Morrissey strikes again at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre

SFGATE Deputy Managing Editor Fiona Lee comes to terms with the Morrissey of today

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Red smoke emerges from the stage of the Castro Theatre at Morrissey's concert in San Francisco on November 19, 2022.

Red smoke emerges from the stage of the Castro Theatre at Morrissey's concert in San Francisco on November 19, 2022.

Chris Partin/Special to SFGATE

English singer Steven Patrick Morrissey is no stranger to controversy and provocation, and at a sold-out show at the Castro Theatre on Saturday night, he struck again.

Morrissey is the former frontman and lyricist of the Smiths, the legendary ‘80s indie band that rose from the drudgery of Thatcher’s England. He brought to the Castro his signature songs of longing, compassion and loneliness, the songs that have created devoted generations of fans across a wide mix of backgrounds. That devotion was on display Saturday night, with fans packed in four or five deep at the front of the stage before the show began. 

Nostalgia is a powerful drug, but to his credit, Morrissey didn’t rest on his laurels as the former Smiths frontman. He declined to play some of the band’s biggest hits, like “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” or “How Soon is Now?” He even acknowledged that he could not sing the latter song as well as he did when he was younger.

Perhaps he was being uncharacteristically modest, as Morrissey was in fine voice on Saturday night. 

Morrissey plays a sold-out show at the Castro Theatre on Saturday night.

Morrissey plays a sold-out show at the Castro Theatre on Saturday night.

Chris Partin/Special to SFGATE

The audience was on its feet the minute he and the band came on stage, with the occasional scream of “I love you, Morrissey!” Beginning with “First of the Gang to Die,” he sang mostly from his own solo hit collection. That included the shimmering dystopian anthem “Everyday is Like Sunday,” which began with a thrilling piano solo from keyboardist Gustavo Manzur. There were also deeper Smiths cuts, like “Half a Person,” a song about his “own attempts at romance” while “sixteen, clumsy and shy.”   

Nor did he hesitate to continue his long tradition as an agent provocateur. His performance of “The Bullfighter Dies,” which celebrates the demise of a matador, was mostly overshadowed by graphic video clips of bulls being gored at bullfights, closing out with the trampling of a bullfighter. (Morrissey is a noted animal rights defender, with one of the Smiths’ most famous albums titled “Meat is Murder.”) Another moment came when Morrissey declared that John Lennon and Billie Holliday would never have received record deals in the present day, claiming that the world is being “throttled to death by the media today,” to loud cheers. In perhaps the evening’s most melodramatic moment, the show itself ended with a looped simulation of a man shooting himself in the head. 

Morrissey, rock's agent provocateur, plays a sold-out show at the Castro Theatre on Saturday night.

Morrissey, rock's agent provocateur, plays a sold-out show at the Castro Theatre on Saturday night.

Chris Partin/Special to SFGATE

Morrissey invoked Oscar Wilde several times at the Castro, joking that “Wilde had once stood at this stage.” (He hadn’t, as the singer admitted immediately after, but the Irish poet and playwright did make his own mark in San Francisco.) The singer has long cast himself as the spiritual son and heir to Wilde, to the point where fans once covered Wilde’s tomb in Paris with Smiths and Morrissey-inspired graffiti, as well as lipstick marks. 

Wilde was oppressed by a regime that jailed him for homosexuality, and although Morrissey sees himself similarly as a victim, he’s anything but. The English rock poet laureate of the ‘80s has now aged into a nationalist right-winger and proud Little Brexiter. For decades, he has made headlines stemming from racism and xenophobic comments, from calling Chinese people “a subspecies” to his proud support of a far-right party in the United Kingdom that is virulently anti-Muslim. Ironically, Morrissey, who now lives in Los Angeles, is a descendant of Irish immigrants to England. 

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His general anti-immigrant stance still comes across in his music. In 2004’s “Irish Blood, English Heart,” which he performed on Saturday night, Morrissey sang a set of lyrics that described his stance: “I've been dreaming of a time when / To be English is not to be baneful / To be standing by the flag not feeling shameful / Racist or partial.”

Fans have grappled with Morrissey’s contradictions for many years now, trying to reconcile the singer who sang so movingly of being an outsider, yet courts controversy every time he opens his mouth. One fan at the show described how she reconciled those contradictions. “I eat meat,” Camilla Aceves noted, pointing to what she doesn't share with Morrissey, “but oh my goodness, he got me through college. For me… the music is music, the music hits your heart in so many ways.”
   
That feeling is shared by many. Morrissey the singer still commands a massive fanbase, notably a Latino and Mexican American one. He remains so popular, his adopted home of Los Angeles even declared a Morrissey Day in 2017. The audience at the Castro show, many sporting Smiths and Morrissey-related shirts — including at least one “Meat is Murder” shirt — was no different. 

An enthusiastic audience greeted Morrissey and his band, performing at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on November 19, 2022.

An enthusiastic audience greeted Morrissey and his band, performing at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on November 19, 2022.

Chris Partin/Special to SFGATE

The concert was clearly an ecstatic communion, the ecstasy of again hearing someone who understood your inner longings and loneliness. The audience sang along to hits like the Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma” or Morrissey’s own “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful.” There was even an attempt to breach the stage during the closing song “Sweet and Tender Hooligan,” before security and Morrissey himself calmed the overly enthusiastic fans down, singing “friends, friends, friends.” 

If there was one misstep in the show, it came towards the end, when a cloud of thick reddish smoke burst out and covered the floor of the Castro, blinding and choking some fans and sending some to the lobby to breathe again. “It was scary,” one fan said. And unnecessary, I would add. But despite that mishap, those fans returned back to the show after the smoke cleared out. 

And if Morrissey had found the Greek in Los Angeles “too cold” earlier this month, walking out on fans and cutting his concert short, it was clear that he was much more in his element at the Castro. One could even say that he found the Castro too hot: Before his last song, he took off his shirt, wiped his face with it, and threw it to a fan.

“Don’t you dare forget me,” Morrissey said towards the end. It didn’t seem likely.