A belated Happy Birthday to my cousin, Will T. Massey! He turned 49 yesterday.
Yesterday also marked one full year since I last spoke with Will. He wanted my help running an errand and I had to turn him down, since I was busy driving our son to doctors’ appointments while he was briefly in town over the holidays. Will has not tried to contact me since that day, and I have no way to reliably contact him any more.
I miss Will T.
A talented singer-songwriter, Will started releasing his original songs on cassette while still in high school. It wasn’t that much later that he dazzled the Austin folk music scene at the Chicago House, creating enough buzz to land a manager who secured a multi-record deal with MCA for Will. His meteoric rise, fueled by captivating live performances and write-ups in Rolling Stone and Time as well as a Austin City Limits TV appearance, seemed unstoppable. Soon, he was touring opening for the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle.
And then first his career, and then his life, seemed to run off the rails. He broke with the manager who had spotted him as a youngster and groomed him for the record deal. As Will would say later in some song lyrics, “I dissed a music manager with my delusions of grandeur…”
After an episode in Seattle involving the police and an involuntary hospitalization, he returned to Texas — and again was hospitalized on court orders. Though he signed himself out as soon as he could, a preliminary diagnosis — schizophrenia — had been determined. Will was even more determined though to distance himself from the diagnosis he refused to accept, any treatment under any conditions, and his family, who had him committed.
It would be years before he would accept any of them again.
Through the mid-90s then, Will gave the Austin music scene another shot but his moment seemed to have moved on, and gigs were few and far between. His life circumstances started to deteriorate as well, to the point he was living under a house on a slope in South Austin at one time. The sloping crawl space was tall enough to stand up in with a couch and a rug, and he enjoyed this underground approximation of a living room.
I lost touch with Will when he left Austin for warmer climes, specifically Florida. He called once to ask me for money — something he’d prided himself on never doing before — so I wired him some. When he called a week later for more, I had to say no.
That was the last I heard from him for several years.
The Sunday before Christmas in 2004, Sara came into my room and told me someone was on our porch. I looked out the window and there was Will, scribbling a note straight across the text of a folded newspaper. He looked like a ghost. Coming into the house, he explained in rambling semi-coherence that he wanted my help to get him help dealing with his schizophrenia. He knew I had worked in mental health and he trusted me. He said he’d walked 7 miles (with his guitar) the night before to check into a private psychiatric hospital , only to be turned away for lack of insurance — after they had him sign a no-suicide contract and sent him away. I agreed to help him but said we’d have to start the next day.
The emergency psychiatric service in Austin include an intake facility, the Inn, where they stabilize severe cases, so Will and I headed down there Monday morning. We were greeted with the news all the beds were full, so I’m thinking, Of course they’re full — it’s Christmas and there is no room at the Inn. Sounds familiar…got a stable nearby? But after the intake psychiatrist interviewed Will, he decided to discharge someone that day, bypass the wait list, and admit Will for treatment.
Over the next several months, Will stabilized and started to re-emerge from his darkness. We’d lunch weekly with Casey Monahan, an early music critic fan of Will’s and then-Driector of the Texas Music Office. Casey advised Will on making a comeback and arranged some studio time for Will to record some of his newer songs. A few months later, Will played his first return gig at an old favorite venue, the Cactus Cafe. That same night, he met Valerie, a photographer who expressed interest in him beyond just his music. Though Will was still very rough at the edges, Valerie saw through the fog of his condition and into his soul. They would spend the next 8 years together, and she provided a stability he needed in his life.
Any comeback trail is difficult, and Will’s was no different. Steadily working on his music, though, he re-established himself and started recording again: the sparse Acoustic Session and Alone CDs put his name back in circulation. Another CD, this one a full studio production called Letters in the Wind, wrapped up just in time to do a 2-week mini-tour in Italy, where Will still had an avid fan base from playing there 15 years earlier.
Over the next few months and years, Will became more open about his schizophrenia, acknowledging it haunted his powerful lyrics. ““You know, it’s interesting; the video that was playing on CMT was called I Ain’t Here,” Massey recalls. “The chorus goes like this: ‘Reality is nowhere near/If you’re looking for me/I don’t know where I’ll be/I ain’t here …’ That was my big song while I actually was going crazy.”
Though well-managed, Will’s schizophrenia still caused him to hear voices and see apparitions. He once told me the apparitions still made appearances but he could identify them more easily and dismiss them, usually through some routine task like washing dishes.
Steady gigging in Austin and working with other musicians kept Will busy as well. A second Italy tour and some temporary residencies at clubs like Momo’s and Flipnotics showed his songwriting and performing strength returning. In 2012, he won the prestigious Austin Songwriter’s Group’s coveted “Songwriter of the Year” title.
But schizophrenia is not only chronic, it tends to be progressive, meaning it will never “go away” and chances are it will get worse. Again, I do not know the details but during a time when Will admits he struggled more than usual, he left Valerie and Austin and headed out to his family’s ranch in West Texas in early 2014.
He settled in some there, still writing, but performing more rarely (fewer places to play in San Angelo). He did seem to be re-stabilizing himself as a country boy, even writing about an old goat. Before he left Austin, he had started work on a new album, but he had left town without finishing it.
San Angelo played out for Will within a year or so, and he returned to Austin. “I found a sweet deal” he described his living arrangement, but my son said it was “student ghetto” apartments his high school buddies had to live in until they could find better digs. Will liked that it was cheap and walking distance to the river.
He finished the album over the next several months, but it took a toll on his relationship with his guitarist of several years, Dave Ducharme-Jones, who had been producing the recordings. Dave described to me later how unreasonable and demanding Will was as well as almost literally tone-deaf to some of the mistakes on recorded tracks. By the time the album was done, so was their partnership and friendship.
He played a CD release party for The Weathering but Dave was not invited. Playing with cellist GumB Williams, percussionist Mike Meadows, and singer Kacy Crowley, it would be Will’s last major performance — to date, at least.
Austin Songwriter article about The Weathering
After the release of The Weathering, Will booked a few gigs that spring at a coffeehouse in north Austin, the Monkey Nest. But it was a coffeehouse first and foremost, and any music was incidental at best. He didn’t publicize these gigs much at all, and few friends or fans found out in time to make them. Will actually was digging on the gigs since he got paid in free food and coffee, with additional food and coffee to go at employee discounts. He still managed to write some new tunes such as this one posted to a SoundCloud account.
But May rolled around and the coffeehouse went quiet for students during finals — meaning no music. He would not play there again.
In the meantime, an Italian producer had reached out to Will with the idea of releasing a retrospective of his work to be called 30 Years in the Rear View. He wanted the collection to span Will’s career, reaching back to his early cassette releases all the way up through The Weathering. Will re-recorded 2 songs from his MCA album for inclusion since he did not own the rights to the original recordings. Just when it seemed close to completion with payment for Will, he stopped communicating with producer.
Will was starting to rapidly unravel. I no longer tracked whether he was on meds or not — I dropped that within months of his starting back to recovery. But I could tell he was not the same during our occasional lunches together. He never let me know which apartment he lived in, insisting I pick him up and drop him off at the bus stop.
I tried to help him get a replacement driver’s license or ID one day that summer, but his paranoia about all the uniformed officers in the building meant we left within 3 minutes and he acted as if I had betrayed him by taking him there. Fortunately, the people at the bank recognized Will enough to allow him to withdraw cash from his account where funds were direct-deposited.
Somehow, he ran afoul of his suitemates in the student ghetto and had to move out. After making noise about leaving for LA, he relocated to a North Austin apartment paid for by his family. For a while then, he would call me up to drive him down to the bank branch where they knew him and then drive him back to the apartment. In Austin traffic, this turned into a 2.5 hour errand, mostly driving in traffic on freeways — no fun, but I could usually manage it when he asked.
One year ago yesterday, I turned him down when he asked — and he dropped all contact with me. That was last December 27.
Then, not too long ago, while messing around searching the internet, I discovered that 30 Years in the Rear View was indeed completed eventually, and is now available.
I miss Will T. — as singer-songwriter-performer, yes, but even more so, as my cousin and my friend. I wish him well in whatever he is doing, and leave you with a song he wrote nearly 2 years ago now upon hearing of David Bowie’s death.
“It’s gonna be all right tonight…
Baby, it’s got to be all right.”
Today I was preparing for a garage sale and was going through my old CD’s I found the 1991 CD of Will. I remember when my Aunt who lived in NYC and into the punk scene passed away in 1996 and I found this CD in her belongings. It struck me odd that she had this, I had never heard of him and it certainly did not fit into her music selection. So I played it, over and over again. I became a fan. Never followed him or his career but but 21 years later I have never parted with it. (through 7 moves and many garage sales). So today when I came across it again I decided to google his name to see if he was still performing and came across your article. I was saddened by the story you told. His lyrics certainly have more meaning now. Thank you.
Thanks so much for your comment. Will worked wonders with words and feelings and his songs reached out to thousands of people world-wide. I’m glad his music found you. I’ve also posted a number of videos over on my YouTube channel (youtube.com/casadexter) featuring some of his performances from 2006-2015. You might enjoy some of those. I ill continue to post lyrics from someof his songs, especially the early ones (pre-MCA album) and later, especially unreleased tunes. Please return for more later, generally about twice a month.
I am a Will T. fan and am happy I found your article. I have his CD that has Coffee Break on it…one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. It paints such a clear vision of what the angels might be doing. I got to meet Will at the Cactus Cafe and he signed my guitar and actually taught me some of the chords for Coffee Break. I’ve frequently looked him up on the net and knew some of what you wrote but not all of it. I think there a many of us who wish him well and maybe, just maybe he can return to performing in Austin. He has the talent.
Glad to know you found the article. Yes, the MCA album with Coffee Break still stands up today. You might want to check out the album he released in the beginning of 2016, The Weathering — very powerful songs. Shortly after his release, though, Will pretty much gave up performing as his struggles with his schizophrenia rebounded and overtook him. Sure wish he would show up again and start performing again. He had several good years performing while he was receiving treatment, including a couple of quick tours of Italy. btw: I also posted many videos of Will over on my youtube channel, youtube.com/casadexter if you want to see some of those.
Any Will T. News. Sure wish he could come back to music. Thx!
Alan: Thanks for all you do to keep Will’s music available. /Casey Monahan
Hello. I have been a fan since I saw Will with Steve Earle in I think 1987. I even drove with my friend and son from California to Austin to see him at a small coffee house about 5 years ago. I think I met you and some of his family and girl at the time. I am just wondering how he is. He was a good dude that night when we talked after the show. Hope he is well. Rod Warren.
Thanks for sharing your story. Any updates on Will T.? Is he OK?
Wish I knew–still no word. Last I head from him was December 2016.
I met Will when he first hit Austin. I think he was 17. I quickly became one of his surrogate mothers. I gave him a room in my house for a while. I left him in charge once while I took a flying trip to Taos. When I came home, I found all the windows open, the air conditioner going full blast and about to surrender to the Texas heat, and a full-sized American flag covering one wall of my living room behind a piano I had never seen. I closed the windows and we wrote a song on the piano. Will and I managed to stay in touch sporadically over the years. The last time I saw him,I was living in Taos. He had a gig at the Cowgirl in Santa Fe and he and Valerie stayed with me for a couple of days. I saw the writing on the wall for them: they were self-medicating in different genres. I’ve never seen that work. Will had a facebook page for a while, and I kept up with him that way, but I think the raw exposure of social media disturbed him and he let that go. He emailed me a few MP3s of new songs he had recorded on his phone, then he disappeared from the internet all together. I tried to locate him through Peg Miller, but she had pretty much given up on him. You have just provided the latest information I have been able to garner. Thank you.
For most of the internet’s existence, I have continually been searching for a copy of Will’s performance on Austin City Limits (Season 17, Episode 10, March 27, 1992). It was my introduction to him and I don’t think any other single live video performance from anyone has ever influenced me in my teens more than that performance. I would love to see it again and even own a copy. If you know how this is possible, please let me know. Thanks! I hope Will is okay and that you two are reunited soon.
Great to read your article, I saw Will play Leicester (U.K.) late 80s he was supporting Steve Earle. That night Steve didn’t play ! It s always stood out as a great show. Surely some one must know where Will is today and what he’s up to. Thank you Lee
Hi there, all Will T Massey fans, can anyone help me I want to buy a new copy CD of the Weathering. Lee
I remember buying the self-titled MCA release way back in the early 90s…and being blown away. Periodically I’d check for a new release. Nothing. Then along came Spotify and some new (to me) tunes. Now I read this article. Better late than never. Thank you, thank you for catching me up.
Shocked by his struggle. His first record is one of my favorite records ever, even talked to the guys in Social Distortion about it and they knew and loved the songs. I was really glad when he reemerged years ago and I purchased some CDs directly from him.
Sad to hear that he disappeared again. Once in a while I google him (this is how I came across this blog) in hopes to maybe hear some good news and /or new songs
Really hope he is well.
All the best,
Thanks for this very good article and the insights in the life of someone, whose album is still played now 30 years after it’s release. In fact, I still own the CD, but bought an old vinyl copy a few weeks ago and put on the record right now. The songs never became old. That’s art, I guess.
So I hope this guy, who brought good songs to so many people, is well and that the two of you meet again sometime soon.
Stay well, greetings from Germany,