This story begins outside the Watercolor Cafe in Larchmont NY in about 2009. I had seen Bill Morrissey before, so I recognized him standing outside the door smoking a cig. I said, “Hi Bill,” and made brief eye contact. He looked. I nodded. He had no reason to recognize me. I would be a face at a table and another ten bucks in his pocket at the end of the night. I guess I wanted it that way. We went inside.
His thumb that night was like a sure footed mule on a mountain path. The melody emerged miraculously from his croaky voice. He sang about the woman who put birch on the fire instead of oak to trade heat for time. He sang about stealing a pen from the grave of Baudelaire to write a song. He sang about meeting Charlie Parker and James Dean in heaven. He sang about how the rail yard in Barstow, California on a winter night sounded like a drunk in a metal shop. He sang about wanting to take a woman home to dance the grizzly bear. He sang about an itinerant singer waiting for the 2 AM bus to the next gig:
Well thirty years goin’ down by degrees
Thirty years of thank you and please
‘Til all you get is the smoker’s cough and the alcohol disease
Little children sing this song
I shifted in my seat. Thank you and please. His thumb kept going. Going down by degrees. I told myself it was just a song.
Last week we went to the Watercolor to hear another act. The next day I thought about Bill Morrissey. I looked him up on the Internet and found him dead. He had died alone on July 23 in a hotel room in Georgia. On tour. Heart attack. Age 59. They had already done the memorial concert.
My wife asked me what, “Little children sing this song,” meant in Bill’s Thirty Years lyric. Good question. It might’ve been simple bitter irony. Juxtaposition of the narator’s experience with the naïveté of a nursery rhyme. Or maybe an admonishment to learn from another’s experience.
I went back to the Watercolor again last night. There were six people in the audience, including me. It was pouring rain out. The slide guitar and the harmonica worked expertly against each other. I wasn’t all there. One can’t listen to Bill Morrissey attentively without being changed. I had been.
For some people I’ve known who have died, a simple goodbye is enough. Bill Morrissey was not one of those, but that’s all that’s left. Goodbye Bill.
[The picture above is by Dan Tappan. It originally appeared here and I have re-published it above under Dan's Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike license. Thanks, Dan!]