Billy's Blues

Singer/songwriter Billy Sedlmayr has spent half his life battling the law and his own dope demons

On January 1, 1988, in Tucson, Arizona, Billy Sedlmayr stepped out of a stolen pickup truck and walked into a Dairy Queen.

He had no gun but told the ice cream clerks he did, and they believed him. The lie yielded him $97, a sum small in proportion to the crime, certainly, but good enough to temporarily neutralize the demonic buzzards that had been circling him--the buzzards borne of human spirit mixed with certain evil powders that invariably fly whenever a junkie must make a decision without the benefit of sober rationale.

When Sedlmayr came out of the DQ, it was surrounded. The cops had been following him for two days, waiting for him to do something big, something big and wrong; the kind of wrong that could make his usual piddling deals in Tucson barrio dope houses pale in comparison; the kind of wrong that would justify Tucson's MOU (Major Offender Unit) being called in; as if this 125-pound junkie who didn't have two pennies to rub together was a major offender.

The cops yelled at him to get down, to surrender. Sedlmayr, who was strung out, sick, and in mean need of a fix, declined and jumped into the stolen truck. He tore out of the lot into the wrong lane against traffic. The cops chased him in patrol cars and helicopters. One cop leaped from a speeding squad car onto Sedlmayr's flatbed, smashed in the rear window, put a gun to Sedlmayr's head and asked, "Now what are you gonna do?"

Sedlmayr accelerated to almost 100 miles per hour, and the truck went straight into the hull of a semi moving in the opposite direction. The officer flew into the Tucson air, and Sedlmayr broke the steering wheel with his rib cage. The cop was not seriously injured, though damaged knees ensured that he would never see street duty again. And Sedlmayr, by some miraculous fluke, was all right as well--that is, until later when the cops beat the hell out of him somewhere in the desert outside Tucson en route to the hospital. A hospital where he remained for a month before being transferred to jail.

Over the next 10 and a half years, Sedlmayr spent all but one year behind bars. A place where, among other things, he did a lot of writing.

Sedlmayr's life has been filled with so much legal and psychological drama that it's easy to forget that at the core, this man is a writer. It's easy to forget that this man helped form the legendary Tucson band Giant Sand (when it was known as Giant Sandworms) and has had his songs recorded by Rich Hopkins of the Sand Rubies. It's easy to forget, that is, unless you've caught Sedlmayr at one of his recent Monday night Long Wong's gigs, spinning the kind of rootsy, heart-wrenching song stories that he likes to call his narcocorridos.

Sedlmayr's poetry, fiction and songs transcend the bounds of genre; they don't tread on devices like irony because they don't have to. Instead, they come heavily armed with a passion, an empathy, an almost old-world willingness to spill guts, and all with a heart beating through.

His songs are a beautiful ratty path of Gram Parsons and Leonard Cohen--sung in surly Lennonesque tones--his fiction a ballpark mix of Cormac McCarthy and Denis Johnson, and his life thus far a cross of hedonistic self-destruction and chronic lack of judgment--a battered life that has left him now, in his late 30s, with a self-deprecating sense of humor and cirrhosis of the liver.

Sedlmayr's spiky blond coif and round Lennon specs imply a certain innocence that disappears the moment he begins to speak. His brash manner of speech and accompanying ragged tone is more Cisco Pike-era Kris Kristofferson than the warm voice heard in his songs. The tattoos on his arms, elbows and torso are another incongruity. They are not trophies earned of joyous drunken nights out with the boys; they are more like symbols of a life endured rather than enjoyed, almost as if they were etched into his milky derma against his will.

On the patio outside his smallish, no-frills studio apartment in the shadow of downtown Phoenix, Billy Sedlmayr sits in the sun, chain-smokes filterless Camels and unfolds his tale.

"My dad bought me my first [drum] kit, a little orange sparkle Ludwig, when I was 9," he recalls. "So I took lessons from a really good old jazz player; he taught me the old way. Man, I played drums just day in and day out."

In the '70s, before getting the boot from a few Tucson high schools as well as his home, Sedlmayr--the Protestant son of Floyd Sedlmayr, a prominent and wealthy Tucsonan--formed various bands with childhood pals.

"We were doing covers of, like, Velvet Underground, Bolan and that type of stuff, Mott the Hoople and Grand Funk. That was like seventh, eighth grade. We even got into jazz after that, things like John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Then we took it all back to rock 'n' roll."

The first noteworthy group was called The Pedestrians, a spirited blend of Talking Heads and the Zombies in which Sedlmayr played drums and sang occasional lead vocals. The teenaged Pedestrians helped spearhead the burgeoning Tucson punk/New Wave scene of 1978-79.

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