BILL MORRISSEY by Bob Keyes for the Portland Press Herald (published July 31, 2011)
When I lived in the Midwest, I’d often squirrel myself away in my dark basement, plug a bunch of Bill Morrissey CDs into my six-disc changer and let his music and words sing me back home.
Morrissey, who died July 23 at age 59, provided a lifeline to the New England culture that I grew up in. His songs grounded me when I felt misplaced and lonely. When I was most homesick, Morrissey provided my anchor.
His manager attributed his death in a Georgia hotel room to complications from heart disease. He had just finished up a few dates, and was making his way back home to New Hampshire.
I am not alone in feeling devastated by his loss. The folk music community was abuzz all week as the news spread.
Morrissey, who used to live in Portland and played around here regularly, was not a huge figure in the music business, but he had a good following and accomplished a lot in a career that spanned a few decades.
He released almost a dozen CDs, received two Grammy Award nominations and won the respect of critics near and far. He even published a best-selling novel, “Edson.”
His writing was intensely literate, and his songs told real stories of real people. He was the Springsteen of the folk circuit — gritty, terse and laconic. He didn’t create lyrical images like Dylan, but he had the ability to write a song that made you stop and listen.
At a turn, he could leave a listener in stitches with laughter or in tears of devastation.
His voice sounded something like a smoky growl. Words didn’t roll off his tongue, but croaked up from deep in his throat. Once you heard him sing, you never forgot the experience.
On a personal level, Morrissey’s songs reminded me of my early years in journalism, when I lived in Winslow and worked in Waterville.
Especially on his first records, he wrote about river towns, mill workers and the happy-hour crowds. He understood that April meant late winter, and not early spring.
I didn’t know Bill well, but I knew him a little — well enough to say hi after a gig, or call him up for a quick phone interview to advance an upcoming show, or meet up to talk about a new CD.
When word came down the line a few years ago that he was in failing health because of a long struggle with alcohol, those who followed his career and cared about him as an individual knew the concern was real.
He tried sobriety many times, but it usually didn’t stick.
This time, though, he vowed to see it through. I met him for lunch on a dank March day over the border in West Ossipee, N.H., soon after he completed a 28-day detox program.
In perfect character, he was remarkably honest about his decline on stage. His performances were uneven and often embarrassing, he said.
He knew he had to sober up, or his career would be over.
“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 really 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.”
That was in 2007. I saw him a few times after that, and while some of those shows were very good, a few felt raw. He stumbled over his lyrics. His between-song stories, which used to sparkle with energy, sagged. He seemed uncertain, tentative.
Instead of filling the joint, he drew a few dozen people who occupied half the seats.
But when Bill was good — when he got the lyrics right, kept his focus and made it through — he achieved brilliance. His newer songs sounded terrific, and I was encouraged to hear that he was working on a new novel.
Morrissey was born in Connecticut, and took his cues from northern New England.
He could have lived anywhere, but he chose the Mount Washington Valley because it offered him good places for fly fishing.
He liked living in a place where he knew neighbors would check in on him if he didn’t show up after a few days.
He chose well. His community of friends reels with the news of his death.
Morrissey’s buddy, performer Cormac McCarthy of South Berwick, put it best when he told the Boston Globe last week: “I’ll start to cry, then I’ll laugh, just like one of Bill’s shows.”