Just before 5 on the afternoon of July 28, MTV announced that Morrissey would be signing copies of his new album, "Your Arsenal," at Vinyl Solution, a record store in Grand Rapids, Mich. Within minutes, a line started to form outside the store, despite the fact that the singer wasn't due in until midnight.
By the time the signing began, more than 3,000 fans from all over the Midwest were massed outside the store, hoping to meet their idol. By 1:30 a.m., Morrissey was gone, and so was the store's stock of "Your Arsenal," all 557 copies of it. Even so, the fans didn't disperse until the automatic lawn sprinklers outside the store went on, at 2 a.m.
Paul Pastalaniec, one of the store's owners, laughs that it was "a near-riot situation." But really, it was just another case of Morrissey-mania.
Don't worry if you haven't heard of it; it's not a widespread epidemic. After all, Morrissey -- who was born Stephen P. Morrissey some 33 years ago in Manchester, England, but has used only his surname since he fronted the Smiths -- is hardly a household name in America, having neither cracked the Top 40 nor put a video into the MTV Top 10. To most mainstream pop fans, his name means nothing.
To alternative music fans, however, the man is a godhead. His best-known singles -- "Suedehead," "Ouija Board, Ouija Board," "Every Day Is Like Sunday," "We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful" -- are virtual standards as far as alternative and college radio programmers are concerned, and it's not unusual for his more devoted fans to pepper their conversations with quoted lyrics and song titles (e.g., "You're the one for me, fatty").
For some reason, this seems a peculiarly American affliction. Granted, he does have a sizable following at home in England, where the faithful refer to him as "Mozza." Indeed, no less than David Bowie has called him "one of the best lyricists in Britain."
But American fans are by far the most smitten. "He doesn't sell nearly as many records over there as he does here," Pastalaniec points out. "Your Arsenal," for instance, moved more than a quarter-million units in its first three weeks of release, and his other albums have easily gone gold.
Still, the question remains -- why America?
No one really seems to know, because Morrissey-mania doesn't fit into any of the usual patterns of rock-star adulation. Wrote one English journalist, "There is no typical American Mozzaphile: androgynous teen-agers, Latino gangsters, booted skinheads, suited thirtysomethings, a few stray gays and a handful of senior citizens have all been sighted at his gigs."
Morrissey himself offers few clues. Asked by the English magazine q why he felt he provoked such extreme reactions, he simply said, "Because I have a specific identity." And true enough, there is no one in pop music today who's even remotely like him.
But the affection his fans feel probably has less to do with who he is than what his music has to say. Witty as his words often are, Morrissey's greatest gift as a songwriter is the ability to express the loneliness, alienation and despair many of us feel with such clarity and verve that his listeners can only sigh, "Thank god I'm not the only one who feels this way." And it's that resultant sense of community which gives Morrissey-maniacs their remarkable fervor.
When: Tonight at 8.
Where: The Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia.
Tickets: $22.50 for pavilion seats, $18.50 lawn.
Call: (410) 730-2424 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets