Songwriter Morrissey Hits the Books

December 15, 1996

by Eric Fidler

Music critics have long called Bill Morrissey a literary songwriter. With the publication by Alfred A. Knopf of his first novel, "Edson," there's proof.

Morrissey, who more than once has been called the Raymond Carver of songwriters, chuckles at this suggestion.

"Now they'll call me the Randy Newman of novelists," he says, nursing a beer backstage at a suburban club. Morrissey, who has released six increasingly rich and complex albums of contemporary folk music on the Philo label (not counting a collaboration with Greg Brown), says he's always written fiction, though "Edson" was his first longer work. "When I started thinking about 'Edson,' for about the first 30 seconds I thought it might be another song," he said. "Then I knew I wanted to take it further than what I could do in three or four minutes." The novel will feel familiar to fans of Morrissey's songs. Set in a New England mill town, "Edson" features a bitter former musician. "Henry Corvine and I have gone through a lot of the same things," says Morrissey of his main character. "We both got divorced at 37, though I knew better than to go back to Alaska and he didn't. "He reacted differently to a lot of the same situations, but that gave me firsthand knowledge of what that situation was like so I knew what his character was going through," Morrissey says. "With a song you've got to get it in in three or four minutes but with a novel, it can be 'War and Peace.' And having that length is dangerous because you've got enough rope to hang yourself. "Once I got a sense of that I really wanted to cut all the fat off, just like I do with my songs," Morrissey says.Morrissey's songs are as remarkable for what's not in them as they are for what is. His spare portraits of mill towns, cab drivers and jilted lovers paint vivid pictures but leave enough unsaid to keep listeners thinking about the songs and the characters. "Edson" is similar, in that Henry Corvine seems on the road to redemption at the end of the novel, but that's exactly where we last see him: on the road. His next novel, about half-finished and tentatively titled "Slow Blues," will be different, says Morrissey, lean and almost boyish-looking at 45 in a black T-shirt and jeans. "The new book is just completely different. There's no New England in it at all," he says. "The first time out I think I really wanted to know the situation well to know what I was talking about." That explains why the characters in "Edson" are constantly lighting up cigarettes, buying cigarettes, thinking about buying cigarettes or wishing they had bought cigarettes. "I was quitting. I think I was on the patch at the time," he says with a laugh. "That was my vicarious thrill. But the thing is, the people in the mill towns up north and in a lot of blue collar towns tend to smoke more than in Harvard Square." Morrissey, who never graduated from college but is as at home discussing the Mississippi of William Faulkner as that of bluesman John Hurt, is not one to sit in place. In addition to writing novels, he has headed in a new direction on his latest album, "You'll Never Get to Heaven," adding horns on some tunes and recording in New Orleans with Crescent City session players. "You'll Never Get to Heaven," features musicians who have worked with Professor Longhair, Chet Baker, Dr. John, Buckwheat Zydeco and Irma Thomas, among others. While those are stellar names, none seems to have much in common with a Boston fingerpicker whose guitar style owes a debt to Mississippi John Hurt. "What was in the back of my mind was most of these guys were R&B and jazz players who hadn't done folk albums, so they couldn't phone it in," Morrisseysays. Despite the added instrumentation, the songs, sung in Morrissey's distinctive, limited but expressive voice, still work as folk music. "I can do all those songs solo," he says. "That's the acid test, I think, of a good song." Morrissey says the climate for contemporary folk is much improved. "There were a bunch of us who just had to write songs and who had to do this stuff. Greg Brown, Patty Larkin, Nanci Griffith, Cheryl Wheeler. We were all playing four sets a night, grinding it out for 35 bucks." And while he has no taste for popular country music, he likes the way folk, rock and alternative country have started to merge into one. "All the edges have been blurred a little," Morrissey says. Once you expose people to this very human type of music, it makes sense to people who may feel a little disenfranchised by Nine Inch Nails and find country a little too phony."