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Bill Callahan, the only sad man worth loving

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 27, 2017

I used to be darker
Then I got lighter
Then I got dark again
Something too big
To be seen
Was passing over and over me
— Bill Callahan, “Jim Cain”

Bill Callahan is my favorite living, active musical artist. It’s been three years since his last album, Have Fun With God; until then, he’d released an album of all-new material every year or other year since 1990, mostly under the name band Smog [or “(Smog)”].

Since 2007, he’s toured under his own name. Like other Drag City artists, he’s not on Spotify or most streaming services. (Update: Drag City made a deal with Apple Music this summer, although it’s still missing from most of the other players.) This means his legacy risks being eclipsed for a whole cohort of fans. I find this unacceptable.

At one time or another, Bill’s managed to channel almost every deep-voiced, literary-minded, hard-knocks storyteller in popular music. You can hear bits of Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Gil-Scott Heron, Tom Petty, and Johnny Cash; you hear resonances of contemporaries like David Berman, Will Oldham, Mark Everett, or Jim O’Rourke (who produced four of Bill’s albums).

But he’s stranger than any of them. You get autobiography, direct address, dialogue, and narrative, but also surreal tableaux, where the singer/author stands at a remove. His characters talk like Cormac McCarthy’s, but think like Albert Camus. Overtly or covertly, he’s been the model for every sad man in the new generation of indie rock. I like some of them; I don’t like some of them. But all of them offer so much less than he does.

His work has gone through a number of phases. “A Hit” was his home-recorded, low-fi manifesto:

It’s not gonna be a hit
So why even bother
With it

I’ll never be a rock n’ roll saint
I’ll never be a Bowie, I’ll never be an Eno
I’ll never be a Bowie, I’ll never be an Eno
I’ll only ever be a Gary Numan

In the 90s, he moved into the studio and became a more recognizable indie folk artist. The apex of this phase might be “I Break Horses,” a disarming, alarming anthem for men who can’t (or won’t) make a relationship work:

“To Be Of Use” could be written by the same character as “I Break Horses,” but it’s much more musically and lyrically abstract. He’s crossed over from a singer who has practical problems dealing with humans to one who has philosophical problems with humanity.

Most of my fantasies are of
Making someone else come.
Most of my fantasies are of
To be of use—
To be of some hard,
Simple
Undeniable use.

Oh — like a spindle.
Or oh — like a candle.
Oh — like a horseshoe.
Or oh — like a corkscrew.

1999’s Knock Knock, his last collaboration with producer Jim O’Rourke, was his fifteen minutes of fame. “Cold Blooded Old Times” was on the High Fidelity soundtrack: he loaned the movie album a level of indie cred (of course Rob would love Smog), and eighteen years ago, a movie or TV commercial appearance was enough to launch an indie band into the indie stratosphere — i.e., modest, ephemeral fame.

There are so many good songs on Knock Knock, in every indie rock style, but my sentimental favorite is another simple arpeggiated tune that sounds a lot like “To Be Of Use.” “Teenage Spaceship” breaks my heart every time I hear it.

Landing at night
I was beautiful with all my lights
Loomed so large on the horizon
So large, people thought my windows
Were stars

Bill, or Bill’s personae (it’s hard to nail him down), is always worried he’s been mistaken for something he’s not. It’s the most peculiar but totally recognizable kind of butch vulnerability. “You will never know exactly how far I have let you in.”

The hallmark of a good Bill Callahan song is its deceptive simplicity. Later, he’d add orchestration and sometimes work with fuller bands, but even then, there’s generally not a whole lot going on that’s extra.

“Dress Sexy At My Funeral” is the best Lou Reed song Lou never wrote, two chords and a bridge. The concept is jokey, but the execution is compelling:

2003’s Supper is Bill’s most beautiful album, and “Truth Serum” (with Sarabeth Tucek on vocals) may be its most beautiful song.

This is really the hinge in his career. He’d split up with Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, a few years before (see the cat struck by lightning on the cover of Knock Knock?). He would soon be dating Joanna Newsom, another brilliant young folk singer and songwriter. A River’s Too Much to Love is really his first solo album, but still under the Smog name; the alarmingly upbeat Woke on a Whaleheart the first Bill Callahan album proper. It seemed like good times were ahead. [Narrator: They were not.]

“Sycamore” is the song I played for my son when he was born.

Callahan and Newsom went through a messy breakup. They both wrote great songs about it. They both didn’t seem fully over it. She ended up with Andy Samberg, essentially Bill Callahan’s tonal opposite.

Bill married filmmaker Hanly Banks, who’d directed a documentary of his “Apocalypse” tour. And he wrote “Small Plane,” which is awfully close to perfect.

He still tours. He still writes. His fans still wait for his next work, wondering what it all means.

Amanda Meyncke is a television writer and director, and the biggest fan of Bill’s I know. I asked her to try to explain his appeal.

He’s my favorite musician of all time, followed closely by David Byrne and Bob Dylan — both performers who are startlingly easy to get to know, to research, to understand in time. Not so with Bill.

Bill is like so fucking infamously enigmatic. He makes a wonderful billboard to project your own theories onto as well as a safe home for your feelings to live, since it is unlikely any stories behind the music will ever emerge. Also you get the feeling he’d lie to your face about his own work, or somehow be amused at your insistence on infusing it with meaning beyond the obvious.

I’ve seen him perform perhaps 10 times, I’ve flown to other states for the singular purpose of seeing him. I’ve seen him multiple times on the same tour and he performs the exact, precise set list at every stop of the tour, never altering or adding. He doesn’t seem to like performing, doesn’t seem to like the limelight.

About ten years ago I posed as a promoter and wrote his record label to find out what it would cost to get a solo Bill show. Turns out it will cost $10,000, so I’ve been saving up ever since. I bet it’s close to $15,000 now.

One of my friends said he and Joanna Newsom were engaged in the slowest rap battle of all time, warring records being released every three years.

Mostly it’s just the most goddamn beautiful music and vocals I’ve heard. A vision of love that feels more like a New Yorker short fiction from decades ago. A two-step with isolation that is both self-imposed and rejected.

He married the woman who made a documentary about him and they had a kid a year or two ago. Bill as a dad, the family man. What a world.