Billy Childish On His Jack White Encounters

The garage rock figures were brought into one another's orbit...

There’s an age-old pub conversation between music fans which revolves around musicians who deserve full, book-length biographies. Between the munching of nuts, and the distracting clatter of football on the television, there’s usually one top-of-the-tree answer: Billy Childish.

Musician, painter, poet, bon vivant, and trailblazer, Billy Childish has been stood in the garage punk trenches since they were first dug out. A life-long member of the awkward squad, he’s nothing less than an inspiration for generations of musicians, and he remains as sharp as a tack.

Editor, journalist, and author Ted Kessler has stepped up to the plate, and his incoming tome To Ease My Troubled Mind looks to be one of the most riveting, shocking, inspiring, and perplexing music books you’re going to read this year. Or any other year.

Out now via venerable stable White Rabbit Books – you can order it here, in fact – we’ve grabbed a release day extract. Remember when The White Stripes tore a hole through UK hipster-dom, and suddenly everybody wanted a piece of the garage punk underground? As it turns out, Billy Childish was drawn into this vortex, but his encounters with Jack White didn’t run smoothly…

Billy Childish has a fail-safe test he applies to people he thinks initially are all right. That test is: ‘Let’s wait and see.’ ‘What will this person be like when they start putting people

on the trains?’ he always wonders. ‘They might seem OK, but what happens when they are given a cap, a list of Jews and a train to fill?’ Will they put that hat on, before checking people off their clipboard and onto the trains, sighing, ‘Just doing my job, sorry’? ‘That’s how I rate my friends,’ he says. Consequently, when you first meet Billy Childish he is always very polite, quite cheeky and friendly, chatty, but nevertheless

 can appear a little stand-offi sh as well. Like he’s not entirely committed to you yet. He’s just waiting to see.

When the White Stripes first came to London in August 2001, there was a huge buzz around Jack and Meg White’s duo. The stars had aligned for them in a way it rarely does for unknown independent acts on their third album. After years and years of sludgy new-metal being served by the American rock music scene, suddenly the Strokes had released a couple of zippy, new wave, classic-sounding singles, played some packed dates and, oh, what’s this? There’s this extremely photogenic blues–rock, garage–pop, brother–sister, husband–wife duo from Detroit, too?

And they’re coming over in August to play some dates to support their just-released third LP, White Blood Cells? Two unknown bands doing something different with a similar aesthetic adds up to an exciting scene, in music press terms. White Blood Cells is a good album of theatrical blues–rock. It was reviewed enthusiastically and at length by the British music press, with features and cover stories planned by everyone from NME to the Face. The atmosphere around their London show on 6 August 2001 at the tiny Dirty Water Club in the Boston Arms, Tufnell Park – where Billy Childish and Thee Headcoats had a long-time residency – was hysterical. Normally, it was very easy indeed to just walk into the Dirty Water Club, wander up to the stage and have a drink and a dance. The White Stripes’ show sold out in advance and Kate Moss was on the guest list, which was unusual.

Booked well ahead of all the accompanying mania, the White Stripes’ itinerary included staying on Bruce Brand’s floor. They knew Brand through the network of international garage rock masons, and while he was at it, Brand also helped them get in touch with Liam Watson’s Toe Rag studios in Hackney, where Childish and co. sometimes recorded, so that the White Stripes could lay some music onto vintage tape too. Jack White must have been a knowledgeable fan of Billy Childish because, rather than asking him to support the White Stripes at the Dirty Water with the well-oiled and often raucous Headcoats or Headcoatees, he suggested that Childish perform a solo blues set. One for the connoisseur.

That sounds like a recipe for total disaster, thought Childish: playing a solo blues set to a room filled with wide-eyed NME kids rabid for the latest hot new band. Good, I’ll do it. He always loves a disaster.

‘Luckily for me, the audience was very polite,’ he remembers. ‘They didn’t know they were meant to ignore me.’

While he was over doing local press and radio, Jack White spoke enthusiastically to all about Billy Childish and his music. Big fan. When Top of the Pops asked the White Stripes to perform ‘Fell in Love with a Girl’ live on TV, Jack White suggested to the BBC that they bring Billy Childish with them and that he’d paint on stage while they perform.

No way. You have got to be kidding. Forget it.

In protest, Jack White wrote ‘B Childish’ in big letters on his forearm for the performance. Who’s Billy Childish, people would ask Jack White. Well…

After Jack White got back to the USA, he called Billy Childish up and told him he’d like to have Billy perform with him on the Late Show with David Letterman. Childish replied, ‘Well, that would depend on whose song we do – yours or mine.’

‘That didn’t go down very well with Jack,’ he recalls.

One blowback from all this Jack White patronage was that US GQ decided they wanted to run a big profile of Billy Childish. That hadn’t happened before. ‘It’s an American man magazine,’ explains Childish, helpfully. ‘It was very big over there, apparently. The editor said he was a fan and this writer came and had a chat with me.’

To help their readers along the path to Childish’s work, GQ asked Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam why he loved Billy Childish. ‘Eddie said some very nice things, comparing us to the Hollies or Buddy Holly, that type of thing,’ notes Billy. They also asked Jack White who, smarting perhaps from the Letterman snub, replied, ‘I don’t really know who he is.’

It was obviously a joke. GQ didn’t see the funny side, though, as they were kind of doing this big Billy Childish profile because Jack White had made such a fuss of him in the first place. So they asked Childish what he thought of the White Stripes and, as we have established already, Billy Childish cannot lie.

‘I can’t listen to that stuff,’ he told GQ. ‘They don’t have a good sound… Jack’s half into the sound and music, but then he wants to be a pop star as well, so you’ve got a big problem. We’re aiming to close the fifteen feet between us and the audience; they’re trying to expand it.’

When the GQ article fell into the paws of a particular American man, he was extremely angry with what he read. So Jack White took to the internet, as all avenging angels must. He wrote on the White Stripes’ official website: Billy Childish, Meg and I feel sorry for you. It must be lonely sitting in all of your garage rock bitterness Billy. You know children, when you take someone else’s music and put your lyrics on top of it, it’s still called plagiarism. Something Mister Childish hasn’t learnt yet . . . By the way Billy, we didn’t have to have you play with us, and we didn’t have to mention you in interviews, we were just being polite in a foreign land. But you’re welcome anyways. The bitter garage rocker…

Wow, thought Childish. I must have annoyed him! He really doesn’t know me.

Billy picked up the phone to have a chat with Jack, reassure him it was just meant as good-knockabout fun. He wanted to apologise. When he called the number he had for him, he was told he could not speak to Jack White, nor should he ever call again.

So, instead, Billy also took to the internet:

Though I have undoubtedly angered Jack White, I think it’s a bit nasty of him to accuse me of plagiarism merely because his former admiration of my work was not reciprocated. It all smacks of jealousy to me. I have a bigger collection of hats, a better moustache, a more blistering guitar sound and a fully developed sense of humour. The only thing I can’t understand is why I’m not rich. Yours sincerely, Billy Childish.

PS. I always stay well within the music industry recommended guideline of never plagiarising more than 50% of my material. But no matter who my influence may be, I would never stoop so low as to rip off Led Zeppelin.

PPS. I hope I’ve gone and offended Led Zeppelin now.

It might have been different in a boxing ring, but Jack White was never going to beat Billy Childish in a roast: too many hours in the back of vans touring with the Milkshakes, Mighty Caesars, Headcoats and Headcoatees. That Medway needle is sharp as a filleting knife.

That’s the end of that, thought Billy Childish. And it was, nearly.

Then, many years later, Childish awoke to a flashing light on his answerphone: ‘Jack had rung up in the middle of the night and left a very drunken, apologetic message.’

Childish asked Ian Ballard at his label Damaged Goods to find out if it would be OK to release it as a 45 single. Ian didn’t hear back.

Childish decided to call Jack White up himself, tell him it was all water under the bridge now, there was nothing to apologise for: ‘As you know, I like to be everyone’s friend.’

He called up Jack White. Once again, he was told Jack was not available to speak to him and he shouldn’t call this number ever again. So that really was that.

Billy had waited, and then he saw.

A Song For Kylie Minogue

People think they know me but they don’t know me

People think they know me but what do they know?

People think it’s certain but it’s uncertain

The only thing that’s certain is I just don’t know

I just don’t know

Here’s a song for Kurt Cobain

They asked if I’d ever met the man

I said I’m not really sure did he have blond hair

And they look at me like I don’t even care

But I’d have been happy just to say hello

Is it really my fault that I just don’t know

I just don’t know

Here’s a song for Kylie Minogue

She’s only tiny, so I’ve been told

She rang me up – she’s quite polite

And I’m polite too so we got on all rite

She asked if she could use my poetry

I said help yourself girl – it’s all for free

It’s all for free

Here’s a song for that strange boy Beck

the strangest one that I’ve met yet

He said he dug my sound would I call him in LA

I said as long as I do the singing and you just play

So I dialed him up on his scribbled number

a voice on the other end sounded like thunder

Where did you get this number?!

Where did you get this number?!

People think I’m bitter but I ain’t bitter

People think I hate but that just isn’t rite

I just don’t dig the sounds but this I’ve found

If you say what you don’t like it end up in a fi ght

You’ll end up in a fi ght

Yeah, you’ll end up in a fi ght

People think they know me but they don’t know me

People think they know me but what do they know

People think it’s certain but it’s uncertain

The only thing that’s certain is they just don’t know

They just don’t know

Billy Childish for CTMF (2016)

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