For Bill Morrissey, divorce has its advantages
by Seth Rogovoy
(PITTSFIELD, Mass., March 9, 2001) - No one looks forward to going through a divorce. But if you’re a singer-songwriter, worse things could happen, according to Bill Morrissey.
“Divorce is always good for an album,” he said, only half-facetiously, in a recent phone interview from his home in New Hampshire.
Morrissey’s recent divorce fuels many of the songs on his brilliant upcoming album, “Something I Saw or Thought I Saw” (Philo). It’s not the first time a marital breakup served as the raw material for an album’s worth of Morrissey songs, either. That would be 1990’s “Standing Eight,” the album that conventional wisdom says clinched Morrissey’s place as the dean of hard-bitten, new-folk singer-songwriters.
But as Morrissey is quick to point out, “Something I Saw or Thought I Saw” is hardly “Standing Eight” revisited.
“I knew I was going to be writing a lot of divorce songs,” he said, “but I knew I didn’t have the same perspective or anger I had with ‘Standing Eight,’ because this time around it wasn’t an acrimonious divorce. So I tried to approach the subject from a slightly more mature vantage point.” “Divorce sets off the writing bug with all the writers I know,” said Morrissey, who explains that it’s not so much the divorce itself but the aftermath that provokes and incites the creative juices. “You reevaluate a lot of things going through a serious life change,” he said. “You’re forced to examine your life and relationships.”
Morrissey headlines tomorrow night’s Pittsfield FolkFest at Berkshire Community College at 7. In addition to Morrissey, the show features up-and-coming Boston-based singer-songwriter Jess Klein, whose recent, critically-acclaimed album, “Draw Them Near,” has garnered her comparisons to Sheryl Crow and Stevie Nicks. Also on the bill are the Berkshires’ own award-winning songwriter Bobby Sweet and Sarah Lee Guthrie, daughter of Arlo Guthrie and granddaughter of Woody Guthrie.
“Something I Saw or Thought I Saw” is chock full of Morrissey’s trademark story-songs that capture characters in the midst of transitions in which they are reevaluating and reexamining their lives and relationships. In this it harkens back to “Standing Eight,” as well as that all-time classic of divorce albums, Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.”
This time out, Morrissey’s narrators aren’t bitter, angry or vindictive. Rather, they’re a bit wistful, but mostly resigned and fatalistic. “When two hearts must say goodbye/love cannot be proud,” he sings in “Moving Day.” The singer is downright accepting in “Fix Your Hair The Way You Used To,” commenting, “We had us a ride/but all rides come to an end/And I never question why/Or say because.”
Not all the songs on the new album, which comes out officially on April 3, are about divorce. “Traveling By Cab” tells the story of a guy hanging out in a bar in which he is made to feel like an outsider. The bar band uses special effects like smoke bombs and lasers to get across, leaving the drinker to yearn for the days of Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf. “That’s ain’t rock ‘n’ roll/That’s just vaudeville plugging in,” he says, although the barmaid points out to him, with perhaps more truth than even she realizes, “Ain’t that the way it’s always been?”
“Harry’s Last Call” is about a different kind of breakup. It tells the story of a man trying to get away from his past in the person of his old running buddy Harry, who calls on the phone every time he’s drunk or in trouble. Now married and reformed, the protagonist doesn’t want to take Harry’s calls anymore. In the end, the song finds the husband holding his wife in a tight embrace, as if by letting go he’d get sucked back into the life with Harry he finally - and happily -- left behind.
Morrissey, who has two Grammy nominations to his credit, said that even a song like “Harry’s Last Call,” although ostensibly not about divorce, is of the same genre of songs about gaining new perspectives, or in this case, accepting greater responsibility for one’s life and actions.
As is typical of Morrissey, “Harry’s Last Call” and other songs are populated with characters on the road, isolated from their loved ones in bars and hotels, and often drinking a bit too much for their own good. “That’s where I lived for years,” said Morrissey. “And there are a lot of people who hang out in hotels and drink a lot, because you’re on your own. And I travel for a living and I spend a lot of time in hotels, so it’s a life I know.
“You really can’t feel more like an outsider than when you’re in a strange club performing and everyone knows everyone else and you’re just this furniture in the corner, and nobody talks to you, and you do your four sets and you go back to your motel. That wasn’t a lot of fun. Now it’s nice that people know who I am, and I have a lot of friends on the road just from playing around all these years.”
The arrangements on Morrissey’s new album, which he produced, are stripped-down, with guitar, bass and usually just one other instrument, such as violin, clarinet, or harmonica, added for contrast. The acoustic arrangements, without drums, lend the album an intimate, in-your-face feel, again, reminiscent of Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.” And as always, Morrissey’s talk-sung, nearly swallowed vocals betray their studied indifference with pops and cracks that say as much and as powerfully as his finely-honed lyrics.
Morrissey is as much craftsman as artist, and he takes pride in his craftsmanlike approach. It also contrasts highly with a lot of younger singer-songwriters, who seem to have chosen the genre as a career opportunity rather than as a calling. “There’s a lot of superficiality to what’s going on with younger writers,” agrees Morrissey. “There’s a lot of solipsism, and not much effort put into the craft of writing.”
Morrissey knows all about the craft of writing, not only from the hundreds of songs he has written, but also as a critically-acclaimed novelist. His first novel, “Edson,” was published by Knopf in 1996. He has already finished his second and is starting on his third.
“I’m not writing these people off,” said Morrissey about the new generation of singer-songwriters. “They’re just young, and they don’t understand that if you just write about your life I don’t particularly want to hear about it unless you do it really well. It’s all style over substance.”
Morrissey also decries the lack of attention paid to things as simple as learning how to play guitar well. “I used to spend twelve to fourteen hours a day just learning how to play,” he said. “I’m not a natural musician, so I had to spend that time practicing.
“The young kids are approaching the music from a different angle. There’s a positive aspect to it, that they’re bringing something to it that I don’t know, because they’re influenced by bands that I don’t know. You’ve got to keep it fresh, too.
“I love the music from the Sixties, but I don’t want to write that way. But still, it’s a good foundation.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 9, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]