The Smiths at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre
Irvine, CA, June 29, 1985
I don’t know if it’s still regarded as one of the ultimate destination points for teenagers, but in 1985 you could do no better than Southern California if you were a kid from Iowa. I’m guessing that the internet has localized a lot of the romanticism out of such locales and the landscapes of city individuality have replaced with a constant stream of familiar big box retail outlets, but back then it was cultural ground zero.
Remember the young longhair with the weed hanging out of his mouth getting off the bus in that Guns ‘N Roses video?
That shit really happened.
L.A. was the first place my cousin put on his map when he hitched a plan to runaway from home.
I know of a couple of classmates that headed out to the Sunset Strip immediately after graduating, only to return a few years later with tattoos on their forearms and tales of publishing deals and session work.
For me, my ticket to Los Angeles came in the form of a graduation gift. My plane ride had nothing to do with a dream, but to fly out and see a friend who had unceremoniously been plucked from his safe Iowa home, a transplant from his father’s job relocation.
To most high school kids, moving from Iowa to California may seem like a wonderful opportunity, but the timing of this move for my friend couldn’t have come at a worse moment. It was right before his senior year at a point where the social hierarchy is rigidly set and to start from square one again is a daunting prospect.
But start over he did.
I tried to keep him apprised of the events back home while he provided the images of his new hometown. I learned of beaches, earthquakes, and KROQ playlists.
I also I learned that the Smiths would be performing during the same time of my California visit.
Yes, even in small town Iowa, the Smiths carried remarkable weight among the high school depressed. Maybe not on the same level as Prince or Def Leppard, but they were most certainly a popular favorite who counted speech and drama as part of their extra-curricular activities.
No other band matched the level of high school alienation and awkwardness better than The Smiths and they rank alongside heavy metal, Purple Rain and John Hughes’ movies the perfect personification of my high school years. It’s hard to understand now, but there was a real, prevailing feeling among young people at that time that the world could end at any moment, thanks to a trigger-happy finger of a b-movie president and his tumultuous Soviet counterpart. There was an inherent desire to feel love, particularly after the unconditional kind we saw on episodes of Brady Bunch was replaced by the home and Dad’s two-bedroom apartment, where we were forced to stay at on every other weekend and alternating holidays. And lurking underneath all of our raging hormones was news of a disease that could kill you if you had sex—a cruel prank to endure after witnessing the uninhibited promiscuity of the ’70s only to have it yanked from us like an unfinished handjob.
Yes, heaven knows I’m miserable now.
The Smiths bottled all of that doubt and insecurity and spun it through Johnny Marr’s jangle and Steven Morrissey’s brooding wordplay and virtuous life code. We thought Moz’s vow of celibacy was a support of our own, with the glaring difference being that his was by choice while ours was merely lack of opportunity or social skills. His playful tit-for-tat between genders and vague role definitions within his lyrics made him a natural role model with girls, boys, and every confused person in-between.
The lost youth found their way to the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on a Saturday night, but not as many as you’d think. Whereas now The Smiths could undoubtedly fill any arena or stadium if they announced a reunion gig, twenty-five years ago the outdoor venue could only manage to fill half the seats on that beautiful California evening. The lawn seating was scattered with a few lovebirds making out on blankets or the even fewer members of the audience who ignored Morrissey’s penchant for sobriety and congregated to the grassy hill to get high and/or share a nip of concealed underage alcohol, away from the watchful eye of the security personnel.
Speaking of: after noticing that there were much better seating arrangements in the lower section of the venue than our second level spots, my friend and I devised a plan to get closer to the stage before the show started. We waved down a group of guys who were walking to their location in the lower level and asked if we could borrow their ticket stubs to get past security into the area in which they were seated. We got past security, gave our partners in crime their tickets back and found some great, unused seats near the back of the first level. When the lights went down as the Smiths made their way on stage, we continued to hop down to the unused seats in front of us, secretly moving closer to the stage with each successful jump.
The band only had two domestic albums available at this point in their career—three if you counted the imported compilation, Hatful of Hollow—so the band began their set with the title track from the (then) latest release, Meat Is Murder. The sound of livestock began to emanate from the speakers and the band began their dirge-like view on the perils of eating meat.
“Meat Is Murder” is one of my least favorite songs by the Smiths. Not because I’m a carnivore, but because its message is delivered with so much holier than thou righteousness that I want to eat a Big Montana roast beef sandwich while it’s playing just to spite it.
As awkward as having a plodding, pro-vegetarian song kick off the final stop in their 11-date U.S. tour, so was the trainwreck segue into a bouncy “Hand In Glove.” The band did achieve their desired effect by capturing the eyes and bodies of those in attendance, as people began to dance in the aisle to the first of the set’s most recognizable songs.
Marr’s complex arpeggios sat high in the mix, and when a problematic guitar suddenly removed the six-string from the entire audio picture, it was easy to hear how vital his role is to the band and our attraction to them.
But props to the rhythm section of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce who seemed to be careening the four-song run of up-tempo numbers into even quicker territories. They were a solid unit, and they may have even helped the band achieve lift-off, if it weren’t for the ongoing technical issues that plagued the early part of the set.
They slowed it down with a note-perfect version of “Stretch Out And Wait,” and the long drones of Marr’s guitar on the studio version of “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” go missing in the live version while he concentrated on the fingerpicked chord progression.
Morrissey, on the other hand, swayed around the stage, occasionally tweaking what appears to be a white hearing aid in his right ear. When he wasn’t posturing as a hearing-impaired bookworm, he’d go to the front of the stage and tease the crowd, exciting the cluster of young girls who gathered at the front of the stage. They’d squeal when Moz slithered close to them, apparently missing the memo where he’s stated his fondness of no sex over casual sex.
The slower material was as eloquent as you could imagine, but the set suddenly things kicked into overdrive again with a rapid-fire “What She Said,” followed by a weaving “Still Ill” and then ending with the most popular song of the evening, “How Soon Is Now.” While in England, “Soon” was a single release—also placed on the Hatful comp for good measure—in America it was known as the first song on side two for Meat Is Murder. Whatever the source material, it was clear that “How Soon Is Now” was easily the most recognized track of the set.
You knew they’d be back for an encore, but the crowd gave them a bit of extra voice just in case. Starting with the obscure romp of “Jeane,” the Smiths then tangled with “The Headmaster Ritual” and a memorable “Reel Around The Fountain.”
Whether lending support to the song or sensing the band was looking to leave town, the audience kicked it up the notch.
Their efforts paid off with a second encore, to which Morrissey acknowledged, “We really weren’t expecting this,” before Johnny Marr cut in with “William It Was Really Nothing.” This led in to a smoking version of “This Charming Man.” The crowd sang along to every verse of “I would go out tonight / But I haven’t got a stitch to wear,” sounding more like spoiled charlatans than Cinderellas.
It’s true that most of the crowd crawled in with phony malcontent from the valley and manicured suburbs, but that doesn’t mean their enthusiasm was any less great or intentional. Even after The Smiths fired up the locomotive “Miserable Lie” that chugged well beyond its normal running time, the audience gave one final attempt at recognition for another band return.
Some members took Morrissey’s bark of “Good night!” as a reason to leave. While they began to file out, my friend and I took it as an opportunity to jump a few more seats to get closer to the most vocal supporters who remained close to the stage.
It worked as the band returned to the stage for a third time, causing those who had begun to work toward the exits to suddenly turn tail and try to come back in.
The band dived into the funky “Barbarism Begins At Home,” which caused everyone who stayed behind to clear a space for dancing. “Barbarism” is probably my second least favorite track on Meat Is Murder, but that evening, it was the best song of the night. First, it was faster than the studio version. Secondly, when the tempo is sped up, it means that Marr has to throw down some even quicker wrist action while the other is busy fretting up and down the neck for a quarter-hour.
That’s right, the band tackled “Barbarism” for over 15 minutes, leaving Morrissey to dance around the stage while the other members played. One audience member had enough being teased and fought his way to try to get on stage to dance with Morrissey. Most of the security at this point was still trying to manage those early leavers who were trying to make their way back to their already-taken seats, but a few security members remained up-front off stage, seemingly a little pissed that a crowd for The Smiths could suddenly turn into unruly boys and girls.
The security guards began to impose a little more force than what was needed for a stage-crashing, skinny white kid, causing Morrissey to stop dancing and twirling for a moment to come to his rescue. He tugged at one of the security guards to let go of the kid, and he obliged the singer with a defeated shrug.
That was all the crowd needed to see before more members began to make their way on stage. Some would immediately make their way to Morrissey and give him a big hug, but all eventually found their own space on the stage and began dancing.
A few dozen people ended up next to the Smiths and this created another opportunity to move forward. I contemplated taking the leap myself, but right before I decided to push ahead, I was shoved into the back of a nicely appointed young lady.
I’m not the sharpest guy around women, but I know enough to understand that, when I inadvertently use an attractive girl’s backside to prevent myself from taking a header into the next row of seats ahead of me…and I don’t get smacked for doing it…I’m going to forget trying to getting next to Johnny Marr and stick with the tolerant chick who smiled at me after grabbing her ass.
She even let me put my hands on her hips and dance to “Barbarism” with me for a little bit, which may have been the closest thing I had to sex on the entire California trip.
People continued to file onstage until I notice a blonde in her late twenties scale the barrier and dance her way towards center-stage. She didn’t look like a typical Smiths fan; in fact, she’d have looked more at home at a Van Halen concert. The blonde gave Morrissey an obligatory hug before she turned to the crowd, shook her ass, and lefted her shirt to expose her ample bosom.
It was, admittedly, the last thing that I expected to see at a Smiths show.
Morrissey didn’t notice the indecent exposure and Marr was too busy focused on his guitar, occasionally looking to the rhythm section to see if they’re even close to ending the never-ending “Barbarism.” Bassist Andy Rourke did seem to have noticed the incident, and he appeared to be very pleased with what he saw.
As childish as it may seem, so did I.
It was that moment which secured this Smiths performance as one of my top ten concerts of all time. Like the music itself, that incident of breast bearing encompassed everything that was important in my teenage years. And yes, even though Morrissey pleaded for restraint, the hormones dictated otherwise.
It’s been a quarter-century since that concert, and I have seen well over a hundred shows since then. Yet there is something inherently special about this one, a performance that for whatever reason, I took particular note of and can visualize like it was yesterday.
And even though this review of the show is now twenty-five years too late, it’s time the tale were told.
Meat Is Murder
Hand In Glove
I Want The One I Can’t Have
That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore
Stretch Out And Wait
Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now
What She Said
How Soon Is Now?
The Headmaster Ritual
Reel Around The Fountain
William It Was Really Nothing
This Charming Man
Barbarism Begins At Home
Photos via Forever Ill.