Bill Callahan, an appreciation

Around 2000, I went on two dates with a guy who looked pretty much EXACTLY like Brian Krakow from My So Called Life. After date #1, he made me a mix CD featuring songs by the Silver Jews, Clinic, and Grandaddy, among others. One of the standouts was “Ex-Con” by some dude named Smog. On date #2, blonde ‘fro guy divulged that he had something of a cocaine problem. I said no thanks to the dude, but that Smog song planted a seed.

Several years later, when I rediscovered Smog as Bill Callahan, it was like a whole new part of me bloomed. Bill’s music was lyrically complex and transcendentally clear. Like any great writer, he expressed universal experiences—loss, desperation, regret, sex, death, rebirth—with an economy of words and cutting honesty.

As anyone who has seen or read an interview with him knows, Callahan is not one to chit-chat. To the utter dismay of music journalists and college radio bloggers everywhere, Bill has very little public persona at all. At best, he is polite. At worst, he is crotchety. I have experienced this myself in the few times I’ve met him. Once at a book signing for his novella Letters to Emma Bowlcut. Once at the grocery store. And once last weekend, at a screening of Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan tour film.

To the credit of filmmaker Hanly Banks, the film doesn’t try to make any grand declarations. It just shows Bill in his dressing room. Bill in the car. Bill helping baby goat disentangle itself from a fence. Bill playing badminton. Bill watching another guy light fireworks in a backyard. And mostly, Bill on stage, playing with his band for the Apocalypse tour, Matt Kinsey on guitar and Neal Morgan on drums.

The performances are indicative of a typical Bill Callahan show. He doesn’t play to please you, necessarily. He doesn’t make it easy to get a lot of his songs, but at the same time, he desperately wants you to get it. He wants you to be up for the level of conversation he is proposing. It makes me wonder what BIll would be like at a party, if he ever engages with individuals the way he engages with audiences.

I was a late bloomer in terms of more difficult music. Growing up, I listened to non-stop pop music, both the Top 40 of my generation and the saccharine sweet “golden oldies” from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I can still sing along to almost anything on the oldies station. My dad played music constantly—singer/songwriters, reggae, ska, Motown, soul, straight up rock and roll. He was constantly changing the words. Around the holidays, instead of “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,” we sang “I’m screaming at a white Christian… Just like the ones I used to know…” And any song with the word “girl” in it automatically became “squirrel,” as in the Chi-Lites classic “Oh, Girl” … Ohhhh, squirrel, I’d be in trouble if you left me now…

When I ask myself why I love Bill Callahan’s music, I think it has a lot to do with my dad. They are both “still waters run deep” kinds of guys. It takes fortitude to love someone who can be impossibly distant, but it makes those breakthrough moments, when our hearts are open, incredibly sweet. It reminds me of a line from the Smog song “Cold Blooded Old Times”

“And though you were, just a little squirrel, I understood every word…”

I think of BIll as a writer, first and foremost. So here are some of my favorites songs, with some of my favorite lines:

Ex-Con
When I’m alone in my room
I feel like such a part of the community
But out on the streets
I feel like a robot by a river
Looking for a drink

Hit the Ground Running
I couldn’t memorize a century of slang
or learn to tell the same story again, and again, and again

The Well
They say that black is all colors at once
So I gave it my red rage
and my yellow streak
the greenest parts of me
and my blues…

Say Valley Maker
So bury me in wood, and I will splinter
Bury me in stone, and I will quake
Bury me in water, and I will geyser
Bury me in fire, and I’m gonna phoenix…

Too Many Birds
If
If you
If you could
If you could only
If you could only stop
If you could only stop your
If you could only stop your heart
If you could only stop your heartbeat
If you could only stop your heartbeat for
If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heart
If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heartbeat

Riding for the Feeling
What if I had stood there at the end
and said again and again and again and again and again
in answer to every question?

Would that have been a suitable goodbye?

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2 thoughts on “Bill Callahan, an appreciation

  1. “Oh black bird, over black rain burn
    This is not where you last knew rest
    You fly all night to sleep on stone”

    ah, lovely Bill… at least Brian Krakow had decent music taste…

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