By Scott Westerman
If we’re lucky, when we are young we are blessed with a best friend; that person with whom you shared the ups and downs of adolescence, tested the waters of adulthood and had adventures that nobody else but the two of you knew about.
For me, Joey Morrison was that person. We met when our parents were trying to teach us to be good Christians at First United Methodist Church in Ann Arbor. I’m not sure how much of the theology took hold. More often than not, we snuck out of Youth Fellowship to visit Middle Earth and listen to Bob Seger records. When we learned that we were both headed to Slauson Jr. High, we threw in together to see what adventures awaited.
We discovered Iron Butterfly, Firesign Theater, Richard Prior and Arlo Guthrie. We had many a sleep over at his place, staying up too late and listening to WABX, WKNR-FM WXYZ before it became WRIF. Joe’s mom hid his Richard Prior LP after she realized that the language on it was, shall we say, inappropriate by parental standards. But Joey knew where she hid it and we laughed our asses off whenever she wasn’t within earshot.
We also both learned every line of Arlo’s Alice’s Restaurant, something that would come in handy in 1972 when the Youth For Understanding Wind Ensemble sat waiting for the TV cameras to be set up for a performance in Santiago, Chile. The host was the legendary Latin TV star Don Francisco, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t quite know what to think when this skinny American kid started talking about “the 27 eight by ten glossy photographs, along with circles and arrows, and a paragraph on the bottom of each one, to be used as evidence against us.” When I told Joe about it, he asked how far I got into the 22 minute massacree before somebody shut me up. (13 minutes, for the record)
Since Joe was just that much older than I, I rode shotgun in his sharp blue Mercedes when having a drivers license was still something new to the Pioneer Sophomore Class. We learned that it was possible to go faster than the speedometer registered on Scio Church road one summer night. That achievement only added to Joe’s popularity.
We found our first paying jobs together washing dishes at the Lurrie Terrace cafeteria. Before the customers ambled in, we would eat our dinner looking out over the Ann Arbor skyline and dream. Joe’s dream then was to design guitar amplifiers. Mine was radio and even after I left Lurrie for WPAG, Joe was a frequent side kick, hanging out with me during the late night shifts that are the dues beginners pay.
Music was a common passion and, along with Steve Morris and Brian Montibeller we created a garage band. It had a number of names and only played a few gigs, but it gave Joey, Steve, Brian and me a small taste of what it might have been like to be rock stars. Joe was billed as our “lead singer” and even though his vocal skill set wasn’t classically trained, he was successful doing what the best front man did, getting female attention.
He had a seductive way with the ladies in our junior high years, something I envied and tried to model with little success. He was also an athlete, winning a wall-full of presidential fitness awards and banging a hockey puck back and forth with me on the uneven ice at the pond near his place in the Lakewood subdivision. His brother, Tim, was better than both of us put together, but Joe was ok with it. He was a self confident guy, but never boastful. Comfortable in his own skin. I imagined him to be a pretty good brother for Tim, just like he was for me.
We drifted apart when I left for Michigan State. I called him from our then home in Illinois 21 years ago when I heard Alice’s Restaurant on the radio. He told me then that heart disease had claimed his dad in 1977 and that his own genetic predisposition didn’t look bright.
Joe was a “go with the flow” kinda guy and none of that seemed to bother him. I was pleased that he followed his electronics passion, but by then, our worlds were in different orbits. That brief phone conversation turned out to be our last.
His passing is an uncomfortable reminder to all of us who knew and admired Joe that the circle of life will someday complete for us, too. At the Pioneer High School 40th Class of ’73 reunion, the list of those gone too soon had too many fresh names on it. I had hoped that Joey would have shown up for the event, but that was never his thing.
I take some small comfort in knowing that, if Joe could handle dying, Maybe I could, too. “If you can, I can.” That was our attitude in junior high and high school. It’s an attitude that is on my mind as I write this.
Joe was a good man. The memory of his friendship and the lessons we learned together will be something I will cherish until my number comes up.