“We must get off of this boat.”
“We probably should get off this boat. I mean, it’s seems more like a small ship, but your point stands.”
“Look, if this small ship leaves with us still onboard...”
The clock is ticking and the deck is already packed with aging men, a high percentage with receding hairlines struggling to sustain greasy pompadours. (There are a surprising number of very young people, too, but who notices them in New York City?)
It’s becoming evident that we should have quietly boarded that other party boat, the one wedged into an adjacent slip, full of men clutching Dominican flags and women clutching Dominican men. That looked like the place to be. The festive scattered-tattoos-on-necks crowd. Ours was the dour sleeve-tattoos-on-the-arm crowd.
Having long known the purpose of our junket, my friend now confesses two relevant phobias: “Just so you know, I hate boats and I really hate The Smiths.”
That second objection isn’t a non sequitur. Because we are a minutes from embarking on a three-hour, Morrissey-themed cruise around Manhattan, along with a few hundred diehard disciples of the former Smiths frontman. The boat—this floating church of Morrissey, this Lusitanian of sadness—is sold out.
We’ve all paid $30 for the pleasure and privilege of socializing, drinking, and being morose with our fellow Moz fanatics, and being cheered up with a live set from the Sons and Heirs, a Smiths tribute act celebrated on its own website for possessing a “stunning authenticity and attention to detail.” (A moments googling reveals the Smiths cover band industry to be a surprisingly crowded field.)
In his pompous and wildly overwritten memoir, Morrissey devotes considerable space to tabulating how many concert tickets and records he has sold throughout his career, his various chart positions, and the sinister corporate radio stations who have refused to promote him despite his psychopathically devoted fanbase. With typical humility, Morrissey considers his popularity: “Jesus, I am loved. Having never found love from one, I instead find it from thousands—at the same time, in the same room.”
Pompous, but true enough. His is a fanbase so fanatical that even those pretending to be him are mobbed and celebrated.
“That’s him. That’s fake Morrissey!” The profile was familiar—jutting chin, close cropped hair, shirt open, understated quiff—but not exact. This wasn’t quite Beatlemania or Mini Kiss. The transformation would only be complete later, on stage, as he yelped and howled through the Smiths catalog, rolling on the ground and flinging gladioli into the audience. I wanted to talk to “Ronnissey” but we were separated by a swirling eddy of fans, all obsessed with the man he was pretending to be.
But my friend looked a bit green—seasick but still docked—as I nervously hummed “This Charming Man” and entered the early stages of a panic attack.
We should probably get off.
A few days after the cruise, I called Ronnissey, wanting to know about his life as fake Morrissey. And it’s immediately clear that, outside of the vocal similarities, the two have little in common: Ronnissey is polite, charming, and articulate (real Morrissey has only ever been accused of possessing one of these qualities). He confesses to being a latecomer to the universe of Smiths obsessives (“I was more of an Alice in Chains and Soundgarden guy”), only getting into the band after joining the Sons and Heirs. Indeed, he is respectfully mystified by the almost religious devotion Morrissey inspires. “It’s very weird. There are people who want to take pictures with me. I don’t really understand it. Because I’m obviously not Morrissey.”
He’s Ronnie Scott, a 36-year-old occasionally employed musician born in Bushwick, the once-grubby Brooklyn hamlet now infested with interloper artists and musicians. He doesn’t have a regular job, but “can fix cars, do home improvements” and, I remind him, is rather skilled at mimicking the voice and mannerisms of Morrissey.
“I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I saw you back in 1992. What song did you play when...’ And I have to say, ‘That was Morrissey. I wasn’t there.’” They are, two decades later, still hopelessly devoted, still filling up cruise ships to see Ronnie Scott transform into their hero.
It’s a devotion, Ronnissey argues, that one finds in no other band. There are obsessive fans of the Grateful Dead who will adorn their bodies with dancing bear tattoos, “but Morrissey fans tattoo the lyrics. And they will have a full song’s lyrics on their back. It’s beyond...it’s very hard for me to comprehend.” And this is the type of person one finds at a Sons and Heirs show. “I had one girl come up during a show and stick her feet in my face. Tattooed on one foot it said ‘There Is a Light.’ And on the other, ‘That Never Goes Out.’ After the show, she told me ‘This song is my life, so I had it tattooed on my foot.’ So I am like, ‘OK...that’s...terrific, but you don’t have to put your foot in my face while I’m singing.’”
But don't forget the songs / That made you cry / And the songs that saved your life / Yes, you’re older now / And you’re a clever swine / But they were the only ones who ever stood by you
Smiths fandom was an once small and semi-exclusive club, reserved for the clever, literary, and misunderstood teenager. In my high school, for instance, there was Brigit, a sweet, emotionally troubled young girl who once appeared in science class with a Smiths song title carved into her arm. She would later hurl herself in front of a slow-moving commuter train, only to survive and embark on an ill-fated relationship with a South Korean gun enthusiast.
But Smiths fans are noticeably different now. Tongue-wagging teen sensation Miley Cyrus recently covered “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” and suggested on Twitter that her fans “check out” The Smiths, who are “one of my favorites.” David Cameron, Britain’s hopelessly square Tory prime minister, declared himself a fan, much to the dismay of former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. Car companies and department stores now feature the band’s music in advertisements. And so on.
“The music is now transcending all types of people,” says Ronnissey. “It’s been discovered 30 years after the fact." And what was once an identifiable tribe is now a blob of aging indie rockers, hedge funders, khaki-wearing middle-manager types, and hipsters barely out of diapers—all crowded onto a boat. “There were people dressed to the nines, there are goth people, middle-aged people, older people. So I’m saying to myself, ‘What’s going on here? Are they here for The Smiths or just to take cruise around Manhattan?’”
They are here to sing the songs that saved their lives, while watching Ronnissey transform into Morrissey. The Smiths will never re-form—too much acrimony, too many lawsuits—and Morrissey has a penchant for canceling tours, so for most fans the Sons and Heirs are the closest they will ever get.
Ronnie Scott, fake Morrissey, tells me that he once crossed paths with real Morrissey, long before joining the band. “I met him at the David Letterman show. I was working with an equipment company and we provided equipment for the band. I said, ‘Oh, I’m a guitar player and just doing this job to make some money.’ And he was kind of...umm...standoffish.”
“He wasn’t very nice to me.”
It’s one of those few useful cliches, but one that requires a slight modification: Don’t meet your idols. It’s always better to meet those pretending to be your idols.