Soldier’s Pay (Bill Morrissey)

Bill Morrissey wrote this around 1982, but it never worked the way he wanted onstage, so he pretty much left it to me, and I only performed it  occasionally when I had the right audience. It’s like a Raymond Carver story set to music, the kind of songwriting Bill did best, but not, as he liked to say, “perky.”

It worked best late at night,  sitting around with people who were the right age and had the right experiences. I particularly remember a night in Lincoln, Nebraska, with Paul Moss and my ex-half-sister-in-law Hazel. Paul and Dixie Moss had hosted a concert for me in their Sears-Roebuck southern mansion gone to seed, but I didn’t play this until afterwards, when the whiskey was gone and just the three of us were still up, and Paul listened in rapt silence, with tears running down his cheeks.

So I put it on my LP, which Bill produced (we had a record company together and produced each other’s records, though the producing was mostly just a matter of moral support). But, much as I liked it, it didn’t fit with the other stuff I was doing, so I don’t think I performed it after that recording, and Bill never recorded it, and the result is that virtually no one has heard it, and that bothers me, because I still think it is some of his best writing.

In hindsight it’s at least partly about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but we didn’t know that term back then. Back then it was just a sketch of a couple in a trailer park or a guy Bill saw sitting in one of the bars in Newmarket, a sequel to his masterpiece about veterans from the previous war, “Small Town on the River.

Thirty-plus years later, it feels to me like it’s also about Bill, and I have to assume he thought of it that way at some level, or at least was aware of his kinship with George. He hadn’t been in the Marines, but he had some of that deep hurt and the urge to sit quietly with a beer — though in his case it didn’t keep him from working. When he wrote this he was living with Jeff McLaughlin a few blocks from me in Cambridge, or maybe had just moved out to Bedford with his first wife, Lisa, and and he would get up every morning and sit at the typewriter for several hours writing, and every couple of weeks would come up with a song he thought was good enough to play for anybody. He’d write and write, and edit and edit, and he was a damn good writer and a ruthless editor, and I admired his work ethic as much as his talent.

We’d all grown up on Hemingway, and knew that you wrote in themorning and didn’t have a drink until you were done for the day — for Hemingway, that was lunchtime; for Bill, when The Waltons came on in the afternoon. And maybe I’m projecting backwards when I suggest he felt a strong kinship with the hero of this song, because I don’t actually remember Bill being quietly sad in those days. He’d get bitter sometimes, because he’d been working at music for a dozen years and knew how good he was and was still pumping gas to pay the rent. But he had plenty of energy and was funny as hell, and those were good times.

(If you want another taste of Bill around that time — actually, a couple of years earlier, but it overlapped — check out the reminiscence by Ann Joslin Williams, his partner back when we started hanging out — though she was in New Hampshire and I was in Cambridge, and I don’t think we ever met.)