Blood, English Heart