As a clumsy and shy teenager, a pre-Smiths Morrissey began his first of many pilgrimages to the U.S. in 1976, visiting his sister in New York. "I manage three more trips to America before 1980," Morrissey said in his recent memoir, Autobiography. "But by now Mary has moved to the less interesting Denver...The knee-high Arvada snow makes everything look bright and clean, and I rashly place a fruitless ad in the Rocky Mountain News in search of musicians as despair mounts upon despair."
Had this ad bore fruit, Mozzer might have fronted an American band of square-jawed Coloradans. It did not, of course, but despite "crying myself back to intolerant Manchester," Morrissey has spent a surprising amount of time in Denver in the intervening years (including this Saturday, at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House), leaving a mark so indelible it inspired one resident to literally take up arms against a local radio station, demanding Smiths music be played.
"Is there anyone here from Aurora?" Morrissey asked a half capacity audience at Denver's Filmore Auditorium when he performed here in 2007. "Seriously...Aurora." It was a mostly ambiguous statement, spiced with a tiny dose of directionless sarcasm. It mostly just confused the audience.
We can't take Morrissey's barbs against Colorado personally. In Autobiography, he skewered pretty much every friend or hero he's ever had, saying David Bowie "feeds on the blood of living mammals," and describing his hometown of Manchester, England as a place "where the 1960s will not swing, and where the locals are the opposite of worldly."
Morrissey spent some substantial time in Denver --another semi-industrial city that is often eclipsed by its coastal big brothers -- in the late seventies and early eighties. Of that time, he wrote that he was "unable to do anything but just get by." He applied for work at Pathmark grocers, and got as far as an interview with Target, who Morrissey said "will employ almost anyone as long as they have at least one fully working eye." Though they turned up their nose at long-haired Steven.
These dreary experiences here might well have played a role inspiring the anti-employment lyrics of songs like "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" ("I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and Heaven knows I'm miserable now"), and "Still Ill" ("If you must go to work tomorrow, well if I were you I wouldn't bother.")
Certainly the city had its way of staying on his mind, considering that when Morrissey first encountered Smiths songwriting partner Johnny Marr, he was "wrapped in the sanctity of an enormous overcoat acquired in a Denver charity shop for $5."
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Either no one ever responded to Morrissey's "musician-wanted" ad in the Rocky Mountain News, or he was foppishly disgusted with those who did. His book mentioned nothing of a music scene or noteworthy culture of any kind in Denver, Colorado.
"Morrissey just didn't know where to look," says Gil Asakawa, Westword music editor from 1983 to 1991. "Denver wasn't New York, that's true. But there was a nascent scene that would grow into the thriving one that exists today. Several key bands were formed in '79 to '83 or so. There was a punk and new wave community forming in the clubs that later supported bands like The Smiths. With the help of a few record stores, people who wanted to hear alternative music were able to find each other."
While touring the US in support of The Queen Is Dead in 1986, The Smiths paid a visit to this nascent new wave scene in Denver, where their car was accosted by, as Morrissey put it in Autobiography, "a plump girl, who bangs on the window of the car shouting 'Ooh, I've always wanted to meet you!' Which strikes me as odd since we have only existed for three years."
Later, Morrissey and Marr took the night off and attended an A-hah concert in Denver. Backstage, Morrissey was impressed by the band's "healthy, athletic, rosebud Norwegian propriety, and this is interesting to me because it shows me how the mission to sing isn't always a result of pain."
Still, the mission to listen to Smiths records can often be the result of pain, as seen in our reporting of Denver resident James Kiss, an unstable Smiths fan who, in 1988, was more than willing to sacrifice his own life in the proselytization of King Moz.
After growing up in the same Arvada, Colorado that a pimply Morrissey had visited his sister in two decades earlier, teenage Kiss inadvertently created a piece of rock mythology when he decided to forcefully demand The Smiths be played on top 40 radio.
"I have bought a gun," eighteen-year-old Kiss wrote in a letter to his parents, later recovered in a police raid of his home, along with some poetry and a magazine featuring The Smiths. "I'm going to [Lakewood radio station] Y108 and I'm going to take control of the station and play all the Smiths and the Morrissey tapes over the air....When it's over I'll give myself up. I do not expect to die, but if that happens I won't really mind. I will not hurt anyone that doesn't try to stop me." James Kiss showed up to the station armed with a gun and loads of cassettes by The Smiths and Morrissey. But he lost his nerve, gave up his weapon and somberly confessed his plans before even entering the radio station.
The story has consistently been told in biographies and essays with Kiss successfully getting The Smiths on the air for various amounts of hours, a false-legend that came to inspire the upcoming film Shoplifters of the World.
According to Autobiography, Morrissey also seems to believes this myth, writing that "unwittingly, this gunman is providing the very first active radio promotion on behalf of The Smiths." Later, he adds the quintessentially Morrissey self-pity jab, "evidently a loaded gun is what it takes to get a Smiths song on the airwaves."
Autobiography's revelations of Morrissey's storied time in Colorado probably won't build the same mythology as Bob Dylan performing at The Satire in 1960 or bring the level of civic pride that Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady's days binging on Larimer Street have.
Morrissey's nihilism and dour worldview don't lend themselves well to tourism, but they are often the very thing that inspires such unwavering devotion in his fans, the kind found in James Kiss' ominous letter. It reads as if it was plucked directly from the pages of Autobiography.
I believe life never ends. When a person dies he is just born again. Therefore people shouldn't let themselves be tied by the codes of the day, and if someone's life is not going well, it would be just as easy to quit and start again. I could write a book of my opinions, but no one would want to read it.
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