Bill had an influence on both our lives in different ways – an effect very much like our dram of whisky: small yet potent, affects insight, and not unlike an American Robbie Burns, Bill’s words served to warm the chill like a fire of birch wood on a cold winter’s night.
Sue mentioned that we might not have met had she not first attended a Bill Morrissey concert at Sweetwater in Mill Valley, California. That night Bill opened the door for Sue to the world of traveling songwriters. The dog, he tried to talk her up and invited her to go out drinking with him after the show. (She declined, but now says she wishes she had!) It was after that night she began seeking out more concerts and more performers who would weave that magical mix of lyric and stories with music and humor. Bill was a master at that.
I was green in my craft and still cutting my teeth on the New England open mic scene in the late 80’s when Bill was becoming popular. Stories would filter down about his cutting wit, and his ability to brilliantly turn a phrase. His black and white glossy promo photo would stare back at me from backstage green room walls. Bill’s photo, alongside every other major singer-songwriter of the day: they were doing what I aspired to do, but then it all seemed unattainable, unreal and impossible. In time since, I’ve discovered that this life exemplifies the practice of continually stepping into the unattainable, unreal and impossible – it’s where songs come from.
I shared a round-robin stage with him once at a festival in New Hampshire in the late 90’s. It was Bill, Geoff Muldaur, Lui Collins, and myself on the stage. I remember feeling out of my league and I over-compensated with some long, rambling, up-tempo song that didn’t get the response I was hoping for. They were waiting for Bill. He followed with a love song he had just finished. It was simple, quiet, poignant, and half as long as mine. He said more than twice as much with less than half the words. The audience went nuts. The applause was deafening. They loved him and he owned the room that day.
All through that set I remember him smelling of beer. I remember wondering how could he do that? He clearly had a good buzz going. No wonder he was so relaxed. Afterwards, sitting on the back steps of the hall in the mellow afternoon light, Bill, with a Budweiser in hand spoke gently about this and that - world weary, relaxed, and pleased that the audience seemed to like his new song.
I had a similar experience at a festival round-robin stage sitting next to Dave Van Ronk who blew the top off the house with his barking wail of a voice and effortless command of the room. I literally had to avert my ears his singing was so loud. I noticed the soundman leap for the dials on the board. I learned a lot sitting next to Dave as I did Bill. These singers, these boozy, bluesy, guitar-picking players, were of another time and culture than I. Still, whenever I’m in the presence of someone from that league of elders I try to glean as much as possible by watching and listening.
As I write this, details are not in yet about how Bill died. Only that he expired in a hotel room in Atlanta after a gig. Ultimately, I would say, it was the drink that done him in. This traveling songwriter job is a strange combination of the working class and the glamorous (glamorous only because we get our photos in the paper!). Our egos are alternately engorged and deprived; we swing between adrenaline and depression, energy and exhaustion, surrounded by adoring fans one moment and alone in a hotel room the next – between being all knowing and totally clueless. There is nightly cause for either celebration or consolation. Those who would rather lead lives of balance and calm need not apply. The trouble is that alcohol is the drug found in the places where we work, and is doled out cheaply or for free, and is the substance that addresses our immediate need to find balance. My doctor does not approve of my choice in lifestyles.
Bill is one in the line of a dying breed – a species that is becoming extinct. If a singer-songwriter behaved now like they used to it would not be tolerated. No more showing up drunk to a gig, no more speaking one’s mind to a heckler, no more debauched tales of excess and nights in jail. No more gritty tales of life close to the bone. No more firsthand accounts of an America that is quickly fading from memory. Folk music has frankly lost its teeth, has become suburbanized, milk toast, and numb to the real struggles of our people. This deeply upsets me and I wrestle with how to find that pissed-off voice within myself. We need legions of young songwriters to write like Billy Bragg, Ani DiFranco, and Steve Earle: wise and potent with a pen, guitar, and stagecraft – like Bill was.
Bill lived a life cut from the cloth of Jack Kerouac, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Mississippi John Hurt – a deeply literary and American bard he was. Bill Morrissey sung his life. Sung it real. Wove his magic. Told the truth.
Thanks a lot, man. It was a privilege meeting you.