When I got back from Europe toward the end of 1979, I set out to make a reputation on the US folk scene. It was exhaustingly slow going, but Dave Van Ronk was helpful as ever and gave me an enthusiastic introduction to Len Rothenberg, who had a club in Cambridge called the Idler. The result was a couple of gigs opening for Paul Geremia and then for John Koerner. I don’t remember anything significant about what I, Paul, or John played, but after one of those gigs a small, quiet guy came up and introduced himself. He said his name was Bill Morrissey and Dave had told him to check me out, and invited me to come see him when he played the Idler in a couple of weeks.
So I did, and it was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen.
For people who didn’t see Bill perform at the dawn of the 1980s, it is impossible to convey what he did onstage. In a lot of ways the shows were similar to what he did for packed clubs and concert halls after writing a couple of sappy romantic songs and getting national radio play ten years later. But in other ways, they were utterly different. He was fresh off the New Hampshire bar circuit, and had developed a show that would kill in a smoky, noisy bar where the patrons had come to talk with each other while some kid with a guitar sang Simon and Garfunkel or Beatles songs in the background.
Bill would mesmerize those bar crowds, playing whole sets of original songs. His method was to intersperse comic monologues that were ferocious, smart, nasty, insightful and passionately local with songs that were about the kinds of folks who were listening — and who had never heard anyone actually sing about their world. He wrote about dead-end lives in New England mill towns from the inside, with infinite empathy, moments of wary optimism, and a lot of dogged fatalism. (Along with this song, check out “Oil Money” and “Soldier’s Pay.”) He once told me that bar owners loved him, because his sad songs made the guys switch from beer to whiskey and his perky songs gave them the energy to get up and order another.
The perky songs tended to be equally inside and local, for instance “My Baby and Me“:
Baby’s wearing make-up, got on Chanel Number Five,
Put on a dress with a little frill.
I’ve got a jacket and a tie, I splashed on some Hoppe’s Number Nine,
I guess you could say I was dressed to kill.
Bill’s masterpiece at that point was “Small Town on the River,” which he always introduced as a fictional history of Newmarket, New Hampshire. It blew me away when he played it that first night, but pretty much everything about that night blew me away and I only realized how good it was a couple of months later, when I discovered that after hearing him sing it three or four times at live shows I knew it all the way through. That’s never happened to me before or since — five verses of dense poetry, stuck in my head because they were so perfectly crafted that each line led to the next, inevitably and unforgettably.
Bill and I spent a lot of time together over the next few years, drinking and talking late into the night, kidding around, listening to music, and eventually forming a record company and producing each other’s first albums. As an artist, he was striking not only for his talent but for his diligence: I remember him spending almost a month writing the song “Barstow,” sitting at the typewriter every morning for several hours, writing and throwing away and writing some more, and eventually coming downstairs and singing it for us.
So one day I was doing an interview on WERS and got to talking about Bill, and I went on a long peroration about the amount of hard work he put into his art, and as an example said, “I mean, a song like ‘Small Town on the River’ doesn’t just pop into your head as you’re walking down the street.”
A few minutes after I got home, the phone rang and it was Bill. “Thanks for what you said on the radio,” he said. “And you’re right, but… I’ve got to tell you: I made up ‘Small Town’ while driving into town to get cigarettes, and I’ve never changed a word.”
(One note, which Bill always provided when he sang this: the P.A.C., mentioned in the last verse, was the Polish American Club in Newmarket, where he liked to drink and shoot pool and listen to the old guys’ stories.)