Oh, Manchester: Tanto para expiar. The Mexrrissey project celebrates the long, strange love connection between Morrissey and his Mexican fans. Mexrrissey played the Brooklyn Academy of Music Sunday night, just a couple of years after Morrissey himself played there in his debut Brooklyn gig — not one of his good nights, alas, though at least he showed up. Yet Mexrrissey was a much truer, more passionate invocation of the Moz spirit, turning his musical telenovelas into festive culture-clash sing-alongs, until the entire audience was chanting, “¡Muerte al DJ! Muerte al DJ!“
The Mexican Morrissey cult is something most of his English-speaking fans only started hearing about in the late Nineties, during the lean years when the rest of the world had all but abandoned him. At first it might have seemed surprising that this clumsy, shy and back-scrubbing poet from England’s cheerless marshes was such an icon for Mexicans on both sides of the border. But they have proven themselves to be the man’s most devoted fans. As Mexrrissey mastermind Camilo Lara told the crowd, it’s only natural: “We love drama, we love black humor, we love tension.” And the feeling is mutual — Morrissey’s best song of the past couple decades, “First of the Gang to Die,” is his love song to his Mexican audience, celebrating a sweet and tender hooligan named Hector and his adoring Angeleno street gang.
That’s the song Mexrrissey started with Sunday night, as the video screen depicted the Southpaw Grammar cover portrait covered in Day of the Dead markings. Lara, from the pioneering electronic Mexican Institute of Sound, led the seven-piece band, translating the songs of Moz and the Smiths into various Mexican styles with guitarron, vihuela and accordions. “Girlfriend in a Coma” became a cha-cha-cha (“Mi novia es en coma/Es muy serioooooo“) starring Jacob Valenzuela’s mariachi trumpet. Ceci Bastida got everyone up and dancing with her ranchero-style “Every Day Is Like Sunday,” which became “Cada Dia Es Domingo,” as well as her torrid rockabilly vamp on “The Last of the Famous International Playgirls,” name-checking Guadalajara druglords instead of London’s Kray twins.
As Lara told the audience, some translations were tougher than others: “We never find out what is a ‘Suedehead.’ Is there a suedehead here?” There wasn’t — but the accordion of Calexico’s Sergio Mendoza brought out whole new levels of melancholy in the song. Of course they did “Ask,” the most Mexican-sounding of Smiths songs, though all the ex-Smiths bizarrely seem to dislike it. (Johnny Marr has called it one of his least favorite Smiths songs — sorry, Johnny, but how wrong you are.) As usual, the crowd picked up fast on the new lyrics — everyone was singing “Dime, dime, dime” by the second chorus.
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Jay De La Cueva handled the most florid vocals, doing miserable versions of “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side,” “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get” and the inevitable “How Soon Is Now” (“Soy humano y necesito amor/Como todos los humanos“). He sang a stripped-down version of the Morrissey B side ballad “Mexico” with just acoustic guitar and trumpet — even more powerful than the already-great original.
But the hit of the night was easily “Panic,” which Mexrrissey turned into a norteño stomp with a medley of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” getting a little bit softer now, then a little bit louder now. “Panic” was the 1986 Smiths hit where Morrissey wept that “The music they constantly play/It says nothing to me about my life.” But as the Mexican Morrissey cult keeps proving, there’s no limit to all the weird ways different people can hear their lives reflected in different kinds of music. ¡Canta tu vida!