Kissing death does something to you. This much was evident during Morrissey’s performance at D.C.’s Echostage June 17.
Following four life-threatening maladies, the 56-year-old British pop icon with his graying, thinning coif and a penchant for melodrama left it all on stage: moxy, voice, activism, and everything in between.
Between 2013 and 2014, he cancelled many shows, including those scheduled in D.C., due to a bleeding ulcer, double pneumonia, a cancer scare, and food poisoning, in which he “officially died for nine minutes,” as he recently told Alternative Nation.
So when he marched on stage in designer jeans and in a white dress shirt with an iridescent lamé “V” zipped down mid-chest, looking healthy and slim, he received a Beatlemania-like reception: part euphoria, part disbelief, part relief.
He launched into “Suedehead,” his first single off his 1988 solo debut album “Viva Hate.” Before finishing the song’s first line: “Why do you come here?” and despite fans screaming along, it was immediately evident that his pipes were in top form. By song’s end, any concerns regarding the range and strength of his idiosyncratic baritone were gone.
He hit and held notes effortlessly, as he vocally pirouetted from song to song in a 30-plus-year, career-spanning set. He pulled from 2015’s solo album “World Peace is None of Your Business” and went as far back as 1985, when he fronted The Smiths – the short-lived, but highly influential Manchester quartet.
But deep cuts like “Will Never Marry” proved to be his high points, as well as fresh takes on fan faves like “Speedway.” Three-quarters into the song, the band members switched places and even Morrissey retreated into the shadows with a tambourine, allowing multi-instrumentalist, Colombian-Ecuadorian-American Gustavo Manzur to take center stage and sing the final verse. En Español.
Uncharacteristic for a lead singer, especially one with a revolving, unnamed band, Morrissey relinquished the spotlight to Manzur two more times: during the Spanish-guitar solo finale of “Staircase at the University” and during the chorus of “World Peace Is None of Your Business,” which Manzur turned into “Paz Mundial, El Asunto Que No Te Concierne.”
Morrissey’s frugal but humorous stage banter was also in fine form. Here’s his sardonic apology for having cancelled his previous D.C. shows: “Our band has a very high suicide rate.” And before singing “The World Is Full of Crashing Bores,” he asked the crowd not to take the next song too personally.
But beyond his carpe diem performance, there was something else that suggested Morrissey was raging “against the dying of the light,” as poet Dylan Thomas wrote. Rather than squander his platform with the kind of snarky, petulant diatribes that have made him infamous – he’s ripped on the British throne, “McDonna,” and “Kentucky Fried shit” – the world-class provocateur found his most compelling activist voice. Yes, the boy-man with a thorn in his crotch seemed far more interested with his faithful taking action than simply lending him a cynical ear. And ironically, he didn’t need to say much. Two visceral montages projected behind the band did most of his proselytizing.
The first showed disturbing footage of police gone wild. Though there were plenty of violent takedowns and nightstick beat downs, the far more incriminating scenes showed officers seemingly enjoying the ugly part of their work. They smiled and high-fived each following brutal confrontations and gratuitously pepper-sprayed apprehended, handcuffed demonstrators at point-blank range.
These scenes rolled as Morrissey growled, “The police are grinding me into the ground… They say, 'To protect and to serve,' but what they really mean to say is get back to the ghetto” from the B-side “Ganglord” – an otherwise innocuous song, if not for the recent high-profile police homicides, including Freddie Gray’s 40 minutes north of the venue. The 25-year-old African American young man’s mysterious death, while in police custody following his arrest for allegedly possessing an illegal switchblade, drove Baltimore into weeks of rioting.
The second montage came near the set’s end when he sang The Smiths-era vegetarian anthem and title track of their second album, “Meat is Murder.” A staunch animal rights activist and almost militant vegetarian, Morrissey doesn’t mince words when it comes to causes he champions. But on this day, he wants action to be everyone’s middle name. The graphic videos spliced together are gruesome and nearly impossible to watch all the way through. The revelation here was not that animals get killed for our consumption. It was the how.
The methods seemed cruel and inhumane. Sheep’s necks sliced open, as their futile struggle to break free only soaked their white wool coats in red. Their convulsing bodies slowed down to a lifeless, limp stop. The look of terror in a cow’s eyes was undeniable as a vice-like contraption crushed its head and a butcher decapitated it.
Morrissey sang the haunting lyrics with noticeable anger and disgust, adding an f-bomb for alliteration and effect: “The flesh you so fancifully fry… The meat in your fat fucken mouth, as you savor the flavor of murder!”
At the end of montage, a banner read: “What’s your excuse now?” Throughout the venue, members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals were handing literature and talking to anyone who cared to convert.
Oscar Wilde, one of Morrissey’s literary heroes, wrote that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Long before Morrissey came face to face with death, he’ has always written about the bleak, miseries of life – a case of art imitating life. Ironic then that when death paid a visit, rather than succumb to paralyzing depression, it has given him a newfound joie de vivre. Lyrics notwithstanding, perhaps his is a case of life imitating art.
Staircase at the University
World Peace Is None of Your Business
Kiss Me A Lot
Will Never Marry
One Of Our Own
The Bullfighter Dies
Now My Heart Is Full
The World Is Full of Crashing Bores
I Will See You In Far-Off Places
I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris
Everyday Is Like Sunday
Neal Cassady Drops Dead
Meat Is Murder
What She Said
First of the Gang to Die