Liner Note | White Russians and gay bars, poets and songwriters, Hollywood dreams and lo-fidelity…
Remembering Jason Morphew’s “Holding Merle Haggard” (LP reissue linear notes)
To celebrate Jason Morphew’s twenty-sixth birthday, I brought mixings for White Russians to his place at the base of the Hollywood Hills. It was a joke that sure tasted good. At the time, we were both engaged in the same quest — to penetrate Los Angeles’s entertainment-industrial complex. We were young men on the make. Fortunately both of us are only semi-competent schemers, disinterested in the exacting mechanics of fame. So eventually we both quit that kind of scheming, with varying degrees of failure and disillusionment. We embraced our fate as dreamers, a less lucrative pursuit, but one that’s more satisfying in the end.
Well before that, I first met Jason in a university basement. He was strumming his tragic acoustic and singing the name Jesus. Next came a song about Merle Haggard. At the time, I thought there was a difference.
Later there would be mysterious disappearances…a request for my notes from art history class…rumors of a broken heart. Then, one day, a rough-hewn cassette arrived in the mail filled with these songs. I was intrigued by this music — its distance, its presence, its hiss and vigor. And I was intrigued by the man who made it. Listening to it again, today, it gives me the same feelings — those actual feelings, mind you, not a simulacra thereof.
I ended up duplicating that cassette several hundred times, spreading it like an audio chapbook. For the first time in a long while, you and few hundred other souls have the opportunity to hear it for the first time.
It helps to travel back to 1995. Elliott Smith had yet to issue his self-titled debut. Conor Oberst and Jason were peers in the same cassette underground. At the time, Oberst would have been considered the more obscure songwriter. Point being, listening to Jason’s songs today, one might wonder if he was imitating these folks — their intimate, confessional style; their lo-fidelity origins. But I’m here to tell you he was a contemporary, quite possibly an inspiration.
Over the years I’ve come to appreciate that Jason does things these artists cannot do. He’s not a tragic case running toward suicide; his romantic self-indulgence is not adolescent in nature. Jason knows things like adults know them — things about mutually assured romantic self-destruction, about real country music, about the unique qualities of female river love — the endless flow, the snaking turns it takes.
Jason plunges into its depths where others splash around in the shallows.
I wish I could re-live the days I first came to know Jason. A cross-country trip with our mutual friend Krissy…a midsummer idyll in Arkansas…a 38 Special/Lynard Skynard concert in downtown Little Rock…a sky dotted with confederate flags…BBQ on the outskirts of town…a photo session posing with the porcine bust of Bill Clinton in front of the state house…a bar with more beers on tap than any place in the state…an introduction to Rod, the soon-to-be gubernatorial candidate…an impromptu performance by Jason, opening for an alt-country band at a pizza restaurant…a trip downtown to a warehouse complex of cavernous, after hours gay clubs where the straights all went when the regular bars closed…dancing side-by-side with the trannies and the fags and the on-leave military men…wondering about the contents of the Viagra shot specials…waking up to see empty beer cans lined up under the bed.
Some people live more poetic lives than other people.
Recently, Jason moved to a serene patch of farmland in Winters, California. The details change but the essence remains the same. I visited a few months ago. Earlier that day I’d narrowly escaped a vicious beating at a tow truck depot in downtown San Francisco. My weekend in the country was restorative to put it mildly. That’s because, in Jason’s world, you pick fresh pomegranates and grapefruits and almonds from the front yard each morning…walk the ruler straight roads for miles in each direction…spend afternoons reading novels as you bake in the sun…stroll the burnt out lawn playing that beloved acoustic guitar. At one point, I watched him swing a scythe in all directions just to feel its weight in his hands.
Jason’s moved on since Holding Merle Haggard had its initial release. These days he’s as much a writer-poet as a singer-songwriter. But is there really a difference?
Over the years, Jason has taught me many valuable lessons. My favorite is that one should always travel with three books at the ready because you never know what mood might strike. One should be fiction, another should be non-, and a third should be filled with poesy. Preferably one of those should be Shakespeare. I’m not sure what category Shakespeare falls under, but isn’t that the point? To torture this metaphor, I imagine Jason still travels with three books at the ready, but also some music, always unsure which mood might strike.
Written in Brooklyn, New York — March 2007. Originally published on May 29, 2007.
Coda: Someone out there loved ‘Holding Merle Haggard’ enough they covered the whole thing. Here it is: