FRIENDS OF BILL MORRISSEY GATHER TO HONOR HIS LEGACY
by James Reed (Published in Boston Globe on November 11, 2011)
He was the epitome of a troubadour, a man who lived the adventures and struggles, the humor and heartache he chronicled so elegantly in songs that unfolded like short stories. When Bill Morrissey died on July 23, unexpectedly and too soon at 59, his loss was profoundly felt in the New England folk community he had nurtured since arriving on the scene in the early 1980s.
As heartfelt anecdotes and memorials streamed online, it didn’t take long for his contemporaries and admirers to pay their respects. “Friend of Mine: The Bill Morrissey Tribute Concert’’ - a staggering lineup of singer-songwriters including Patty Larkin, John Gorka, Barry Crimmins, Shawn Colvin, Peter Case, Cormac McCarthy, Peter Keane, Fred Koller, Pete Nelson, and Mark Erelli - will salute his work Thursday at the Somerville Theatre. They will interpret Morrissey’s music while sharing stories of how he mentored and inspired them. Already his legacy looms large.
“We met in the early ’80s at a time when there weren’t that many people doing acoustic folk music and songwriting,’’ says Larkin, a longtime friend who had toured with Morrissey and shared a record label with him at one point. “He kind of arrived fully formed by the time I met him. We were a group of songwriters who were drawn to the genre and to what had gone before us. Bill just plumbed that form and really went deep with it and perfected it.’’
Cliff Eberhardt, an old friend and fellow musician, will host the tribute concert with David Dye, host of the NPR radio program “World Cafe.’’ There’s also an unlikely act on the bill: Yes, it’s that David Johansen, who first made his name as a member of the proto-punk band the New York Dolls and later as his alter ego, Buster Poindexter.
“I was just a fan of his. I went to some place where he was playing and introduced myself. We kind of hit it off,’’ Johansen says casually of his friendship with Morrissey. “I dug his songs a lot. They spoke to me.’’
As the only non-folk artist in the lineup, Johansen says that’s a testament to how far Morrissey’s music transcended genre.
“He’s got a different kind of songwriting than I have, but that doesn’t stop me from really enjoying what he did,’’ Johansen says. “I do folky kind of stuff, like folk-blues, but the kind of rock music that I do, especially with the Dolls, I don’t really listen to a lot of that kind of music. I listen to a lot of other kinds of music besides the genre that I work in.’’
Although often noted as a New England songwriter, Morrissey skewed toward universal themes. He heeded the advice all fledging writers are given: Write about what you know. Living in New Hampshire, he made sure his music was rooted in that landscape, that state of mind. Look no further than the titles of some of his earliest songs: “Small Town on the River,’’ “Live Free or Die,’’ “Snow Outside the Mill.’’ Others would allude to his demons: “Little Bit of Whiskey,’’ “He Drinks Alone.’’ Morrissey had a long, rough battle with alcohol abuse, which sent him to rehab a few times. His official cause of death was complications from heart disease.
Morrissey had near brushes with national fame, but they were fleeting. At times he seemed close to achieving it, but he was conflicted. Ellen Karas, who was Morrissey’s manager at the time of his death and, once upon a time, had been married to him, remembers those moments.
“Bill made choices that stayed true to his craft. He had options to work in a more commercial medium, and he made a very deliberate choice not to,’’ Karas says. “We had a lot of interest in the early ’90s from major labels, and Bill rejected them out of hand. He took a couple of meetings in New York, but they wanted him to work with other people to help him be a more commercial writer. Bill didn’t reject that idea, but he rejected the idea that in order to be heard, he would have to make his writing different.’’
Karas, who put together the tribute concert with help from Eberhardt and Brad Paul from Rounder Records, says there are plans underway to ensure Morrissey’s legacy will thrive.
“His work is going to be archived at the University of North Carolina,’’ Karas says. “They’re going to have all of his papers, unfinished works, recordings, sketch pads of Bill’s art, the complete catalog.’’
Larkin, for one, thinks Morrissey’s stature will only grow in the years to come.
“I think he’s going to be [known as] the preeminent New England songwriter who really stayed true to the form,’’ she says. “He was brilliant in his simplicity and his clarity.’’
And while Morrissey is beloved by his peers, his influence on newer generations has been harder to discern. At 37, Erelli says he is the youngest artist performing at the tribute, which is not all that surprising to him.
“Unfortunately, I’m not sure he’s had the degree of influence on my generation that I feel he should,’’ Erelli says. “In part because by the time we came along and started paying attention to highly literate folk music, he was already in a pretty bad way - laying a little bit low, doing fewer concerts, a few more years in between records.
“I happened to find him when I was in high school, and he really struck a chord with me,’’ Erelli adds. “A lot of my friends, they obviously know who he is, but I don’t really know anybody who feels the same way and to the same extent that I do. That’s a real tragedy and a real shame, but one that we can rectify with this concert. People need to know about this guy.’’