GOODBYE BILL MORRISSEY by Christopher Hislop for Seacoast Online (published on July 25, 2011)
When I heard that Bill Morrissey had died July 23, I was stricken with grief and felt a void in my heart. The idea that I'd never again be able to venture up that great hill in Newmarket, to the top of those stairs and through those burly wooden doors to see Bill on the Stone Church stage singing his songs was a feeling I coudn't seem to digest. Probably never will.
Bill was at home at the Stone Church. No matter where he had been, or where he was going, Bill Morrissey's performances at the Church were very much the stuff of legend and will forever be an immensely important part of the history of the venue. He cut his teeth during open mics at the Church back in the late ‘70s. He worked the venue as a janitor and when he had enough coin in his pocket he'd escape on cross-country road trips with the Church's most loyal patron, Kenny Woodward, and local songsmith Cormac McCarthy, spinning his storied tales along the way. Heck, they probably made those trips with or without the coins, but you get the idea. He was always coming and going.
When the Church celebrated a grand reopening back in 2004, Bill was a crucial part of the goings on that hot weekend in August. His show was packed from wall to wall, and the grin that stretched across his face from ear to ear as he took the stage is an image I'll never forget. Everyone has a smile, but Bill Morrissey had one of “those” smiles that shimmered in the light; ultimately contagious.
And that's how all of his gigs were at the Church I bore witness to after the turn of the century. A grand homecoming. An event not to miss. I never saw him in the ‘80s or ‘90s. And that's not because I didn't want to; I was just too young. For anyone who had the opportunity to experience one of Bill's shows, you know the magic that I'm trying to depict here. Words cannot do it complete justice. Bill was an extraordinary writer whose small-town imagery fit right into the everyday working lifeblood of Newmarket.
That's part of what made his shows there so special. His guitar playing was driven and complementary, pushing his stories in timbre — allowing that raspy voice of his to transport you right into the meat of the scene he was singing about. His stage banter between songs is far and away the best I've ever heard from a musician — further involving the audience, allowing them a glimpse into his world. He may not have known who he was talking to specifically, but he always figured everyone to be his friend nonetheless.
And though Bill may have often been the smallest man in the room (from a physical standpoint), he was always well respected, and was arguably the largest personality to walk through the doors. He was larger than life, in the most modest way.
Bill once said (in an interview for the Boston Phoenix, written by Ted Drozdowski), “…If you are not taking a chance and you are not moving forward, you might as well pump gas.” It's without a doubt that every day Bill had on this earth he was taking a chance, as he was always looking to push his craft and better himself as a human being and a writer. His struggles with depression and alcoholism were well known and were spoken of frequently amongst his peers and his fans. It has also been documented that throughout the past few years he was trying to keep these issues at bay. Every day was a battle. Every day he was taking a chance. And for that, he is to be admired.
Bill Morrissey's last gig at the Stone Church was on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2010. I had asked if I could write a feature on Bill for the paper (in support of this show), and was given the green light to do so. It was always a dream of mine to interview him — if only for the entertainment value. At the time, I knew Bill was laying low and trying to “right” himself. His manager and ex-wife, Ellen told me I could call him anytime, but for some reason, I couldn't bring myself to pick up the phone. I felt like I would be intruding on his privacy when what I really wanted was for him to channel his energies into getting some rest. I thought, “I'll get to him next time, when he's feeling healthier and is in a better place.”
When I heard the news that Bill had died, I took to staring out the window of my condo in the Mills in downtown Newmarket — a scene Morrissey often depicted in his songs, and his stories. I thought about how I had just spoken to Greg Brown on the phone a mere two weeks ago and how he had heard Bill was on the up-and-up and he was excited about the prospect of playing with him again someday soon. I felt an intense energy ball itself up in the middle of the street by the bandstand and shoot upward towards the clouds. For a minute or two, the sun was hidden behind these clouds and the oppressive heat subsided.
For New Hampshire, and abroad, the loss of Bill Morrissey is a massive blow to the music community. Never again will we experience the pleasure of that man with the tiny frame and the shimmering smile, step out of his vehicle dressed in his signature flannel shirt and work boots, with his guitar in hand and a ball cap placed lightly atop his head — often to come off as his songs commenced. He was a working man's musician. Though that unique voice of his is well documented and we can turn to his records to find solace in it once again, it hurts to know that we'll never get anything new.
But this isn't about us. This is about him. I'm sure he's up there buying Robert Johnson that beer he promised him, and singing songs alongside his longtime inspiration, Mississippi John Hurt. He's surely in a better place now, and I'm sure wherever that is, he's moving forward and making the best of it.
Rest in peace, Bill. The chances you mustered up and lived through down here in life have left a lasting impression. Hope the fishin' is good wherever you're at.