Jesse Morris: The Subway Johnny Cash

As strange as it may sound, banging out odes for sleepy train riders, most of them barely there, has brought stability to Morris’ life. He still has to work nights as a bouncer, but at least he doesn’t have to work at Denny’s or Starbucks anymore. “I can’t do a straight nine-to-five,” Morris says. “I’ve tried that. I just want to blow my brains out when I do.”

Music might be a moonlighting gig for some, but for Morris, it’s a dawn gig, a daylight gig, a dusk gig, and every-other-kind-of-light gig. It is this way because it has to be. Beyond the economic security from his subway income, the almost constant access to an open venue has brought Morris an increased emotional clarity as well. “When I don’t play music, I feel crazy as fuck,” Morris says. “It’s kind of a weird meditation. In a way, it shuts my head off.”

When you talk to Morris for any meaningful amount of time, you understand how “on” his head can be. Between pictures at a recent photo shoot, with a guitar in his hands, Morris segued rapidly between personas: an exuberant ska bandleader, a spacey new-age guru, a La Cage Aux Folles-style diva, a bitter old blues musician. It may come off as a nervous habit at first, but it quickly becomes clear that it is more integral than that. Morris, who describes his personality as that of “an Elvis impersonator with multiple-personality disorder,” has a lot going on inside that close-shaven noggin.

Not too long ago, Morris decided that the medications he’d been on for bipolar characteristics since age 12 had outlasted their usefulness. His doctor told him that if he wanted to kick the anti-depressants, he needed to find another way to get his endorphin levels up. He recommended that Morris adopt an exercise regiment. At the time, Morris weighed 380 pounds, a result of self-medicating himself with “pizza, burgers, donuts, dope, and beer.”

Now, a couple of years later, Morris is below 200 pounds, having dropped a couple of Iggy Pops through a regiment of gym workouts and riding around San Francisco on a ’70s Huffy that he found abandoned in a park. “I’ve done enough self-destruction,” Morris says of his new lifestyle.

Getting cleaner, along with canceling his cable TV, has made him a better songwriter, Morris says. But he admits that he wouldn’t have as much material to draw from if it weren’t for all those bad times. “If you don’t get kicked in the ass, you don’t really go anywhere,” Morris says. “That’s why there’s so much horrible pop music out there. They’re not suffering enough. They’re not getting their emotional ass beaten by the dominatrix of life.” But it’s not enough to suffer, Morris says. You have to do something about it. When life hammers him, he strikes back on any paper that he can find.

“Write your ass off,” Morris says. “Write every night. Even if the songs suck, write ’til they don’t suck anymore.” Veteran San Francisco musicians Joe Dean, Thom Rockwell, and Barry Spry were impressed enough with Morris’ songwriting and performing that they teamed up with him to form the band that today is known as Jesse Morris and the Man Cougars. After upwards of 30 gigs at bars and clubs in the Bay Area, they have released their raucous self-titled debut LP, which Morris says is “coming to a merch table near you.”

He describes the album as three-quarters country and one-quarter punk, but the music itself feels more seamless than that division, like a rambling hayride down St. Mark’s Place. The band’s live performances don’t let up on the tractor throttle either, with Morris variously sneering and goofing his way through raw tales. Morris doesn’t see it as out of place for his band to ham it up while performing a song about offering a cigarette to a recent suicide victim.

“We joke around constantly,” he says. “It’s really the only way to stay sane. Too much of life is serious, you know? I might annoy people by joking around all the time, but if they don’t like it, fuck ’em. Fuck those serious bands. We’re serious about our music.”

For as much “bat-shit loco” brashness as Morris might put out, he is, at his core, still a very appreciative man, humbled by the journey on which his music has taken him. He describes playing with punk bands like Fang, Verbal Abuse, and the Dwarves as “an honor.”

His voice fills with gratitude at the mention of having his band’s debut mixed and mastered at Mr. Toad’s in San Francisco, where so many of the bands that he admires had their releases processed. And Morris never loses sight of the fellow musician who has helped him the most in his career. “Man, when I die, that dude’s going to come collecting,” Morris says. “They better have a hock shop in heaven, because I owe Johnny Cash a lot of money.”

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