Mexico’s Undying Affection for Morrissey: Is It Really So Strange?

Photo Credit: Rahav Iggy
Photo Credit: Rahav Segev

“I wish you asked me this after [the performance]. After, you’ll say ‘Ah, now I get it!’” Camilo Lara said last Sunday, standing in front of a packed Brooklyn Academy of Music. He was attempting to answer the long-standing question, posed that evening by WNYC’s John Schaefer as part of their RadioLoveFest program, that surrounds Mexico’s love affair with Morrissey: Why? Lara spoke moments before his brainchild, “Mexrissey,” took to the stage.

Three years in the making, Mexrissey reworks Morrissey and The Smiths’ songs into a mishmash of Mexican styles, from Cumbia to ranchero to contemporary electronica. After their BAM performance on Sunday, they flew to Los Angeles to play the Regent Theater. Next up is a date with a studio to make an album of their unique reinterpretations.

Their versions of Morrissey tracks include full lyric translations into Spanish, with some parts receiving fuller recontextualization than others: the song “Last of the Famous International Playboys” is changed to “…International Playgirl” for female singer Ceci Bastida’s rendition. In the same song, the infamous London gangster Reggie Kray is substituted for Mexican fugitive and ex-drug cartel boss Rafael Caro Quintero. These slight changes add a surprising voltage to songs we’ve been familiar with for years.

Mexican and Mexican-American adoration of Morrissey, which calls East LA its heartland, is a phenomenon music writers have spent a lot of energy trying to explain. Like crazed archivists, most people had Morrissey’s fan base annotated and filed away under, “College Students.” But in the late ’90s the wider Latino fandom came to prominence, and it threw the filing system off. Theories as to its origin have ranged from the intellectual to the absurd, with many theorists unable to get over the idea of anyone relating to someone who comes from a place that gets more rain than to their home.

Fascinating, then, that it took only a few warbles of Ceci Bastida singing “First of the Gang to Die” for most in attendance to have that “Ah, now I get it!” revelation Lara spoke about at the start of the night. The songs sounded natural, seamless and new, in the best possible way. It just fit. The faces that made up the diverse audience beamed as they took the invitation to get up on their feet. A Brooklyn crowd shouting choruses in Spanish — “Es muy serio!”; “Ahorcar el DJ!” — in the immense setting of the BAM Opera House was a sight to behold. If the core of the idea of music is to bring people together, here it was, serving its remit. Behind the band, an animation by Oscar Reyes, which layered Day of the Dead makeup over Morrissey’s image, garnered the same appreciation as the music.

Photo Credit: Oscar Reyes
Photo Credit: Oscar Reyes

Morrissey is usually most lauded for his lyrics, but one of his greatest gifts (and this is especially true of his time with Johnny Marr in The Smiths) is his ability to weave a broad variety of musical touchstones into his songs without being obtrusive. There are the obvious nods to punk, rockabilly, and to the keen eared, even heavy metal. His songs leave ample room for any amount of fills — if anything, you wonder why it took so long to add a few cha-cha-cha’s. The only pitfall therein is the potential for cheesiness, something Lara was very conscious of. “We wanted it to feel like Mexico, to reflect what’s happening in Mexican music, without falling into clichés or postcard ideas of what Mexico should be,” he said. He succeeded. This is a full reinterpretation. “Panic” even segued into into a full James Brown-style breakdown; “Bring it down! Now bring it up!”

Lara, whose day job is making music as Mexican Institute of Sound, expanded on a theory he has about the subcultural Mexican adoration of Morrissey. He told me, the Saturday before the concert, “In the ’90s the second generation of Mexicans in the US started to mingle more with US culture, and I think that they found Morrissey at that moment, the right moment, and completely embraced him. After the zoot suits, Chicanos from Mexico in the US understood the post-punk of the ’80s. It took a period of incubation, which was the ’80s. The ’90s is when it got crazy about it.”

Lara also finds parallels with the veteran Mexican superstar Juan Gabriel. “Morrissey is the gringo Juan Gabriel,” he notes. Gabriel has never married (although he has four children by the same mother), and when he sings he wears his heart firmly on his sleeve.

In the lobby before the show, a man named Marco, born in Mexico but raised in the US, felt unqualified to speak on the subject: “I’m very Americanized, I moved here when I was very young, before I knew much about my own country,” he said. His fellow Brooklynite, Gabby, tried to explain the correlation: “Morrissey was part of an Irish family growing up in England,” she told Marco. “There are definite veins that run in his story and the Mexican narrative, Manchester is mostly working class, there’s the Catholic thing…”

Shannon, another Brooklynite, noted unexpected musical similarities: “Mariachi and Mexican music is very emo-y.” She saw Morrissey live on his first US tour when she was 15; she’s now 38. “It’s not like marimba, or Dominican or other Latin American music.”

It is axiomatic that there’s no one answer to the question of such culturally specific fan devotion. It’s not just the lyrical flair for melodrama, the outsider image, or the feelings of disorientation from one’s surroundings — it’s a combination. Waiting to take his seat, perhaps Marco put it most simply. “For me, it’s nothing to do with any nationality… he just speaks to me.”