The True Story Behind the Real Story

What is the true story behind the real story? Well that’s a long story.

UNreal gods has been more than thirty years in the creation. I started writing about the Portland music scene for the Oregon Tavern & Lounge Guide in the Spring of 1980. For four years I immersed myself in the thriving downtown club culture, my personal tastes running the stylistic gamut—from punk to pop—my only critical requisite was that the music had to be original. No cover bands.

In 1982 I formed a band of my own and we rehearsed diligently to perfect a set whereby we could open for popular established acts with a following from whom we might siphon a few fans. Through connections made via my writing endeavors, I was able to secure for our band the opportunity to play our very first show opening for Billy and the Unreal Gods at Luis’ La Bamba club in June during the peak weekend of the local Rose Festival celebration.

It was the most successful gig our band was to play in the two and a half years of its existence. It was all down hill from there. I remember two things about that performance. First was the ecstatic electricity in the atmosphere that night surrounding the Standing Room Only crowd. It was palpable. The riotous air of agitated expectation was positively crushing.

The other aspect of the show I distinctly recall was backstage, in the tiny La Bamba green room. As we readied to play that very first show, Billy swept in—greeting us warmly, and graciously wishing us a successful set. His effortless natural charisma and sincere boyish charm were completely disarming. It was as if we were in the presence of a real star.

We took to the stage and the Gods’ crowd seemed to love us. They screamed approval after every song, giving us the impression we were really on to something as a band. We’d hit the sweet spot. First time out! Who would have ever thought?

Only in retrospect did it dawn on us that we could have been a troupe of performing chickens and still have received an identical response. The Gods’ crowd didn’t care about us in the least. It was merely that our appearance on stage signaled the initiation of the evening’s entertainment. Soon we would be gone and the Gods would be playing! Every song we finished brought the headliners that much closer. Their fans were truly grateful.

They greeted our departure with an ovation of rousing approval. We really thought we had it made. And we continued to believe in that fate until reality crushed us beneath the wheel of our subsequent succession of marginally attended engagements. Countless bands making their way through the local ranks at the time had similar stories to tell.

I went on writing for TLG for another two years, while continuing to play with the band. My apparent stature in the community failed to garner any further favors from the hierarchy. And the glut at the time of top quality bands of all stripes made competition fierce for the best nights on the choice stages. A competition we generally lost.

Still, I remained in contact with Billy over the ensuing years. The same age as my youngest brother, I developed a fondness for the kid seven years my junior. I learned a lot about him and his family. His dad was a minor-league baseball player. Billy himself had been a highly touted prospect. He and his brother had a short-lived landscape business before they formed the Malchicks. Those and other details were part of the original outline for UNreal gods, but, in the interest of keeping my epic under a thousand pages length, I chose to expunge those chapters.

In 1984 Oregon Tavern & Lounge Guide folded and I began my twenty year tenure with Two Louies magazine. And there I often wrote about Billy and the Gods.

By that time I had been studying Graphology and Graphoanalysis for several years. I occasionally produced a column for TLG analyzing the handwriting of local music celebrities. I created another such column called “Traits of the Players” for Two Louies in March of 1984. In that column I took a look at Billy’s handwriting (from a sample I had acquired in 1983).

I found his to be the script of an intricate individual. Plain and direct. Strong-willed, generous, capable of big gestures. Sensuous. A bit of an exhibitionist, a lover of crowds, yet shy and introverted. Simple. Genuine. Without affectation, but with a few misplaced priorities. Desirous of glamour and fame, but with good-taste and a deeply held concern for his fellow man.

However one odd caution arose in the brief observation that the “pendulous construction of the small letter ‘e’ would indicate a serious health problem in the lower abdomen.” As the next two years unfolded, the concern over that health problem would be tragically borne out. Billy had contracted cancer yet again. By the end of 1984, the Unreal Gods were no more and Billy began his life or death battle with the disease.

In the Fall of 1986 Billy, accompanied by Karen, came over to my house to participate in an interview to be published in Two Louies. The occasion is described in UNreal gods. Billy was upbeat and optimistic, but very frail. What’s not in the book was Billy’s request of me—just as we were concluding the interview—to tell his story, no matter what happened to him. I promised him I would.

Billy’s health deteriorated rapidly after that. In November I was fortunate enough to be present at High Tech Recorders to contribute to the recording of “Make Love Not War.” That session will never be forgotten by any who were in attendance—who can attest to Billy’s display of sheer determination to complete his project that day, even if it literally killed him. And it nearly did. Billy died only a few weeks after that.

In an effort to give the subject some distance, I put Billy’s tale (and my promise to him to tell it) to the side for five years. However, whenever they arose, I recorded anecdotes from among Billy’s many friends and associates (though, like snowflakes, no two tales were ever quite the same—always from a slightly different perspective), creating a biographical timeline of events in his life. That collection of yarns and notes soon grew to hundreds of pages, eventually overfilling several folders.

In 1992 I created the first formal outline for what I thought at the time was going to be a biography of Billy’s life. However, two years later Bill Reeder published Rocky Road and my promise to Billy was suddenly scattered to the wind. I have a pre-publication chapbook of Reeder’s book, but I never opened it. I always knew I had my own story to tell and I wanted for any parallels to be purely coincidental.

With the understanding that I could not write the intended biography I had promised to Billy, I realized I was going to have to scrap my project and to somehow seek an unknown new approach. In 1996 it occurred to me that I should write the book as biographical fiction, as a novel, so that I could also fill the book with my own sordid tales of sex, drugs and rock‘n’roll. There was also the aspect that in turning Billy’s story into fiction, it would rise above the boundaries of Portland lore and achieve the level of universality it truly deserved.

Thus, a novel it was to be. But first, to my mind anyway, in order to write the account as fiction, I needed to forget the various “truths” I had been told by so many different individuals (including Billy himself), and to then refashion it all as an entirely different recollection—undercurrent memories, subtly altered and changed, flowing in the same direction as the recalled events, but not in the same stream. A recurrence one ravine removed from the reality that the city of Portland remembered. That aim was going to take some time to accomplish.

So I put the story away again, this time into the deep-freeze. I went over the material from time to time, and slowly carved out a rough outline for a novel, with a few character sketches and portraits of locales, etc. Eventually the outline itself grew to over fifty pages—the story beginning to take amorphous form, but not much more than a vague fog shape.

James Joyce is my lifelong literary hero. I have always greatly admired his breakthrough novel Ulysses, not only for the brilliant writing he displayed in crafting that book, but in the way he managed to adapt Homerian myth into his account of a day in the life of two Dublin wayfarers, the Odysseusian figure of Leopold Bloom and, in passing, the perambulations of his young charge, Stephen Daedelus.

With the incorporation of ancient myth into his depiction of the insular lives of unremarkable Dubliners, Joyce elevated his narrative, lending symbolic drama and timeless, universal gravity to his tale without altering the contexts of their mundane migrations. That myth was artfully inscribed by Joyce into the DNA of his characters. And by that inscription they became heroes through the most ordinary of their actions.

I found inspiration in that device Joyce employed. But I am nothing of the scholar he was. I knew that I wished to impart to Billy’s chronicle some similar elemental weight, but was uncertain as to where that inspiration might be found. Understanding that a timeless myth was probably not going to overlay well with the story I had in mind, I still sought a reverberant theme, one that had managed to echo across subsequent centuries to the present.

As these things often happen, in 1998 I was searching for some reference or another in one of my dilapidated volumes of the Norton Anthology of English Literature when I ran across the 15th century morality play Everyman. Very short in duration, the play was printed in its entirety in my anthology, translated from the original Middle English into some language slightly more familiar to the contemporary reader. Newer Middle English, perhaps.

According to the customs of the 15th century, in addition to Everyman, the other characters in the play are allegorical—personifications of concepts and values held in high-esteem in the Tudor period. Still, it is a simple read, the gist of which is easily apprehended. The premise of the play can be readily traced online with only modest investigatory effort. And, in all actuality, it could probably be deduced by those familiar with the true story behind Billy’s real story, as there are many obvious coincidental convergences. His story is in fact the tale of Everyman. Of all men.

Having arrived at my ulterior premise, I promptly put the book away for another ten years of gestation. And there the project would have no doubt remained, incubating in some far corner of my mind, but for my deteriorating health. In 2008 my Heart Failure doctor informed me that I should start giving consideration to having my name placed on a heart transplant list.

If there is anything to motivate a procrastinating writer, it is the prospect of his looming demise. Thus realizing that I might run out of time before I fulfilled my promise to Billy, I broke out the folders of the expanded outline, the notes, ideas and sketches, the chunks of prose, and set out to at last write his story the best I could.

I will be the first to admit that while I indeed write quite voluminously, it is a fact too that I do not write quickly. A page or two is typically the best I can manage to produce on any given day. I tend to edit my work as I go, so I am constantly reworking the material (the magic in this will be clearly non-evident). And I often reach crevasse-like impasses.

In December of 2009, I had arrived at one of those impasses. I was not feeling well and my energy was beginning to lag. I was one hundred pages into the draft and my momentum was waning. But on December 15th, a woman by the name of Celeste Pugh contacted me regarding my History of Portland Rock (which can be found on line). The frame of the Unreal Gods’ true story can be found there.

Somewhere on the History page I apparently expressed my intention to eventually write a book about Billy. In addition to flattering me about the History, Celeste mentioned that she had been one of the Goddesses A Go-Go. In that email (which I still have and cherish), Celeste encouraged me to write my story about Billy. At the very moment when the project felt the most lost, Celeste appeared in my life to give me confidence and renewed focus. Kismet. Inspired by Billy without a doubt.

Two months later, my doctor determined that her team had previously implanted an inappropriate device in my chest to pace my heart. Once they exchanged that gadget with the proper model, my vigor was immediately restored. And in the ensuing four years I have managed to forestall my predicted fate. I have not taken lightly the opportunity afforded me.

It took me another eighteen months to finally complete the first draft of UNreal gods in the Summer of 2011. At that point my wife Lesley Lathrop took over duties as my editor. Her precision with language and grammar, her insightful criticism and erudite input were inestimably vital to the outcome. After making innumerable changes and corrections, I began the process of submitting the book to literary agents.

I spent all of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 gathering very polite rejection letters from the best agents in the industry. The book was too long. Too literary. This agent had just represented a rock novel. That agent had just done cancer. And those agents had reservations. It didn’t fit with their agenda. In the process of submission I managed to expunge the first four chapters of the book, paring it down significantly. To no avail.

By the summer of 2013 it was becoming obvious to me that my book wasn’t going to come out via Vintage Books as Ulysses II. I was going to have to go another route. One thing was certain. UNreal gods was going to be published. My promise to Billy had to be kept. I had come too far to turn back.

Two Louies went up in flames in 2005 after a twenty-five year run serving as barometer to the Portland music scene. From the ashes of that publication sprung Buko magazine, another monthly journal with a local music focus, developed by jack-of-all-trades Buko—with me in a continuing role as a creator of content. We have maintained our partnership since then.

Buko and I had been discussing the possibility of self-publishing UNreal gods for quite some time. I had cooked up a vague image that I thought might make for a suitable cover. But my 21st century skills in the area of computer graphics are severely lacking. In December of 2014 we decided to take on in earnest the publication of my novel.

Buko’s input was intrinsic to the finished appearance of the book. From his own extensive archives of photographs he merged two previously unseen images to create the front cover, while performing similar magic upon the back. With more than thirty years experience in the field of print graphics, Buko is wholly responsible for the professional look of the book. Without his help, UNreal gods would be nothing more than a Word Document with a makeshift cover.

In addition Buko has been instrumental in the creation of future electronic versions of the book and for the design of the unrealgods.com website. Going forward he will be the point man and continuing enabler of vague ideas. Anything is possible.

As we headed down the home stretch with this project we were aided by timely advice from attorney Bart Day, and significant assistance from Houston Bolles, as well as from Billy’s family. They all played key roles in the final detailing of this novel. I am humbled and grateful for their contributions.

I have spent the past thirty-five years describing the Portland music scene from the outside—as a journalist, critic and perennial curmudgeon. With nearly two million words in print on the subject, I have reviewed well over a thousand albums released by Oregon musicians (www.twolouiesmagazine.com), while writing columns and profiles, conducting interviews and providing gonzo, from-the-trenches testimony as to the majesty and merde witnessed along the way.

But at the same time I have been a musician, playing in three separate Portland bands over a cumulative twenty years. Two of those bands were rather popular in their own rights. One reason I am happy UNreal gods turned out to be a work of fiction is that in writing it I found a conduit for all of my own observations from the inside: as a band member, living in a band house, being a musician. It’s my opportunity to tell that story—the view from the stage, not from the vantage of a fan or a “critic.”

UNreal gods is meant as a musical book. Sound is an essential element. The volume is set to “11.” Events echo and reverberate from episode to episode. People have a difficult time hearing and understanding one another. Names are often confused. Many are the same names or very similar, adding to the muddle. In addition to the inclusion of lyrics themselves, some chapters are constructed as songs—with verses and repeating choruses, the occasional bridge, key changes—all the devices that the typical rock song might have written into its composition.

I recently had a dialogue on Facebook about the validity of a book about a musician and a band that never made it out of Portland. It is the sort of discourse in which I frequently engage. My response within that brief discussion is illustrative as to my attitude toward my mission.

No worries. He’s not dead. PDX won’t let him die. I have visions of him in some kind of restless limbo, singing Queen: “let me go (let him go)”…

Billy wanted never to be forgotten. He swore numerous people to making sure his legacy lived on. I’m one of those people. Wherever Billy is, he ain’t in Limbo. He’s loving every minute of his revival.

No one outside of the NW ever heard of Billy. I totally get all the wishes and hopes that you all had for him. But he just wasn’t as unique as you thought. He was a nice guy who rather “borrowed” a musical style and rode his wow good looks to small town fame. RIP.

Sometimes it changes your mind about someone when you watch them deteriorate and die like a real human being. Right before your eyes. Sometimes being a naive and immodest young man thrown into the middle of things he doesn’t really understand is a bigger story than what he did or did not accomplish in his “career.” Perhaps the failure is bigger than the success. Who’s to say?

I saw first-hand that success in the failure of Billy and the Unreal Gods. I experienced the entire arc of the band and the man. This book is my attempt to impart that saga to the world. Some tales are bigger than the stories that inspire them. This is one. It is indeed bigger than the poor players who were consigned to strut and fret upon that stage. Billy’s story is a part of us all—full of sound and fury, signifying everything.

SPC
February 28, 2014