Tuesday, August 16, 2011

remembering bill morrissey, wordsmith. and oh yeah, a singer too

readers (that mean all 3 of you) will recall i like lists. and if i had to make a list of my favorite musicians of all time, bill morrissey would be in my top 5.  bill died last month at the too young age of 59 in a motel in georgia. he was stopped for the night before heading back to new hampshire after performing at a few places through the south. in fact, i had talked to my friend kenneth about going to a concert outside of nashville that apparently was one of his last. sadly, time and life got in the way and i forgot about the concert.

it was only by chance that i heard of his passing.  i had been listening to one of bill's albums on my ipod when i remembered the concert and i google searched for him to see if i could still get tickets. when his website popped up, i instead saw a list of obituary notices. my heart sank.  like most people when they read something like this, i couldn't believe it. but it was true, as i read on i found out he died of complications of heart disease. what shocked me most was that it had happened almost three weeks before i read anything about it.

then i thought i shouldn't be surprised, for as much as i loved his music, he wasn't well known, especially outside of his native new england. i believe this to be a tragedy, as much as his death is a tragedy, for his music was an opening to a world for me. there was nothing extraordinary about his voice, other than it was way too deep and raspy to be a singer. his guitar and fiddle work, though good, was nothing especially transcendent. but the words -- ah, the words, that's where he shined. much like others i love, it's not so much the music but the tales, the language, the stories that got you.  a few words in, and if you are a wannabe writer like me, you think: "shit! that's it! i would have killed to written that."

they came off his tongue like poems, sparse and full of life and death and love and if you were happy and wanted to be sad (i'm not the only one, right?) you could listen to bill.  if you were sad and wanted to be happy, you could listen to bill.  if you were sad and wanted to bawl your fucking eyes out, you could listen to him speak of love to never be, love that is lost, heartbreak the whole world knows, or the pain of having to kill your own dog: "you've known that old hound longer/than you've known any of your friends/and no matter how you've let him down/he'll always take you back again/wrap him in his blanket/hold him once more close to you/lead him out behind the barn/with a borrowed .22.  if you wanted to laugh, you could listen to him sing of amnesia: "what if i'm born again/or in some weirdo sect/i know i'm not jewish/cuz i looked down and checked."

i first came across his music thanks to a friend in portland, maine. we were both fans of john prine and he suggested we all go see a concert happening in portland, a quad bill, if you will called something like "on a summer's night". i believe it was patti larkin, cheryl wheeler, cliff eberhardt, and greg brown.  it doesn't matter. what does matter is i heard greg play and he mentioned his friend bill, also a folk singer, singer/songwriter (the term i prefer to use).  loving greg's music, i was anxious to find out more about this bill morrissey.

i was able to get hold of his first album and well, to be cliche, it blew me away. the stories were like prine's and greg's, but they were of new england. of mill towns, of sad tired people, of woods crazy people, gone mad from the snow. these were now my people. as you may recall, i was born in arkansas but my heart was in new england, where is most likely will always be. i soaked it up, hours were spent traversing the back woods and lonely roads of maine and new hampshire (i was in grad school at unh at the time) listening to his music, the sad fiddle, the happy guitar, the guttural lows and almost painful highs of his voice.

after that, i was hooked. i got all his albums and though i have favorites, it's really his body of work that speaks to me. the way that he can take you through the range of emotions in 9 to 12 songs is astounding.  and you have to listen, you want to listen to the words. you want to get them right. music and i are friends.  we are not lovers.  i am not in love with music. i listen and yes, it is important to me, but i'm just as likely to be found listening to an audiobook or npr than music. and i can't remember the last time i willingly turned on the radio to listen to music.

i love words. i love stories that can make you cackle, not just laugh, but cackle. and words that can make you want to curl up in a ball and cry because it just feels so fucking good to do so.  and his words do that without reservation and without pity.

my love for my brothers is exponentially heightened because i ultimately have them to thank for introducing me to singer/songwriters. they both play guitar and one of my first memories is of rick singing "spanish pipedream" (alternately known better as "blow up your tv") by john prine in the car when i was young. consider the first couple of lines from the aforementioned song: "she was a level headed dancer/on the road to alcohol/and i was just a soldier/on the way to montreal". so few lines, yet so much information and emotion. you have a woman, i imagine her middle aged and ragged, a stripper with tired eyes and saggy breasts.  and he, a slightly younger man, a soldier who, fed up with the war, decides to go awol and leave for canada. so in those sparse few lines, you have love, lost love, patriotism (or if you choose, lack thereof) and the beginning of a story.

that's a john prine song, but the important thing to remember is that it set me off on the path of searching for stories. for poems, for little vignettes, snippets of time and place and people who you've never heard of but your swear in your heart and mind you know. great poets do this, hayden carruth, paul zimmer to name a few.  bill morrissey is among those elite few who can tell a story, wrench tears from the jaded, pull laughter from the saddest sack. 

many years later, i shared this music with my good friend kenneth who had turned me on to another gifted singer, nanci griffith. he too, is a lover of words and instantly he knew he had found another person to listen to. we talked of his songs the way we would talk of most things, with great gusto. we'd take grand trips with our other friend steve and we'd listen to his music. steve and i saw bill one time at raoul's in portland. it was a magical night, filled with whiskey and music and fun.  i saw him perform many times, but getting to see him with friends is best, that was you can share the moment and relive it over and over again.

there's been many obits written about the death of bill morrissey, i'm heartened to see many others felt the same way about him as i did. and from all accounts, he was as kind and generous in real life as he was personable on stage. and we celebrate his life as we should, and we take comfort in the fact his music is still with us and it can make us smile to remember the good times. but right now, in this dark room and in this dark space, i'm also reminded of a poem by paul zimmer that fits my mood just now:

a rant against losses

word has come of my friend's death in london.
in my desolation memories begin to roll.
i recall once looking for him in the pubs
when a young barman, pondering my inquiry,
smirked, "red nose and a pint of cider, right?
the knobby one who zigzags when he walks?"

i should have slammed his pearly teeth,
stood him on his diapered head and shaken
the little drums from his ears! even now
it soothes me to hope that his old age
becomes tawdry, that his hair falls out,
that his joints ignite and ache incessantly.

for my friend was worn fine with civility,
a wise, endearing man, lover of words,
to be respected beyond the capacity
of any modish, indifferent callow wag.
god damn ridiculous vacant youth,
and piss on you, death, and fuck you!


i felt better knowing bill morrissey was in the world, that somewhere he was thinking his thoughts, living his life, singing his songs. i will miss him...


  1. Damnit! I've replied to this blog post twice. I could @*&# up a wet dream.

    But that aside!

    Well said my friend.

    Very sad to hear about Bill. Love his music. I'll have to pull out some of his tunes and give them a listen.

  2. it was a big shocker. yeah, kenneth and i are gonna drink a round to the man, but we'll hold off until you can get up here to the cabin. we'll put some of his music on and drink some whiskey.

  3. Sounds like a good time to be had! Looks to be late September and I can come on up.

  4. coolio. i'll be in LR probably next week for the day, i'll holler at you, see if you are around.