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Heaven can wait

Bill Morrissey brings new songs and a novel to life

by Ted Drozdowski

["Bill This is the era of alternative rock, where new music has suddenly become a Top 40 medium and pop tradition -- if it extends past Nirvana -- gets a sharp bop to the chops. So what's an acoustic-guitar-pickin' singer/songwriter to do?

Well, most of them live up to the worst expectations of snide critics and the hipoisie, writing songs about their goddamned cats and how much Jesse Helms sucks. We know Jesse Helms sucks, we know cats are cute even when they scratch the chair and hack up hairballs. So forget that shit.

The best singer/songwriters write about what we care about the most: us. And they do it by writing about what they know best: themselves. By turning the creases of their souls inside out, they enable us to grasp the topography of our own. By examining the world around them, they become a zoom lens through which we can see our universe more clearly. Bill Morrissey is such a songwriter -- the musical poet laureate of New England who's been writing tunes for more than two decades, honing his labors into a Faulknerian craft that reveals everything about a New Hampshire seacoast town in a few deft images, everything about the life of a down-and-out in a few beers, a pack of cigarettes, and a stack of dirty dishes. And everything we need to know about heartache in a few words unspoken, an empty night, and a dying dog. (Hey, at least it's not a cat!)

After five increasingly compelling solo albums and a Grammy-nominated collaboration with Greg Brown, Morrissey's about to pull off a double play. This Friday his latest CD, You'll Never Get to Heaven (Philo), and his debut novel, Edson (published by Alfred A. Knopf), will reach stores. Both are rich in the details that he's become known for -- the geography and architecture, the inflections of character that have made his short, melody-dappled stories stand up and breathe.

The album is a musical advance. Morrissey drafted a broader palette of sounds and instruments into the sessions, adding horns and B-3 organ, playing with deeper textures as a fresh backdrop to his chiseled words. The book is an elaboration on the people and places he's lived with -- characters rich in foibles and a fictional New Hampshire town that bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Newmarket. That's where Morrissey fled to to lick his wounds and write the songs for his great Standing Eight album after his first marriage dissolved, unknowingly becoming a model for his novel's protagonist, Henry Corvine, in the process.

But Morrissey is quick to explain that though he draws from his experience, his songs and Edson aren't about him. They're elixirs -- something he kneads out of his own life when he wraps his fingers around it and gives it a good squeeze, and then adds some spice, some flavor of fiction to make their taste sweeter or more bitter or intoxicating. And all three describe the songs on You'll Never Get to Heaven, thanks not only to his deft pen and roiling guitar, but to the crew of New Orleans musicians he invited to his latest expedition through this mortal coil.

Morrissey will mark his fresh accomplishments with a concert at the Somerville Theatre next Thursday, April 18, airing new and old songs with the offhand charm and the emotional depth that have made him one of the very best at what he does. He's confident that evening will go well. It's the book stuff he's a little worried about. During our recent conversation, he admitted to having some butterflies about doing readings and having to get a different breed of critic familiar with his work. "I have to also be judged now on literary merit," he offers. "It's weird."

But Morrissey's literary merit is one reason his fans have loved and supported his songwriting. And one reason his first novel has been published by so respected a house. Hell, all of us might never get to Heaven, but experiencing the hard and easy joys of Morrissey's lyrics, sometimes we can feel a little closer to it.

During our interview, we spoke about his craft and courage and Edson and You'll Never Get to Heaven. It went something like this:

Q: I wonder whether there's a different sort of pride of authorship for you in doing a book. You'll be looking at the charts in the New York Times Book Review instead of Billboard.

A: It's similar, but I honestly don't know what to expect. I don't know what it's going to feel like when I stumble into a bookstore and see it on the shelves, other than that I'll eventually end up next to Toni Morrison, in the "M"s. I'm very proud of the fact that it was accepted by Knopf, and my editor [Knopf's Gary Fisketjon] -- the people he works with are just kind of crazy. How did this happen to me? Gary works with Cormack McCarthy and Richard Ford. He might work with Updike, I don't know. Jay McInerney. And he's done work with Bob Olmstead.

You know, I didn't go to college. The hardest thing is to discuss the book sometimes because every job has its own buzz words and the academic terms that I -- having never taken a writing course -- don't know.

I was talking to this woman in Alaska last year who asked, "How would you describe the ending of the book, Bill?" I'm thinking, "Wow, I've never really described the ending of a song; I don't know." She goes, "Well, do you think it's redemptive?" I went, "Oh, yeah, yeah, redemptive!" That's what it is. Yeah, that's the word. I'll use that in every interview now: it's redemptive. It's not a happy ending, it's not a sad ending, it's . . . there's sort of the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel kind of thing.

Redemptive! I talk to writer friends, and they use these terms, and they make sense when you hear them, but they're not the first words that come to my mind. Oh God! I'm starting to feel like John Boy Walton.

Q: In your songs, you have a real skill for bringing New England places and personalities to life. Was it easier to establish that in the book? In songwriting, you're forced to do that with very, very few images. Whereas in the book you have more territory to work with.

A: Yeah, but you could hang yourself easily with too much time. In songs, you tend to evoke. You have to pick the image that is both visual and explains something about the character. And I try to do that in the book, but you have so much extra time, you've got to take it another step and go into more detail. I've been thinking that's the difference, and it's when do you release this information? That was the hardest thing. It's like a sprinter: somebody runs the 440, he's in great shape, suddenly decides to run a marathon. And you've got to pace yourself. How do you know when to really kick and when you want to lay back? Especially with the first marathon.

Q: There's a great scene in Edson where you portray the backstage setting at the Millhouse's open-mike night, and Pope Johnson is psyching out a young fiddle player -- just busting his morale before he goes on. Did you ever do that?

A: No, I was with Henry. I actually was sort of the nicer guy and was supportive. And naive. I just thought we were all in the same boat. There is no real competition. We go out there and we play as best as we can. I never got into any of the head games. It wasn't until I got down to New York that I really saw those things happening. Until then, I just never thought people thought that way. I was always like, "I don't give a rat's ass who goes on before me. I'm secure in what I do."

People do that, though. I have seen it. I have seen friends of mine do that to other people and I just want to walk out of the room.

Everything changes when suddenly there is money to be made. There are a lot of Pope Johnsons in this music scene -- young kids who see it as just a business. They might as well be working in a bank or selling real estate.

Q: Which is bizarre, because to me there's so little chance of making money in the music business, you've gotta love it to endure it.

A: I never could have stuck it out for 20 years if it wasn't what I had to do. And there was no hope of things getting better when I was a kid. I was 25. There was no folk scene. I was working bars. But my writing was getting better, so I stayed. The wildest pipe dream in the world would be that people got interested in folk music again.

Q: Why did you decide to record the new CD with a bunch of New Orleans musicians?

A: Well, I've always wanted to work with horns. I love horn harmonies and that sort of stuff, and I thought they could be used effectively behind my songs. Up until now I haven't written songs that I thought required horns. And it wasn't a conscious thing, to write thinking about horns. Scott Billington, who co-produced the record, said, "What about New Orleans?" And the light went off. 'Cause Scott's produced so many albums in New Orleans, it would be perfect. He knows all the musicians, and this would be great. And besides, it's New Orleans.

Because it's still a song-oriented album, I can do all these songs solo. We really worked texture with this. I wanted varying instruments coming in. There's the B-3 in one cut, there's a harmonica in one cut, or different textures of drums, with Johnny Vidacovich. What he does on "Hills of Tuscany" -- I believe it's mallets of some sort -- is so cool compared to what he did with "Waiting for the Rain," where he's not even really keeping the beat; he's just playing melodically. Nice contrast.

Q: So it explores the textural approach you were talking about?

A: Yes. You want to push yourself. I haven't done a record where I didn't have that sinking fear that I really dug myself into a hole and I'm going to owe Rounder a lot of money because I'm never going to get out of this. And you have to problem-solve. It's just like playing chess.

Even the writing. The week before we left for New Orleans, [co-producer] Ellen [Karas] and Scott came to me with their idea of dropping one song. They said, "This just isn't `A' quality; can you write another?" Well, I had to. And the night before we left for New Orleans I wrote "Married for Money."

Q: Which is one of my favorite songs.

A: Mine too. And we recorded the song before it was a week old. There is something I like about flying by the seat of the pants. Your brain is racing with something and it's . . .

Q: "Married for Money" was a great idea. It's such a bad image, and yet for the woman in the song . . . she made the right call.

A: It's right for her. That's what she wanted. And she is saying, "Fuck it, I don't care."

As you get older, your perspective changes on things. Yeah. I didn't realize it as I was writing it but there seemed to be a lot of songs that say, "You know, everything has got a price." And it's not so much cynical as it is just understanding how things work. Night Train was fun. There are some very serious songs on that, but I had just got married. I was happy.

Q: Well, maybe that's the record Henry Corvine is writing at the end of Edson.

A: No, that was the third one that Henry didn't get released. Well, in a way Henry is sort of like . . . Had my life taken a couple different turns, it could have been that way. After my [first] marriage fell apart, I moved back to Newmarket just because I couldn't think of anywhere else to go. And at the same time, I split from my then-manager. I was just floating, totally rootless. I stopped touring nationally and worked enough locally to pay the bills and try to put my life back together and I wrote the songs for Standing Eight. I can't literally say that Henry is like what could have happened to me. But there are certain similarities to what might have happened.

Q: Your guitar playing has a really nice sense of motion.

A: Oh yeah. It's something that John Hurt did -- keeping it going. Robert Johnson did the same thing. Robert Johnson's rhythm was creative, but it had its own pulse. Something like Son House's did.

Q: I love Son House. He held nothing back.

A: Yeah. When he sings, he means it. That's what any good musician does. And there is a lot of stuff I hear on the radio today and I just don't think that . . .

Q: . . . . they mean it. And if you don't mean it, why the hell waste your time and do it?

A: I don't know. Babes and money? That's ego; I don't understand that. My goal from the beginning was to write well and maybe be able to even make a living doing this. And that was a real longshot 25 years ago. The original goal was to be able to sing and not have people walk out. [Laughter.]

Then I got really adventurous and thought, "Okay, I am getting paid a little for this now and maybe I could even someday make a living doing this." I'm still sort of amazed, but I am probably working harder now at it. Because I think your critical faculties develop ahead of your creative. The more you learn, the more you demand from yourself.

It's just frustrating as hell, but you have got to ask yourself, "Please step forward." And, you know, I see some folk musicians who are doing the same thing over and over and they are selling fine. They are giving the audience what the audience wants, but Jesus, if you are not taking a chance and you are not moving forward, you might as well pump gas.

Bill Morrissey reads from Edson at the Brookline Booksmith Thursday, April 11. He plays music at the Somerville Theatre on April 18 and at the Iron Horse in Northampton on April 21.

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