Los Angeles, 2004. Morrissey, striding on stage at the Wiltern Theatre, an Art Deco-themed venue on the edge of Koreatown, is a man who needs no introduction but chooses to do one anyway. “Hello… We are the Sweet and Tender Hooligans,” Morrissey greets the crowd. “And I am Jose Maldonado.” Staring on in disbelief a few rows back at this moment is the real Jose Maldonado – a then 33-year-old lifeguard who, since 1992, has been California’s number one Morrissey tribute act. The man Maldonado had spent more than a decade impersonating was now, in front of almost 2000 people, impersonating him. “I was very taken back. I took it as a sign of validation, a little nod that he was okay with what I was doing. It felt like a dream I never wanted to wake up from.” He adds, with a Morrissey-ish flash of macabre: “I could have died happy right there and then.”
There’s no shortage of tribute bands and cover acts in the world. Maldonado, though, represents something more special. As a Los Angeles-born son of Mexican immigrants, his success as “the Mexican Morrissey”, with a dedicated fan base of his own among Los Angeles’ Latino community, is a symbol of the great love affair between Morrissey and Hispanic culture – a romance that, since the Smiths’ split in 1987, has seen a massive boom in Latino-run Moz clubs nights and conventions. Turn on your radio in Pasadena and you’ll hear weekly radio shows dedicated to the singer, including one hosted by Maldonado. Wander down El Pueblo de Los Angeles, downtown LA’s “Little Mexico”, and you’ll find his face spray-painted on walls, his lyrics tattooed on hyper-masculine Latino men beneath basketball vests, as a 2005 documentary, Is It Really So Strange? by film maker William E Jones, discovered. Nine years later, Morrissey mania among LA Latinos remains as strong as ever. Whatever the levels of anticipation there were in the UK for last month’s 10th studio album, ‘World Peace Is None Of Your Business’, it was nothing compared to the excitement among LA’s Hispanic population.
“Morrissey was raised from Irish roots in England,” Maldonado explains. “It’s kinda the same experience for a kid growing up with Mexican parents in Los Angeles. As a people, we’re working class, Catholic, into boxing and soccer… very much like Morrissey is. That experience of not quite belonging somewhere that Morrissey sings about like no else can that’s a very common feeling among the Latino people here.” The result is an intense fanbase in LA, home to the world’s largest population of Mexicans outside of Mexico, who make Morrissey shows a surreal sight for outsiders with media-driven ideas of ultra-macho Hispanic men, with homophobic views that jar with the former Smith’s colourful flamboyance. “You see these stereotypical tough guys Latino men covered in tatts having these great emotional outpourings to his music, completely reduced to tears by a beautiful song like ‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want’… It’s really moving and for a lot of people quite unexpected,” Maldonado tells NME.
Maldonado, who has sold out concerts in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Boston, New York, Austin, El Paso, Monterrey, Tijuana, Mexico, London, Leeds, Glasgow and Manchester where he of course stopped off for a photo at Salford Lads’ Club, is as knowledgable about the man he mimics as he is enthusiastic and passionate. When I put it to him that the Los Angeles Latino community’s love for Morrissey has been increasingly requited over the last decade, with Moz having included more and more Latino guitars on his albums since ‘You Are The Quarry’, he corrects me that “it’s probably more indicative of his current lineup of backing musicians… Gustavo Manzur is likely behind a lot of those Flamenco sounds.” When I ask him for other possible reasons for the unlikely obsession with Morrissey among Latino men, he quickly points me in the direction of author Gustavo Arellano, who argues in his book ‘Ask A Mexican’ that Morrissey’s music has parallels with Mexican folk music (ranchera) in its subtle anti-authoritarianism:
As in ranchera, Morrissey’s lyrics rely on ambiguity, powerful imagery and metaphors. Thematically, the idealization of a simpler life and a rejection of all things bourgeois come from a populist impulse common to ranchera.
He’s also a touch more bashful than the real Morrissey. The day we speak, he’s still reeling from the adrenaline rush of a show at Los Angeles’ 70,000 seater Rose Bowl Stadium, where he played before a friendly football match between Manchester United and LA Galaxy, but downplays it. “A pretty cool experience,” he says. I resist the urge to remind him most tribute acts spend their days lurking in pub back rooms.
Maldonado discovered ‘The Queen Is Dead’ as a teenager on a lunch break trip to a local record shop. “They were playing ‘Cemetary Gates’ on the intercom and it had an instant impact on me,” he remembers. “After that, I was on a mission to buy every album and every single. I had to get my hands on every magazine with them in. Which before the internet was pretty difficult.” It wasn’t long before he formed Sweet and Tender Hooligans with high school friends. “We did our own songs for a while but soon stuck to the Smiths songs. I dressed like him, did my hair like him. The obsession was complete!” As much as there’s plenty of reasons for Latino people to be drawn to Morrissey, it was something more universal that drew him to the singer. “You know those moments in time when you find yourself quoting a Morrissey lyric? There’s a line for whatever scenario you find yourself in. That’s so priceless… for Latino people, for anybody.”