Yesterday I went looking for the Man in Black. I was at the Country Music Hall of Fame, anticipating mountains of Cash memorabilia. In the end, I found only a spotless black suit, nothing else. I thought of Jesse Morris, and how I’d have to tell him about it.
Today, while flying home from Nashville, I heard the sad news that Jesse had died. I didn’t know him very well, yet he was one of my favorite people in San Francisco. He’d been busking since his teenage years, tossing in Fear and Black Flag covers along with the Johnny Cash covers that made him famous around here. The first time I heard his voice in the 24th Street BART station, I was convinced that someone was playing a rare Cash record on excellent speakers. Instead, I rounded the corner to find an inked-up, baby-faced punk belting out “Folsom Prison Blues.”
I tossed a few dollars into his guitar case, and over the year or two that followed, we developed a friendly rapport. He was a truly nice guy, funny and opinionated — and talented, too. I bought his CDs and gave them to my brother and the Southern Gentleman; I pitched him as a profile for This American Life. I was often late to work because Jesse and I’d start talking about 999 and Fear, moving on into discussions of love and joy and sadness and living, and before you knew it, 20 minutes had passed. He told me that he was engaged — or at least he’d officially be so when his lady finally accepted his many proposals — and he was clearly in love. We talked about his attempts to stay clean, his ongoing struggle against illness, and how music helped him cope.
We talked about depression, too, which is eventually what led to his death. He and I had commiserated about well-meaning folks who don’t understand despair, who tell others to smile their way out of crushing sadness. We talked about our fear that even when things were good, depression would always be hiding behind a corner, ready to pounce on any contentment we could find. I remember feeling corny, because I touched his arm and felt like a mama bird when I said I believed he deserved happiness.
Embarrassed, he tried to toss my sentiment aside. I remember touching his elbow and making him look at me as I told him: You bring joy to so many people and you don’t even know it. He smiled then, a broad and bright smile. And for the first and last time, I saw a glimpse of the little boy he’d once been.