My Baby and Me (Bill Morrissey)

My baby and me, we know a good time when we see it,
Mid-November — So long, fall — as warm days go, this is last call.

One of the things I loved about Bill Morrissey’s songwriting was his sense of place. I’d grown up in a world bill-and-lisaof New England folksingers who adopted southern accents and sang about Texas and Kentucky — and so had Bill, but somewhere along the way he decided to write about New England instead, and to treat it as an equally interesting region. He lived in New Hampshire for much of his career, and a lot of the songs were based in the area around Newmarket, but several were set in Maine and others just had a general northeastern feel. His first was called “Drifting Back to Boston,” and one of my favorites began “Opening day at Fenway Park in 1968/ Walking home from school, we all agreed this will be the year our hearts don’t break…”

Bill’s most memorable New England songs tended to be precisely observed slices of small-town, dead-end lives, but the one I’ve tended to sing most frequently over the years is this perky evocation of a night out in late fall. Bill would often introduce this with a disquisition on the pleasures of winter in New Hampshire: playing “Space Invaders” (“You can’t win; all you can do is stave off impending doom a little longer, before the aliens destroy you and all your loved ones”); listening to Leonard Cohen; reading Baudelaire… “We know how to have a good time.”

I liked this the first time I heard it, though I didn’t understand one of the best lines. I was used to learning old blues songs off records and singing them as I heard them, even if I didn’t understand what I was singing about, and I learned this the same way. I’d heard Bill do it, and sang it myself around the folk clubs in Cambridge and similar collegiate settings, but it wasn’t till I performed it in a bar in the woods near Libby, Montana, that I heard an audience crack up laughing at the first minor-key section:

Baby’s wearing make-up, got on Chanel Number 5,
Put on a dress with a little frill.
I’ve got a jacket and a tie, I slapped on some Hoppe’s Number 9,
I guess you could say I was dressed to kill.

no-9I had no idea what Hoppe’s No. 9 was, any more than I knew why the singer was trading his Hawken .50 for a lightweight .20-gauge. Bill knew that stuff — he’d built his own Thompson Center Hawken black powder muzzle-loader from a kit — and he enjoyed singing those lines for oblivious city folks who didn’t laugh (but would never admit they didn’t know what he was singing about) almost as much as he enjoyed singing them for rural bar audiences that got the references.

I wasn’t a hunter or fisherman, and close as we got, Bill never invited me along — I was a city friend, and that was fine, but not like being one of his friends from up north. That was one of the things bill-fishingI appreciated about him, along with his love of the woods and the workroom where he spent long winter evenings tying his own flies. I had the sense he was happiest in that world, and I don’t think he ever found a musical scene he liked as much as the New Hampshire bar circuit, when it was going well. It didn’t satisfy him, but he liked the people in the rooms a lot more than he liked the people in the bigger, better-paying rooms he played after he began recording, and to me he was at his best when he was writing for them.

I’ll get into a lot more Bill Morrissey — we were friends and sometimes partners for a few years in the early 1980s, and I rarely played a set that didn’t include one of his songs — but for now, take this as a taste of fall in Northern New England.

Waiting Round to Die (Townes Van Zandt)

I first heard Townes Van Zandt on his live double album, which I borrowed from my sister’s erstwhile boyfriend, Kevin, who turned me on to a wide range of music I might otherwise have missed in the early 1980s: Public Image Limited’s Flowers of Romance, Rachel Sweet’s Protect the Innocent, the Cramps “Goo townes-van-zandt-liveGoo Muck,” Johnny Rivers’ …and I Know You Wanna Dance (my introduction to Mose Allison’s songwriting), and Townes’s Live at the Old Quarter. If memory serves, I was first attracted to that one because Townes did Van Ronk’s version of Cocaine Blues, and then by the low-key, down-beat feel of the performance — including the jokes, which over the years I would hear pretty much every time I saw him. The same couple of jokes, decade after decade, which shouldn’t have worked, but Townes was an unusual performer and his shows were reliably riveting.

He was not barrel of laughs, though I recall him on a bill with Eric Anderson and another singer-songwriter referring to himself as “the comic relief.” As far as I could tell, he meant it, but his affect was so blank that a lot of us figured he’d burnt himself out and was pretty much brain-dead at that point, recycling the same songs and jokes in a monotone, with no clue that the mind that had produced those songs was still in his body. Then, the next year, he came back through with a bunch of new songs that were just as good as the old ones, written by that mind, which clearly was very much still present, somewhere in there.

townes-van-zandtI think that may have been the year I went to see him with Bill Morrissey at Passim Coffeehouse, and we both sat, fascinated and devastated by the quality of his writing and the hypnotic power of his quietly mournful performance — and, later, Steve Morse, my editor at the Globe, told me about interviewing him back in the dressing room, with Townes apologizing as he spat blood into a paper cup. He’d been mythically killing himself since day one — Kevin spent an evening with him back when I borrowed that first album and reported Townes was drinking Pernod with Ouzo chasers, apparently because he liked watching the alcohol get cloudy as he poured water into it. At Passim he had a new joke: he’d been playing a Unitarian Church coffeehouse and the minister offering him a glass of sacramental wine, and he responded, “Father, I’m from Texas, and in Texas we don’t drink in church.”

I learned a bunch of Townes’s songs, and tried several of them out onstage, and mostly they didn’t work for me. When he sang “Kathleen,” the first verse was devastating:

It’s plain to see the sun won’t shine today,
But I ain’t in the mood for sunshine anyway.
Maybe I’ll go insane, I’ve got to stop the pain,
Or maybe I’ll go down and see Kathleen.

When I sang that first couplet, the couple of times I tried it, people giggled. Not everybody, but enough to throw me off and convince me I couldn’t make it work. Same with “Waiting Round to Die,” and with age and hindsight I’m beginning to think they were right, not only about me but about the song and that whole Baudelaire-Bukowski drunken depressed death trip, which seems so romantic to a lot of us when we’re 18 or 23.

And yet… Townes always made me believe, and not just me, but everyone in the room. I particularly remember townes-van-zandt2-copyseeing him on the main stage at the Vancouver Folk Festival, with Monte Jones, a close friend who will be suitably acknowledged in later chapters. Monte was an Indian ex-rodeo rider from the wilds of Calgary and Northern British Columbia, and Townes devastated him. He said Townes had to be half Indian, was obviously alcoholic and dying, looked just like his father, and part way through the show he had to leave because it was too painful.

There’s a smart, powerful documentary about Townes, Be Here to Love Me, and an earlier documentary about Texas songwriters, Heartworn Highways, in which he sings this one and explains that it was the first song he wrote. They’re both worth watching, and I still sing this sometimes for myself, though I haven’t tried it onstage since the early 1980s. I recorded Townes’s “Mister Mudd and Mister Gold,” which is fast and wordy and optimistic. I used to sing “Pancho and Lefty” with Monte, me singing Pancho’s part and him singing Lefty’s. The last time was at what was supposed to be our last gig, but he was too weak to play, so I just sang it for him. Great song, and I’ll put it up here when I get to that part of the story.

Meanwhile, here’s this one, as best I can do it. If it makes you giggle, I understand. I’m not Townes, and I don’t think anyone would want to be. But I sure wish I could see him do another show.

Three Western songs by David Omar White

I ran into David Omar White pretty frequently when we were both knocking around Cambridge, and every time I’d make him sing me these three songs. He made them up in the 1940s, during his youth in North Dakota and points west, and sang them unaccompanied — he was a visual artist, best known for a John Fahey album cover, the murals in the  Club Casablanca, and the White Rabbit comic strip, and never fancied himself a singer or musician. He’d just knocked these off for fun, didn’t think much of them, and as far as I can tell most of his friends never heard them.

I happened to get lucky the first time I met Omar. It was at the Idler, a long-lamented club in Harvard Square, where I was playing thanks to Dave Van Ronk — he’d told the owner, Len Rothenberg,  that I was an up-and-comer, and Len booked me for a couple of opening acts, one with Spider John Koerner and the other with Paul Geremia. (I played a third time, alas, among the many performers at the Idler’s farewell concert in 1982.)

The Idler had a front room for drinking and talking, and a back room for drinking and listening to music, which meant you could go to hear your friends or favorites play, and if you got bored or just wanted to chat, you could go out to the front room and have a conversation without interrupting the music — and to make it even better, the music was piped into the front room, so if it got interesting, you could head back and pay attention. As a result, a lot of local musicians hung out there even when we weren’t working.

Bill Morrissey was a regular performer there, and the Koerner gig was notable because Bill came up and introduced himself after my set, beginning an enduring friendship and sometime partnership described in other posts. And at the Geremia gig I met Omar.

My recollection is that Omar was there to hear Paul, but he may have just dropped in for a drink. In any case, he sat down at our table and at some point was inspired to sing his three songs: “The Cowboy Song,” “Great Northern Line,” and “The Gondola Song.” david-omar-whiteI was entranced, partly because it’s the first and last time anyone has sung me three personal compositions I instantly wanted to learn, and partly because he was “the real thing,” an old guy from the West with some authentic Western folklore.  I was used to hearing easterners like myself pretending to sing like cowboys, and hearing Omar sing these in his dry, understated way, I felt like John Lomax… so, in that spirit, I decided to record him for posterity, and eventually did, though only on a cheap cassette recorder.

The songs are, in their way, typical cowboy/hobo fare, but Omar had a light and philosophical touch that carried over into every aspect of his art. He also kept that western feel through all his years in Cambridge: his White Rabbit comic strip was conceived in the spirit and tradition of Will Rogers, and I wish he was around now to comment on the political craziness — though, wry and pessimistic as he could be at times, I don’t think he would have enjoyed it much.

white-david-omar-1927-2009-usa-the-white-rabbit-political-car-3025769

Along with his three songs, Omar would recite a pair of poems that he’d written in 1948 or ’49. The first went:

Last night in Washington DC
A young man from Kansas blew up the Capitol building,
And when they asked him why he did it,
He said he was just tired of the same old news day after day.
Now, I don’t know what they’re gonna do to him,
But I think they oughta give him
A good cigar, a kick in the ass, and three days in the pokey,
Because if there’s one thing this world needs
It’s for someone to smarten everybody up,
And although he may have gone too far
He sure had the right idea.

Now, way down in Arizona or New Mexico
There’s an Indian tribe that lives
Way down in the Colorado River Canyon
Where it ain’t even been charted yet,
And whenever any poor, stupid son of a bitch
Comes walking in with shoes on his feet,
They all stand around and shoot arrows at him.
I don’t know what it is,
But that sounds funny as hell to me.

The second was shorter:

I bought myself a bushel of beagle pups
Down at the five and dime,
And I put ’em behind the stove to incubate for a while.
And when they grew up
They had long ears and soft eyes,
And bit.

One white-casablanca-muralof the great pleasures of living in Cambridge was hearing those again, during an accidental meeting on the sidewalk or over a cup of coffee. And looking at the murals in the Casablanca and knowing the guy who painted them. I didn’t know him well, but I liked him a lot, and he was always pleased to sing his songs one more time and recite his poems, and seemed pleased that I appreciated them and wanted to preserve them. So here they are.

For more about Omar, check out the online remembrance by David Wilson, publisher of the legendary Broadside of Boston.

Long as It’s Green (George Gritzbach)

I’ve rarely found songs that give equal play to my political and musical tastes, so I was thrilled to hear this one from George Gritzbach. I spent a weekend opening for George at the Caffe gritzbach-lpLena in 1982 or thereabouts, and when I played Leon Rosselson’s “We Sell Everything,” he countered with this one off his Sweeper album. It was a similar piece of writing, a wittily worded satire of capitalist marketing and conspicuous consumption — except that it was cast in a blues framework. Aside from Mose Allison, I hadn’t heard any contemporary artists use blues to comment on political conditions, so I took to it immediately.

I took to George as well. He was a tall, solid, handsome guy who wrote well, played well, talked well, ate well, and drank well, and we hit it off because both of us were similarly cranky about the state of the folk scene, which was increasingly dominated by singer-songwriters — which is to say, generally sub-par poetry readings with guitar accompaniment. Gritz was a solid ragtime-blues guitarist, knew his Gary Davis backwards and forwards, but was also a smart writer who didn’t want to be known as just another blues revivalist. He was feeling inspired by what Waylon and Willie had done in Austin, and wanted to start an “outlaw folk” movement, and he seemed to think I might fit in as a kindred spirit. I was more than happy to go along with that, and he tried to get me booked on a bill with him at the Iron Horse in Northampton, which didn’t work out, then got me a gig opening for Odetta at the First Encounter, his home base on Cape Cod, which was a pleasure.

Along the way I learned a couple more of his songs — “The Sweeper and the Debutante,” a shaggy dog story complete with shaggy dog, and “American Car,” which I still think could have been a hit if he’d done gritzbachit with an electric band, or gotten it into the hands of someone with connections. It was a wryly patriotic rock ‘n’ roller, with the catchy tag line, “Got to go fast, not far — need an American car.”

That came out on Gritz’s next album, All American Song, but with acoustic backing that didn’t do it justice. I sang it for a while, along with yet another topical offering, “Off the Wall Street Blues,” which started, “Wall Street fell again today — look out below!” Then I lost track of him. He was still on the Cape, as far as I could figure out, but there were problems of one kind and another, and my attempts to reconnect hit some dead ends, and that was that.

Thirty-some years later, I still play this song and still recall George with affection and admiration. I just looked up his fan page on the internet, and he seems to be going strong, fronting an electric rhythm & blues band and working regularly on the Cape. I wonder if he still does this one… it sure hasn’t lost any of its timeliness.