Inspiration can come from, and to, the most unlikely of places. Take for instance the case of the artist formerly known as Wild Billy Childish, these days looking less like a dashing roustabout capable of stealing your girl with as little as a wayward grin, and more like a pastoral gentleman who stepped straight out of a James Joyce novel, choosing Minneapolis of all places to make his only US appearance of the year. It was in accordance with the opening of an exhibit of Childish's paintings in a small gallery adjacent to, and owned by, Grumpys, the bar where I watched Mitch Cardwell and his cronies in Short Eyes wolf down fried macaroni and cheese a little less than a year ago. That the bard of the Medway was deigning to visit a state famous for, well, not much outside of having the county's largest shopping mall was bizarre enough. Throw in the fact that he was showing his paintings, reading poetry, and playing a solo acoustic "blues set" in a chain-bar displaying a picture of a cigar-chomping, disgruntled skinhead on its sign and selling enough batter-fried goods to clog a square mile of arteries, and this whole set up was seeming as incongruous as Matt Coppens showing up for a feminist poetry slam decked out in an Armani suit. Well, okay, not THAT incongruous.
When Grumpys has shows, the bands play in a tiny shoebox-like room adjacent to the bar. While Billy was preparing himself inside said room, an unusually varied crowd (a mix of archetypal garage rock dudes, hipsters, regular joes, older guys, and more girls than any show in Minnesota in recent memory) impatiently thronged around a seated bouncer who, chicken sandwich and fries in hand, kept us all at bay with the skill of lion tamer. Once he finally let us in, I immediately made my way to the front of the cramped, cavernous room in order to insure I got a good vantage point for taking pictures. The "stage" was only about an inch or two off the ground and looked like it could hold three people at most. As I stood there sipping (well, gulping) my beer and trying to pass the time, Brian Hermosillo came up to me and introduced me to this really nice girl named Trista who flew in from Missouri (or Mississippi or somewhere south of the Mason Dixon like that) just for a chance to see Chatham's favorite son in the flesh. We chatted it up as the exponentially swelling crowd bulged towards the front of the stage. The anticipation was as palpable as a two-dollar steak, and likely as difficult to cut through if anyone had thought ahead and snuck in a knife.
Then, with the dapper air of a playboy and the quirky dignity of a true artist, Billy assumed his place in front of the mob, tipped his hat to us, said hello, and asked if we wanted to hear some poetry. Although in my heart of hearts I was inclined towards more music and less poetry, I and a great many others enthusiastically whooped, "Yes!"
What happened next was something I was entirely unprepared for. Billy read from a book of his poetry with so much vitality and conviction that it was as gripping as almost any concoction of powerchords and pounding drums I'd ever seen. More so than most, in fact. I wish I could remember more of the details of individual poems, but one after another they painted stunningly vivid portraits of a life scarred by abuse (both external and self inflicted), buoyed by humor ("It's amazing what you can get applauded for, innit?" Childish quipped after one short poem), and finally redeemed by the power of art. Nothing sums up the first of those descriptors more than his genuinely touching a cappella rendering of the Headcoats' song "I'm Hurting." Stripped bare of all but Childish's weathered, yet surprisingly powerful and self-assured, voice there was nothing to distract from the stark emotional reality of a man whose "glove was crushed" by an alcoholic father only to grow up and inflict more pain on himself than his father ever could. That this self-abuse was the result of Childish's attempt to cauterize wounds inflicted by his father with the same poison which drowned his father's heart like a stone only magnifies the tragedy. The rub here is that this isn't a boo-hoo-poor-me sob story, quite the contrary. When Childish sang the lines, "now I can't drink whiskey/and I can't drink gin/just a little glass of water/and nothing therein" it was with a sense of gravity only someone who had lived them could muster. It was a voice of triumph.
The feeling of triumph conveyed by Childish's victory over alcoholism was surpassed, however, by the final poem he read, which was among the most life-affirming things I've ever heard, and rather than do so in a way that smacked of sentimentality or contrived heart-string pulling, he did it with a frankness and sense of humor that accentuated, and celebrated, the eccentricities of life. It was the story of his son's birth. He started off by admitting his son was conceived the last time he slept with his longtime girlfriend. Although they had decided to split up after that night, Billy was elated when she told him of her pregnancy. He sat down, kissed her stomach, and fell immediately in love with his unborn child. From here the poem turned into a series of pledges to his son; chief among them a pledge not to repeat the cycle of abuse Childish himself was born into and a pledge to love, nurture, and protect. The blunt frankness with which Billy revealed traumatizing memories, such as being told he was ugly and he couldn't sing, to a room of complete strangers and the humility and earnestness with which he pledged no one would say the same things to his son caused his performance to overcome the boundaries of spoken poetry. Through his art, Childish was able to paint a picture of the sanctity of life that transcended mere oratory; this poem was a visceral experience of the potential inherent in all of humanity that sometimes lies dormant, but loses none of its radiance, when people struggle to know and accept themselves. Although this poem was written to celebrate the occasion of his sonfs birth, its sentiment could just as easily apply to its author's life story, and its lesson was one that could be appreciated by many of us. Then, just as unceremoniously and promptly as he began, Childish ended his poetry reading to a chorus of appreciative hollers and heartfelt applause. Far from the tedious sacrificing of a half-hour at the altar of an artiste's ego I was expecting to be made to go through in order to get to the good stuff, Childish's poetry reading was a revelatory, moving experience unto itself, one that would have left me completely satisfied even if he hadn't played nary a tune afterwards.
But play tunes he did, and what magnificent tunes they were! Before Childish began to play, he sat down on a wooden chair, and as by his own admission this wasn't a rock n'roll show, he invited us to take a seat on the floor as well. Sitting there with my legs huddled up so I wouldn't intrude too much on Brian or Trista's respective personal bubbles, I gazed up at the man who recorded a litany of classic songs as he began breaking into one of them with a relaxed ease and comfort that belied the performance's intensity. To tell you the truth, I can't remember for the life of me what song he started out with; what stuck with me about his performance was more the way he played than what he played. I recall him playing a few Bo Diddley songs, one of which ("Oh Yeah") was loutishly interrupted by some local yokel sitting in the booth directly behind me. He was furiously chatting away with his friend during the majority of the set up until this point (in the yokel's defense, his conversation consisted mainly of pedagogical pearls of wisdom such as "see that guitar? That's really expensive!") and Childish, seemingly as weary of the constant drone of drunken bullshit conversation as we all were (well at least myself, Trista, and Brian) stopped playing mid-tune, asked the guy to please be quiet because "We can't hear what we're doing here", and then, and this is something I'll never forget, HE ASKED THE GUY NOT TO BE EMBARRASSED FOR WHAT HE WAS DOING, BUT JUST TO PLEASE REFRAIN FROM TALKING FROM NOW ON. I don't know about you, but I've never come across a performer so egalitarian that he actually worries about the feelings of audience members who have been heckling and rudely gabbing away over his entire set. And, unlike, say, returning fire with direct confrontation, Childish's polite approach actually worked; the yokel was silent as a librarian the rest of the night. Then, without missing a beat, Childish blasted back into the song at the exact point he left off with double the foot-stompin' rhythm and blues-based aggression he showed before. Each "Oh Yeah" was more rousing than the last until by the end the audience were compelled to yell along the refrain of "YEAH YEAH YEAH" that follows the chorus. This moment was a perfect encapsulation of the Billy Childish experience: egoless rapport between artist and audience; with the only difference between the two being the fact that Childish was up there doing it while we were sitting there listening to him at the time. Childish appears to have overcome the juvenile desire to channel his aggression into getting back at those who insult him. On the contrary, he just redoubles his energy into his art. After all, he has more important things to do than worry about a heckler. This, I believe, is the secret to Childish's prodigious output over the years. The man is a dynamo of perpetual inspiration: he just keeps creating and doesn't let anything, whether it's a disparaging remark about his voice, a negative review in a fanzine, or an inebriated heckler, stop him from doing what he wants.
What happened after that remains a blur for me, but I distinctly remember him closing with a furiously rousing rendition of "Troubled Times" and my head uncontrollably bobbing along to the beat. Sure I looked like a goon, but moments as perfect as that one don't come along very often. Seeing Billy Childish live was an experience pregnant with the seed of inspiration; a seed that, like the ones planted by the Ramones and their ilk years ago, doubtless will take root in the lives of those fortunate enough to have been there.
Billy Childish Live @ Grumpys 5/7/05
1115 Paul Parkway #102
Minneapolis, MN 55434
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