His are songs that aim high, that might evoke the mind-set of a Dalton Trumbo or last thoughts of Henry James, put words to the images of surreal silent-film pioneer Hans Richter or ponder the cross dressing Swedish Queen Christina. It’s storytelling song craft that seasoned music critics compare favorably to the eccentric best of Randy Newman, Warren Zevon, Loudon Wainwright, Harry Nilsson, Gary Brooker (Procol Harum), Tom Waits and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen. But let’s be real, people. It’s also stuff that the kids buying music today don’t understand — or give a hoot about.
Morsberger has therefore made ends meet by playing piano and writing/arranging for other artists — from scoring and performing science-themed ditties for the PBS “Nova” series to fleshing out string arrangements for a soon-to-be-released Patti Smith album.
At least, he was doing all that. Ever since the fateful day last fall when excruciating headaches sent him to New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, and a most malignant, Stage 4 cancerous tumor was discovered and removed from his brain, Morsberger has been focusing “almost exclusively” on his own career, on “the work that gives me pleasure.”
He’s just finished a song cycle with good buddy Brad Roberts, the distinguished voice of Crash Test Dummies. Tentatively titled “Midnight Garden” (or maybe “He Heard a Melody,” both song titles from the set), the work is being readied for an early June debut at a concert hall near Mosrberger’s home in upstate New York.
“Brad came to me with all these lyrics ready to score. And it came together unbelievably fast — in less than a week, I’m almost embarrassed to say,” Morsberger shared in our recent conversation. “I often can’t write more than a song in that time. This time, the music just poured out of me.”
Morsberger also is “weeks away” from releasing a concert-video DVD recorded at NYC’s Bitter End to celebrate the release of his last album, “Ghosts Before Breakfast,” and featuring the same tasty band he’s been working with for years, fronted by guitarist Jon Herrington (who also holds down the seat in Steely Dan).
“The multitrack sound recording of the show is amazing,” said this sophisticated sound painter. “We may put it out as a CD, too.” (Here, this weekend, Morsberger is working solo.) Also newly “wrapped” is Morsberger’s sixth studio-album project, “A Part of You,” now planned for release in September. Brad Roberts makes an appearance there, too. Likewise Suzzy Roche. There’s a lot of dealing “with the issues at hand,” he acknowledged.
Clearly, there’s some legacy-building going on here. And maybe thoughts of creating an annuity to help support his wife, Lisa (a professional flautist and music teacher, now about to graduate from nursing school), and their 7-year-old son, Elan, who’s had three heart operations at Columbia Presbyterian. “Most people drive by a hospital and get a feeling of dread. When I go past there on the West Side Highway, on my way out of New York City, I’m filled with joy.”
On recently immersing myself in the Morsberger catalog, I was making perverse sport of picking out the redemption songs from past productions likely to be singled out by other artists to record on a tribute album, a project that could make him a posthumous star. Death, it’s said, is often a great “career enhancement.”
Maybe the set should open up with the prescient “Will You Come to My Funeral” from the 1999 album “Relativity (Blues),” originally released as the work of the Robert Secret Band. (He was trying to stay low-profile as a popster, to not spoil opportunities for his more serious scoring gigs.) Then from his most countrified “The End of Physics,” gotta pull out the utterly romantic “Planet Blue” — one which Rob now claims he’s “practically forgotten.” With just a little gender adjustment, Taylor Swift could easily score a hit with that one. And how about the old-timey/down-South “Well Traveled Road”? A natural cover for Randy Newman.
By the way, there’s likewise “a serious Stephen Foster influence — and a touch of Schubert — on the new song cycle,” said the artist.
Morsberger was mostly dismissive of my album-building mind game, saying he “tries not to think about these things.” But there was no stopping me. I’d also throw in more recent gems from “The Chronicle of a Literal Man,” like the sardonic “Independent Movie” (Fagen should sing that one) and the organ-scored, Bach-meets-Procol Harum “Where Is the Song.” That got Morsberger talking about his formative teen years spent in Britain (his father taught art at Oxford University) “where they still teach classical music in the schools” and how Harum’s Gary Brooker is “one of the greatest vocalists ever.”
OK, and we have to throw in nods to the seemingly death-defying stuff on “Ghosts Before Breakfast,” which critics have cited as showing Morsberger’s bravery, but which he swears he had written before the discovery of cancer and that’s “just part of a great tradition of songwriting.” Grateful dead, indeed.
We’re talking especially about his flip bit of hereafter speculation “The Great Whatever” and the haunting “Feather in A Stream” — painted in the reverent tones of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and a natural for Paul McCartney to croon.
“Whoa, not so fast, “ Morsberger finally interrupted, with a laugh. “You know, it doesn’t happen often, but I could beat this. The doctors at Columbia Presbyterian swear they took the whole thing out. And the operation went so smoothly, they didn’t even wake me up in the middle, to make sure my speech was still functioning properly. That’s usually a big issue with brain surgery. Two days after the operation, I was back in my studio working on the music. Talk about a miraculous recovery.”
Morsberger said he’s still feeling good, enjoying every sandwich. “There are ongoing treatments. Every three months, I go in for another brain scan. The last one gave us an awful scare. They thought they saw a new growth. But then they did it over and the shadow disappeared. So basically I live from day to day. But who among us doesn’t?” n
Rob Morsberger and Beaucoup Blue, Kennett Flash, 102 Sycamore Alley, Kennett Square, 8 p.m. Friday, $23, 484-732-8295, kennettflash.org; Rob Morsberger and Heather Maloney Trio, Psalm Salon, 5841 Overbrook Ave., 8 p.m. Saturday $16/$20, 215-477-7578, psalmsalon.com.
Contact Jonathan Takiff at 215-854-5960 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at philly.com/philly/blogs/gizmo.