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Car and Driver: Early Days With the Late Singer-Songwriter Bill Morrissey

By Ann Joslin Williams From Issue No. 2

We were on our way to a gig at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts. It was snowing hard, and dark. Bill hung onto the steering wheel with both hands. A cigarette stuck out of the corner of his mouth. Snow and slush shot up through holes in the floor of the car, soaking Bill’s feet. This was in our 1968 Chevy Bel Aire—a huge boat of a car. With the spray, the road deep in snow and the muffled sound of the tires, it seemed as if we were drifting on a lake. A plow passed us, nearly clipping the car, but then we were glad to follow it, and stayed close behind. We didn’t speak. To mention the way the car pulled left as if by the drag of a wave, or occasionally coughed into a moment of dead air, would be to bring our fears too near. The plow soon disappeared and we were left with only our vague headlights, illuminating the spinning snow a few feet in front of the hood. Then, as we could have predicted, knowing this car so well, it died. In that eerie hush, Bill pulled us to the side of the road. “No putt putt,” Bill said. Now, in complete darkness, we smoked and waited. This was in the early 1980’s. No way to call for help. Besides the plow, we hadn’t seen another car on the road.

I met Bill in 1977 when I was nineteen years old and a freshman in college. He was twenty-five. I had just played a set at the Stone Church, a bar in Newmarket, New Hampshire on “hoot night” when he approached me.

“Hey, shit for brains,” he said, holding up a flat pick. “Don’t you know how to use one of these?” I had been using my fingers to strum. My guitar case sat upright next to my chair. He straddled it and proceeded to give me advice on stage presence: “Don’t sit. Stand.” I told him that I was afraid people would see my knees shaking. “Wear baggy pants,” he said, and pointed to his own baggy pants. It wasn’t long after that night that he was giving me flat pick lessons.

We dated some months, before deciding to move in together. Bill was popular at the Stone Church and packed the place, not only because he was an intelligent and talented songwriter, but he was incredibly funny. Like a standup comedian, he doled out his take on various current subjects such as Donnie and Marie Osmond, Anita Bryant, the local Newmarket cop. The Moonies and Californians (both have a similar vacant stare, but Californian’s have the nod). At the Stone Church, the bathrooms were located down a hallway next to the stage. God forbid if anyone needed to go while Bill was playing. He’d mercilessly point the person out, then make everyone listen for the sound of flushing. It was hilarious to the audience, but mortifying for the person who had to reappear with all eyes on them.

In those days Bill played with Grieg Westley (aka Corndog Kelley) on standup bass. Before we owned a car, Grieg drove Bill to the out of town gigs in his Rambler. They had to haul six foot tall, rectangular speakers, monitor wedges, amplifier and other sound equipment to every show. Grieg and Bill had known each other since high school. They’d also gone seining together in Alaska, hauling in salmon on a fishing boat. Bill always talked about that as one of the hardest jobs he ever had. The jellyfish sometimes rained down from the net, brutally stinging any uncovered skin. He wrote a song called “Seining,” that he played a lot back then. Grieg on bass and harmonies. I don’t think that song ever made it to one of his albums.

As a joke during some gigs in Portsmouth, Bill would leave stage, still singing and playing his guitar, followed by Grieg walking his standup bass. The two of them would exit the bar and head down the street. They’d return a while later, still in the midst of the same song, as if they’d done a lap around town. Other nights, people might not have been paying attention or might be talking too loud and Bill would storm off stage in anger and leave the room. Or maybe he’d just had it with the small bar scene. It was the “folk revival,” as people called it, and most bars hired singer songwriters to stand in a corner and entertain. Bill would not suffer being background music. He was a songwriter and his songs were meant to be listened to. There was often this smoldering resentment that he just wasn’t where he thought he should be in the music business.

Even when “Live Free or Die” came out—a 45 with “Trailer Park” on the flipside—Bill was discouraged. “Live Free or Die,” co-written with Trigger Cook, got some airplay and some attention. Meldrim Thompson, the conservative governor of New Hampshire at the time, who gets a mention in the song, called it “trash” in William Loeb’s Manchester Union Leader. I don’t recall the context for the governor’s remark and can’t comment on how he might have come to hear Bill’s song, but evidently it had some reach and got his attention. You know, New Hampshire ain’t a bad state, it’s known around the globe, On account of Meldrim Thompson and his buddy William Loeb. I’d ask the governor for a pardon, but I know he’d rave and rant. He’d say, “I got no time for pardons, I’ve got to build a nuclear plant.”

Shortly after the release we were driving in Grieg’s Rambler and Bill started winging the 45’s out the window like Frisbees. It was funny at first, but then turned sour. He slumped back in his seat, morose. My intuition was that a 45 of a joke song wasn’t cutting it. He wanted an actual record, a whole album of songs that presented his best and most significant songwriting. Work that showed believable worlds with sharp visual images and authentic characters. Putting “Trailer Park,” one of his most accomplished songs, on the flipside must have felt like selling out. Still, “Live Free or Die” was on his set list and he’d introduce it as a “New Hampshire country and western song.”

Our apartment in Newmarket was only two rooms on the third floor of a large rental house. The place was incredibly small, maybe 12’ by 14’. The rent was $100 and each month we had a hard time coming up with the money. Bill was just starting to get gigs around the area and they didn’t pay much. I was in school and a waitress at a diner in Exeter. I had to borrow Grieg’s car to get to work. For a while Bill had a job at the Dispatch Center in the firehouse across the street from our apartment. He fielded calls for the police and fire departments on the late shift. One early morning, I was asleep when the phone rang. At the same time I saw two men standing on the fire escape outside our bedroom window. They looked as shocked as I was to see me standing up out of bed with nothing on to answer the phone, and fled down the old wooden stairs quickly. On the phone was Bill calling, because he’d observed those men in suits ascending our fire escape from the firehouse window, and couldn’t figure out what they were doing. Later, we found pamphlets with cartoons about Armageddon in the hall downstairs. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Bill got a lot of mileage out of that.

Grieg got married and they had a baby, so he wasn’t playing as much and not as available to drive. With more gigs at further distances, we really needed our own car. Wes Pike, a friend of Bill’s, sold us the Chevy Bel Aire for fifty bucks. It came with a cassette player and tapes—Utah Phillips, Mary McCaslin and Jim Ringer, Rosalie Sorrels—which seemed like a windfall to us. The car was unwieldy, a tank, ugly brown, but now we weren’t dependent on Grieg for getting around. When the muffler came loose and dragged on the ground, one of us would lie on a piece of cardboard and squiggle underneath the car to wire the pipe back up.

I accompanied Bill to most of his gigs and drove us home when he had too many drinks. So many nights we listened to the chafing of wire below, trying to ignore it, turning up the volume on Utah Phillip’s “Rock, Salt and Nails,” until one night the muffler broke free and in a horrifying clang hit the pavement, dragging behind. We carried a spool of wire in the trunk. Bill slid underneath the car while I held a flashlight so he could see. The car had its other charms, too—leaky valves, busted seat springs. Sometimes the catch on the hood would release for no reason and the hood would fly up like a drawbridge in the face, giving us a heart attack as we swerved to the side of the road. That car! A blessing and a curse, as Bill would say.

Bill was now playing gigs around New England—Thursdays, Peter Christian’s, The Oar House, The Bow Street Pub, a place in Sanford Maine. One night when I wasn’t able to go with him, he got pulled over. The cop examined his license and then exclaimed how much he liked Bill’s music. He’d heard “Live Free or Die” on the radio and let Bill off with a warning. Bill was thrilled, not just to get off without a ticket, but because the cop had known who he was. It was the beginning of his semi-celebrity status which at first seemed to promise good news.

There was no privacy in our miniature apartment and people were constantly dropping by, hanging out. Bill took up saxophone. I don’t know how I ever got any studying done for my classes. I was an English major and interested in creative writing. In fact, I was taking a fiction course from my father at the University of New Hampshire. In class, my father and I kept it a secret that we knew each other. Bill got a kick out of that. I wrote my stories by hand and Bill, the better typist, would type them for me. He was a big fan of my father, a writer who’d won the National Book Award for his novel The Hair of Harold Roux. Bill and he had gotten to know each other, as we often visited my parents in Durham or at their cabin in northern New Hampshire. My father respected Bill’s songwriting, and Bill enjoyed talking with my father about books and writing. Bill was writing stories, too, and heeded my father’s advice about being clear, straightforward. No gimmicks. The two often played chess after dinner. Bill was obsessed with chess. One Christmas I saved up and bought him a computer chess set. When he beat it, the bragging never ended. This was one of Bill’s enduring character traits. He loved a challenge, any challenge, and loved celebrating a good triumph, though there was always a bit of self-effacement in his conceit. I think he was sincerely surprised when he had certain victories. On a visit up north, Bill climbed Cardigan Mountain with me. I have a photograph of him smoking a celebratory cigar on the summit. It was his first (and probably last) mountain. He was pretty proud of it.

In the summer of 1979 we started making trips to New York City. I had a great aunt and uncle who lived on West 9th Street, but were gone in the summer, so we could usually stay there for a night or two. I remember how hot it was. We drove the Chevy Bel Aire, in constant fear of breaking down. Once, later that same year, traveling from Bill’s parents’ house in Pennsylvania just after Christmas—we must have gotten the muffler replaced by then—the car started making scary sputters as we drove through the Holland tunnel. “What is that?” I asked, even though I knew I shouldn’t call attention to it. Bill didn’t respond and looked straight ahead as if he could will the car to keep going. It did, and somehow we made it to the city and parked near the apartment. The next day we discovered that we’d left the car doors unlocked. “We are such rubes,” Bill said, and I thought of his song “Rube Johnson Rebounds.” But nothing was stolen. We decided that the car must have looked so beat up and poor that no one would think anything of value was in it. There wasn’t, except for our cherished cassette tapes.

On one of those first trips to New York City we wandered into Kenny’s Castaways in the afternoon. There was a woman on stage. During the first song, we turned to each other in wonder. She was amazing. Why hadn’t we heard of her? Why not a huge star? It was Shawn Colvin.

Like so many talented singer songwriters in those early days, it seemed like many should have already been stars. For most it was a slow road to get there, if a road at all. Bill needed a break—something that could help “jumpstart his career and skyrocket him to fame and fortune,” as he often joked. Like the chess games and mountain climbing, Bill sensed a challenge in the music business and I knew he wouldn’t give up until, in his own wry ironic way, he’d tried everything he could to beat it.

One time my grandmother sent us money to fly to Arizona to visit her. We did that, then took a long and uncomfortable bus ride from Phoenix to Los Angeles to visit a friend who worked for the music producer Paul Rothschild. I remember being impressed by a mockup of Janis Joplin’s album cover for The Pearl in Rothschild’s house in Laurel Canyon. We hung out with Rothschild in the studio as he put final touches on the music for the movie The Rose. Rothschild was gracious and welcoming. He seemed to enjoy our interest in his work, if not a little unsure of why we were there. I know Bill hoped that the connection with Rothschild might be that jumpstart he needed, but nothing ever came of it.

Then, Bill got an audition at Kenny’s Castaways and it went well. Doc Pomus happened to be there and called Bill over to his table to talk. Over the phone Bill told me how Pomus—this big, bearded legend—had praised his song writing. “Doc Pomus, Annie! Doc Pomus,” he kept saying. Bill got his first gig at Kenny’s Castaways as the warm up act for George Gerdies. Next he was the warm up act for Rosalie Sorrels. Things were picking up.

We had a few acquaintances in New York City, but it wasn’t until Bill started playing Kenny’s Castaways that he met the musicians. Bill invited David Massengill to come stay with us. He came for two weeks and slept under our kitchen table, the only place to put anyone in that tiny apartment. We had little money, but Bill was generous with sharing the small amount he was paid for these gigs. One night, after driving the Chevy—dying noises, loose muffler—David got out of the car, fell on his knees in the grass, and kissed the ground in thanks that we’d made it home.

Many others, including Rosalie Sorrels would sleep on our floor under our kitchen table. I remember she sang to us as she went to sleep.

Bill had also met Dave Van Ronk in New York City, so when Van Ronk came to play at the Stone Church, he requested that Bill be his warm up act. Before the gig, Dave took us out to dinner. Something in Dave’s food was off and he didn’t feel well the rest of the night. Someone told us later that after Bill did his set, Van Ronk turned to his friend and said, “Are you kidding me? This is going to be hard to follow.” Later Van Ronk jokingly accused me of poisoning his food so Bill would outshine him. Van Ronk was fond of Bill. One time he said that he thought of recording Bill’s song, “Small Town on the River,” but he “couldn’t get a handle on it.”

After Bill and I moved to another apartment across town, one with a guest room, we’d often invite New York City musicians up, sometimes sharing gigs with Bill. Some guests I remember are Tom Intondi, Cliff Eberhart, Peggy Atwood and Ron MacDonald, Eric Franzen, Lucy Kaplanski and Shawn Colvin. Now people were playing at the Idler and Passim in Cambridge and The Iron Horse in North Hampton. Tom Intondi and Jack Hardy invited Bill to do a guest set at Folk City. Bill met Odetta there and couldn’t stop talking about her. The Speakeasy put out a compilation record which included Bill singing “Small Town on the River.” Things seemed to be moving forward.

Besides driving, one of my roles was to uplift Bill after his shows. He’d question me all the way home about how each song or joke came off. He needed a lot reassurance, a sounding board, someone to tell him that he was doing fine. At times he would go into these half joke, half ego rants about how great he was, but underlying all that bravado were deep insecurities. Would he ever really “make it?” Would anyone of importance take notice? Would a record deal ever happen?

Maybe the biggest break Bill got, though it amounted to nothing in the end, came when he was invited to do a show with Bonnie Raitt, Tom Rush and Doc and Merle Watson. Raitt’s former manager Dick Waterman was interested in Bill’s music and the hope was that maybe Raitt would pick up one of Bill’s songs. For weeks after he got that call you could tell it was in the back of his mind. Sometimes we talked about it, sometimes jokingly, sometimes not. Maybe Bonnie would like “Run You Through the Mill” or “Small Town on the River.” But then the day of the big event—rain. Endless rain. The venue was outside on a grassy hill and I remember fans sitting on ponchos in puddles or just wandering off. No one wanted to be there. A roar of constant feedback on stage. They’d covered the speakers with tarps and the sound was muffled. We never did meet Raitt. We got to hang out a bit with Doc and Merle in the backstage trailer, but it wasn’t enough. Again, Bill was disappointed. Another near miss.

I was in school, so couldn’t go to a lot of the New York City gigs. Bill would call me at all hours to tell me the details and get my opinion. I had faith in Bill and his talent. If he was self-doubting, I propped him up and assured him by reminding him of how smart and beautiful his songs were. How perseverance was key. Writers write, my father always said. And Bill wrote. He wasn’t a fake or a wannabe. He was the real deal. Sometimes he’d perk up, sometimes not.

It made me anxious, though, when he started talking about moving to New York City sooner than later. I needed to stay in New Hampshire and finish college, but New York City seemed like the place he might get a break. He never did move. Ultimately, Bill liked the idea of country life. In our new apartment we had a woodstove and Bill split our wood, though not without a pretty hilarious, crazed expression with each swing of the axe.

On it went. He kept writing songs, playing clubs. He was always prolific, writing lots of songs over short periods of time. He had an interesting habit of playing guitar and singing, face close to the wall. He said it gave him a better sense of what he sounded like, acoustics at work, sending his voice back to him.

At home Bill was often comical. One day he sat in his armchair in front of the stool that held his typewriter. This was where he regularly worked, typing lyrics or stories. But this day, for no reason, he wore a paper bag on the crown of his head like a chef’s hat. I was reading across the room, amused. An hour or more passed, then he announced that he was going to take a shower. He left the room with the bag on his head and went into the bathroom. I heard the shower run. When he came back to the bedroom he was toweling off and still wearing the paper bag on his head, straight-faced. When I laughed he finally broke into that goofy, pretend demented smile of his.

When an article came out on John Irving in Rolling Stone and Irving mentioned my father, who was Irving’s friend and teacher, Bill remarked in mock jealousy, “Your father gets into Rolling Stone and he’s not even a musician!”

After Irving came to read at the UNH and kissed me on the cheek, Bill often joked: “If John Irving and I were drowning, which one would you choose?”

“Smooch patrol,” he’d sing out if he wanted to give me a kiss.

One fall my father invited Bill to join him and other friends, such as the writer John Yount, at the cabin during hunting season. Bill didn’t shoot anything, but he was extremely honored to be a part of that tradition. Another time when he had a gig up north and I couldn’t go, he stayed with my parents at their cabin and the next day they took him trout fishing on Lake Tarleton. My parents liked Bill a lot. They admired his songwriting, his wit and charm. They were impressed with how interested Bill was in so many things—hunting, fishing, boxing, baseball, literature (B. Traven was an obsession for a while and there was always a joke about putting James Joyce’s Ulysses to music—a waltz), and, of course, music. It wasn’t until years later after Bill and I had split up when my mother confessed to me that, though they liked Bill, they’d worried about me being with him. “He drank so much all the time,” she said.

Bill and I remained friends all his life. I’d often visit him in Tamworth, New Hampshire when I was back from the west coast in the summer. He’d play me his latest songs, and talk about getting healthy and back on his game. He’d go on about women he liked and exaggerated how much they must be crazy about him. When I moved back to teach at UNH, I saw him a little more often. It was weird to see him at The Stone Church where I’d first met him. Now in his mid-fifties, the toll of his drinking and smoking was catching up. People who hadn’t seen him in a long time were shocked at how thin he was.

In Tamworth, Bill introduced me to Annie Provenzano, one of his closest friends in town, who he called Annie number two. I was Annie number one. Annie #2 and I still sign off this way in email. It was Annie #2 who located the knife my father had made for Bill and given to him one Christmas. She found it amongst Bill’s things when they were cleaning out his house. My father had carved the handle out of deer antler that he’d polished and etched with little decorative fish. On the blade he engraved Bill Morrissey. He cut and stitched the leather sheaf, too. I remember how Bill was in awe of that knife, honored that my father had spent time and care on it. He cherished that knife. Now it sits on display in my house, a memento of both Bill and my father.

Over the years I sent Bill my published work and he always gave me his latest CD and later his novel Edson and the French translation of it, too. He was proud of his book, but quick to jest, “I ain’t got no book learnin,’” which was technically true—he’d dropped out of Plymouth College in his first year—but he was self-taught. He read a lot, and sought out information on subjects he was interested in.

Our friendship was important to both of us. We often remarked that we’d sort of grown up together. I remember a visit with Bill and Grieg, walking around Portsmouth on a balmy summer evening. For some reason, during a conversation, it came up that I’d never gotten married. Grieg stooped down, picked a flower and said, “I’ll marry you.” “Hey,” Bill said. “Wait a minute!” It was a sweet put-on and I felt revered. The years I’d lived with Bill had also been trying, full of great worries and frustrations that took a toll. But this night, with summer in the air, I had these true friends.

When Grieg was dying of bone cancer in 2001, Bill and I went to visit him in a nursing facility in Exeter. Grieg was still able to joke and we all shared memories. Memories of those early years, driving around in the old Rambler, throwing 45’s out the window onto the highway, walking off stage and down the street. Grieg shoving a tall speaker into the back of the station wagon as if it were a phallus and Bill laughing so hard he collapsed on the ground. When Bill and I left Grieg’s room and were out of earshot, Bill fell to the floor in tears.

A day before Bill died, he had left a message on my phone machine, saying he was down south and had discovered one of my father’s novels in a bookstore there. Bill’s enthusiasm for such things was endearing, though his speech was slurred from drinking. I erased the message and figured I’d call him back later.

At the funeral, Annie #2 had put together a slide show of photographs. There was one of Bill with my family—my father, mother, brother and his wife Tamara—all sitting on the couch, each holding a rifle. It was silly and funny, taken years after Bill and I had lived together. He was still a friend of my family, visiting one Christmas when we were all home in New Hampshire. He’s wearing a big grin. I think it gave him a sense of belonging, of being a part of a tradition. We had grown up together.

Bill had gone on to have many amazing successes over the years, playing great venues and putting out wonderful records. Both of us had come a long way since that tiny Newmarket apartment, driving that old Chevy Bel Aire, listening to secondhand tapes. That night we were stranded on the side of the road in the snowstorm, a snowplow finally did come along and gave us a lift into a town and dropped us off at a bar. The gig had been cancelled due to the storm, but the owner of the Iron Horse braved the weather to pick us up and take us to his place for the night. The Chevy Bel Aire was towed and repaired so we could drive home the next day. Eventually Bill sold that car to a scrap metal yard for seventy-five bucks. Twenty-five more than we paid for it! Rube Johnson rebounds. We kept the tapes, of course.

About Ann Joslin Williams More From Issue No. 2