Smoky-voiced troubador Frank Morey paints portraits of the locals he's known in Lowell, Mass., and turns them into all-American stories with a perfect eye for detail and ear for language.
By JOSHUA TANZER
Frank Morey's songs sung in a gravelly, smoky, boozy voice that reminds many people of Tom Waits feel like a deep, old species of folk music, although they never blatantly raise the ghost of Woody Guthrie or Leadbelly. What connects them with the past, the people, the earth itself, is that they're not necessarily made for VH-1 or some Tower Records in Tallahassee. They're local and personal, rooted in a specific place, Lowell, Mass., and the people who live there. They could almost have been written before railroads and radio.
Whether everybody in his hometown has an oddball story or Morey just has an eye for details and a good imagination, his songs are populated by people such as you might meet at your own local diner or tavern, only a little more vivid. Coming from such a specific place somehow makes these characters real and all-American, like the people who haunt William Kennedy's Albany or Larry McMurtry's small-town Texas. They're the people who married their high school sweethearts, used to have factory jobs when there were factories, fool around although they know they'll get caught, and invest their rent money every month at the track.
|Frank Morey (guitar, vocals, harmonica)|
Scott Pittman (drums)
Joe "Tub" Faria (bass, etc.).
Related links: Official site
| MERCHANDISE FOR SALE |
|Available from CDBaby.com:|
| AUDIO |
|Barflies, Dead Dreams and Rivers of Whiskey Lies || RA|| MP3|
|Chinese New Year || RA|| MP3|
|My Baby's Havin' My Baby || RA|| MP3|
|Slick and Mary Lou || RA|| MP3|
|Uncle Lefty's Lament || RA|| MP3|
| © 2000, 2002 Frank Morey. Used by permission.|
"You can sit down in some bar in Lowell and there's going to be somebody in that place that you couldn't invent," Morey says. "They're beautiful and crazy and for some reason they all want to sit next to me."
One of the best songs, "Uncle Lefty's Lament" (hear it on RealAudio or MP3), is about a slightly weary old-timer growing out of middle age probably on a barstool. As Lefty tells it:
Got an education in Vietnam,
Got me a degree in penicillin and artillery.
Got some Oscar award-winning nightmares,
Got hallucinations Timothy Leary would envy.
And I know I killed one man,
But I get credit for wastin' seven.
And I look forward to lay my heavy head
Down in heaven.
By the end of the song, we know this grizzled but proud American pretty well. He's got rules to live by ("Never joke about Jesus Christ . . . Try not to curse around ladies or babies"), connections in town ("I got friends in Appleton Street and City Hall I know a dealer sold the mayor a lemon"), and a sense of humor ("I'm a sucker for Italian girls and food but I only drink and drive American").
Lowell also happens to have been Jack Kerouac's hometown, and it's not obvious but the Beat Generation legend seems to be a presence in this music. In fact, the first time I saw Morey play (I had just wandered into the Living Room to kill half an hour, having no idea who was this fella with the guitar, harmonica and cigarette, looking like he's 25 and singing like he's 65), he introduced a song by asking if there were any Kerouac fans in the audience. I raised my hand.
"Yeah," Morey muttered. "Folks in Lowell don't care for Kerouac too much."
|"You can sit down in some bar in Lowell and there's going to be somebody in that place that you couldn't invent. They're beautiful and crazy and for some reason they all want to sit next to me."|| |
| Frank Morey|| |
The reason, as it turns out, has nothing to do with literature. It's local and personal.
"It's a funny thing," he explains now, "because there's people who might have been envious of him. He wasn't working every day. He was living off royalties and he was drunk every day notorious for bar tabs. People would say, 'This guy's got all this money but where's the tab? Where's the tip?' "
What Morey has in common with Kerouac is, if not the bar tabs, this: Once one of the beats was asked how great it was to go out and do crazy stuff with Kerouac. And the answer was that Kerouac wasn't the guy at the center of the craziness he was the one watching everyone else and writing down what they do. Frank Morey has that streak in him too watching, absorbing, and describing the scene around him with a special kind of passion for people.
Another thread that runs through Morey's lyrics is a fatalistic reverence for God that must be natural when you grow up Irish in a massively Catholic place like the Boston area. These characters grow up with the fear of God but it's like the fear of lung cancer it's going to get them someday, and they could do the right thing about it but they know they won't. They're forever saying things like "I say my prayers in hopes that they'll save me" and "Got two hands for prayer and a nose for sin" the words of people with one eye on salvation and one foot in hell.
Morey jokes that he's not sure he's a real Irish Catholic anymore. "I was on my way out the door with my guitars and I heard this music on the TV, and it was the Five Blind Boys of Alabama," he says. "So I realized that I'm really a Baptist."
Just in case all of these songs sound grim and hopeless, they're not. One very sweet song is "Slick and Mary Lou" (RealAudio, MP3), a portrait of a working-class couple with failings and humble aspirations but a lifetime of true love between them. And there's the happy and funny "My Baby's Havin' My Baby" (RealAudio, MP3), in which a downright euphoric papa-to-be ticks off all the things he wants to do now that there's a baby on the way and life is about to change forever.
Hide the scotch in the bookshelf,
Hide the ashtray too.
Throw away all the girlie magazines,
Have the girlie tattoos removed . . .
Trade the bike for a wagon,
Tell the boys at the bar
Tell ma quit your naggin',
Get a shitload of dime cigars
Turn the dining room into a bedroom
'Cause my baby is havin' my baby!
If the music business were set up to reward talent, Frank Morey would be that guy flashing cash around the streets of Lowell. From something as small as the turn of an unexpected phrase to something as big as understanding the soul of a community, there's probably not a better songwriter around. But like the people he writes about, Morey has expectations scaled to his circumstances. He'd just like to reach enough of an audience to make a living and know people are listening.
"I've been hustling for a few years where I've been trying to get some notice from someplace," he says. "I come from a blue-collar background where I just want to work, so I just want to be able to play in a bar and sell some CDs."
"I'm out to have a good time," he says. "I have no pipe dreams or nothin'."
|APRIL 10, 2002|
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