Farewell From a Fan for Life by Tom Shea (published August 25, 2011)
He was the opening act.
Shambling almost bashfully to the stage of Northampton’s Iron Horse – back in 1985 a much smaller space - he had a battered guitar already slung over his shoulder. He wore a white button-down shirt with a pen in the breast pocket. His corduroy sport coat looked old and cool, like that of an untenured college professor on the first day of class. His pants were dark, nothing fancy. Work pants. His good ones, I assumed.
I was at the Horse to see the main act, Loudon Wainwright III. He is best known for the 1972 hit “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road,” but if that’s the only song you know by him, you are missing a lot. I could use a lot of words to describe Loudon, a genius in a John Cheever, Mad Magazine kind of way, but this column is about his opening act.
It’s a tough gig being one of those. No one is there to see you. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were met by a yawning or rowdy indifference when they opened for Chicago at the Springfield Civic Center in 1973, if that gives you any idea.
In small clubs, the opening act is lucky to get polite applause, and a convert or two. The voice often competes with the steady low mumble of conversation among those in attendance who are waiting for the headliner with varying degrees of impatience.
Bill Morrissey knew what to expect when he climbed the steps of the Iron Horse stage.
He had the sort of bemused smile one makes after knowing all the punch lines of an inside joke. He was, after all, a man who had survived playing the rowdy Haverill’s Chit-Chat Lounge, where silence and indifference can be the least of your problems. That night at the Horse, he strummed his guitar. Said something funny I don’t remember. Then approached the mic, made three mock false starts before he began to sing. He had the face of the altar boy he once was, but the voice was all unfiltered cigarettes and lower-shelf whiskey, every word in its right place.
Here comes Parks and he’s found another bottle
He tips it up like a trumpet
Takes a drink and passes it on
And every man around the fire takes a chorus on the bottle
It ain’t much
It ain’t good
But it’ll get us through till dawn
Sitting there that night, I was thinking, “This guy is the new Woody Guthrie.” Then Bill sang “Small Town on the River:”
Forty years later the town remains the same
One mill burnt down, another one was built
The paychecks now come from a different name
And at the Eagles and the Legion Hall
no one seems to age
with the same jokes told and the TV on
the paper open to the sports page
Now I was thinking, “He’s Raymond Carver.”
He played “Morrissey Falls In Love At First Sight,” a song as funny and real as anything in Loudon Wainwright’ or John Prine’s impressive back pages.
Three songs in, I knew I would be a Bill Morrissey fan for life.
Bill Morrissey died last month in a motel room in Georgia.
On the same day as Amy Winehouse.
And on my birthday.
He could have written an arched-eyebrow song – with pauses in all the right places – using just those details.
Bill was 59.
He had called the house a few days earlier. We weren’t home. He said he was in Nashville, sitting on a porch, playing his guitar. He was going to play a couple of concerts, head up the East Coast to visit his mom in Philadelphia and was thinking of stopping in Bondsville on his way home to New Hampshire. He wanted to play us some new songs. He said he had two albums’ worth. He shared the news that his second novel, “Imaginary Runner,” was picked up by a French publishing house.
Bill knew his way around this area. He was born in Hartford. He spent part of his childhood in Easthampton. A chunk of his adulthood in Haydenville. He recorded his great 1992 album, “Inside,” at Longview Farm in North Brookfield. The cover of his four-star Rolling Stone magazine-reviewed classic album “Standing Eight” is a painting by Northampton’s Gregory Stone titled, “Mardi Gras,” after Springfield’s own establishment.
On the day after Bill’s death, Jim Neill, the marketing director of the Iron Horse in Northampton, wrote on his Facebook page that Bill and fellow folkies like John Gorka helped establish the Iron Horse in Northampton. Almost 30 years later, that remains appreciated in an always-churning currents of the music business and economic times.
And while New England was often the setting for his songs, Bill’s work connected to the larger tradition of storytelling.
Mr. Morrissey’s best songs,” the New York Times wrote 20 years ago “has the terseness, precision of detail and a tone of laconic understatement that relate his lyrics to the fiction of writers like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford. In the lineage of pop, Mr. Morrissey belongs to a modern acoustic folk tradition that goes back to Woody Guthrie and that includes not only the early Bob Dylan and John Prine but also Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits in their more folkish songs-of-the-common-man.” Bill first heard Mississippi John Hurt in December of 1966, a month after the bluesman’s death. “I was drop-jawed and bug-eyed,” he would write. He started playing guitar. It was six months before the psychedelic summer of love. He was 16, learning “Avalon Blues.” Forty-some years later, Bill would record an album of John Hurt songs that was nominated for a Grammy.
It’s no secret that Bill drank.
He tried to quit.
In a heartbreak of a song titled “Last Day of the Last Furlough,” Bill sings: “Drinking is what I do best.” It wasn’t.
In his 50s, Bill was diagnosed as bi-polar. Depression wasn’t a line in a song, a mood or setting, but a constant companion. He stepped off the stage for a while. He kept writing. Only recently did he start performing again, traveling the country like he always had.
And those who’d always loved him cheered the return of this man who’d sung from the stage at Carnegie Hall. Who named his dogs after blind blues singers. Who touted the work of Grace Paley. Who fly fished as a religion. Whose detail-driven lyrics came from the deepest part of the heart. Who had fans for life.