Plenty of people love The Smiths, the 1980s English rock band (led by Morrissey) behind songs such as “This Charming Man,” “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” and “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.” But in 1987, one teenage fan in Denver, Colorado took his love for the band too far. According to an urban legend, the 18-year-old supposedly drove to his local radio station and held the DJs hostage at gunpoint, forcing them to play songs by The Smiths on repeat.
The story makes the crazy antics of obsessed Beliebers look tame by comparison, but did it actually happen? Different accounts of the incident appeared in The Denver Post, Denver’s weekly newspaper; Westword; Details Magazine; a Morrissey biography; and inconsistent recollections from the radio station’s employees. In 2013, Westword got to the bottom of the urban legend, exploring the differing versions of the story and separating fact from fiction.
According to Westword, The Denver Post gave the first account of the incident. The brief report stated that a “last minute change of heart apparently averted the hijacking of a Lakewood radio station but left an Arvada teenage in jail Wednesday." The write-up describes the wannabe hijacker as an 18-year-old—later identified as James Kiss—who said he was planning to take over the Top 40 radio station KRXY (Y-108). According to the police spokesman, Kiss surrendered his rifle to one of the station’s employees and asked the employee to call the police. The teen was then arrested in the station’s parking lot for attempted kidnapping and extortion.
The week after the incident, a column in Westword stated that Kiss, who was carrying a rifle, seven cassettes, and an album by The Smiths, was arrested after he entered the station. Seven years later, an April 1994 interview with Morrissey in Details Magazine referred to the incident, saying that Kiss held the radio station at gunpoint for four hours, “demanding that they play only Smiths’ songs.” Morrissey was surprised that the interviewer had even asked him about the incident because most people hadn’t heard about it. “'If it was any other artist, it would have been world news. But because it was poor old tatty Smiths it was of no consequence whatsoever,” he said.
A decade later, in the 2004 biography Saint Morrissey: A Portrait of This Charming Man by an Alarming Fan, writer Mark Simpson gave his own account of the event, writing that the radio station was coerced to play songs by The Smiths for four hours. Simpson added that almost none of the radio station’s listeners had heard of The Smiths, and the police surrounded the station until Kiss surrendered.
To figure out which version of the story is accurate, Westword interviewed former KRXY employees. A sales manager recalled seeing the young man’s single-shot, bolt-action 22 rifle, but another employee thought that Kiss may have not even had a weapon. The station’s production director told the police that as he walked to his car after work, a young man in a station wagon called him over, told him to tell the radio station employees to call the police, and pointed his rifle at him before handing it over.
"This is one of those legends that bloats with time," said broadcaster Dom Testa. "It’s morphed from ‘detained in the parking lot’ to ‘held hostage for four hours at gunpoint.'" The police officer’s version of events corroborates Testa’s take; according to the police report, Kiss brought a Remington .22 caliber Apache 77 rifle, a cartridge with .22 caliber rounds, a pellet gun, a magazine clip, and several Smiths cassettes. He confessed that he planned to take hostages at the radio station, forcing the DJs to play The Smiths because the Top 40 station had tons of listeners and was, in his mind, shallow. Kiss was cooperative with police, telling them that he had come to the station before to act on his plan but hadn’t been able to work up the courage. The police report noted that Kiss had a button with Morrissey’s photo on it in his shirt pocket.
The police later found Kiss’s letters and poems, in which he expressed his despondency, explained his motives, and conveyed his hope that his parents would forgive him. “I don't feel right here," he wrote. "I feel as if I'm out of place. My spirit is lost and my body is pollution filled … I guess what I'm doing is a protest about life. The world's dying and most don't care … in a way the Smiths and Morrissey are one reason I'm doing this."
The district attorney decided not to prosecute Kiss because he turned himself in and didn’t commit a crime. Despite his callow transgression, Kiss eventually went to college, overcame his depression, and now works helping young people. “I can see it when kids start to paint themselves into corners, and I try to get them to work their way out of that,” he told Westword in 2013. Explaining his depression—he had recently graduated from high school, couldn’t work due to a hip injury, and had no future plans—Kiss said that his thinking was clouded. “My intention was to throw my life away,” he said. Kiss also shared that he had decided not to go through with his plan because he realized that he didn’t want to hurt or scare the radio station employees.
The incident allegedly inspired the plot of the 1994 film Airheads, and it’s getting the big screen treatment in the near future. With Morrissey’s blessing, Joe Manganiello will produce and star in a movie called Shoplifters of the World. Based on the incident, the film will include songs by, of course, The Smiths.
“I’m a huge The Smiths fan," Manganiello told Collider. "It’s just really great to be afforded the opportunity to go out and tell stories that I’m really excited and passionate about.”