Childish matters

A confession: In matters relating to English cult icon Billy Childish, who performed Sunday night at Old Ironsides, I’m not an expert. I’m barely a neophyte. To be a serious fan, one would need to collect the LPs he’s released over the past 27 years—more than 100 of them, under such monikers as the Pop Rivets, the Milkshakes, Thee Mighty Caesars, the Del Monas, Wild Billy Childish (with and without the Blackhands or the Natural Born Lovers) and the Buff Medways—along with all the singles, poetry books (more than 40 of those) and novels, not to mention last year’s Childish: Paintings of a Backwater Visionary, which collects his visual art. It would take a special breed, with a big wallet and an awful lot of time, to be a Billy Childish completist. I’ve known a few; I used to work with one.

Childish is the undisputed king of do-it-yourself pop culture, and the only thing missing from his massive CV is a side career as an indie film director. Perhaps that’s next. Still, as daunting as a serious Childish habit might be, the casual fan can enjoy his words and music, too.

Childish, sporting a leprechaun-esque hat with a feather and a waxed Dixieland banjoist’s mustache, began the evening by reading his poetry. I’d twisted my back earlier in the day, and it was starting to hurt like hell, so I sat on the floor stage left, which offered a fine view of the audience. Anton Barbeau in his Canadian-flag hat; the Groovie Ghoulies’ Kepi and Roach; Th’ Losin Streaks’ Tim Foster, who’d cajoled the club into booking the gig; the Bee’s pop-music critic Chris Macias, who gave Childish a nice advance write-up; and Baby Grand’s Cory Vick all huddled together in the better-than-half-full room. Not a bad turnout for a Sunday night.

One couple came all the way from New Hampshire; the man was in a band called Thee Monkey Butlers, and the prospect of seeing Childish live provided a good excuse to fly west.

Now, Childish may not be William Butler Yeats, but his thickly accented delivery of his tales of paternal alcohol abuse and the attendant wreckage, along with the momentum it provided his own life, was quite mesmerizing. After a short break, Childish returned for a sit-down set with his wife, Julie, on bass; Maz Kattuah from the Phantom Surfers and Mummies on drums; and himself on a hollow-body Silvertone electric. The musical portion was billed as blues, and Childish’s delivery of said blues, spirituals and occasional punk jeremiads was near-perfect, with a sublime guitar tone, solos that were masterpieces of economy and taste, and vocals that were closer to Ian Dury than Roy Orbison but still got the feeling across.

Speaking of cult figures, at one point I asked Barbeau if he’d received the same kind of warm reception in England that Childish was getting in Sacramento. “Oh, it’s just like this,” he joked. Barbeau added that he’s putting finishing touches on the debut album of Solitary Bees, the new nom de disque he’ll be using. Also playing on the record are Cake members Gabe Nelson, Todd Roper and Greg Brown, along with Kimberly Rew of the Soft Boys and Katrina and the Waves.