ONE IN THE EYE FOR THE FAKES
"'I've encountered all that crowd. I went to one of Tracey Emin's openings, which she asked me to go to Damien Hirst, a little knotted ball of anger, who told me that Tracey had big tits and asked if I had fucked her. I didn't think that it was worthy of a reply. I also met Morcambe and Wise [Gilbert and George], who told me my name was 'interesting'. I replied, 'Mmm,' and that was the end of that."
Richard Cabut interviews painter, poet, novelist, musician, green-tea drinker and all-round dyslexic genius Billy Childish, as a retrospective exhibition opens in London.
COPYRIGHT © 2003, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Billy Childish sits scoffing baked potatoes -- plain, with a drip of olive oil, some salt and pepper -- off a chipped enamelled plate, the sort used during the war, or on 1950s camping trips, perhaps.
We're in the kitchen of a two-up, two-down rented Victorian terrace in Chatham -- a town depressed and distressed since its famous docks closed down in the 80s. A raucous bloke next door has got "the shouting disease", as Billy puts it, and the chap opposite got banged up for murder. It's a rough area.
Literally and figuratively, the house, which Childish shares with American wife Julie, is miles away from the sort of fashionable dishevelment to be found in the lofts of Hoxton. Instead, strewn with odd bits and pieces -- an old organ, an ancient oven -- and hung with ramshackle curios and artwork, the abode is the real thing. Somehow, the house gets by without Swedish furniture, shag rugs, black fridges, aluminium standing lamps, and other trappings of stylish-yet-ruffled living. A dusty rhapsody of shabbiness, it is, of course, a proper artist's house. And Childish is, needless to say, a proper artist.
At the bare wooden table, Billy wipes his ever-sprouting Victorian moustache, and thinks for a moment or two before proceeding to itemise everything in the world he owns: a fridge, a washing machine, a dozen guitars, an ex-St John's ambulance, a table, some chairs, and an old Volvo car. It's not much for a 43-year-old, he muses. But, hey, Billy is rich in other ways -- his treasures extending far beyond the measure of mere material reward -- namely, a massive cultural output. When writing about Childish, it is traditional to trot out a list of his achievements, so here goes: 2000 paintings, over 100 LPs with bands including Thee Headcoats and the Buff Medways, two novels and 30-plus volumes of poetry. All of which has been produced independently, without the help of big record deals, major art galleries or literary agents -- in fact, Childish has run his own record label and still operates a DIY small press, Hangman Books. Billy, it seems, is nothing less than a cultural and creative marvel.
But it's not just about quantity. His collective work (records, books, poems, the whole shebang) turns the camera on what are usually the margins of life -- especially his own somewhat eventful one -- on the places where the actual buzz of existence goes on, where the failures and faux pas, the madness, melancholy and, above all, the raw joy of experience, all battle it out on a daily basis.
It's easy to be swept away by the visual and lyrical cornucopoia spilling out of Childish's fevered imagination. His material has that neurotic sensibility and loathing of mediocrity -- a deep-rooted craving to escape normal limitations. At the same time, it is underwhelmed by technological feats, mesmerised instead by a capacity to collapse emotions within widened imagination.
The stories and poems, especially, act as a signpost, directing folk to the freedoms of the interior: the mind and soul. Drawn into -- and fighting his way out of -- an underworld of alienation, loneliness, hopelessness and anger, Childish is an inspired misfit with, as they say, the courage of his own eccentricity. The honesty at play advertises life as something that could be better if only we displayed such willingness for self-awareness.
If anyone deserves a major exhibition, then, it is our Bill. Having started earlier in November, the show at London's Aquarium Gallery continues until Christmas Eve, celebrating all things Childish. "Billy has had a number of exhibitions in London, but these have consisted of putting a few of his paintings on the wall," say the Aquarium chaps in one of their natty handouts. "We want to do something a little bit different. We will make this an exciting event where people can come to listen to his records, read his books, look at rare material, hear the man speak, look at his paintings & woodcuts." Check out the full itinerary on the website -- anyone who's anyone is going to be there, darling.
Famously a friend and inspiration to the likes of the White Stripes, Graham Coxon, Kurt Cobain and every boho hack writer in town, Childish is a gift to all seekers of the raw, the real, the brutal, the unrefined, the honest, the down 'n' dirty, the glamorously unglamorous, the outspoken, the painful, the imperfect -- the outsider. One who has doggedly followed his muse over the course of the decades with only cult approval and minimal financial gain. While we were down the pub, watching TV, playing video games, Billy was toiling and suffering. Yes, Billy died for everyone's sins (but not mine), as it were.
"It's in my nature," says Childish, explaining the root of his apartness. "That and my experiences and encounters with authority." Billy's woeful saga has been well-documented, but is worth repeating for its relentless series of calamities. First, 5-year-old Billy, a little scamp, no doubt, refused to go to school and had to be dragged kicking and screaming down the road, spindly legs and arms flying all over the place. Clearly, young Bill had a sense that something awful was going to happen -- and it did. Simply, the lad was rubbish at learning, couldn't read or write for the life of him, no matter how much he tried. Ridiculed and attacked, the poor boy found no solace at home, where he was further pilloried by his alcoholic father. Little did anyone know that Billy, far from being stupid or obstinate, was, in fact, dyslexic.
It all goes downhill from here for our hero. The father left home when Billy was seven, around which time the lad was sexually abused -- "Not by my teacher, but by someone who was a teacher." He began to wet the bed and, still unable to read or write, was called thick by all and sundry. Needless to say, he was an academic failure, and his secondary school booted him out early to stop him taking an exam in the one subject he could hold his own in: art. Without any qualifications, he was turned down by all the art schools, but spent time drawing on his own. His tenacity paid off when the local school accepted him on something called a 'genius clause.' But within two weeks, the establishment decided that troublesome Bill, far from being a genius, was the worst student they'd ever had. He was unceremoniously kicked out before being taken pity on by St Martins, where he was a round peg in a square hole.
"I thought I'd meet artists there, but they were only interested in their careers," Chilish remembers. "Half the people thought I was pretending to be working class, and the other half thought I was working class. There was no one to be friends with. I refused to go on an anti-Nazi march and was labelled a Nazi by a Jewish girl. I didn't fit in, and then I was expelled for publishing a book of poetry deemed obscene. But this time, my father had gone to prison for drug smuggling, and I decided to go on the dole and paint, which was all I wanted to do in any case."
Billy was on his own, where he has remained for ever since, refusing to toe any party line or kowtow to any clique. Famously, he was a boyfriend of Tracey Emin and could, perhaps, have used the association to his benefit -- if only he had had it in him.
"I've encountered all that crowd," Childish says, trying to stifle a sneer. "I went to one of Tracey's openings, which she asked me to go to, and met Damien Hirst, a little knotted ball of anger, who told me that Tracey had big tits and asked if I had fucked her. I didn't think that it was worthy of a reply. I also met Morcambe and Wise [Gilbert and George], who told me my name was 'interesting'. I replied, 'Mmm,' and that was the end of that."
Well, almost. There was just time for one act of betrayal which would see Emin continue her rise to superstardom and Childish remain on the background.
"I was on the verge of being helped by certain people," Childish explains. "Tracey, who had had a bit of success at the time, told her boyfriend about me, and he wanted to do me a big favour. Tracey had told him about Hangman Books and about all that had gone on and where a lot of her influences and ideas had come from, and he said he would try to help put on a big exhibition -- a bit like this Aquarium one -- at the South London Gallery. They went along to the gallery to speak to the people and everything was ok. But then they offered Tracey the exhibition time they were trying to give to me, and she felt unable to resist -- which is in character, shall we say."
"On one level, Tracey knows it's good to be honourable and fulfil things and acknowledge roots," says Childish. "But on another level, she thinks that simply offering to help is enough, and I should be grateful for that. The sentiment is enough for her, and action isn't needed. After that, I would say the wrong thing at the wrong time, time and time again. Those people don't need to have a conscience around so I was… removed."
Ultimately, Childish is one in the eye for the fakes -- for any song, or play, or book, or painting, or film that pretends to be profound although it is shallow, and true although it is false.
But Childish has not forgotten this stab in the back even now. If there is one subject which is sure to get him agitated and animated, it is Emin and the conceptual art movement of which she, along with Hirst et al, remain figureheads. Indeed, Childish was co-leader of the ridiculous anti-conceptual Stuckist movement. Thankfully, he's quit, but his animosity toward anything that veers away from the parameters of traditional art remains.
"Conceptual art is really just talking about art -- it's what my wife would call boring. If I talk about art, she lets me go on for five minutes, and then asks me to stop. Doing things is very different from talking about things. It's a con -- people will try to flog you anything, there are a lot of con artists in art. If there's money about, if you pay them, people will stand on their heads and juggle their balls. A lot of the conceptual stuff is dodgy poetry. They attach a few lines to something and it's an excuse to show an object -- an object that is only discernable as a piece of art because it is in a gallery. That means that the person who made the object isn't the artist, but the man who owns the gallery, who has made this miraculous transformation. It's money for old rope for people who've got too much."
Childish has absolutely no truck with the idea that, at its best, conceptual art is a radical gesture, an attack on the primacy of painting and sculpture, revealing a shifting and mutable process, an activity, experience or even a state of mind -- a challenge to hundreds of years of looking things at the same way. In fact, Childish laughs rather loudly at the very idea. "The conceptualists want to make out they are more important than they bloody are by pretending they're artists, because they want to get on a high point where the money's coming in, or where they can feel smug about themselves. You can have something that is about ego aggrandisement and, on the other hand, you can have a piece of art that communicates something -- a fragile part of the self, or view of how we are. Most people doing conceptual stuff, if you pull the resources out of it, they'll stop doing it because they don't believe in it themselves."
And so keeping a cheeky distance from the mood of the times, Billy takes succour in tradition and aspects of the past. Some of this harking back business is funny -- he complains like a moany old git that, these days, everyone wears disco shoes, his name for trainers (on inspection, my own are deemed merely "disco-esque", not "full blown." Phew.). Everyone watches disco TV, where the camera and sounds go "Wooooshhhhhh" when anything happens. Not that Bill has a TV himself, of course, but he sometimes watches his mum's.
Some of it is cool -- on his records, he eschews modern trickery for a stripped, naked approach. "I wouldn't enjoy it if we had to do it the way that disco rock 'n' rollers are doing it," says Billy, who clearly equates modernity with 'disco' which, John Travolta will be surprised to hear, began after the First World War. "All the huge PAs and lightshows means it's a way of hiding something rather than illuminating. We're not hiding behind anything, which is the opposite of what people want - an illusion."
And some of it is a bit weird - the obsession with Victorian values and Victoriana ("curtained off piano legs? Great!") and a refusal to listen to new fangled music: "Only once every six months."
Yet Billy refutes the idea that he is in any way into nostalgia, and somehow makes his argument stick. "I'm not interested in retro: I'm only interested in the new and modern. What I'm talking about is what the new and modern needs to be. Retro suggests digging up something because it reminds us of a quaint period. But what I'm talking about is whether something works or not. Having an integrated tram system in Britain wouldn't be cute and retro, it would be the height of the modern. It's what works. Is it good that you don't make anything in your own country, that there are no arts and crafts? That may be modern, but it doesn't work."
Childish hates modern life and imagines another world, another way of living. In this, he is utopian and radical. "Everything has to de-evolute, everything needs to come down to the ground, to be what it's about," he says. "That means that people have to stop thinking that more television and more cars will save us. Or that the Internet or mobile phones will save us. All these things are phony and have to be stripped back. People have to go to a very painful place to decide what they really want."
Billy has already been to his very own painful place. It happened when his father, after release from prison, came to the family house. During an altercation, and fearing for his mum, Billy beat his dad up. "There is an anger deep in my unconscious," Childish admits. "I would have killed people if I didn't have art or writing. I would have gone down the road of the psychopath, but I managed to beat my father up at the age of 21 and that saved a lot of misery. I was going to kill him but I didn't, so I had my chance to murder, but I made my choice not to, so I came back… "
Billy is now the only one in his family who speaks to his dad although, says Childish, the father ("the most selfish man I have ever met") is not particularly interested in his son or grandson -- Billy's child, Huddie.
Another part of Childish's rehabilitation came when he quit drinking. In Idler issue 25, Billy has written one of the most astute pieces about alcoholism I've ever read. He recounts the decades of being a stumble bum with a bottle of whisky by his bed in which, every night he, a terrible drunk, cried, "I can't do this any more." Now, dry since 1993, Billy comments: "I gave up to stop being a teenager, to start growing up. it was hard and it wasn't. If you go to the bottom of something, you can remember how rotten it was in the first place."
Billy worked on many areas of his psyche and sought the help of psychoanalysts, healers, meditation, vision quests. He became, and remains, interested in the spirit instead of spirits. He attends retreats which involve ten-hour sessions (no talking, no eye contact) for ten days at a time, and practices yoga on a daily basis. "At the retreats, I realised that my mind was a screaming sewer of pornography," says Childish. "But also that there's a way out somehow, that there is a way of escaping, of absorbing the mind, or letting the mind talk its way out, shall we say.
"Everything that matters in spiritual practice gives you more room to expand as a being," continues Billy, who also studies the Bible and Buddhism. "If it's trying to get rid of certain things, it gives you less room, and what you need is another yard of space."
Life, to Billy, is a process of evolvement, a journey, to use a new age cliche. "It's about working on knowing yourself -- it's about being comfortable with being uncomfortable. if you're working on being comfortable, you're simply running away. What you're trying to do is wake up, be honest and engage as much as you can."
But honesty, as Billy has discovered, doesn't pay -- and Billy is getting heartily sick of living in penury. "I've been trying to get an agent to sell my books to publishers, but no one is interested because I'm not middle-of-the-road enough," says Childish, the opposite of the affluent, celebrity-orientated, media set. "I tell them that I'm what the mainstream needs. Those writers who want to pose that they're on the edge can be on the edge and I'll be mainstream -- we can swap." You can't blame him for such sentiments when comparitive dross like Martin Amis or Tim Lott are considered cutting edge. "Amis pretends he knows what's going on, but he's just a great big kid who shows off."
"People want me to be this tortured artist," Childish continues. "They want to keep me down there. I'm making the same mistakes as when I was an alcoholic for them. Now, I've got to get some money and make them do it for themselves, and we'll swap. That's when people get coy, they don't want to swap."
Which isn't to say that Bill will ever give up being his own loveable self. Or that he is afraid of failure. "Failure is somewhere you meet yourself," he says. "My father is a great egotist and drunkard, and I noticed that the only time he was vaguely human was when he was smashed down. It's like if you are painting a picture and you come up against a hard object, it'll tell you where you are through limitation. Failure will bring you up against yourself -- it may not be where you want to be at all, but it means you're experiencing reality rather than this disembodiment that people are after, this good feeling. It's well illustrated by a song in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: "From the ashes of disaster, the roses of success grow". Through failure you find your soft underbelly, which is closer to what we really are -- our spirit."
Look, anyone who quotes Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as an inspirational source deserves unlimited success. Although the Larry Clarke adaptation of Billy's first book, My Fault, is unlikely to happen ("even though I spent a year writing the screenplay"), there's this exhibition, a new Buff Medways LP, a new book (Sex Crimes of the Future) to finish and, well, the poems and paintings won't just write and paint themselves, y'know. Childish, after all is said and done, can't help being what he is -- a live wire for transmitting art electricity, a conductor telling strange tales. He's the hero of life's pointedness, the light prophet of resistance and its possibility, the ultimate hip non-smoker, non-boozer and green tea-drinking philosopher. He is pretty damn cool.
"I just want to communicate," Billy concludes. "If I can get across to kids who need something that means something, who can take my work and pass it on, that's what it's all about."
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Richard Cabut, has written on popular culture for the NME, The Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph magazine, ZigZag, Vague, Offbeat, Comic Strip magazine, Hello!, travel site Hotbunk and Siren mag. Pen names include Richard North. Richard also published his own punk mag Kick, played in punk rock band Brigandage (album: Pretty Funny Thing), and worked with handicapped kids as Arts, drama and literary worker at the Hackney Community Workshop. He has been interviewed by countless fanzines, pirate shows, The Face, LWT etc. He currently works for the BBC, writes fiction, cycles around London and takes photographs.