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.