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.”