The first of Morrissey's two sold- out nights at the Maritime Hall was nearing its close when his fans finally won their battle against the bouncers. As the crowd chanted the singer's name in deafening unison, a determined young woman in a sensible skirt started the charge when she overcame a hefty security guard, clambered onstage and kissed her hero's hand.
Security was still wrestling her away when a tall, lanky kid leaped into the spotlight to gently lay his head on Morrissey's shoulder. Seconds later, a girl charged out from behind the PA system to embrace him from behind. One especially determined young man was dragged back into the crowd still clutching Morrissey's hand, nearly dragging the singer down with him.
Such devotion is a component of any Morrissey concert. The Smiths' former front man isn't a rock star; he's an icon. And his live shows transform any venue into a temple of worship. No matter that he hasn't put out an album of original material since 1997. His peerless talent for transforming lovesickness from tired pop convention to droll social commentary has enshrined him in the late-20th century pop pantheon.
It has also won him a huge, indefatigable cult following. Like the doomed romantics of Morrissey's music, his admirers shower their beloved with unrequited affection: On Friday, bouquets of flowers, giddy screams and the occasional pair of airborne underwear greeted every song. In the role of empowered tease, Morrissey played them like the proverbial fiddle. Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and a quickly discarded suit jacket, he accepted their cheers (``Yes, yes, I love you, too'') and their flowers (which he threw back into the crowd to be torn to bits) with the dry aplomb of a stately matron at an afternoon reception.
``Do you not have anything to say after all these years?'' he taunted front-row fans reaching up to him. ``All these years with nothing to say?'' When someone answered provocatively, he quipped, ``Now, now, none of that. We're all too sophisticated to say those kinds of things, even though we think them.'' After a rocked-up version of the much- loved ``Hairdresser on Fire,'' he changed T-shirts and gave the audience the used one. It was shredded in 10 seconds flat.
Equal parts conceited provocateur and instinctive performer, Morrissey -- a little gray around the edges but in fine mournful voice -- put on a riveting show. His spare dance moves and whipping microphone cord were perfect foils for his subtly barbed lyrics, and added a touch of understatement to his band's energetic, relentlessly rocking delivery.
The 80-minute concert deserved a more diverse delivery, since it featured a variety of moods, from the ambiguous ``November Spawned a Monster'' and the impish ``Is It Really So Strange'' to the ominous ``The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils'' and the euphoric ``Now My Heart Is Full.'' A few Smiths classics made the cut, including the harrowing and beautiful ``Meat Is Murder'' and an encore of ``Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me.''
If Morrissey delighted in teasing his acolytes, he also seemed to enjoy engaging with them. He made sure, for instance, to reward every fan charging the stage with a handclasp, even while repeating, ``It's illegal! It's illegal! You can't do it.'' Making no bones about the fact that he found the Maritime security excessive, he thanked the crowd for its patience. ``This is a very strange venue,'' he said, comparing it to ``a grotty student union.''
``It's not actually very nice. I'm glad we agree on that. Next time we'll play someplace better.''
But if the environment was less than inspiring to the singer and the sound often a smudgy blur (``If what you hear doesn't sound good, there's nothing I can do about it,'' Morrissey said wearily after a few songs), it mattered little. The fans on the main floor, so tightly packed they moved like a single swaying anemone sprouting hundreds of tiny waving arms, were high on Morrissey, singing along to every song and helping hoist one another forward to touch their idol's outstretched hand.
And in the end, Morrissey dropped his conceits and clever verbal parries and let them win. ``I love you,'' he told the crowd, pausing as he left the stage. ``I do.''
It was the sweetest gift any icon could offer his flock.