Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Fantasy Meets Reality

Sunday night, I have been looking forward to this one for months. I was going to see one of my favorite artists perform. The place The Stone Church a small intimate setting in a town that could have been plucked off the front of a Currier and Ives Christmas card. Narrow streets lined with hundred-year-old mill building now turned into tastefully landscaped condos. Small shops catering to whimsical creations beautifully lit to attract the early Christmas shoppers. The perfect setting to see Bill Morrissey, a two time Grammy nominated folk singer that resides in a picturesque town not far from my own here in New Hampshire. I guess having him so close by further solidifies my solidarity with him. He sings of small town life and the struggles of the average “Joe”, the Birches that are so common place here of love lost, found and damaged to its root, all the things common to my life. His alliterations in Party at the UN will make you laugh out loud. He can send you into a tail spin when he takes his old dog out behind the barn with a borrowed 22 on These Cold Fingers. I discovered Bill about 2 years ago although he has been busy since the early 80’s. Although I have lived in NH since 1972 I had never heard of him until I ran across his music by chance.

When I purchased the tickets I was giddy. Not unlike my trip to see Lindsey Buckingham. Lindsey amazes me with his guitar work but Bill does this with his words. I took my mom with me she likes folk music. We rode to Newmarket in her VW Bug and we listened to Bill all the way there. She hadn’t heard him before so I pointed out those lyrics that to me were poignant, “Strangers don’t do favors and nothing comes for free you gotta pay for everything, it’s just with different currency” or “There’s only so much snow and cold that you can take, so many strangers eyes before you have to get yourself back home and fill your family full of lies” “He said you know this rides a trade-off”, she says “Yea, isn’t everything?” Powerful words for me and the life I lived in my twenties and those things I did that are still partitioned off in my mind. Things I could never tell some of my friends never mind telling my folks. His sense of loss and damage touches me. Perhaps part of me wanted to share some of those things with my mom without admitting he was singing about me. I wonder if she got it? She didn’t say and I didn’t ask.

We arrived an hour before the show, enough time to have a bite; they have a nice little kitchen there too. I had Curry with shrimp. It was great. Mom had the nachos. We chatted about family situations, Thanksgiving and she mentioned wanting to take a road trip to Alaska and not wanting to travel that far alone. My mind raced frantically to come up with a way to back out of having to being her traveling companion. This concert will be one of the biggest chunks of time I have spent with my mom alone in quite some time; years in fact. It’s better for us that way, sad but true. Bill was due on stage at 7:00pm. We were the 2nd couple there. I had ordered tickets on line in the first moments they went on sale, we were seated practically on stage. I couldn’t have been more pleased. Finally a stagehand placed two guitars on stage; Bill appeared in the doorway. I had known he had put himself in rehab last winter to try and get a grip on his drinking. I was unprepared for the wisp of a man that now stood in front of us. No, I had never seen him in person before. I had only album covers and his website pictures to go by. His Manager Ellen, who also happens to be his ex-wife, spoke of how much better he was looking since he stopped drinking. He gained back some weight and had color in his cheeks again. He was feeling healthy. I wondered how bad he had looked then! He wore faded green Dickey workpants speckled with stains. A pinstriped green collared shirt coved by an LL Bean fleece that had more dog hair on it than the floor of a kennel. His hair was much too long for a man his age and was askew under the tattered, grimy baseball cap. What really threw me were his eyes. They no longer contained a pupil and an iris. They had seeped into each other creating a dark deep hole, not light seemed to penetrate. They were deep, dark and flat. No glimmer of the man I imagined had penned, “ Fix your hair the way you used to”. I have always been someone who notices hands, so much so that my parents bought me a photography book of hands once for Christmas. As he picked up his guitar and started to pick out the notes of his first song, “Inside” my eyes were drawn to his hands. His fingernails on his picking hand understandably long, almost as long as mine, were grimy from the strings, enough so you might think he was a mechanic not a musician. The skin on his fingers was transparent and papery. His fingers were narrow and bone thin; hands of an 80 year old, much to old for his 56 years. He looked like he had been released on a work detail from the local jail. He didn’t look like a Grammy Award Nominee by a long shot.

His first notes were sweet though. His crackly, cagey voice so familiar to me from hours of listening made me smile. He winked as I mouthed each word, yes we were that close to him. Two more song and another musician joined him on stage. His name oddly enough was Cormack McCarthy. He is a superb harmonica player who just happenes to have the same name as the famous writer.. He and Bill bantered back and forth performing 3 or so songs together, they had played together for years. Bill reminisced about when they toured with Johnny Cunningham, the famous Scottish fiddler in his best Scottish accent, "We played at a convention in Austin, Texas, and he spent most of the night teaching the members of a punk band how to drink," he said. The next afternoon, when their tour bus arrived in Houston, a harp festival was in progress at the venue at which they were to play that night. "There were about 11 harps on stage," said Morrissey, and the musicians asked if Mr. Cunningham would honor them by sitting in. Mr. Cunningham was back in the bus sleeping off the previous night's excess. Morrissey woke him. Mr. Cunningham quickly got dressed and stepped out from his hangover and onto the stage. "I'm not at my best," he explained to the audience in his thick Scottish accent. "I had 36 margaritas last night. I was lying in me bunk and heard this beautiful harp music and I thought me liver had gone out for good this time." (Boston Globe-2003) We all laughed loudly. Bill did one more song after Cormack took his leave and then a short intermission.

Returning to the stage Bill seemed tentative, almost timid of being there alone and unsure about what was he should do next. He told a few more stories, read, more like stumbled through the first paragraph of his book Edson and sang a few of his new songs off his Come Running cd. He told us of the evolution of By The Grave of Baudelaire which was amusing. As he sang I watched his face and singing style noticing some words seemed to hang up in his throat and he would squinch up his face as he forced them out into the air. He seemed to have to force his concentration too. By this time it was close to 10pm and he began to forget the words to some of his older songs. His playing faltered and his speech would trail off like it was chasing after his thoughts. By the end of the show, he simply apologized for being almost 56.

I met him in the back where he was hoping to peddle some of his stuff. I told him I wanted the copy of Edson he read from and he graciously made it out to me and signed his name. Sadly there were less than 30 people in attendance and his ticket price was an insulting $15.00 a head. At least I feel he should have been insulted. That’s not much for a Grammy Nominee.

I am not sure how to express how my heart feels about having seen this man, this legend in my mind, the frail shell of what he must have been to have written and given birth to beautiful tender songs I know so well. I can only say, it makes me sad that this man who has touched me so may not be around for much longer. This is the feeling I have.

His rehab may have been to late.


dive said...

Prudence, this had me in tears. I love his music, thanks to you and I can only hope he does a John Hiatt and comes out of the alcoholic ruins stronger and better.

My heart skipped a beat when he winked at you. And you got to meet him backstage and you now have the book he read to you from. I'm smiling through the tears.

Thank you so much for this. I'm heading up to bed now but will put The Essential Bill Morrissey on the bedroom stereo until I drift off to sleep.
I wish him well and hope that the rehab caught him just in time.

Dear Prudence said...

Dive, I am still trying to sort out my feelings. He really affected me. I want to go to his house and take care of him. That is the kind of shape he is in.
Also, the book is a first edition. It is so NH and mentions so many of the towns around here.

Maria said...

Whew. I read the thanksgiving comment and was all prepared for you to write a scathing review of Bill Clinton.

Imagine my relief.....

And yes, you wrote so movingly about such a great man. He is one of Bing's favorites....