Another fallen hero. Bill Morrissey died on July 23rd.
I was living in Austin when I first heard of him. I read an article somewhere which described his early years playing in gin mills up in New England. One time, a drunk asked to borrow Bill's beloved Epiphone Texas. Bill refused him. The drunk then revealed a snub-nosed pistol tucked inside his belt. Bill handed him the Epiphone saying, "Need a flat-pick with that?"
I figured I better check this guy out. So I walked a couple blocks to the Tower Records on Guadelupe and picked up Bill's first album on cassette. I didn't have a record player in Austin and only listened to music in my car.
I remember popping that tape in and hearing "Barstow" for the first time. I rewound it about 20 times before I even got to the rest of the album.
I bought Bill's other two albums that were out at the time (also on cassette!) and would sit in the parking lot behind the bar I lived beside, listening to Morrissey for hours and hours.
It was weird. Here I am down in Austin, learning from (or trying to learn from!) masters like Butch Hancock but I spend large chunks of time immersed in Morrissey's world of Northeastern working class drunks. I don't know. Maybe I was homesick.
In any case, Bill Morrissey was and is a huge influence on me (and many others). His was a simple but masterful musician and his melodies and lyrics are as precise and soulful as, say, a Ray Carver story. If you've never heard him, you must. I suggest beginning with one of these (as per usual, I am drawn to the ballads!)
1. Barstow: How a guy from the East Coast wrote a song about a hobo jungle in the desert is beyond me. Imagination, I suppose. And Morrissey lived this stuff too. "Don't the freight train sound like a drunk in a metal shop." Wow.
2. Handsome Molly: This one comes from Morrissey's first divorce album, Standing Eight. He had a way of stealing traditional melodies and lyrics and making them entirely his own. Bob Dylan (who Bill revered) comes to mind. "I parked my cab on Water Street // I'm waiting for a fare // Watching young girls in their first heels // Step like colts across the square."
3. Last Day of Furlough: Another one from Standing Eight. "She wants to make love. I want to drink. Drinking is what I do best." I compared Morrissey to Ray Carver. You could just as easily compare Carver to Morrissey. Morrissey's lyrics were THAT good.
4. These Cold Fingers: One more from Standing Eight. In a repertoire of devastating ballads, this might be the ultimate wrist-slasher. In the last verse, he takes his sick dog, wraps him in a blanket, leads him out behind the barn, and ends his pain with a borrowed .22.
5. Robert Johnson: Bill was a bundle of energy. I saw him perform many times (mostly at the Tin Angel). His forte was a quiet intensity but he also had a great sense of humor. The link will take you to Bill performing his song about RJ, another great whose time was cut short. I choose to remember Bill as he appears in this clip i.e. in his prime.
6. The Man from Out of Town: From Inside (Bill's fourth and my favorite record of his). A drifter's tale, saved from cliche by lines like this>> "There was a cold street on the sea coast, I once tried to call home. Where the church steeples rose up above the town like broken bones. Drinking whiskey with the catholic priest one night in the rectory hall, he just shook his head and said, "You never know when Jesus calls." Then his eyes got quiet and he looked around but he just could not explain. It was like he heard the sound of Jesus laugh the way I heard that train."
7. Blues in the Morning: From Night Train (Bill's fifth and not far behind Inside!). Bill was diagnosed with bi-polar later in his life. Here he describes a departed lover's shoes (he coulda been describing his own condition): "The tops are still shiny but the soles are worn." Highs and lows.
8. Time to go Home: Also from Night Train with none other than David Johansen (himself a huge fan of Bill's) on guest vocals. This is the best song ever written about Alaska (Bill knew his stuff. He'd worked the fisheries up there). If Chris McCandless had heard this one, he mighta stayed home!
9. Just Before We Lost the War: From Bill's 2nd Divorce Album, Something I Saw or Thought I Saw. This song is the equal of anything on Blood on the Tracks (and I don't say that lightly.) "I used to think that time was plenty // and time was all I knew // but it gets cut short for so many // It could be me; it could be you // there ain't no wind that can blow the truth // back to where it stood before // And I couldn't change it from a cold phone booth // just before we lost the war."
10. Twenty Third Street: "Some folks bring love to a hotel and some just bring their own quiet end."
Bill died in a hotel in Georgia on his way back home after several dates in the South.
I dedicate John Train's Fall 2011 Fergie's shows to Bill's memory.