|August 11th, 2011|
I just learned that one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Bill Morrissey, passed away from heart failure a few weeks ago, at the age of 59. The news was drowned out in the hoopla around Amy Winehouse’s death, that very same day.
We started listening to Bill back around 1991 or 1992; I had seen a review of his album Inside and we were feeling adventurous and interested in trying out some new music. We didn’t have lots of money to spare at the time — starving college students — so taking a flyer on someone was a big deal. If I recall correctly, the same batch of tapes (no CDs for us, they were too pricey) led us to other favorites like Patty Larkin and Greg Brown.
He had a gravelly voice, and his lyrics were like short stories — narrative poems that weren’t afraid of emotion and honesty, but also some truly hilarious songs you could only call “ditties” — hummable silly things that were just great fun. Above all, they were stories of ordinary life for working class Americans. As a 19 year old, he left college to work on a fishing boat in Alaska, gig across California, and ended up working in a mill in New Hampshire. When he sang “who knew it got this cold in Barstow” he was writing from experience.
We ended up seeing him live at least three times — at Birmingham City Stages, at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, and in the intimacy of the Cactus Cafe in Austin. I got to talk to him a bit after that Cactus gig, and got his novel Edson autographed. It’s a Raymond Carver-esque novel about working class people in New Hampshire, with a singer-songwriter who never made it big at its core. Bill himself did make it big, for a folk singer — two Grammy nominations! But like most folk singers, he never saw significant commercial success. But many who worked with him did — backing vocals on his early albums were from Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega, and he produced one of Ellis Paul’s albums.
It was impossible to ignore the undercurrent of songs about alcoholism that ran through his work; he was upfront on his website about how much it had impacted his life. He was also later diagnosed as bipolar. Both took a big toll on his career, I think. But the albums, though they slowed, kept coming. He died of heart disease, quite unexpectedly — but he was on tour.
I have a lot of his songs in my fakebook, and I played several of them at the concerts I did live on Metaplace. Here are my versions of three songs of his, taken from those concerts.
– Robert Johnson
A song about the bluesman who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. Morrissey had a lot of affinity for some of the older bluesmen, though not so much with Johnson — more with Mississippi John Hurt; he did a whole album of covers of Hurt, in fact.
– Waiting for the Rain
One of the most chilling songs I have ever heard, about a farmer family facing a drought, and a storm, and maybe more.
I picked one of his songs in particular, “Birches,” as the closing song when the service shuttered. It’s a song about a married woman whose husband no longer seems to be on the same wavelength. He wants to put oak in the fireplace, because it will burn long and steady. She kind of wants to have a glass of wine, and dance to the flickery exciting light of birch wood, even though it will burn out and leave the house cold that night. He goes to bed, and she drinks her wine, puts “logs as white as a wedding dress” in the fireplace, and dances with herself. The final lines are amazing: “She thought of heat, thought of time, and called it an even trade.”
I think of that song every time I miss something that I didn’t get to have nearly long enough; and every time I think about how lucky I am to have lasting love and warmth in my life. Really, skip my version, and go for the real thing. In fact, hunt down all of his work.
We already know how Bill’s doing now, fortunately, because he told us, in his song “Letter from Heaven.”
“And me, I couldn’t be happier. The service here is fine. They’ve got dinner ready at half-past nine. And I’m going steady with Patsy Cline. And just last night in a bar room, I bought Robert Johnson a beer. Yeah, I know, everybody’s always surprised to find him here.’’
I am very much going to miss that sense of humor, and that to-the-bone sense of story. Word is that he had finished a second novel; I hope it sees print, because I don’t want to have heard the last from Bill Morrissey.