Quick Stats: Neal Morse singer-songwriter
Daily Driver: 2002 Ford van (Neal’s rating: 10 on a scale of 1 to 10)
Other cars: see below
Favorite road trip: Seattle to San Francisco
Car he learned to drive in: 1965 Dodge Dart
First car bought: 1992 Nissan Altima
In a household full of Priuses, progressive rocker Neal Morse has a 2002 Ford conversion van that has taken on legend status among his family and friends.
“We were shopping, and I bought it out of a showroom. I’ve never done anything like that in my life,” he says. “They had to remove the glass to get the thing out. I just really felt like it was mine and I should have it. It was really unusual. My kids were little at the time, and part of my motivation was they fought so much in the car, we had to have bucket seats to keep them separated. It had the television in the back.”
He gives this well-loved ride a perfect 10: “The back seat folds down into a bed, so on long trips you can trade drivers and you can sleep back there. I had been on a trip with a friend of mine who had a van that was similar. We went to New York for a meeting, and I was hooked. When I came back, I was like, ‘Man, I want one of those vans.’ It was a fun trip in that van. So when I saw this one at the dealer, I really wanted it.”
For most of his life, Morse bought used cars. This van was only his second new vehicle. “I was always a broke musician most of my life, so I bought stuff out of the Recycler in L.A., buying used stuff” he says. “I think I didn’t buy my first new car till I was almost 40, so it was so plush for my standards. It’s a beautiful vehicle.”
There isn’t anything about the van itself that Morse dislikes. “I don’t like that my wife doesn’t like it,” he says. “It’s this constant thing in our house, we tease each other about it. She acts like I worship at the alter of the van. It’s this whole thing, ‘Ah that van, we need to get rid of that van.’ There’s these young guys that help us a lot with stuff that I’m mentoring, and they’re in love with the van. So they’re constantly bantering banter back and forth with my wife.”
Beyond being the source of jokes, the van mostly comes in handy for the many purposes Morse relies on it for. “We do a lot of things with many people also, so you can load a lot of people in the van,” he says. “I still actually do some local things where I need to load equipment in and out. It’s just very useful. But I always make sure there’s a blanket over the upholstery when I’m putting gear in there. Got to take care of the van.”
Even though Morse initially bought it when his kids were young, the van has stayed as a pseudo-member of the family. “In 2002 my kids would have been 5 and 7, and now they’re 20 and 18,” he says. “Now there’s a bunch of different friends of ours are desiring it too, so I couldn’t sell it. If I was going to do something I’d have to bequeath it to someone. The van has become kind of a little bit legendary status in our world.”
1992 Chevy P-30 truck
Morse’s other ride is his food truck called the “Mojo Cookie Dough and Creamery,” a dessert truck which works events round Nashville.
“It’s a build your own ice cream sandwich truck, so we have specialty cookies and gourmet ice cream,” he says. “We also have the first cookie dough ice cream sandwich, so it’s the ultimate cookie dough experience.”
The food truck is Morse’s side business. He got the idea when he was on vacation on the West Coast with his family. “We went to a place that was a build your own sandwich place, and I thought, ‘Oh, what a cool idea,’” he says. “And we came home, talked about it, kicked it around with some friends, and decided to start this little side business. That was just a way to start the business because it was less expensive than buying or leasing a brick-and-mortar. It seemed like this is a way to start. It’s pretty popular, we may have a whole fleet we hope at some point.”
Morse drives the truck only when he has to: “I drove it yesterday. If there’s nobody else to drive it, I’ll drive it somewhere. We have a lot of people that will work it, but not everybody wants to drive it because it’s so big. We have a lot of young people that work the truck, and so sometimes I’ll just drive it and somebody will pick me up and I’ll go to a meeting or wherever.”
He gives it a 5 rating on a scale of 10. “It’s a great eating experience, but it’s not that great of a driving experience,” he says.
2013 Toyota Prius plug-in
For day-to-day driving when Morse wants to save on gas, he has a Prius plug-in, which was also new when he bought it. “I think it’s great,” he says. “I’ve never had much of any trouble with it. It gets killer gas mileage and my wife likes it, so that’s good. If you look at our house, my son has Prius and my daughter has a Prius, so we have this van that’s like a gas guzzler and three Priuses next to it.”
Car he learned to drive in
Morse grew up in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, where his dad taught him to drive in the family car, a 1965 Dodge Dart.
“We had older cars” he says. “I remember the steering was pretty rough. I remember when my dad was teaching me to drive, he also had a dune buggy. He told me to brake, and I mistook the brake for the gas and I almost toppled all of us in that dune buggy. We had a bunch of friends riding in the back.”
Morse doesn’t remember much about his dad teaching him to drive in the Dodge Dart, except to say that his dad was was big on signaling. “I remember when he retired and he was at Leisure World, and it was popular with all those bumper stickers that said, ‘Visualize World Peace,’ somebody had a bumper sticker there that said ‘Visualize Signaling,’” he says. “I was driving all our little cars, we had junky little Toyota Corollas. I don’t know if my dad ever bought a new car, everything was always used.”
Morse says he got his license later than his friends. “I don’t think I got my license till I was 17 because I had this girlfriend that drove everywhere, drove me around,” he says. “She had a yellow MGB. and I fell in love with it. And so the first car I got, somehow I talked my parents into buying me a red ‘69 MGB. Man, what a great car. But you know how it is with those cars, even then, it was buy the car, buy a mechanic.”
Morse’s red MGB convertible was a cool ride, especially as his high school car.
“It was just breaking down all the time,” he says. “But yeah, a red convertible, are you kidding? It was great. I don’t know how I talked them into buying that car for me.”.
First car bought
Morse bought a used 1992 Nissan Altima after making a bit of money from his music. “I was floundering around as musician for a long, long time, and I started this band called Spock’s Beard in the ‘90s and it began to sell a little bit,” he says. “The bass player in Spock’s Beard was also the player for the Eric Burdon band, and Eric, the guy from the Animals was still doing a lot of gigs. I became his keyboard player for a year and a half and actually had regular money coming in for the first time, which made it so we could buy a decent car and rent a decent house.”
Before the Altima, Morse’s parents loaned him money to buy a Hyundai hatchback for $900, which he drove from Los Angles to Nashville. “I was surprised it made it,” he says. “It had 200,000 miles on it or something. It wound up dying.”
Morse then bought the Altima as his daily driver around Nashville. “It was good; I just remember it being very consistent,” he says. “Things were getting better for me and my family, so we traded it in and the next thing we got was my first new car – a Quest minivan,” he says. “We had a friend that worked at a dealer here and he said he’d get me a pretty good deal. I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can make these payments.’ Movin’ on up I guess.”
The minivan was Morse’s first new car purchase before his current Ford van. “It actually threw a rod at 35,000 miles, and that was when we got the van,” he says.
Although Morse thinks of his Ford van fondly, his mind does go back to the days when he owned the little MGB. “The van was really that for me, that was my splurge car. Other than that, I think about it every once in a while – I’ll see one of those little old red sports cars, I love those English sports cars. I’ll see one and think, ‘Oh man, that’d be just way too midlife for me to get something like that now,’” he says, laughing. “I think people would laugh. I still have a place in my heart for those English sports cars, that’s for sure.”
Favorite road trip
About seven years ago, Morse’s family flew to Seattle with another family who have kids around the same age. Both rented motor homes, drove down the coast, and camped all the way to San Francisco.
“That was phenomenal, camping all the way down the Oregon coast, going crabbing, doing the dune buggy rides, walking on the beaches, going through the redwoods, camping in redwoods and returning in San Francisco,” he says.
It was one of the best trips Morse has ever been on. “The scenery, the camaraderie, the kids, taking them to a lot of the places that I had been when I was young—they grew up here in Tennessee, I grew up in California,” he says. “My father was a teacher, so he had the same time off that we had, so we got to do a lot of camping..”
As a kid, Morse had camped with his folks on their vacations. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had some time, so we camped all the up and down the coast many times” he says. “So it was such a thrill to be able to go to many of these same places—Bullards Beach, Patrick’s Point and Richardson Grove. I took them to some of my favorite places from when I was a kid.”
The simplest moments are often the most memorable though, especially when it comes to good food. “It was incredible, one of my favorite memories was we went crabbing in Oregon,” he says. “I had gotten all the meat out, nobody else would do it. So I de-crabbed all the crabmeat. As we were leaving Eureka, my wife made me a grilled crab and cheese sandwich on sour dough as I was beginning to drive right into the redwoods. She made me this fresh sandwich and I was like, ‘Man it doesn’t get any better than this.’”
In southern Oregon, there were some places to drive his dad’s dune buggy. Morse went to the same area this time with his kids.
“They have these amazing dunes” he says. “But my dad bought one in the late ‘60s and just brought it one without telling my mom or anything. It was one of the first times I ever drove. I wasn’t of age. He took us out some where in the dunes near Ventura with a bunch of the other boys, and I just about killed us all. There’s some dunes near Venture, not good ones, near Oxnard. We were out there, and we’d take it up there and tool around on the beach and stuff. I guess my dad thought he was Steve McQueen for a season.”
Morse says the reason his dad always had old cars around was that he was a bargain hunter guy. “So if he found something he thought was a good bargain he would maybe talk the person down and just buy it on the spot” he says. “We had weird vehicles thinking back on it. And my brothers, they liked weird things. I remember they bought a mail truck. He bought some really old Ford truck, like from the ‘20s—my father did—as an investment thinking that they were going to sell it for a bunch of money, but I don’t they made any money on it.”
But now that Morse has his own unusual ride—his food truck—he says, “Maybe I’ve got more of dad in me than I realized.”
“The Similitude of a Dream” and tour
In the fall, Morse released a progressive rock double concept album “The Similitude of a Dream.”
“Mike Portnoy, who’s in the band, says it’s the best album he’s ever been a part of,” Morse says. “It’s really getting a lot of amazing press, and people are responding to it in an incredible way. People have been comparing it to The Who’s ‘Tommy’ or Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall,’ so if that kind of thing is your cup of tea, I think you’ll probably really enjoy it.”
The double concept album has been doing well for Morse. “It’s selling better than anything that we’ve ever had for sale,” he says. “It’s doing an amazing amount of business. It’s broken all records here at our little label. It’s also on vinyl, with the expanded art work. There’s a special edition with the making of DVD, called ‘The Making of a Dream.’ There’s all kinds of interesting things that happened during the making of the album.”
Morse says despite the single digital download era, fans are responding to these albums. “There’s lot of people that still want to go on a rather interesting long, musical journey,” he says. “It also has a lot of just really good accessible songs on it.”
Before progressive rock, Morse was in some hair bands and punk bands in the 1980s. “I played all the L.A. clubs of that era like Madame Wongs,” he says. “Then I was a singer-songwriter. I spent most of my time really trying to make it as a singer-songwriter, playing all those singer-songwriter clubs. But I was really into progressive rock when I was a teenager, and then I got back into it when I was in my early 30s. I started writing it. I always loved listening to it, but I never really tried to write any of my own until about 1990 or ’91, and that’s what started this whole thing going.”
He says the main distinction is that progressive rock goes outside of regular song structure, and there’s a little more playing, a little more instrumentals involved. “A lot of times some odd time signatures and the music progresses from one thing to another, and there’s generally a lot of styles of music put in one maybe longer piece of music,” he says. “It’s kind of like writing from a more classical writing style in the rock genre.”
Morse has been on tour since January, and he was on Yes’ “Cruise to the Edge” in February. He is headed to Europe and Israel in March and April, and he’s back touring the States starting in May.
“We’re going to play the whole album, and it’s going to be extremely epic,” he says. “And the venues where we can, we’re going to have a video wall that’s going to be really impactful. I think it’s going to be a really extraordinary tour, everyone should come.”
For more information on Morse’s tour dates, please visit nealmorseband.com