Songwriter is packing new punch

March 7, 1990

by Dave Hoeskstra

The voice sounds like a low blow in a brass section. The words float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. And the boxer's spirit belongs to Bill Morrissey.

The New Hampshire singer-songwriter will spin deep country-blues ramblings here when he makes his first local appearance in four years at 10 p.m. Saturday at Schuba's, 3159 N. Southport. Chris Farrell, a local folk singer with another blue-collar heartbeat, will open the show.

Morrissey is on the road promoting "Standing Eight," his third album for Rounder Records. The album's title is derived from a boxing count that permits a referee to call a knockdown on a spent fighter who has yet to hit the canvas.

"I just like the idea of a guy taking a beating and not going down," Morrissey said during a recent phone conversation from Northampton, Mass. "I think a lot of characters in the new songs are taking their own form of it."

"Standing Eight" examines a truck driver carting toxic waste through the New Hampshire backroads, hard times on the Canadian Pacific line and the brittle rebound from a busted marriage.

Much of Morrissey's songwriting is in stinging first person. "It seemed natural to me," he said. "I've always been comfortable in first person. I find a lot of people make the mistake with me they don't do with fiction writers. They assume everything is autobiographical. People realize, `Oh, it's a fiction writer. He's drawing a little on his past, but he's creating a character.'

"Well, I feel like I'm creating a character, and sometimes they surprise me. I'm two-thirds of the way through writing a song and I realize, `No, this isn't what he would say or do.' The character gets more defined as you write the song."

Morrissey's literate style has been noticed. An editor at Atlantic Monthly Press has sent Morrissey's records to authors such as Richard Ford and Robert W. Olmsted. Morrisseysaid he writes "pretty lousy" fiction, which he has not submitted for publication.

"I like the demands of a short story," he said. "You have to get it out in 10 pages. With a song, I spend more time editing it than actually writing. I ask myself, `Is this absolutely necessary?' Or is it there because it is a clever line and I want to show I can be clever? There are a lot of writers who are kind of enamored with their bursts of brilliance and they can't take it out, even if it really doesn't move the song right along. I like to think in each song, each word moves a song toward an end or a point."

Morrissey, who was born on Thanksgiving Day in 1951, started playing country blues in high school. "My whole right hand comes from Mississippi John Hurt," he said. "At the same time, I always wanted to write songs. I formed various jug bands in high school."

In 1969 he enrolled as an art and English major at Plymouth State College in New Hampshire and lasted about five weeks. "My first day there, they had a panty raid, and I said, `What have I gotten myself into?' Music just became more important. They didn't have Songwriting 101, so I dropped out and taught myself," he said.

Morrissey spent 12 hours a day listening to songs he liked and trying to figure out why they worked. He also followed the same process with songs he didn't like.

"Well, this was '69 and '70, which was probably the worst time to get into folk music," he said. "It was rough at first. I played ski gigs, singing to people trying to pick each other up."

Between shows, Morrissey worked day jobs at chemical plants, rolling mills and gas stations, where he gathered a lot of the characters for his songs.

The kaleidoscopic world has begun to come together for Morrissey. "Standing Eight" was named the No. 1 folk album of the year by Tower Records' Pulse magazine. "I put everything I had into the new record," he said. "It was a bad time for me. I was going through a divorce. I was splitting from (his ex-manager) Tom Rush. Rounder wasn't really jumping up and down about my music. It's funny. I'm playing the same places I've been playing for five years, and now I'm selling them out.

"I could acquire a taste for this."

Copyright (c) Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.