NEW YORK — It is 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, the fourth of May. Usher's "Yeah!" blares out of Portebella, a clothing store next to Harlem's Apollo Theatre, one of the most hallowed musical sites in the U.S. The venue has hosted hundreds of memorable concerts throughout the past seven decades, mostly from the likes of Usher's stylistic forebears such as Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and Jackie Wilson.
But right now, devotees of a very different kind of performer approach from either end of 125th Street. For tonight is the second installment of Morrissey's five-night engagement at the Apollo.
Stephen Morrissey, the 44-year-old former Smiths frontman, English resident of Los Angeles, and poet laureate of the sensitive and misunderstood, will release You Are the Quarry, his first album since 1997's Maladjusted, on May 18. And his psychopathically devoted fans are primed for both the album and tonight's show.
Phil Robert DeJean, 36, and Cherish Porter, 28, are among the first to arrive. "It's amazing that no one's here yet," marvels Porter. "Where are the screaming throngs?"
This is the fourth Morrissey concert that Dejean has attended since high school, and he has tickets for Saturday's show as well. He's decked out in checkerboard raiment, and quickly doffs his cap to show off a long cowlick that dramatically contrasts with his otherwise-tight buzzcut. "This," he declares, "is because of Morrissey.
"In the mid-'80s, he was my surrogate dad," Dejean, a teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. High School of Arts and Technology, continues. "He nurtured me. Being Puerto Rican and Haitian, people thought I was weird, but I hear his fanbase is growing in the Latin sector.
"I'm trying to get kids to be more into the arts and reading," he adds, "and Morrissey talks about Oscar Wilde and other writers, so to catch all the in-jokes, you gotta keep up. Somebody told me Andre 3000 is into the Smiths, so who knows when a Morrissey beat will end up on a Nas record? That would have me rollin'."
Dejean notes that Morrissey does not reciprocate any hip-hop love. "He does not like 'pop thuggery,' " he chuckles, imitating the singer's haughty speaking voice. " 'The G-Unit does not represent me.' "
Porter, a resident of Mount Vernon, New York, was introduced to Morrissey and the Smiths by Dejean. "Me and Phil were both brought up in very religious families," she says. "I think we both have a strong need for religious [guidance]. He's a reverent being. "
"I saw him in Las Vegas two weeks ago," enthuses Michael Short, 29, who adds that MTV should play Morrissey's new video for "Irish Blood, English Heart." "I happened to be there on business — I went by myself. I guess I could have brought a showgirl. He looks great and his voice hasn't changed a bit. He's the epitome of a rock star."
His uncle Joe, a beefy 39-year-old bartender, says he became a fan while attending Southern Connecticut State University in the mid-'80s. "Someone turned me on to [the Smiths' 1986 album] The Queen Is Dead, of course. Then the Smiths broke up. I first saw Morrissey in 1990 at Jones Beach [New York]. People attacked the stage, and he had to sing backstage." Short's favorite Morrissey lyric is from "Unlovable": "I wear black on the outside, because black is how I feel on the inside." "In the '80s," Short relates, "it was cool to be depressed and wear black."
Asked whether he thought Morrissey was asexual — the singer contended for years he was celibate — Short recalls an interview he read: "He said, 'I find sex to be sloppy.' I think 'sloppy' is a good word for sex! I'm heterosexual, but if I played for the other team, he might be the one to get me. If I met him, I'd give him a huge hug and a kiss, and that would be the start."
Sarah Williams, from West Hempstead, New York, entertains similar feelings. "I masturbate to his voice," she states. Today is her 21st birthday, and her fiancé, John Rizzola, 29, bought tickets for the two of them for tonight's show. She has never seen Morrissey — the man who has been her daily obsession since 2001 — up close, and she's sure that she will cry.
"My ex-boyfriend is a huge fan," she says as Rizzola, a Metallica fan, smiles indulgently. "I fell in love with the Morrissey and Smiths CD that he made for me. 'You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby' obsessed me. I downloaded his unreleased stuff. No one else comes close. I like Sarah McLachlan."
"You like 'NSYNC too," chides Rizzola.
"I don't know if he's asexual," she adds, "but I hope he's hetero so I can get my hands on him," adding that her fiancé would sanction such a liaison.
Exiting from an SUV in front of the Apollo are two high school sophomores from Ridgefield High School in Connecticut. Becky, a red-headed 16-year-old, wears a vintage, fluffy red dress from the '80s. Her mother drove Becky and friend Theresa, raven-haired, also 16 and wearing an antique skirt and combat boots, to the show.
"I read 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower,' a book about a boy named Charlie who's learning about music, relationships and high school," says Theresa. "It mentions [Morrissey's] song 'Asleep,' so I downloaded it off of Kazaa. I became dangerously obsessed with him ever since. I burned a CD for Becky," whose favorite Morrissey/ Smiths tune is "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out." "To me," Becky says, "it means that everyone has a soul."
Prior to their current infatuation, Becky and Theresa were chiefly interested in Rufus Wainwright, Belle and Sebastian, and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." Other students at their school like Dashboard Confessional, but Becky says she considers emo to be "whiny. But Morrissey is so interesting. I like his ... what do you call it? A pompadour? A quiff! If he wants to be our friend, that's OK."
The throngs that Cherish Porter anticipated eventually make their way into the Apollo. It is very possibly the first time many of Morrissey's pasty-faced admirers have ventured to the venerated theater — or Harlem, for that matter. It's equally possible that for just as many, it will be the last.
At 9:05, after a short set from David Johansen, former frontman for '70s glam rock legends New York Dolls (one of Morrissey's all-time faves), and a spoken recitation by a disembodied female voice of various unhappy occurrences ranging from "oil slicks" to "gut-wrenching disappointment," the object of the crowd's affection, accompanied by his longtime five-piece band, hit the stage.
Sporting a cream-colored jacket and a lilac-colored handkerchief affixed to his belt, Morrissey swanned around to the strains of a new tune, "First of the Gang to Die," which was followed by "Hairdresser on Fire," which he punctuated by crouching into a pose reminiscent of Rodin's sculpture "The Thinker."
Throughout the next hour, he gestured grandly, graciously accepted the screamed plaudits of the crowd and wrapped his froggy tenor around evergreens like "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" and "Every Day Is Like Sunday," as well as new tunes like "The World Is Full of Crashing Bores," which he prefaced with caustic remarks regarding President Bush: "There he is, smiling, whereas I wouldn't get out of bed if I had days like he has had lately."
Finally, Moz launched into a turbocharged encore of 1983's "Hand in Glove," which culminated with him removing his shirt and throwing it into the crowd.
David, a 32-year-old Australian, had waited 18 years to see Morrissey. He summed up the feelings of many by saying, "He answered all my prayers tonight."