Jakarta, Vauxhall and I
Jakarta. The large blue sign in a quite corner of Bona Indah Plaza, a row of shophouses in Lebak Bulus, South Jakarta, a 10-minute walk from the new MRT station, says in capital letters: PUSAD, an acronym for the Study Center for Religion and Democracy. The GrabCar driver politely asked, "Are you guys having a religious discussion? But all of you have long hair, and why so many black t-shirts?"
"We wear black on the outside, 'cause black is what we feel on the inside," I thought of answering the driver, mangling Steven Patrick Morrissey’s immortal lines from "Unloveable," a song he wrote when he was still the maudlin frontman of seminal proto-Britpop band The Smiths. But I just shook my head limply and answered, exchanging politeness, "No, we’re going to talk about music."
The place I was going to that evening last Tuesday, March 19, was not PUSAD on the second floor of the grey ruko building, owned by the progressive Islamic foundation Paramadina, but Kios Ojo Keos downstairs, an independent alternative bookshop-café managed by the outspoken band-collective Efek Rumah Kaca.
Opened in May last year, the space has quickly become one of the more progressive music and literary spaces in Jakarta—holding fundraising for Kendeng farmers fighting cement companies, offering free coffee brewed by ERK’s own frontman Cholil Mahmud to celebrate the arrest of a corrupt politician by anti-graft agency KPK and staging a riotous open mic night that often ends up in an all out jamming session between underground poets and musicians.
But on Tuesday, I was there to moderate a light-hearted discussion on Morrissey’s fourth studio album, Vauxhall and I, whose classic single "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get" became a radio hit in Indonesia back when it was released in 1994. It was also going to be a listening party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the mellow-sounding but, as it always is with Morrissey, lyrically caustic album.
The discussion featured Ade Paloh, the singer from psychedelic folk band Sore, who grew up in Los Angeles and used to go to Morrissey gigs with macho, pompadoured Chicano boys who adored the always-quiffed former singer of The Smiths, who since the 1980s had become a universal gay icon just like his idol, Oscar Wilde.
There was also Fadhila Jayamahendra or Aca, the singer of legendary Indonesian hardcore punk band Straight Answer, who had the words "Moz" (Morrissey’s nickname) and "Now My Heart Is Full," the title of Vauxhall and I’s opening track and his favorite Morrissey song, tattooed on his right arm.
The star guest of the night was Steve Lillywhite, the producer of Vauxhall and I, and two more Morrissey albums after that, Southpaw Grammar and Maladjusted, a six-time Grammy award winner who has also produced U2, Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Psychedelic Furs and who is now (in case you’re wondering what he's doing in Indonesia) the chief executive and curator of Jagonya Music & Sport Indonesia, the company responsible for Kentucky Fried Chicken staff haranguing you to buy a copy of Siti Badriah's CD to go with your Super Besar 2.
Lillywhite has been working for KFC since 2016 and now sells around 500,000 CDs every year from 570 KFC outlets throughout Indonesia.
The exuberant 64-year-old dominated the discussion with nostalgic reminiscences of working with the famously recluse singer: "He always arrived completely dressed-up for breakfast, not a hair on his quiff out of place"; "Recording process bored him to tears"; "You never really know him as a person"; "His instructions are rare but very specific: 'Steve, The Who, Shepherd’s Bush, 1964"; "He was a strict vegetarian, but he ate very badly, he thought pizza was too exotic for him."
In between the blather, songs from the album were played on a souped up portable Crosley record player. "Hold On to Your Friends," "Why Don’t You Find Out for Yourself" (that had its original “pub rock” backing track replaced on Lillywhite’s suggestion with a stripped-down, acoustic guitar-driven bop) and what turned out to be the crowd’s favorite of the night, the aforementioned "Now My Heart Is Full," which prompted the full-house audience to singalong with gusto.
Aca, who jumped out of his seat to screamo the "loafing oafs in all-night chemists" verse, said the song had helped him to feel both happiness and sadness to the full at important moments in his life, that even talking about it nearly always brings him to tears.
Ade, when asked why macho-looking Chicanos had worshipped the trés effeminate Morrissey all through the 1990s, said that perhaps the singer was welcomed as a fellow outcast by the Mexican-American minority in Los Angeles. They identified with his dramatic emotionality and also copied his adulterated duck-tailed greaser look.
Nov. 10 is now Morrissey Day in Los Angeles and the Latinx community affectionately calls him Esteban, Spanish for Steven. Morrissey released a DVD compilation of his music videos in 2000 and titled it ¡Oye Esteban! (Hey Steven!).
For my part, I played a footage from Karel Reisz’s 1959 documentary film, We Are the Lambeth Boys, which followed the shenanigans of a bunch of young, white working-class boys from Kennington in South London. Dialogues from the film are sampled extensively on the song "Spring-Heeled Jim."
I also showed on Google Maps how Kennington is located right next to Vauxhall, famous for its gay bars, which suggests that ever-thinking Morrissey, who earned fame and rabid devotees in the 1980s for his melancholic but also sardonic and erudite lyrics, had deliberately planted many intertextual references and allusions from old English films, books and folklore (compare "Spring-Heeled Jim" with the Victorian-era urban legend Spring-heeled Jack) in Vauxhall and I to sprinkle clues about the album's queer subtext and his obsession with a (white) lost England.
The 40-minute album also contained samples from David Lean’s 1948 version of Oliver Twist, in the rockiest song on the album, "Billy Budd," and a line from Noël Coward’s 1942 In Which We Serve in "Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning." Continuing on the ye olde England theme, "Now My Heart Is Full" also mentions Dallow, Spicer, Pinkie, Cubitt—characters from Graham Greene’s 1938 murder thriller Brighton Rock.
The discussion ended in a bit of a sour note with a brief discussion on that ever controversial topic: Morrissey’s alleged racism and flirtation with right-wing politics. Apart from writing lyrics in his songs that have been criticised as racist (e.g., "England for the English" in the rockabilly-influenced album Your Arsenal’s "National Front Disco" and "Life is hard enough when you belong here" in his solo debut Viva Hate’s "Bengali in Platforms"), Morrissey has lately also been known to make Islamophobic and anti-immigrant comments ("halal slaughter requires certification that can only be given by supporters of Isis," he was quoted as saying by The Guardian) and even offered his sympathy for former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson.
Lillywhite said he doesn’t think that Morrissey is a racist and that discussions about the issue are sometimes given too much merit; Aca said he can’t work out if the line from "Bengali in Platforms" is ironic or earnest, though he would love to ask Morrissey what he really meant by "England for the English"; and Ade said he is resigned to the fact that, "Morrissey is just full of paradoxes."
If felt somehow appropriate that as the crowd dispersed—some of the Moz Army getting their Lillywhite-produced Morrissey 12"s and 7"s autographed by the ginger-haired legend—the plaintive lyrics from this most singular and divisive artist’s heartbreaking ballad "I Am Hated for Loving" were heard snaking outside to the damp night air:
I am hated for loving
Anonymous call, a poison pen
A brick in the small of the back again
I still don't belong
To anyone—I am mine…