Folkie Bill Morrissey's songs have the sound of literature
by Martin Keller
October 30 1991
You've probably heard of Morrissey, right? The dour, self-absorbed British pop singer, the guy dressed in black with the static-cling angst.
Not that Morrissey, Bill Morrissey.
Bill Morrissey's a whole other breed of housecat from New England, who looks like a Connecticut prep school teacher and writes songs as if they were contemporary short stories. As a member of the loosely assembled collection of urban folkies to emerge from the `80s, such as Suzanne Vega (who, along with Shawn Colvin, sings on Morrissey's last record), Tracy Chapman, David Massengill and others, Bill Morrissey may be the most talented of the lot.
His "Standing Eight" record was deemed one of the best works of 1990 in such music bibles as Billboard, while like-minded scribes from coast-to-coast have stayed up late proclaiming Morrissey's songwriting talent and live performances. When he takes the stage at the Old Town School of Folk Music Saturday at 8 p.m., Morrissey will deliver a hard, literate look at life in his native New Hampshire, along with an emotional assortment of vignettes set in locations as diverse as New York City and Santa Fe.
Onstage, the 37-year-old songwriter possesses the quiet intensity of a bruised wag as he croaks out his tales in a baritone voice that belongs to the fog. In between tunes, he's just as likely to tell a dry joke by way of leading to a funny number like "Car and Driver" (where you are what you drive), or "Love Song/New York 1982"and "Summer Night," two Springsteen-like numbers that are elegantly simple with longing.
Throughout Morrissey's three albums, his well-crafted songs are punctuated with wit, humor and stark observation. Like Hemingway's best-drawn characters, Morrissey's are often fortified by alcohol or teetering on the brink of questionable relationships, jobs or other problems, trying in small ways to clear the deck before the next big wave washes over. "Standing Eight" has been rightly compared to Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" and Springsteen's "Tunnel of Love," documenting, in part, the dissolution of so many things that it's a wonder anyone survives.
" `Standing Eight' was my divorce record," the songwriter admitted by phone recently from North Hampton, Mass., where he was preparing for a major move to Boston. "I grew up in an Ozzie and Harriet family; my parents have been married 45 years, so I took the breakup on the chin. It was a good excuse for a year-and-a-half bender, you know, where you're crackin' your first beer with Donahue in the morning. That period was great for songwriting but I wouldn't want to do it again," he chuckled.
A self-proclaimed pack-rat, Morrissey was in the process of finally chucking lots of stuff "so that by the time I'm finished and am living in Boston, I'll have no past. I can create one."
While the pain of heartbreak and the booze intake have subsided considerably since that dark period a few years ago, Morrissey has not stopped writing songs. He has a new album slated to come out on Rounder in January (complete with a Greg Brown duet, with whomMorrissey shares many similar songwriting strengths), and his small legion of fans in and out of both the pop scene and literary circles is growing:
"I've played in more unusual places for the first time this year than ever before, cities like Salt Lake where you wouldn't expect any action. Actually, it's a very big town for folk or acoustic music. And then there was Italy, which was very strange - and the only tour where I put on weight. I also discovered that the Italians drive like Bostonians."
Part of his rep among the literati stems from fans such as Knopf editor Gary Fisketjon who sees Morrissey as New England's version of Hank Williams. Then there's writer and fan Robert Olmsted who judiciously slipped a Morrissey reference into his latest novel, a scene where mourners have returned from a friend's funeral. "They're playing Patsy Cline, but then one of them throws on `Handsome Molly' (one of his most gently riveting love songs) by this Bill Morrissey guy," the singer recalled with pride and amusement.
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