Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bill Morrissey Is Gone

So another great musician dies unheralded in a lonely hotel room in Georgia. This time it was Bill Morrissey, at the age of 59, out on the road, playing, doing what he does. Or did. His passing was as quiet as a whisper – didn’t even know it had happened until I stumbled on a website that mentioned it parenthetically. Like Sean Costello, like so many others, he quietly slipped out the back door when no one was looking.

Maybe I’m calling my own shot, but that’s how I want to go one day. Not in a hotel room in Georgia, though. But that way of leaving, almost as an after-thought, you hear about it later, mutter “shit” to yourself, shake your head, and know that there’s just something about some people that ensures they will slip away like the wind, raise the curtains, rustle a few branches, and then they’re gone.

But I might be getting ahead of myself if you’re sitting there asking, “Who in the hell is Bill Morrissey?” A fair enough question, and you should ask it if you don’t know. This was Bill Morrissey at his best. Turn it up. I could barely hear it when I played it on youtube. Listen to the words, how he captures that feeling of something already fading on two people who won’t be able to grasp this for years. Very few songs can move me to the point of tears, but this is one of them. Using fire wood as a metaphor for how a newly-married couple were already worlds apart. That’s just good writing, whether it’s a song, a story, whatever. “She thought of heat/She thought of time/She called it an even trade” – that’s what you call life as most of us know it. You can wish good or ill on other people, but chances are when you peel away the layers, most of us feel this way: uncertain, grasping, making sense of some things, letting others go.

That song is up there with best of Dylan or any other American songwriter. Bill didn’t stop there. He had a knack for quietly nailing so many things about life, in that unassuming, sidelong-glance way of his, the sort of guy who would say something as an aside, and you’d sit there for days afterwards wondering why you couldn’t come up with anything half as insightful with all the time in the world. Some people have a hard time with his voice, but once you get used to it, you can hear how well it suits the material: no frills, gritty, stripped-down stories about people just working, just living, and stumbling their way through life, the way we all do at times. Bill’s not the guy to play when you’ve fucked up your life. He’s the guy you play after you’ve had a grind of a work day, aren’t doing so bad in general, no great crises on the horizon, but you sit there wondering what the hell it’s all about, that maybe you were meant to do better, but you’re really not doing so bad either. So you just sort of shrug, have a beer and watch some baseball on TV. You’re not a winner. You’re not a loser. You’re just as human as anyone else.

That’s what I learned from listening to Bill Morrissey. Some people might mistake that for embracing mediocrity, but that’s far from the truth. Seeing the humanity in yourself and others is about as good as it gets. Of course, doing so will negate things like ambition and greed, but sooner or later, you stop acting like a child, and try to help others get along instead of figuring out ways to cover your ass. Sometimes you fail. And other people fail you. Times goes on, you forgive. You learn by getting things wrong a few times over. You let other people live their lives, but more importantly, you let yourself live yours. You stop bullshitting yourself and try to figure out what matters to you.

This is how I sound in my head at two in the morning when I’m thinking too much to sleep. But that’s where Bill Morrissey thrived, and where his music will live on. The quiet, private place you think is yours alone, but everyone understands. To take that understanding of yourself and dare to see if anyone else feels the same way, and then help them define it for themselves. That’s what Bill did when it was all working right.

Not many people can write a song like “John Haber.” (Sidenote: folks, if you download this track, be careful not to download the lousy video player advertised on the same page. Looks like sendspace got strange in the past few months, and I apologize for any confusion.) Not many people would stop to think about someone like John Haber: a working-class guy living alone in an apartment over a supermarket who dies in a fire one night. Not from the fire – the smoke. Smoking in bed. The narrator recalls a night they spent two weeks earlier drinking, and John comes up with this as they’re about to slink into falling-down drunk territory: “I don’t know how it happened, but it seems what I want has drifted so far from what I now expect.” The smoke was killing him – the lack of clarity in his life, the sense that he was no longer in control of it – not the flame, whatever passion he felt for anything in his life.

Bill Morrissey understood moments and people like this. When I say “people like this” I mean just about everyone. Again, when you stop bullshitting yourself. Feel no need to pump your life full of self glorification and vanity. Nor any need to drag yourself down. Just that sense of moving on through life, getting your ass kicked by work, by things that don’t work, by things you think are working, but you realize a few years down the road, they didn’t. I wouldn’t call Bill’s music downbeat so much as black-and-white, again, referencing that contemplative side we all have, and the ability to see our place in the world clearly, with whatever beauty or ugliness that implies. And it will imply both if you’re seeing things clearly.

Bill could be funny, too. “Live Free or Die” is about a guy in a New Hampshire prison who sees the irony of stamping out license plates every day emblazoned with the state motto: “Live free or die.” I’ve never been to New Hampshire, but I suspect Bill Morrissey was New Hampshire personified. Not quite Massachusetts or Vermont or Connecticut. The place you pass through to get to those places. Looks nice, but the people look a little hard. Whatever factory sits on the edge of town, that’s where everyone works. And, of course, you get a few dozen miles outside of any city in America, past the suburbs, past the college towns, you get to those places that Bill Morrissey grasped intuitively. They’re everywhere, and nowhere. You pass through and wonder how people live there. Listen to Bill Morrissey, and you get an idea. Then again, pass through on a sunny day in June, with fields of growing corn, houses so far away from each other that you admire the solitude and ability not to put up with other people’s bullshit, and it doesn’t seem all that hellish or impossible. I feel that way a lot when I’m driving back in Pennsylvania and see a lonely farmhouse on a hill surrounded by fields. It’s a way of life I haven’t forgotten, that doesn't frighten or repel me, as it somehow seems to do with a lot of people in cities.

I can somehow picture Bill knowing his time was short and imagine the kind of conversation he would have with a friend in a bar:

Bill: I’m going to die on the road down south.
Friend: Don’t say shit like that!
Bill: I don’t mean to upset you. It’s just a feeling I’m getting.
Friend: We’re going to be having crazy talks like this 20 years from now.
Friend: I hope. But do me a favor. If I don’t come back, there’s a stray cat on my back porch every other night that I’m feeding bits of ham and milk. Could you go on doing that for me?
Friend: Sure. But you know I won’t have to. You know this is bullshit.
Bill: Yeah, you’re probably right.
They go back to their beers.
Friend: What if I’m not? Now you got wondering.
Bill: All I’d ask is that you remember me every now and then. I’d do the same for you.

Bill Morrissey will live on in mill towns, burned-out, post industrial cities on the banks of dirty rivers. In the rust belt. And corn fields. Vacant lots where fatherless kids somersault on abandoned mattresses. Towns that pass by like flashes of concrete and glowing fast-food signs through the trees on the interstate. Where people have kids when they’re 17 and have to figure out some way to get through life. Stopping when they’re 40, realizing they’ve somehow done it, yet their lives still feel as fucked up as when they were 17. You’ll feel him in gritty strip malls with slush-covered parking lots, his presence somewhere between the taxidermy shop and the take-out Chinese place with pictures of teenage girls from Peking on the wall calendar. The gas station owned by the crusty old vet in the CAT hat who calls everyone “Chief.” He’ll wave back at the slow kid who goes around town on the riding lawn mower, waving at everyone all day. In the local bar, in that silence after someone’s played “Tuesday’s Gone” on the jukebox at 1:45 in the morning, and everyone just sits there, knowing their lives ain’t right but that moment is somehow good enough for now.

When it snows, you’ll see Bill’s foot prints, faintly in the fresh powder, and then gone as the passing hours cover them. He’ll keep on walking through the winter night, seemingly directionless, going nowhere, but not lost. Train whistle in the distance. Passing snow plough slinging rock salt in a rhythm like crickets. You won’t miss him until he’s gone.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sitting on the Carnegie Building Steps

Back in college, I could often be found sitting on the Carnegie Building steps. The accompanying photo seems a lot more officious and imposing than I remember it. You walk through those front doors, veer right down the hall, and you’re in the main room for the campus newspaper, where I struck gold as a weekly columnist my junior and senior years. Well, if not gold, then some mildly precious metal.

As a columnist, I didn’t have a whole lot of need to be back in that news room, save to check my mail, banter with my editors and avoid the “business side” people who worked on advertising for the paper. (I later found that Valerie Plame was working over there in 1985! Makes me wonder if we ever had any exchanges.) That mercenary sort of ambition you’d associate with a future CIA operative was there in spades on the business side, so I didn’t associate much with those people as a rule (although I made great friends with Aileen, who should have been on the creative side but was bound by parental expectations to be more business-minded).

I’ve commented that my writing from those days embarrasses me now, as it’s out there cataloged on the web, albeit apparently not easily linked to, so I’m more than happy to let it sit, locked away save for those who really dig to find it. It’s shit, for the most part. Some very funny stuff – I started out writing straight humor and specializing in one-liners. But around those flashes of comic brilliance, a lot of clunky writing. No depth … and it pains me to look at my awkward attempts at depth back then, just the worst Readers Digest sort of crap which was totally out of character with how I was (or am now). You want depth? You can’t have it. Either you have it or you don’t. And if you don’t, life somehow goes on.

But I had the right idea sitting on the steps in my beat-up, knee-length khaki field jacket purchased from the downtown Army-Navy store. Carnegie Building was centrally located on campus, just across the way from the English Department in the Sparks Building, and a sort of crossroads for all of us in the creative majors. I loved sitting there in the fall and spring with time to kill before or after a class, because I knew the people I hung with at the paper would saunter around, and we’d engage in that tribal right of youth: hanging out.

It wouldn’t be the last time I hung out – this would go on well through my 20s, even into the 30s when you consider going to bars – but so much of college was the art of hanging out. There was that crew of guys down at headquarters, but there was also this more newspaper-related group at the Carnegie Building. And we all felt like we were in on a secret with that building, working on the paper in whatever capacity, getting to know who the pricks were, the saints, the cool people, the workaholics, the people who would leave footprints on your back to succeed, and the people like me who were sort of befuddled by the immediate success and found it just as enlightening to sit and chat with people who knew me as a guy who hung out on the steps.

There was a tree across the way that burned a flaming red then yellow every fall. I remember pointing it out to Aileen one day and saying, “Jesus, that tree looks like it’s plugged in.” That was the sort of banter, the loose association and non-sequitirs of people in their early 20s trying to be off the cuff. Just as often, I’d be sitting there with pal Justin, and he’d say, “You know what? I bet I can kick your ass in a game of pool.” And off we’d go to the pool hall on campus, for an hour or so of indulgence … it all just seems so free to me now, that sense of taking off in the middle of the day and doing something totally relaxing. That’s how college was. If it was noon and you didn’t have another class until 2:00 pm, shit like this would happen all the time. Why not? You could study later. It seemed much more important to feel that free … maybe sensing we wouldn’t be in the near future? Even with a part-time job on campus, I still had plenty of down time like this any given day.

I also recall a fellow columnist named Dion who a lot of my friends didn’t like, but I did. He wasn’t a bad boy or in any way obnoxious. As I recall, he had been in the navy a few years and had come back to school, explicitly to sew his creative oats and spread out a bit. We got along very well. Oddly enough, what I remember most about him was the one time when we were downstairs working on stories, finishing, leaving at the same time, both using the Men’s room, me taking a leak, him dropping a deuce … and I had assumed in doing so, I would have to leave him behind as that normally takes a lot longer. But he somehow did this in the amount of time it took me to use the urinal and was out in the hallway moments later, “Say, man, you can’t leave me hanging when we’re debating Hunter Thompson vs. Tom Wolfe.” All I wanted to know was how he did the deed so fast.

Sometimes the conversations would be along those lines, other times heavy philosophical discussions about the events of the day or where we were going in our lives. The one thing I always liked about creative people was their open sense of life – still do. Nothing written in stone. Roll with it. Throw away the outline. Just live it. That was in direct opposition to some of the people on the paper, and I gather you’d see that now in spades in terms of how we live our lives. It seemed important to me at the time, and now, to keep your radar up, to observe, to feel, to pick up a sense, to understand. That doesn’t happen when you’re guiding yourself like a torpedo through life. You could usually tell the difference in people, even at that age.

I had always pictured college as a sort of Mount Olympus. When I took philosophy classes, I enjoyed reading how the Greek philosophers would sit around all day bouncing concepts off each other. Granted, not on the “can’t believe you just took a shit in 15 seconds” level, but the idea of these enlightened beings gathered to make sense of their world. That was the guiding principle behind seemingly innocuous acts like hanging out on the steps, or late nights in somebody’s apartment, talking music, movies, the comparative worth of our majors, crazy shit we had done, crazy shit we wanted to do, just taking in each other’s beings and enjoying it. Too many kids were either geared to be fanatical zealots programmed into a “successful” way of life, or if not engaged at that level, just drunk all the time and making no sense. Which was great fun, but not all the time. You always knew around creative folks that their minds were not geared into this either/or campus existence. It was all fair game.

I have to believe people’s favorite college memories are those times they just hung out, with that full sense of freedom we had so fleetingly, our lives mostly blank slates (at least compared to two decades on), realizing there were other people in the world who “got” us in some sense, and vice-versa.

When I wrote for the paper, I was constantly getting thrown into situations like that, probably because of the minor fame associated with my column, and my column known for being “wild” in that cheesy college sense (but was not really wild at all). I remember hitting on an Indian girl at one of the newspaper Christmas parties, going back with her to her dorm room, I guess thinking “here we go” … but instead walking in on her roommates, all of whom were fans of my column, and us having a blast that night, singing “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd while one of the girls strummed the chords on her acoustic guitar and hanging out until about three in the morning.

But I also have some pretty pompous memories of that minor-league fame. It does strange things to your head. I can see being a celebrity on any level must wreak havoc on one’s self image, as you’re encouraged to think constantly only of yourself and how great you are. It’s a horrible trap, and I gather the best that you can do is just avoid that shit all together, not encourage people to see you as anything more than yourself, don’t seek out situations that make you seem more than human. But I guess that would negate the concept of celebrity all together, and a lot of people living that way clearly love and crave that level of attention from strangers. I did, for a short while. I recall showing up for a reading at a dorm, for which about 200 people showed up, and I sat there on a couch with no shoes or socks on, acting like a fucking guru while these kids laughed in delight at everything I had to say for the next hour. You get to feel “special” when you’re placed in roles like that.

And I didn’t know how to tell those guys, shit, you just show up at the Carnegie Building tomorrow at around 2:15, we can do this again, save you’ll be sitting next to me on those cement steps, we’ll be totally equal, and we’ll probably find you’re just as if not more interesting than I am. Those steps were important in the sense of talented people, not trying to impress each other, relaxing, being open, killing time because it was there to be killed. That’s the birth place of creativity, where it takes root. I think when we went inside, the roles took over, we all became whoever we were supposed to be in there, from foot soldier on the Classified page, to glorified columnist or editor.

It made more sense to take the side door and hide in the basement of Carnegie Building with the lowly Arts and Sports staffs to work on my stuff, as I always felt on display in that main news room, people pointing at me, that’s him, as if I was typing up that week’s column in a display window at Bloomingdales. Downstairs, they understood you were there to grind it out with no fanfare. Both staffs were given short shrift, although I think Sports was held in higher esteem simply because of Penn State’s legendary football program. To this day, my life is some strange mix of arts and sports, with little to no emphasis placed on politics and such. It just doesn’t interest me, never really has. Leave that to the “important” people.

So, in a sense, that’s where it all began. It all began, of course, when I picked up a pen and started jotting in that spiral-ring notebook back in high school, trying in vain to be Hunter Thompson or Jack Kerouac, slowly realizing who I was (neither of them), getting better at understanding who that was, learning how to transfer that knowledge to printed page. But it seems like the essence of wasting time on those steps at college, like a bum who snuck into a seat among the columns and concrete of Mount Olympus, was where the senses of wonder and belonging came into being. And you need those to pull this off.

Everything happened. Nothing happened. The janitor swept up the leaves, and then the snow, and then the pollen. We graduated. Life went on without us. I can feel those memories as a real part of me now, so there’s no need to go back or long for those days. That’s what I’ve learned over the years, pick it up and take it with you, because there's no going back. Go back and you'll find it's more than likely stayed the same, and you've changed.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Lost Worlds

Last time I was back in Pennsylvania, I hit a place in the local mall that’s a sprawling flea market. Used to be called Phar-Mor, a cross between a large drug store and small chain, but that went out of business a long time ago. A few years ago, like weeds sprouting between the cracks of downtrodden concrete, that space was taken over by some odd coalition of flea-market folks, the concept being each had their lot (of which there are a few dozen), stocked with whatever second-hand items they have for sale, and there are cash registers on the mall and parking lot entrances, so shoppers can peruse and buy at their leisure.

It’s a strange place, filled with memories, useless gadgets from the 60s and 70s, beer cans for extinct beers, mothbally clothes, albums, cassettes, jewelry, paintings. The same stuff you’d find in Salvation Army stores and lower-end antique shops. The kind of place you can get lost in. Just wandering around it, seeing toys I used to play with, books I’ve read, posters that were once hot stuff at Spencer’s, old army gear of the kind we used to sport as kids playing army – it was an oddly reassuring place to spend a few minutes.

The mall is dying. I remember when it opened back in 1980, a momentous occasion, like a new world was opening, stores everywhere, the place to be. But this was before Walmart took over everything. Malls themselves at the time were usurpers of downtown shopping areas, which went destitute almost immediately afterwards and have stayed that way decades later. You walk through that mall now, half the spaces are empty, and it just feels like the wind has been knocked out of the place.

A perfect environment for second-hand shopping! I saw the usual selection of vinyl and cassettes. It seems like now is the time to hunt down vintage cassettes if so inclined. Every lot in the place that had music-leaning items, there was a box or two of dozens of cassettes, reminding me how hot those things were through most of the 80s.

But the real find for me was eight-track cassettes. Not every place had them. The ones that did, the selection was sparse. Most were selling them for anywhere from $3.00 to $5.00 a piece. Just picking up one, for me, was like touching history, a part of my life that no longer exists, and I can’t find my way back.

I have the music on the eight tracks, on my iPod. Shit, I have the music, I have bootleg copies of demo tapes of the music, I have unreleased live versions of the music, I have songs the band never released because they thought they weren’t good enough. I have a vast knowledge and grasp of that music that I never could have had at the time – who had demo recordings of bands in the 70s, but the bands themselves and maybe guys who worked in studios?

But, I don’t have the eight track! I had eight tracks for some of these bands. I didn’t have a lot of eight tracks. In their prime, maybe two or three dozen, tops. Some guys had way more, carrying those massive suitcase-style storage boxes that they’d flip open on the hood of the ’76 Nova and marvel at their rock expertise (Frampton, Styx, Foghat, Head East, Heart, Steve Miller, Joe Walsh, etc.) before kerplunking one into the Sparkomatic to blow everyone's mind.

Eight tracks sucked. In my opinion, the absolute worst product the recording industry ever put out. Cassettes were a close second – they sounded a little better, and the songs wouldn’t split between tracks. And the timing was such that cassette recorders were much more available in the 80s than eight-track recorders were in the 70s, thus we could make our own mixes. Both eight tracks and cassettes had the same problems: sound bleed-through from other tracks/sides, and the tape would often snarl in the player, thus ruining the recording. Happened to me many times with cassettes and car stereos. So, if you liked the music enough, you’d have to go out and buy another copy.

Something came over me while perusing those eight tracks. Not necessarily nostalgia, but something similar. Touching those things reminded me how far I’ve slipped away from that 70s rural existence, moving to a major city in the 80s and staying there. I felt like I was physically touching a burned-out memory. It just seemed like such a different world then. Before computers. Before the internet. Before MP3 files. Before so many things that are part of my daily routine now.

I didn’t mourn this loss – just became more aware of it. Like how when I’m back there in summer, that feels more like a gateway to that time, the green grass, the heat, mowing the lawn for old times sake. I guess a similar comparison would be an older man in the 1960s in Europe going back to visit his home village that was devastated in World War II, walking around, everything’s different but the same in a sense, and he comes across something that touches him like a direct path to the time before all the shit happened.

Not like a war has occurred here. But I’m trying to recall that world where I would go out and buy an eight track, listen to it religiously on a stereo, dogging the same album for weeks, read about the band in Creem or Rolling Stone, maybe see them on The Midnight Special if I was lucky, but otherwise just going about my teenage life, riding around on bicycles and then in cars, writing it all down in spiral notebooks on my bed, a bed I still sleep on when I go back there.

There was such an intense bond I had to certain bands and artists back then that I don’t have now. Certain albums, I know every moment, sometimes even have skips and glitches memorized from the vinyl albums and tapes I had at the time. Back then, it was like I was married to music, whereas now I have thousands of relationships that overwhelm me sometimes. Quantity over quality. I still hear plenty of quality, it’s just the sheer volume of what I can listen to now is so much more than what it was then. I’ve turned over every stone that was a mystery to me for decades throughout my musical life. But the emotional connection just isn’t the same.

So when I pick up an eight track, it reminds me of that emotional bond, not just to that eight track, but to that way of life, being a kid, living in the country, being fairly happy with it all, not a bad childhood or way of life, parents in their 40s and 50s at the time, so many other kids in the neighborhood, some good friends, others pains in the ass. I guess that sense of everything being in front of me. Whereas now, I’m halfway through life and feeling much more constricted, whether I am or not. The eight track feels like freedom, in a sense, or a doorway to a lost world. Of course, I realize that world and feeling are an impossible way of life to me as an adult, but it doesn’t mean I can’t tap into it every now and then, in a car, driving at night with the windows down, few days off from work, just taking it easy as opposed to resting before the next work day kicks into over-drive.

And that is nostalgia: romanticizing a time that, I know from memory, didn’t feel romantic at all. I don’t think it’s that specific time period that I’m romanticizing so much as time itself, the passing of it, how you can see it move in with you and everyone you know. I’m good with moving for the most part, but shit, over 20 years in the city, living a way of life that can get to be a bit of a grind at times, and it’s easy to lose track and fade out memories and connections that should remain as guide posts, if nothing else.

I find it good to slow things down in my spare time and do this, just write, like I always have, or honestly, don’t do much of anything. People at work are always carrying on about going this place and that, doing this, doing that, social get-togethers like a crowded business schedule, but, man, I just want to take it easy when I’m not working, do some errands around the apartment, help the landlord keep her place clean and in order, hit the gym, listen to music, get take out. I don’t know if that’s insecurity with people that they have to feel like they’re gunning it in their spare time and doing thousands of things, but it seems more important to me at this point in my life to take it easy and relax. Whether or not that impresses anyone else. When I read a good story or see a good movie, it’s that sort of understanding I value more than any flashy plot or visual aspects. I want to know people – I want to know myself. Which takes time, a lot of it, and doesn’t happen when you’re trying to do a thousand things that, I guess, make you think you’re a more interesting person.

In any event, the eight tracks I picked up were Sleepwalker by The Kinks, Dreamboat Annie by Heart and The Slider by T. Rex. All of which I had on eight track at the time. I want to get Heaven Tonight by Cheap Trick and Hermit of Mink Hollow by Todd Rundgren, as those, too, were key eight tracks at the time. I realize how goofy this all sounds. Not just buying eight tracks in this day and age, but buying them not for the purpose of playing them, but more as a form of recent cultural archeology. I found these fossils, and now I’m remembering all these other dinosaurs that used to roam rural Pennsylvania in the 1970s.