IT STARTS, AS SO MANY OF THE BEST STORIES DO, with death. A lot of death. But in a good way.
Back in the early 1970s, two Australians with impressive but now long-distance careers in Australian music were hanging around in Los Angeles, being regular 20somethings with time, some cash and prospects that might yet turn out to be more than promises.
Boy #1: Rick Springfield, late of flamboyant rock/meaty pop quartet, Zoot (who delivered one of the best Beatles covers ever on 1969’s heavy-as, Eleanor Rigby), and then of the solo, worldwide hit, Speak To The Sky (top 10 in Australia and Canada; top 20 in the USA).
Boy #2: his mate, Russell Morris, initially of Melbourne’s Somebody’s Image, who had a hit with Hush, and then solo with his first two singles topping the charts, (the first of them the classic The Real Thing) and a couple of years later had a top 20 hit with Wings Of An Eagle.
As October turned to November in the Nixon years, the Australians discovered the traditional Mexican festival of the Day Of The Dead, excited by “how joyous it was to be there, with people happy and singing, dressed in beautiful colours and wonderful hats,” as Morris recalls of festivities that wipe way any separation of the living and the dead.
“People who don’t know about it look at it as a scary thing when they see skulls and people painting their faces as skulls,” says Springfield. “But how else are you going to draw the dead? It’s not frightening to them, it’s a joyous occasion.”
Four decades later and long back in Australia, the memory was refreshed for Morris, whose career had taken a sharp turn when in 2012 he released the platinum-selling Sharkmouth, the first of what became a trilogy of albums of his original songs drawing on Australian stories’ songs, based in folk, blues and traditional country.
Now, he wrote a song, the slow atmospheric blues, Carmelita’s Dance, and was inspired to don traditional Day Of The Dead deathly white makeup for a filmclip he shot quickly to put up on YouTube, anonymously at first, and then under the name Jack Chrome.
When a mutual friend tipped Los Angele’s-based Springfield to it, his response was immediate: two days later he sent Morris a song of his own, the twanging country blues Godforsaken World, and a filmclip in full DOTD costume. He followed it up with a suggestion: why don’t we do more of these, maybe a whole album of them? You write one song, I write another.
“I was overwhelmed. And then I thought this would be fantastic fun, and it was,” says Morris who suggested that they write the songs – which incorporate any number of roots-based styles – around a theme but as one character/one voice, Jack Chrome. “It was almost like we were playing poker with each other: I would put a hand down [sending a song] and say, right, there’s $10 on that and I’ll raise you $15, and he would come back and say, all right, there’s your $15 I’ll raise you $30, and send me two songs. Really, we inspired each other.”
The speed with which Springfield connected and responded to that first song suggests maybe this was something waiting to come out of him, waiting for a reason to be.
“Yeah, very much so,” Springfield says. “That was kind of the combination of all I’d been thinking about how we are screwing up the world and no one’s watching over us, we are left on our own. I’ve written about it before, on an album I did called The Snake King, but not to the angry extent that Godforsaken World came out as.”
Some of these ideas, such as being left alone, of self as well as natural destruction – have been at the core of Springfield’s writing for quite some time, even at his seemingly sunniest. His frankness about how much darkness there is in his thinking and writing (“he is the Yang and I am the Yin” explains Morris jovially. “I love him for it.”) has been a fascinating aspect of the singer/songwriter and actor who will tell you that he attempted suicide at 16 and has spent many years in therapy and studying Eastern philosophies for some kind of answer.
“Yeah, it’s always there. I’m writing a new album now and it’s going to be more power pop, but a more modern version of that, but the dark ideas are still there. I always make a joke that I could never write Don’t Worry Be Happy, I just don’t have that in me,” Springfield says.
“Russ, on this record, [Jack Chrome And The Darkness Waltz], you can tell his songs from mine because Russ’ are much more up, positive, and mine are more like Godforsaken World and Death Drives A Cadillac, and the darker things. But I think it’s a good mix. If it was all mine [he laughs], it would be very depressing album.”
That sounds droll, but not necessarily accurate, and not just because Springfield is a naturally funny and warm man. While his songs have a darker hue, it is not just darkness but complexity. Something like, you could say, the Day Of The Dead Festival itself, which has a more nuanced view of the dead and our relationship to them than the more familiar “scary” world of Halloween.
“The whole Day Of The Dead thing is such a better idea than reincarnation,” insists Springfield.
“With reincarnation you gotta come back and live through all that crap again. You gotta be a kid you gotta go through the insecurities, get zits, deal with girls or deal with boys, you gotta get a job and then you get depressed. It’s much nicer than that when you come back as the spirit you were and you embrace your loved ones. It’s a beautiful thing actually.”
If not quite reincarnation, the reinvigoration of Morris’ career has reached a natural culmination with Jack Chrome And The Darkness Waltz. The Sharkmouth revolution came as he realised that with sales, tickets and airplay ebbing away, he had to break the mould of not just what people expected of him, but what he expected of himself.
“I took a long, hard look at myself in the mirror and thought of course, I’m chasing the Pied Piper. I was writing songs like I had in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when I was young, and people can’t relate to them, particularly radio stations: they are not going to play my songs,” he says.
And the answer for Morris, who like Springfield had had a separate smaller career as an actor, was in people he’d long admired, like David Bowie, Scott Walker Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen, who had long made a virtue of changing direction style and even personas.
“I think that’s what’s gone on later in life, I’ve become a character actor,” he laughs. “I’m no Tom Cruise anymore.”
Not only no Tom Cruise, but no insecure actor at all, following those old Australian stories records with this new concept album that asks its audience to not just listen from beginning to end, but in sequence if they going to understand it properly. A brave move in 2021, but one which so far seems to have worked with Jack Chrome And The Darkness Waltz last week debuting at number one on the jazz and blues chart.
“All I want is for people to hate it or love it,” says Morris. “There’s no point mollycoddling songs and have people say ‘that’s a nice song’. Let’s get strong reactions, because that’s the way art is made.”
The Morris Springfield Project’s Jack Chrome And The Darkness Waltz is out now.