Ron Kavana RIP: 'no-nonsense, rock'n'roll, colourful, wild …. and great'
Show of Hands’ Full Circle tour—looking back at 30 years on the road

Picture-perfect – a singer and his hard-edged stories

Bill Taylor writes: I have my old journalist friend Mike Sangiacomo in Ohio to thank for this long-overdue introduction to Bill Morrissey… “one of the most literate songwriters I’ve ever heard. He basically takes a short story and puts it to music.” 


When Mike talks about music, I listen. He’s been writing on the subject for a good half century. He and I go back almost that far. In the 1970s, when we were both in Pennsylvania, we saw any number of bands and singers together, from stadium rock shows to hard-core punk clubs. And a lot of folk music.

Bill Morrissey had never been on my radar. As Mike says, “he died a few years ago and never really got the attention he deserved. Unfortunately, like a lot of these guys, he had some drinking problems. I remember him telling me his father died at a very young age and, sure enough, so did he.”

Photo from Mountain Stage






(Bill Morrissey. Photo from Mountain Stage)



I recently started listening to Morrissey’s songs. Some of them put me in mind of an Edward Hopper painting, the loneliness and isolation of Nighthawks, for instance.







("Nighthawks" by Edward Hopper)


Different Currency is set in the same sort of down-at-heel eatery as Nighthawks, somewhere in the wintry northeastern US (where Morrissey was born and raised) with an embittered waitress doing whatever it takes to talk her way into a ride south with a customer:

She knew strangers don’t do favours and nothing comes for free

You’ve got to pay for everything, it’s just with different currency

They set off in his beat-up Chevy through the ice and snow on a two-day drive to Atlanta, Georgia, warmth and sunshine:

She leaned back in her seat, just another bird on the wing

He said, “You know this ride’s a trade-off”

She said, “Yeah, isn’t everything?”

That’s where it ends. Like a door closing. No resolution, no redemption. Chilling, but pretty near perfect.


Morrissey may not have been a household name, but he received two Grammy nominations and several of his 12 albums got rave reviews in Rolling Stone. His work was esteemed by the New York Times as having “the force of poetry… a terseness, a precision of detail and a tone of laconic understatement”.

Nor was his output confined to music. He had two novels published, one of them posthumously.

He wrote about what he knew. He’d spent time on the road, hitch-hiking across America as far as Alaska and California, bouncing from job to job, including on a fishing boat, and finally winding up in a New Hampshire cotton mill. He picked up club gigs wherever he could.

Small Town on the River, from his first album in 1984, is about a once-flourishing New England community and the effect of its mills closing. The song is both tender and gut-punchingly unsentimental:

The whores left for the harbour towns, where the money was still good

Morrissey’s full-time musical career spanned three decades. He started playing guitar at 13 and his influences were wide-ranging – from Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt to Hank Williams to Count Basie to the 1960s American folk revival, which saw the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary building on the earlier work of Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, Lead Belly, Odetta and so many more.

He was married and divorced twice. His song Birches is a tiny, poignant episode from the life of a couple, still close but who may be running out of compromises. Again it ends without a resolution, only the log-stove shadows as they “danced a jittery waltz”. I love that line.

Some of Morrissey’s songs are funny and one or two go beyond bleak into black.

The Driver’s Song is a catchy little number about how much the narrator loves his new truck and guiding it around the twisting, moonlit backroads of rural New Hampshire where “everybody goes to sleep so early”. And then you realise that Morrissey has slipped it in like a stiletto that the guy is dumping toxic waste…

But let’s end with something whimsical. Though, as you might expect, the humour in Letter from Heaven is on the dark side: James Dean’s having driving lessons and Abraham Lincoln has finally seen the end of the play.

Morrissey was on his way home to New England from a tour of the Deep South when he died on July 23, 2011, in a hotel room in Georgia. He was 59.

It’s a great life here in Heaven. It’s a great life when you’re dead.

So maybe Bill Morrissey really is jamming all day with Jimi Hendrix. Just like the song says.


Mike sangiacomo

Great life synopsis. Can’t believe he died in 2011, it seems like yesterday. Guess that’s a sure sign of getting old. Bill was the first professional musician i ever interviewed and wrote about for a newspaper, almost 50 years ago (!). I kept in touch with Bill over the decades, Never missed him when he came within 200 miles of where I lived. He told me his mother had my article in a scrapbook she kept of Bill’s career. It turned out that mine was the first article ever written about him. I was happy to hear that. He still lives in his music.

Andrew Curry

In the 1980s, I used to get a mail order catalogue from Roundup Records, which was the distribution arm of the Rounder label and a whole lot of other ‘genre’ music—folk, cajun, zydeco, some soul, some jazz. Their assessment of the artists they were selling was always spot on, and they were big fans of Bill Morrissey. My copies of his records would have come mail order from Cambridge MA to London. I love Birches—it’s like a Robert Coover short story.

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