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 of 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.
I 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 I 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.