Sunday, August 7, 2011

Bill Morrissey: 1951-2011

Way back in the early eighties, my friend Steve Caine introduced me to the local folk scene and, specifically, to the work of Bill Morrissey.

Bill died on Sunday, 7/23. There are obituaries and appreciations on his home page here.

He left behind a phenomenal body of musical work, one well respected novel and a second due out this year.

I've read a lot of obits about him in the last week and found them somewhat wanting. Most of them were of "he was really good and we'll miss him" or "here is his considerable work. He was really good and we'll miss him." But that's sort of like saying the Beatles were good a pop songs and that's why we missed them when they broke up. So I want to dwell on him. Why he's really good. Why we'll miss him.

We'll start with an example from Barstow on his first album.

Barstow is about a bunch of transients (possibly bums) huddled around a campfire in the desert town of Barstow, California, cold, half drunk and not sure where they're going to go next. The chorus goes:
Don't the freight yards sound like a drunk in a metal shop
I can't believe it gets this cold in Barstow
I can't believe I pissed my 20's away
Baby if you take me back I promise you I'll stay
There's a lot of power in these words. Like nearly all of Morrissey's work, the song tells a story. Not a big story of break up or pursuit of power but a moment, sitting around the campfire drinking a found bottle of wine:
It ain't much. It ain't good. But it'll get us through till dawn
What struck me first about his work was its tremendous precision. Not just his words-- though they're precise enough-- but his timing and voice as well. Morrissey referred to his his voice as a "dulcet front loader" and, like Dylan, it wasn't what would normally be called a singing voice. But his sense of music and timing was second to no one's. If you think about that Barstow chorous, how the hell can you make something like that scan? But he does and without any mush mouthed slurring the words together.

I can't really discuss Morrissey's singing. That's something you have to hear. Every note is placed exactly where he wants it in a strange timing and tone that he understands. It's right but I can't say I always understand it. You can disagree with the timing-- and on the albums I often do-- but this is still the result of his painstaking and careful effort.

I can talk about his lyrics.

Morrissey was not hobbled by consistency in his work, either. In other, lesser, artists changing voice, point of view or even character in a song might be a problem. But Morrissey brought them together. For example, on the Night Train album the first stanza of the song Time to Go Home reads:

Well, she looks so small
She looks so frail
It was like the world forgot her
As she stood outside the jail
They sit and stare
They rarely speak
She comes to see him
The same time every week
Later in the song we have:
Well, your T shirt's clean
like your dungarees
and in two days you will be
on your way overseas
sit on the bed
with a warm six pack
It's not like how they said
but it's too late now to take it back
There's no explanation of the change in tense, point of view or other "inconsistencies". The listener, or reader, is left to make his own judgement. The three stanzas involve a jail visitation, a man trying to figure out if he should cash out his fishing boat in Alaska and a man about to leave to some indeterminate location. Is the main character in the three stanzas the same person at different times? Are the three stanzas connected except in the Morrissey's mind? You get to decide.

Many of these are dark stories but not all. From Grizzly Bear:
I could tell by how she high stepped
she learned to dance uptown
where I come from we just kind of get drunk
and slam bodies all around
You have to hear Bill's singing to understand how that all gets sung together right.

Or , from Car and Driver:
I've got a Mercedes Benz with MD plates
I have no trouble finding dates
I've got a 1980 Subaru
One more semester then I'm through
My slant six Dodge is no big thrill
But it's a car no atom bomb can kill
I make a lot of dough in a high tech job
Yeah you bet I drive a turbo Saab
Or, from She's Your Baby Now
You're the one who stole my baby
You took her with such ease
But now I feel just like Atlas
saying so long Hercules
She's your baby now
Morrissey had an eye for stories and they came up in the songs continuously. He liked stories about people who were on the fringe and often not likeable.

Consider the song Pantherville from North, which as far as I can tell is a song about an incestuous father. The song begins talking about how the roads to Pantherville disappear in the snow and there's no way out:
When it snows like this, the state man don't come around
When it snows like this, the state man don't come around
I wake up a happy man when the snow is falling down
The song later says:
The state man says he won't rest until I'm up in Thomaston.
(Thomaston is where the prison is.) Then, the song closes with
Put down those dishes daughter
Come watch these clouds above
Sit here right beside me, girl
Tell me who you love
Definitely creepy.

This ability to crawl into someone else's skin, talk about something from their point of view, thereby removing judgement, is a wonderful talent. Again, Morrissey lets the listener decide what to think about the song. Morrissey's the reporter and reciting the story. It's up to you to react. The character in the song has the moral integrity of a shark: he's not going to judge himself. That's up to you.

Another example of this ability is The Driver's Song from Standing Eight.

Back in the eighties there were firms that would take toxic waste from Massachusetts, fill up tanker trucks with it and, at night, drive over the dirt roads of New Hampshire with the spigots open. Morressey wrote about one of those drivers in The Driver Song. A happy man doing a job he likes:
I stop my truck in the middle of the road
The same stop each time on this familiar route
I open the side valve then climb back to the cab
and I drive these woods till that big tank empties out
then, later,
I love these back roads of New Hampshire
They twist and wind like a rolling sea
I feel like a Captain who knows no fear
Everybody goes to sleep so early up here
Again, the moral judgement is left to the listener.

I think of Bill Morrissey as the folk singer equivalent of James Joyce. Joyce was a sponge. It seems like everything Joyce saw in Dublin he kept and then contorted it onto the page for us to read. Bill grew up in the northeast and did the same. (As a side note, Bill once said he was working on putting Ulysses to music one long dark winter. It was a waltz.) While he often put himself in his music he was also smart and deft enough to slip out of the way when he wanted to.

Morrissey was at his best in performance. I'm hoping some live performance recordings will find their way onto CD or mp3. Morrissey was at his best by himself and shorn of instrumentation other than his voice and his guitar. The albums are good but not as good as he was by himself.

I'm not a big fan of most poetry. I think the word is overused and poetry is overrepresented. Poetry, if it is worthy of the word, ought to stun you right between the eyes. It should in a single moment transform you so that you can bear witness to being one way at point A and being a new way at point B. Such things are necessarily individual and subjective. But Morrissey transformed the way I looked at lyrics and music. He was poetry for me. One song especially, These Cold Fingers:
It's four o'clock and the sun's gone down the drain.
It's still late winter but they say it's early spring.
Louis reads the gas pump. Rossi counts the oils.
But me I'm done so punch the clock and see you in the morning.
There's nothing back at home that ain't gone greasy from the stove.
I never laughed so hard as when that typewriter broke.
Think I'll stop along the river road for a half pint and some beer.
Everything would be okay of those old dreams would disappear.
Morrissey had trouble with alcohol. He smoked and abused his body. I saw him last winter and it was clear he was not as strong as he was. But he was game and trying. It didn't surprise me to hear that he died.

But it struck me just the same. He'd gone through rehab. He'd gotten clean. He'd been given a second chance and was grabbing on and not giving up without a fight. These sorts of things happen, I know. It's not the years; it's the mileage. Still, I hate to see someone taken down in the middle of taking on a second chance.

Greg Brown said this about Bill in his song Fishing with Bill on the album Friend of Mine
Sittin' in a bar in Brattleboro
Thinkin' about one of his songs.
The rain was pourin' down, and I was pourin' it down,
And all I could do was hum along.
We've talked about goin' fishin' so often
At some party when the gig was done.
Well, life slips by like a little dry fly
Sliding down a deep slick run,
So let us stand steady like an old mill.
Oh I, I'm goin' fishin' with Bill.
Sad to say: not any more.

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