John Morse plays acoustic guitar like Jerry Lee Lewis plays piano. His energy defies the very definition of the instrument, overriding its physical limitations by shear will alone. I caught up with Morse last Saturday night at Kielty’s in Waterford on a solo gig. The 43-year-old rocker’s ubiquitous presence on the Troy music scene has defined the Trojan sound (if there is such a thing) for 25 years. In front of perhaps 20 casual Saturday night patrons whose requests ranged from Jimmy Buffet to Pink Floyd, Morse slapped, slid, and pummeled his instrument, plugging the unplugged to electrify his audience and command their attention.
“I didn’t expect I’d live past 27,” admits the barely contained ball of energy that is Johnny Morse. “So, at 43, I’m ahead of the game.” His eyes looked like cats eye marbles in a pool of motor oil. He’d just come off a three-day bender he admits was spent downing whiskey to a George Jones greatest hits CD in rotation with other country weepers. Morse’s personal life has always been a blur in the background of a bright rock and roll comet streaking across the local music scene. The details of his soap opera are almost irrelevant to his flame in the sky, but you know he’s going to crash eventually. One just hopes that he becomes Keith Richards and not Keith Ledger.
His enthusiasm is as infectious as his music. He hosts two open mics a week, Wednesdays as Kielty’s and Thursdays at The Tugboat Tavern in Cohoes. He’s long had the John Morse Band, and five months ago he formed Starstruck, a new group mining the same field that England’s Thin Lizzy held in the ’70s, garage rock and a punk attitude with savoir faire. He started the band when drummer Danny McCann revealed he’d been writing a lot of material. “I said, ‘What good is it if you’re not doin’ anything? You’re not getting’ out and playin’ it, you know?’”
After four rehearsals, Starstruck opened at Northern Lights for Dokken, a band that did for ’80s hair bands what Queen had done for classic rock. A couple of the guys in Starstruck were upset when they didn’t get to do an encore. Morse told them they should be flattered. “Don’t get bummed out,” he said. “Take it as a compliment. They wouldn’t let us do one more song. That means they’re worried.”
Since then, the fledgling group has shared stages with Blue Oyster Cult, Blackfoot, and Pat Travers whose 1980 hit “Snortin’ Whiskey” bragged about a lifestyle Travers, now in his mid-50s, no longer shares with Morse. “He doesn’t drink anymore,” says Morse about Travers. “So, he’s a little leery of me.” Teasingly I say to Morse that I’m sure he wouldn’t try to lead his colleague down the road to perdition. “No, not me,” says Morse in mock seriousness. “If he made it through it, and he’s still alive, God bless him.” Apparently, Travers is recording an album with high profile Steve Thompson who produced Gun ’n Roses’ Appetite for Destruction. “Maybe that’ll give him a plug to push him back (onto the charts), and then I won’t be hearing from him anymore.”
There is a sense of resignation in Morse’s voice. On one level, he’s done what few from the area have accomplished and that is make a living playing classic rock four nights a week within a 20-mile radius for a quarter century. He’s outlasted two owners at The Tugboat Tavern with an unusually pliant attitude. “I guess I just work with (club) owners, you know? If they’re having a terrible night, it’s not worth it for me to sit there and play all night and expect full pay. If it’s not worth it to them, it’s not worth is to me. So, it’s kind of like Let’s Make a Deal at the end of the night.”
Last Saturday night, Morse sang a Tom Waits song about Jersey girls that he said Bruce Springsteen covered, commenting how good the song had to be for Springsteen to want to do it. Like Springsteen, Morse is so in the now, as if this moment, this song, this lyric, this plea is his last shot at defining his musical emotion before the end of the world. By the same token, he tells his audience that Starstruck on April 4th is opening for Bret Michaels, Poison’s lead singer and star of the VH1 reality series Rock of Love at Northern Lights. “He tours around with two buses full of (naughty ladies) that try to be his girlfriend,” says Morse. “I might be jumping on one of those buses.”
What: John Morse
When: Every Wednesday and Thursday
Where: Wednesday at Kielty’s, 39 Broad Street in Waterford and Thursdays at The Tugboat Tavern, Bridge Ave., Cohoes