Giving Dirtball Some Love

Steve Mayer     February 16, 2019

Presented at the Celebration of Life for William J. Murphy at Augsburg University’s Hoversten Chapel, Minneapolis


I don’t usually listen to lyrics, don’t even hear them. When I try to sing along, the lyrics are all the same. Babadabadabum…

But with Willie’s songs I do hear the lyrics. I’m talking about his own songs, not the covers, but what he wrote, which I confess I didn’t used to like so much because what I really wanted was to move and groove to his covers.

With the fantastic sophisticated charts he wrote for his fantastic sophisticated bandmates, the Angel-Headed Hipsters, or The Bees, I liked those covers better than the originals!

Yeah, I loved those “protest” songs, Supermarket, and Keep on Rocking the Boat, and for all the reasons Willie intended. They were political, anti-establishment, anti-corporate, anti-greed; I loved it all. Willie always said he was a revolutionary, and he put it in his music, in his lyrics.

As I got to know him better, and as I got older, I listened closer. Now – especially now – I hear him as a serious political messenger, like a troubadour. A rockin’ troubadour for sure, with all the chops he brought to everything. And with a message, bringing down lots of righteous and angry hellfire.

Like in Rockin’ the Boat, 1998, on the Monkey in the Zoo CD. “Raise your consciousness & anger while dancing your ass off,” it says in the catalog.

Messages like…

“Now in my neighborhood the folks ain’t doing too good.
They can’t live the way they want to.
They got to live the way they got to.
It’s stone cold poverty trying to hold on to dignity
It’s the same sad situation in every city in our nation.”

OK, maybe Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie coulda written that too, but Willie’s just getting started. In comes politicians and corporations

“Politicians and corporations run our neighborhoods and rule our nations
They’re captains of the ship that we call Earth
Now the ship is sinking, tell me “What is it worth?
Let’s throw away our lives to the powers of greed…?
Let’s let the planet die while we watch it on TV….?”
Here’s to the people who stand up and say NO!
Here’s to the people who keep rocking the boat.”

I mean, who else has lines like that? Not even that guy, what’s his name… Zimmie.

Or these…

“I don’t know a lot, but there’s one thing I know,
Capitalismo it don’t have no soul.
Compassion and justice will never be done
On the boards of directors or from the barrel of a gun.[1]

The people say, “Willie, man,
.. what can we do?”
I can speak for myself, I can’t speak for you
I got a voice, I’m gonna holler
I’m gonna fight, fight the power.”

And Supermarket – props to Tony Glover, his lyrics. Funny watching the PBS emcee introduce it. They play a verse, then he tries to give the band the hook, saying “What’s your second song?” “It’s called Supermarket,” and the band brings it on again, from the top.

Shaking the tree

And then came Dirtball. Well, let’s not forget the majesty of the Red House album, A Shot of Love in a Time of Need. And the hundreds of recitations of Rockin’ the Boat at every fundraiser, every performance – we were always reminded of that imperative, “Here’s to the people who say NO!”

So, Dirtball. Like many, I heard it first at the Release Party, but because it was such a party – Willie’s 75th birthday! – I could listen with only one ear at the most. But my friend Arthur Himmelman, standing off to the side and listening intently, kept saying, “This is really important.”

Willie… When I saw Willie at his birthday party (the first time in months and the last time ever), I could see he’d gone through hell, and he was just a shadow of his former self. A fully formed shadow, all there, it seemed to me in the couple minutes I had with him as he wrote a treasured inscription in my album.

I’m so glad he had that time at the Eagles Club, with everyone telling him how much he meant to them. Thank you to all the organizers who rushed in to help. He could feel the love, most certainly. I think most people assumed he’d be coming back strong. … I wasn’t so sure…

So the next day when I could listen at home, I heard what Arthur heard: this CD is important, really important. It’s not just Willie as usual, classic danceable Willie, it’s Willie as hyper-prescient, as the Troubadour from Beyond.

And I could see what had happened:

…You know how a plant or a tree, when it senses the end is near, throws out the last of its seed in a torrent, hoping with its last strength that some of that seed, the germ of its accumulated wisdom, takes root.  You have that image?

The songs in Dirtball are like that, I think – songs of anguish and desperation. His own anguish, in songs that are extremely personal, not maudlin but clear-eyed, about a world which he saw as on the brink of doom.

Not his own doom, no. No, I don’t think he was foretelling his own end, I don’t think he saw that, I certainly don’t think he was bringing that on. He was still Catholic, after all.

But all the songs on Dirtball are warnings of the end of life on Earth, the end of Earth itself, proclaiming the conquest of humanity by corporate greed, just as he foretold 21 years earlier.

And… Willie was a poet, he had a poet’s heart, he felt everything.

He wasn’t just a revolutionary, he was a lover. OK, a curmudgeonly grumpy lover. Not just of women, but also of humanity. He was a humanist, singing the values of respect, dignity, community, responsibility, justice. He was a most unusual combination: a revolutionary… humanist… lover… songwriter… musician. Willie always sang his heart out.

So I can well imagine – and this is just my own imagination speaking — after conceiving these songs, writing these songs down to their final word and note, recording every track to his usual curmudgeonly standard of curmudgeonly perfection, and sensing the doom that he sang about…, he was shaking his tree and spreading his seed for all he was worth.

Tellingly, there are no love songs on this album, at least not traditional lonesome and alone but a kiss is not a contract musical tom-foolery. Nothing like that. These are grown-up love songs, telling it like it is, telling it like it should be in the struggle for a more perfect just and loving world — for you and me.

I’m gonna drag this out just a bit more. Let me read you the last line of each song in Dirtball, Willie’s self-named album of adult-themed love songs.

From Every man for himself

“Every man for himself? It doesn’t have to be that way.”


From A shot of love in a time of need

“We’re here, we’re alive. Remember love, and we might survive.”


From What about love

“Let’s let the love out now / The world won’t wait”


From Faith hope and solidarity

“We got faith hope and solidarity / Faith hope and solidarity / Faith hope and solidarity”


From Rootless wanderer

“I say a prayer for hope – for you and me”


From Something happened

If I listen to my heart, I’m gonna chose life / If I listen to my heart, I’m gonna stand and fight!”


From Now’s the time

“I’m ready! I’m ready!”


From Dirtball

“Turn your eyes to the sun / And say goodbye to the earth!”


And sung most plaintively, from Message to your heart

“Can I learn to change myself? Can we be strong enough to change the world?”

So Willie lays all this down, and… he’s exhausted.  Again, my imagination speaking; I may be a psychologist, but I’m not a physician.  And this time, even depression couldn’t contain him. Too much stress, he blew some formerly life-preserving gaskets, and he went out.

“Complications of pneumonia,” the obit said. You know, one of the last things someone who’s struggling with pneumonia can say is, “I can’t breathe.” But as we also know from recent events featuring police batons and knees on necks, “I can’t breathe” is also a political statement. He’s got songs about knees on necks and the soul-sucking power of this runaway corrupt capitalist system – all his earlier boat-rockin’ revolutionary songs.

But now, Willie hisself is down to “I can’t breathe.”

Willie’s final call & prayer

Dirtball  (I do wish he’d chosen a different title – it’s the least endearing part of this album, IMO. But Dirtball is a nickname he’d given to himself, he told me, and so there’s some kind of inside joke here.)

In the end, Dirtball is a manifesto, let’s be clear. A manifesto for love and revolution. A manifesto to be acted on with faith, hope and solidarity. Listen up:

“This is a message to your heart…

“We’ll fear no evil – with joy with love we’ll fight on
Where we can hold on to hope, have courage
Where we’re not alone
Where we’ll build the bridges, and tear down the walls
We are not helpless
Together we’ll fight
Black red yellow brown and white…

“We’ll fight the greed, we’ll fight the lies
We will fight the violence, Yes, and fight the hate
We must fight against our ignorance, and our shame
We’ll fight for justice and dignity, for everyone!
We will fight for love…”

And the very last line, the last line of the last song, Beyond, the one he goes out on…, followed by the musicians, trailing off one by one into the silence…

“For the sky, for the sun, for the earth, we will fight for love.
Here we are, we were born for this time, we were born to go BEYOND!!! “


Thank you, Willie

Steve Mayer


[1] Thanks to Elka Malkis for correcting me on this lyric, which I’d misstated at the service. I’d misheard it on the CD as “…with the barrel of a gun,” but he sang it as “…or from the barrel of a gun.” A very different message! Willie was more of a non-violent revolutionary than I’d recognized.