Top 40 Over 40.15: Bill Callahan – Made For the Stage?

Bill Callahan white suit

One of the cliches about aging performers is that they usually have to navigate the decline of their sex appeal by finding other ways to make something happen onstage.  There are some who escape this fate.  Kris Kistofferson was called a sex symbol during an interview with CBS’s Sunday Morning news program well into in his 60’s, which reminded me of how Nolan Ryan maintained the velocity of his fastball well into his 40s.  Most, however, follow a course more analogous to the one charted by Ryan’s former fireballing sidekick, Frank Tanana. Tanana 1992Angels-Frank-Tanana Tanana’s arm blew out at a much earlier age than Ryan.  When it did, he reinvented himself as “the Great Tantalizer,” a nickname he earned by baffling hitters with an array of breaking balls and slow offspeed pitches.  He pitched for 20 years as a result, retiring during the same year that Ryan did, in 1993.  In the process, Tanana provided a template for others like Jamie Moyer to follow, though Moyer never started out with Tanana’s fastball in the first place.

Back when he began performing as Smog, Bill Callahan wasn’t much of an erotic fireballer either.  I started listening to him when his first record came out.  Sewn to the Sky had a song called “The Weightlifter” on it that distanced itself from the world of preening narcissists.

I saw Smog live for the first time after his second record Forgotten Foundation came out.  The song I remember the most from his show featured the line, “Ah, you know, I wasn’t made for the stage / the last thing I kissed was a microphone.”  He stood sideways onstage backed by an awkwardly off time drummer, wearing a white t shirt and looking like the kind of teenager that was suffering from acute acne.  His mouth stayed glued to the microphone and his closed eyes conveyed not so much intimate concentration as a willful distance from the audience, as if to protect himself from their looming rejection.   A year later he came out with a single called “A Hit” that featured serial drawings of dollar bills and DD type boobs beneath a large lightning bolt.  smog a hitThe image mocked the mentality that would pursue the kind of success he proclaimed out of reach:  “It’s not gonna be a hit / so why even bother with it?”  I felt a bit weird about this when my band had a Top 40 hit a year later, which brought a few fiscal and sexual flashes of lightning into my life in ways that felt both exciting and threatening.

I stopped listening to Smog for a while after he came out with the song “Be Hit” from the 1995 album Wild Love.  This song contained the line “Every woman I have ever loved / wanted to be hit.  Every woman I have ever loved / left me cuz I wouldn’t do it. / Got some advice for you friend / Bruise ’em ‘you’ll never lose ’em.”  A friend of mine said he had been disgusted by seeing him sing this song live in San Francisco while wearing a corduroy suit that conveyed he had taken up a rock star attitude, but I didn’t find that theory very convincing.  He didn’t seem to have that kind of confidence or charisma to me at that time, and there was a lot of over simplified rhetoric about “rock stars” in the era of Kill Rock Stars as a label and the post-Nirvana requisite gesture to distance oneself from what happened to Kurt.  It seemed more complicated than just a calculated move to take a step towards stardom.  I was more interested in comments Kathleen, Lou’s wife, made about how she thought it was gross when Bill referred to his musical and former romantic partner, the late Cynthia Dall, as “Babycakes” when observing that she had taken a liking to Jason from Sebadoh during a tour they did together.

I started listening to Bill again when his 1996 album The Doctor Came at Dawn came out, which I liked.  I remember listening to the song “You Moved In” with my roommate at the time, and he turned and looked it me in a funny way when the line came on “And you think about JD / And why he had to leave / Kneeling in some bunker / Wiping his nose on his sleeve,” as if he thought it was written about me.  Maybe his flattery suspended my critical faculties.

At the time, the album didn’t seem to suggest the kind of persona suggested by “Be Hit”, or the one my friend had objected to after seeing Smog in SF.  Listening to that record recently, I’m not quite so sure.  “You Moved In” contains lyrics about tapping the phones and reading the mail of someone I took to be a lover who is trapped in what he refers to as “his hotel,” which he soon compares to a prison: “We split the rent / But you couldn’t / Make the bail…”  The song ends with the lines “And I hope you don’t mind If I grab your private life / Slap it on the table And split it With a knife.”

At any rate, I opened a few shows for Smog in Cambridge and New York after that record came out.  I met Bill briefly when he came back to my place after the show in Cambridge with his tour manager to pick up Cynthia Dall, who had spent the evening sleeping on my couch and drinking tea trying to fight off a nasty cold.  It was great to chat with her while I made her a dinner that tried to prove the adage, “What you need to do is feed a cold.”  Cynthia Dall

I was struck by how direct Bill was in person.  His serious approach on stage began to seem like less of a pose than some of my friends had assumed.  He stood up straight in my living room without sitting down or even bending his knees in the slightest, just as he had on stage.  He offered to give me a ride to New York in a way that seemed to suggest he would have liked to have a chance to chat on the way down, though he was too reticent to come out and say that.  He looked straight at me without moving his eyes, just as he had done to the audience on stage.  It kind of reminded me of some praying mantises I had run across in the mid 1970’s, who can stare you down with the best of them.  I didn’t take Bill up on his offer because I already had plans to drive down with Mia Doi Todd and play a show in New Haven on the way – but I’ve sometimes wished I had.

Bill dropped off my radar again when I heard a cover of “Be Hit” on a bootleg of a show Lou played in Australia around the time Folk Implosion was breaking up.  It resonated with the breakup in ways that made me not want to listen to Smog anymore, and I didn’t hear anything else Bill did for about 13 years or so after that.

In a visit to North Carolina in the spring of 2013 John Darnielle told me that he thought Bill had made the best records out of all of the lo-fi indie singer songwriters of our generation, based mostly on his recent output since Bill began releasing songs under his own name in the last four years or so.  Around the same time I was talking to Simon Joyner about feeling ambivalent about an interest I had in covering some songs by Billy Joe Shavers because of certain misogynist lyrics in them – “when the devil made that woman / lord he threw the pattern away / she were built for speed with the tools you need to make a new fool every day.”  (I’ve since learned that the song “Black Rose” is about heroin, not a heroine.)

Simon made a comment about how he looks at songs he writes as describing characters rather than expressing the way he feels personally, like a short story writer. I’ve certainly seen films by people like Fassbinder (Berlin Alexanderplatz) and read novels by writers like Chester Himes (Lonely Crusade) that portray domestic violence in ways I read to be critical explorations of a common disease of male human beings, rather than a personal reflection on those artists.

dennis and simon

Anyway, I decided to check out some of Bill’s recent work after another conversation I had with Dennis Callaci about “Be Hit” where he said he read it more in the way that Simon talked about songwriting, as a song about a character rather than a point of view Bill would endorse.  Dennis had played more shows with Bill and knew him better than I did, so I decided to give another listen.

What really surprised me was that I liked the live videos I saw on youtube as much as I did – more than the records, which I think highly of as well.  The resentful defeated attitude that seemed connected to the misogyny displayed in some of his earlier material seemed to have evolved into a quiet confidence.  He now looked out at the audience in way that seemed to register their reactions and respond to them quietly.  He looked….dare I say it…sexy.  Publicity photos around that time began to convey this impression as well.

smog open shirt

smiling smog BillCallahan-by-GoyaSkye-608x456He also had found musicians to play with that didn’t undercut his songs in the same way that the sloppy drumming on some of his early records and performances did.  The absence of drums in some of the shows I saw online made his songs expand and breathe, and he held that space down with his vocals very well in a way that is rare to see.  I can’t really reconcile the fact that I really really like the following performances with the early songs I was offended by.  But I am interested in the connection between the way that Bill seems more at ease with his sexuality and the relaxing of some of misogynist aggression in his earlier material.

There seems to be more room for emotional subtlety in the wake of this transformation, which calls into question the usual supposition that sexuality in rock has to do with emotionally bombastic stadium anthems like “You Shook Me All Night Long” or “Hot Blooded” (both of which I like.)  In that respect, the mentality Bill lampooned with “A Hit” is still kept at bay.

Bill may not have been made for the stage in his 20’s.  But in his 40’s, that’s exactly what he seems to have been made for.  Foreigner?  Not so sure.

Out of the recorded versions, I think this track is really fantastic:

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