BILL MORRISSEY by Peter Cooper for Nashville Tennessean (published on August 11, 2011)
Bill Morrissey died, and maybe you never heard of him.
Probably, you haven’t. Morrissey was from New England, not Nashville. He never lived here and didn’t play his music here very often. That’s too bad. The music was special, and we would have been better off for closer proximity.
As it turns out, Morrissey played the last show of his life on July 16 in Lebanon.
It was a house concert, and 13 people showed up. The star of the humble show wasn’t upset about the turnout. He arrived at hosts Denise and Rick Williams’ Lebanon home a few days early and used the time to chip away at some songs that no one will ever hear. He told some funny tales from his decades on the road, and he talked about his beloved Katrina rescue dog, Molly.
Molly was a pointer, he said: She pointed out trout, so he knew where to cast his line.
That Saturday, Morrissey plugged in and played, told stories and stayed the night. Then he went to his songwriting friend Fred Koller’s house for five days of swapping songs and more stories.
And then, on July 22, he packed his two Epiphone guitars into his Toyota, drove to a modest hotel in Dalton, Ga. (carpet capital of the world, don’t you know?), called Koller and some other friends, and, at some point in the night or the next morning, died. Complications from heart disease. He was 59 and looked older.
‘One of the best songwriters’
He was a troubadour, a novelist, an alcoholic, a folk singer. He was bipolar, on medication for depression and by some accounts doing better of late. He was kind, sensitive, rare and doomed.
“She wants to make love, I want to drink,” he sang in “Last Day of the Last Furlough.” “Drinking is what I do best.”
Actually, he was terrible at drinking. Practice proved imperfect. He was much better at writing songs. The drinking was disruptive and erosive, the writing transcendent.
It was his songs, not his craggy singing voice, that led him out of jobs in factories and on fishing ships and onto a remarkably diverse array of stages, from New York’s gleaming Carnegie Hall to the pleasantly shambolic Alice’s Champagne Palace in Homer, Alaska.
By the early 1990s, Morrissey was on a fast track. He soon became known as “One of the best songwriters we have” (Rolling Stone), “One of the most consistently literate singer/songwriters working” (Village Voice) and “The best folk songwriter working today” (Entertainment Weekly).
The New York Times’ Stephen Holden compared his lyrics’ detailed precision to short story master Raymond Carver, and the 1996 Random House publication of his novel, Edson, furthered the literary connection.
If you’d asked me in ’96 what I figured Morrissey would be doing in 2011, I would have predicted he’d be playing concert halls and collecting accolades, much like John Prine and Guy Clark. Then I would have asked what brought you to Spartanburg and if you knew of any job openings in Nashville.
Factoring in the whiskey
My Morrissey prediction, though, would not have taken the whiskey into account. His was not a swashbuckling, Hemingway-style drinking life, it was a hot bourbon bottle under the driver’s seat on a July afternoon kind of deal. It wrinkled him, clumsied his nimble fingers and sometimes maneuvered his elliptical stage banter past the point of charm.
He became unpredictable, and generally unmanageable. Never unloved. Morrissey was revered, garnering a couple of Grammy nominations, influencing songwriters such as Suzanne Vega, Hayes Carll, Mark Erelli and Ellis Paul and earning a devoted following of fans who purchased his albums, who wrote to ask why his touring schedule had slowed and who often went out of their way to attend his infrequent shows. Of the 13 people at his Lebanon gig, several had driven hours to see him.
The “him” they heard wasn’t what he used to be. He used to be the guy you’d never want to follow onstage, a force of poetic, charismatic nature. Morrissey in 2011 was like his boxing hero, Muhammad Ali, at the palsied end of his unprecedented career. But as was the case with Ali, the degradation didn’t lessen the genius, it only masked it.
“If you went down to Music Row and asked any of the top 10 writers about Bill, they might not be able to tell you anything,” said Koller, the Rhino Booksellers owner whose songs have been recorded by Prine, Nanci Griffith, Kathy Mattea, Keith Whitley, Bobby Bare and many others. “But he was an artist, with a painter’s eye that shows up so strongly in his lyrics. You can study almost any of his songs, and there’s not any room for improvement. Twenty years from now, those songs will be just as good as they are today.”
There’s “Barstow,” where he sings, “Don’t the freight yard sound like a drunk in a metal shop.”
There’s the brilliant “Birches,” in which a woman defies her husband’s admonition to fill the fireplace with long-burning, sparse-in-flame oak, not hotter, quick-burning birches. “She thought of heat, she thought of time/ She called it an even trade.”
Then there’s “23rd Street,” in which he sits in a room and confesses, “Tonight, I’m just too drunk to pray.”
“Well, there’s some folks bring love to a hotel,” is how he begins the last verse. “And some just bring their own quiet end.”
Morrissey’s end was quiet. His talent and spirit crackled like a birch log fire. His songs burn longer and steadier than oak. They’re here for you to hear, even if you’ve never heard of him.