Bill's passage ; Folk singer Bill Morrissey enters rehab and emerges with a slew of new songs, a changed outlook on life and his musical voice intact

March 27, 2007

By Bob Keyes


Bill Morrissey is glad to be home. 

The folk singer, who is best known for his songs about small- town New England and the working-class people who live here, spent much of the winter away from his New Hampshire digs. 
Earlier this month, he was on the road in the Midwest, playing the songs that have made him a cult figure in folk music circles, as well as new material from "Come Running," his first studio album in several years, due out in two weeks. 

But before that, Morrissey disappeared from family and friends, tucking himself away in a Long Island, N.Y., rehab clinic, where he confronted a demon that had dogged him much of his adult life. 

Morrissey, 55, decided it was time to quit drinking. 

"I just hit my quota early," he said, muffling a small laugh. "I just hit the point where enough is enough." 

Lately, he's been back in New Hampshire, reconnecting with friends and getting caught up with his life while planning the next phase of his career. A former resident of Peaks Island in Portland, Morrissey returns to his old stomping grounds for a performance Thursday at Chicky's Fine Diner in Westbrook. 

In April, he'll sing at the Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield. 

Over a cup of chili at his favorite barbecue joint here, Morrissey talked about his decision to quit drinking, the new CD and why it's important for him to live in New England, where everything feels familiar and comfortable. 

"As a musician, I could live anywhere," said Morrissey, who was born in Connecticut and lived much of his life in or near Boston. "I came up here for a gig. It was a beautiful May day, and I came over the ridge on (Highway) 16 and saw the Presidentials, and it was a Brigham Young moment - I thought, this is where I am going to move. I thought of Austin or Chicago or something different, but I have come here all my life to go fishing. It just felt right." 

Morrissey lives nearby in Tamworth, a town of a couple thousand people. 

He likes living in the Mount Washington Valley because the geography is beautiful, and there are plenty of good places for fly fishing. With two Grammy Award nominations, he may well be Tamworth's most famous resident. Most everybody knows him, but they're not at all impressed with his celebrity, which appeals to Morrissey very much. 


He feels like a regular guy, who is judged for his deeds and how he blends in and not because of who he is. 

"It's the kind of place where if a car goes off the road in the snow, the next guy is going to stop. I like to say it's like living in 1963. There's a niceness about it," he said. 

Morrissey's comfortable world nearly fell apart last year. He found himself in poor health, his weight down to 115 pounds. Even for a man of slight stature - he normally weighs 135 - Morrissey looked alarmingly weak. 

His concerts were occasionally sloppy. He would forget the words to songs and mess up on the guitar. He'd joke about his mistakes from the stage, chalking them up to age. 

"I wasn't playing A-plus. It might have been B-plus. But a couple of times, I messed up pretty good. It would be a combination of things. Exhaustion and booze and anxiety. I did some shows that I am not too proud of," he said. 

"When you are in the middle of it, when you are drinking hard, you don't see what other people see. You're really not that aware of how unsharp you are. And if you are aware, you are in denial about it." 

Now when he screws up on stage, he tells fans, "you know it's just me and not because I've been drinking." 

For a musician, the boozing cycle is hard to break. You spend your life on the road, grinding out 300 or 400 miles between gigs. Lots of fast food, a drink or two at the bar before the gig to quell stage fright, another one or two during the show and then a few more afterward to settle the post-performance rush. 

Alcohol becomes part of the survival routine. It's a social elixir. Everybody wants to buy you a beer. Soon enough, a couple of shots of whiskey don't seem like such a risky proposition. 

Morrissey lived that life for decades. He can't recall the last time he had a job that didn't involve playing the guitar in bars, but it was probably 25 years ago or more. 

He's quit drinking before. But this time, Morrissey knew it was time to give sobriety a real chance. 

So far, so good. 

The recently completed Midwest tour was his first as a sober musician. Morrissey said he had no trouble resisting the temptations that are so prevalent for a musician accustomed to life on the road. 

"It used to be, you get back from a gig and you've still got your adrenaline going. There's nothing like a good beer or whiskey. Now, you just do something else. You have a Coke, or something else that you like. It's just a matter of getting rid of those triggers, or recognizing them and knowing how to avoid them." 

His manager Ellen Karas - who also happens to be his ex-wife - said people close to Morrissey had been concerned about his health for a long time. Going to rehab meant Morrissey was giving himself a chance for a healthy life, she said in an e-mail. 

Without it, his future was cloudy - on stage and off. 

"The main thing is that he has a much higher quality of life - that he has a life," she said. "I called him the other day and he was on the road in between gigs browsing bookstores and walking around the town. That was just great for me, because before that I would call him and he would just be in his room all the time, drinking. He follows through on things. I don't have to call and remind him about things, he remembers them. It is great to work with him now." 

He got sober in January, when he checked into the Long Island rehab center for a 28-day detox program. 

A driver from the center met him at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. He faced about a two-hour ride to the rehab center, so he asked the driver to stop so he could buy a beer for the drive. 

He picked up a 24-ouncer, and settled into the back seat with his beer and a pack of cigarettes. 

"I figured if this is going to be my last one, I might as well go big." 

He had a pretty good buzz on when he arrived at the center. Morrissey doesn't remember it, but a staff member took his photo when he checked in. He saw the picture when he checked out a month later, and it alarmed him. 

"You ever see that Nick Nolte mug shot? I made him look just handsome as hell," Morrisseysaid, laughing. 

It remains to be seen how sobriety will affect Morrissey's music, particularly his songwriting. He's always been known as a good- timing guy, and especially early in his career, his songs often referenced the drinking life. Many of his characters - mill workers, small-town guys and everyday Joes - end up in the bar after their workday ends. 

Morrissey is not worried how fans will react to his decision to quit drinking. His music may change because of it, he said, but his music has always changed. His fans are loyal, he said, and they've shown a willingness to follow him no matter his musical mood. He expects they will do the same now. 

The new CD will be his first test. He recorded "Come Running" in Cambridge, Mass., with former members of the band Morphine. Dave Alvin, the West Coast roots guitarist, contributed to the disc as well. 

"Come Running" sounds a little different than other Morrissey discs, in the sense that he shows more latitude with his arrangements. These last few years, he's been listening to a lot of jazz, and even learned to play the clarinet. 

Those jazz influences show up in the arrangements and phrasing of the new songs. 

What hasn't changed much is his voice. Morrissey still sings with a rugged voice that's ripe with emotion and pathos. 

Carol Noonan, a longtime friend and owner of the Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield where Morrissey performs in April, calls him a model for all folk singers. "There are a lot of singer- songwriters these days, but there are few true folk singers," she said. "He is a storyteller foremost. He sings with that Dylan kind of grit that makes you feel the lyrics in his throat." 


The songs on "Come Running" cover the gamut. 

"Thirty Years" is about an aging singer, struggling through life. All he's got to show for his efforts, he sings, is smoker's cough and "that alcohol disease." 

"Johnny's Tune" pays tribute to his great friend, the fiddler Johnny Cunningham, who died a few years ago. 

Some songs swing. Others stroll. The CD sounds richly varied, and deeply personal. 

Despite his struggle with alcohol, Morrissey has been productive. He wrote about 50 songs in 2005 and 2006. "They just kept coming," he said. "That's never happened before, and probably never will again." 

He's happy with the CD and hopes to put together a tour with the band later this spring. He and his buddies recorded most of it live, with minimal overdubs. It's a digital recording - his first - but has the warmth of the old analog sound. 

It's also the first CD that Morrissey has made without the assistance of Massachusetts-based Rounder Records. Mostly for business reasons, he and Karas decided to release the CD themselves, on their own label, which they are calling Turn and Spin Media. 

He'll sell "Come Running" at shows and on the Internet, and will have some distribution in music stores. The music business has changed so much in the past decade, going with a label to record and distribute the CD didn't make a lot of sense. 

"I can sell half the number of records on my own and make four times as much than with a big label," he said. 

Similarly, he plans to self-publish his next novel, a follow-up to "Edsel," his first foray into creative writing. The book probably will be out late in the spring, he said. 

These days, Morrissey said he feels a bit like a dinosaur, at least when it comes to technology. He still listens to cassette tapes, and doesn't even have a CD player in his car, let alone an iPod or MP3 device. 

Call him old-fashioned. He's proud of the label - and amused at some people's audio snobbery. 

"There are guys out there who won't buy Robert Johnson records, because the production quality doesn't show off their sound system. But you know, there are a lot of stupid people in the world, too." 

Morrissey wants his fans to know that he's doing well, and that he appreciates the support they've shown with letters and e-mails during his rehab and recovery. 

A gifted storyteller, Morrissey has lots of great yarns about the rehab process. 

Sooner or later, he'll work those stories into his show. For now, he needs time to process the experience. 

That's one reason why he was so relieved to get back home, where he doesn't have to explain himself to anybody, and where he can simply be himself. 

"It just feels really great to be back home," he said. "It's nice to get back into life, where you have to pay the bills, go to the bank and do all the little errands that everybody else has to do. I just feel really good right now." 

Copyright 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.