Birches – Bill Morrissey: A Married Couple’s Love Song
Birches – A Married Couple’s Love Song
Written and performed by Bill Morrissey
In his song, “Casey, Illinois,” Bill Morrissey sings, “Now I’m not young in a young man’s game,” a sad truth; playing and listening to rock music favors the young. The quintessential rock music still flows from Elvis’s braggadocio and broken heart rhythm and blues and Chuck Berry’s car songs. We grow excited about that new young band (Kings of Leon, anyone) and often forget or shake our heads over the Stones in their 60’s still trying to rock and roll. Many of the best artists have continued to produce as they enter their senior years and their audience ages too.
Yet much of the best music comes from older artist dealing with themes of maturity and much of the audience has aged too. Think of Dylan’s recent work – perhaps more resonant that anything he has ever written. Neil Young still thrashes about trying to make sense of the world as he sees it while Van Morrison still seeks his vision, only not as a young man would. Springsteen’s movie song, “The Wrestler,” grapples with finding victory in accepting one’s fate. Dylan’s song “Red River Shore” – arguably one of his best ever – may make no sense for the 20-year-old college student who lacks the experiences to understand, but it resonates with sadness and recognition to the older listener.
Bill Morrissey’s “Birches,” a love song as moving as any you will hear, stands as an example of a song that the young man or woman may not comprehend, but will rivet the middle age man or woman as it captures the small defeats and victories that infuse a marriage. Those familiar with Morrissey know the intricate craftsmanship that goes into his story-songs: concise, rich and telling details. Others have likened him to minimalist short-story writers like Raymond Carver, though the better comparison seems to be Andre Dubus given the New England settings, the deep empathy for their characters and the underlying spiritual dimensions in their work.
There’s no throat clearing in “Birches,” the narration drops us right into the middle of a marriage:
They sat at each end of the couch, watched as the fire burned down,
So quiet on this winter’s night, not a house light on for miles around.
Then he said, “I think I’ll fill the stove. It’s getting time for bed.”
She looked up, “I think I’ll have some wine. How ’bout you?” She asked and he declined.
The lonely pair left on this cold night with no one but each other, the distance between them on the couch seemingly as vast as the darkness of the night. They’re more than tired, maybe even worn out. Yet the wife tries to find a spark, inviting her husband to share a drink – the wine of love, the wine of life. Morrissey tersely captures the result, “She asked and he declined.”
In the next three verses, Morrissey introduces the metaphor on which he builds the song:
“Warren,” she said, “maybe just for tonight,
Let’s fill the stove with birches and watch as the fire burns bright.
How long has it been? I know it’s quite a while.
Pour yourself half a glass. Stay with me a little while.”
And Warren, he shook his head, as if she’d made some kind of joke.
“Birches on a winter night? no, we’ll fill the stove with oak.
Oak will burn as long and hot as a July afternoon,
And birch will burn itself out by the rising of the moon.
“And you hate a cold house, same as me. Am I right or not?”
“All right, all right, that’s true,” she said. “It was just a thought.”
But she said, “Warren, you do look tired. Maybe you should go up to bed.
I’ll look after the fire tonight.” “Oak,” he told her. “Oak,” she said.
She’s yearning for the fire brought on by the birch, the early, raging, passionate flames of their love. All couples are cursed with the memories of those early days when they rushed to see each other and dawdled on the phone just to hear the other’s voice, their love-making frantic, the world seemingly clearer, crisper and more alive.
He’s the more solid and stolid, dismissive of her quirks and childish desire for what they can no longer have. He’s practical; he knows what they need to make it through the night. “Oak will burn long and hot.” It is easy to dismiss the husband as we the listeners want that same passion, the same magic that the wife dreams of in the song. Warren – even is name is old and unexciting – puts her straight. She relents because she knows he’s right or maybe she simply doesn’t want to fight. “Oak,” he told her. “Oak,” she said.
Our emotions –our hearts, if you will – do not exist on reason. They need some fantasy, they need some hope. Warren makes for bed, leaving his wife alone with her memories and yearnings.
She listened to his footsteps as he climbed up the stairs,
And she pulled a sweater on her, set her wineglass on a chair.
She walked down cellar to the wood box — it was as cold as an ice chest —
And climbed back up with four logs, each as white as a wedding dress.
Morrissey captures these moments with great flair and gravity. Of course, she’s cold and pulls on the sweater, but she remains determined. The birch is down the basement, which is “cold as an ice chest,” as if the hopes and passions inherent in the birch have died and been put on ice. She fills her arms carrying the woods upstairs as if carrying a sacrifice or maybe the wood for a pyre. The simile linking of the logs to their young love – each as white as a wedding dress – can break your heart.
And she filled the stove and poured the wine and then she sat down on the floor.
She curled her legs beneath her as the fire sprang to life once more.
And it filled the room with a hungry light and it cracked as it drew air,
And the shadows danced a jittery waltz like no one else was there.
In that cold living room, more than the fire springs to life. The light is hungry as her desire is ravenous and where once there was silence, now there’s crackling energy. The shadows take on their own life and seem to beckon her to join their “jittery waltz.” She rises to meet them and is transfigured:
And she stood up in the heat. She twirled around the room.
And the shadows they saw nothing but a young girl on her honeymoon.
And she knew the time it would be short; the fire would start to fade.
By keeping the lines simple and not overburdening them, Morrissey allows the starkness to slice into our emotions. Who cannot relate to the girl whose steps transform her once again to the “young girl on her honeymoon”? The gap between her life today and her memory of whom she and Warren once were almost overwhelms. We can picture her as a shadow, full of life and an ephemeral presence, lasting only as long as the birches can burn. She knows the moment cannot last, yet she dances and twirls, her spirit lifting and ours rise with her.
In the last line, she comes to term with her life and her love:
She thought of heat. She thought of time. She called it an even trade.
I’ve been listening to this song since it came out on the album Night Train released back in 1993. I long thought the song sad, ending in defeat. The wife can remember when their love sparkled, but she gives up on the hope that she will ever feel that way again.
Now I hear it differently. True, the wife cannot forget how Warren made her feel as a young bride, the lightness and energy experienced when they would dance and he would place his hands on her waist, to lift her higher or draw her near for a kiss. Yet she also understands the man she has now, the nature of their love, no longer burning as bright, but lasting and keeping her warm. In the darkness and isolation that the world can present, she has Warren and the lights and warmth of their relationship. It is not the storybook romance or frenzied crush she experienced all those years ago. She may yearn to feel that way again – who doesn’t? – but she understands the meaning and need for the long-lasting love that provides warmth against the darkness all around her. The birches may burn bright and beautiful, but the oak can provide warmth across a life. We cannot have both and the memory of the young love may forever scar the remaining love, but, “she called it an even trade.”
Bill Morrissey remains one of the best songwriters working today and I am surprised that other artists haven’t covered his songs more often. His songs can be terribly sad, though he flashes great humor (check out “Letter from Heaven”) as well. He touches on the theme of second love and older love in many of his songs. You might track down, “Off White,” (you can buy it here) which tells of a couple each getting married for a second time (‘just me in my suit while I waltz you around/And you in your off-white dress”):
We both were married
We both were young
We both made our mistakes
We know how it feels both when love is real
And when a heart truly breaks
The last verse concludes with the lines:
Maybe you weren’t my first
The way I wasn’t yours
But the last love is the sweetest of all
Bill Morrissey tours and you can find upcoming dates as well as additional information at his website. You can buy his albums through the website. A fan maintains a Bill Morrissey website here. Click here for a good interview with him. Peter Blackstock wrote an insightful album review for Something I Saw or Thought I Saw in No Depression. You can read a brief biography here.
His novel, Edson, emanates from the same source of many of Morrissey’s songs. Set in an old New England mill town, it tells the tale of a struggling songwriter trying to make sense of his life. It makes for a worthy read. You can buy it at Amazon here.