Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Danzig and the intersection of music mythologies
On the telephone, Will Oldham—better known to a generation of music fans as Bonnie “Prince” Billy—is telling me that “it’s very easy to quote certain Danzig lyrics.” As proof, he begins to recite “All Hell Breaks Loose,” from Danzig’s legendary horror-punk band the Misfits: “Walls start closing in around you/My twins of evil/They shake you by the collarbone/Then snap your ribcage/And broken bodies in a death rock dance hall/Please be my partner/Eyeballs pop, accelerated blood beat/Veins a-shaking/And all hell breaks loose.”
He pauses for a moment, then says thoughtfully, “I can’t think of anybody else who has written like that.”
Ostensibly, this is Oldham’s explanation of why he sometimes covers the Misfits song “Last Caress” in concert—he’s a “huge, huge Misfits fan” who in the mid-80s actually got to roadie and work as a photographer for Danzig’s second band Samhain, which he calls “definitely a life-changing experience.” And the connection goes back even further than that.
“I would mail order directly from him as a kid,” says Oldham, referring to the early Misfits years when Danzig ran the band’s label out of his house. “And he would throw in these little surprises. When I’m packing orders now, I think of Glenn Danzig.”
The 20-minute conversation about Danzig that ensues may seem tangential to understanding Oldham’s music, but after a while I start to realize that it’s not. That’s what it’s like talking to him—even topics that seem random at first seem to come together thematically. Everything has a deeper level.
You can hear that, too, in Oldham’s songs, which sonically are hard to explain beyond phrases like “indie folk” or “alt-country.” The key to understanding them is in the lyrics, which are intimate and epic at the same time. While most people would consider his music to be nothing like Danzig’s, Danzig’s influence on Oldham’s music is shockingly obvious when you dig just a little under the surface. In the Misfits, Danzig built not just a body of songs, but an actual mythology. As Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Oldham has done that, too. There’s a mystical quality to his best songs, like “You Remind Me of Something,” that’s spiritually akin to Danzig: “Well the glory goes/To those who do not seek it/Reveling in midnight clothes/Among the wicked/Picking scabs from off their skin/And rolling holy deeply in/To the rhythm called the song that does not end.”
I won’t even go into how bizarre it is that that verse can be sung to the tune of “All Hell Breaks Loose”—it’s just one more thematic thread that unexpectedly comes together—but I will say that everything we talked about seemed to keep coming back to the concept of mythology.
For instance, the mythic aura of Johnny Cash, and how it intersected with his own life when Cash covered Oldham’s song “I See a Darkness” on one of his last albums, American III: Solitary Man. Oldham’s song has become such a part of the Cash mythology that the graphic novel based on Cash’s life from a few years ago was called I See a Darkness.
But Oldham himself didn’t really grasp what a big deal that was until he made an unheralded visit to the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville and found the staff wanting to take pictures with him. “I was thinking. ‘My goodness, on some level I’m a part of this,’” says Oldham. “It’s mindboggling.”
That’s not to say he wasn’t bowled over the very first time he heard his words coming out of Johnny Cash’s mouth, on a demo tape. “There’s no overstating how dreamlike the experience was, and continues to be,” says Oldham. “Hearing him sing that, it felt like I’d passed a test that I’d created for myself.”
And he’s not just being woven into the mythos of other musicians, he’s even being sung about by name, taking on an almost comic-book antihero type quality in the song “Will Oldham Williamsburg Horror” by fellow misfit folk artist Jeffrey Lewis. In the song, Oldham is a shadowy figure who stalks Lewis on the subway as he ponders the bizarre nature of the music business.
Oldham found the song funny and clever, and considers it very much like his own use of the Bonnie “Prince” Billy pseudonym to distinguish between his real self and some kind of symbolic identity onto which others project whatever they want—a difference underscored by the fact that Lewis got someone to play him in the video, rather than asking Oldham to play himself.
“He created this character,” says Oldham. “I didn’t have to be that guy, but it was a cool representation of something.”
Info: 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 24, at Bret Harte Hall in Felton; $25; folkyeah.com.
A PRINCE AMONG MEN Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy comes to Bret Harte Hall in Felton on Thursday, Sept. 24.