Morphine Drummer Billy Conway Dies at 65: “He Was The Mark Twain of My Generation”

Billy Conway, the drummer for the critically acclaimed rock band Morphine, died December 19 at the age of 65. The drummer’s passing was confirmed by Jeffrey Foucault via Rolling Stone. Foucault was a friend and bandmate to Conway, and he revealed that Conway passed after losing his battle with cancer.

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“Billy Conway was one of the best drummers America produced in the second half of the twentieth century,” Foucault told Rolling Stone. “With his uncanny empathy and sensitivity, his dedication to simplicity and restraint, and his impossible spiritual power, he played the song, never the instrument, and when he played he was undeniable. He incarnated a ferocious love.

“But any description of his accomplishment misses the full measure of the man. Billy was a great soul. He was relentlessly kind and open-hearted. He was soft-spoken, slow to anger, quick to laugh and to praise. He was gentle in all things, strange and beloved, magnetic and restless, and somehow haunted. People who met him once would remember and remark him, and it was his odd magic to be the soul in whose presence wisdom might reveal itself.”

Prior to Conway’s collaboration with Foucault and drumming for Morphine, Conway was a part of the rock band Treat Her Right. Performing with this band was the first official setting where Conway and Mark Sandman combined their musical forces. This duo, along with David Champagne and Jim Fitting, helped define Conway’s unique sound.

“We adopted the less is more theory and focused on simplifying everything we were doing,” Conway said in 2006. “If there were too many chords in the song we just removed them or skipped that part of the song. We held high regard for one-chord songs and strived to make simple and emotional music like our heroes—Muddy [Waters], [Howlin’] Wolf, and Jimi Hendrix.”

Conway was known for this simple, stripped-back style of performing, and he continued to create music even after cancer began spreading throughout his body. In 2020, Conway released his first solo album titled Outside Inside just two years after he had emergency surgery for bowel cancer.

“During a winter of forced downtime, through the love and generosity of friends, [he] assembled a home studio, and over the course of months Billy finished the songs he’d been writing for years in dressing rooms, vans, and hotels around the world,” Conway’s label Crazy View Records stated of the record.

Today, his friends and family continue to remember the prolific musician. “Billy believed in community above all things, and in the end, he died in his own house, utterly surrounded by love, embraced by the family of friends near and far that had gathered to his light,” Foucault said. “The love he put into the world won’t fade. It will take new forms, find new channels, and we’ll spend the rest of our days trying to live up to his example.”

“He was always full of life,” Morphine bandmate Dana Colley told Rolling Stone. “The joy that he expressed when he made music was so visually apparent that it was impossible not to have an effect on whoever was in the room. The conversations were always about, ‘Did you see that drummer?’ He lit up the room. His legacy will be found in many ways; there’s so many aspects of who he was as a man, a musician, a friend, a brother, a husband, a farmer, and a carpenter. He was the Mark Twain of my generation. He could hold tea with the Queen or take a swig of tequila with the guy on the street in the same day. You just couldn’t help but gravitate to Billy Conway and his energy.”

Photo by Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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