Tales From the Dark Side

Troubled singer/songwriter Billy Sedlmayr teams up with guitarist Rich Hopkins for a collection of songs that chronicles a life spent on the fringes

On a wickedly humid afternoon in late June, singer/songwriter Billy Sedlmayr sits in the sunken room of his barrio bungalow, cursing to the heavens. He's battling demons and not faring too well. The bestial horrors lurking in the narrow margins between shadow and darkness move too quickly for him, and they throw deadly sucker punches.

"They're trying to show me I'm a punk," he snorts in a tar-coated rasp. "I've been to the big house, bitch!"

Demons once put a junk-sick Sed in the big house, all right, but that was a long time ago. Today, the monsters are only simulated. With eyes fixed on a glowing monitor, hands jumpy on the keyboard, the gangly Sed is shouting at bloodthirsty creatures on a 3-D computer game. They're still getting the best of him.

Fifty percenters: Rich Hopkins (left) and Billy Sedlmayr.
Kim Blake
Fifty percenters: Rich Hopkins (left) and Billy Sedlmayr.

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"You'd be in shit too if you had demons trying to take you down all the time," he chuckles, wiping sweat from his brow and shutting off the PC. Sed is as droll as any sharp-witted misanthrope can be, all hyper-intelligence and misplaced energy.

The heavily storied Sedlmayr first came up through -- and helped define -- the Tucson music scene more than two decades ago. He went from playing in scruffy Old Pueblo bars as a drummer/singer in pioneering teen punk band The Pedestrians to national acclaim with the Giant Sandworms (later Giant Sand). He also went from the shooting galleries of Harlem to kicking dope in Arpaio jails, from a Minnesota detox ward to nine years of hard time in federal prison. And by way of his junkstruck misdeeds, there is the usual trail of wreckage: a rotten liver, myriad enemies, countless soured relationships. In short, Sed is just lucky to be alive.

Along with his notorious past, Sed possesses a singular gift as a writer and storyteller. Couple that with the uncharted influence he's had on Arizona rock 'n' roll and the bespectacled 40-year-old is something of an underground legend. A figure of ill-repute, to be sure, but one blessed with a catalog of songs that serve as a bleak chronicle of a life spent on the fringes. Delivering his tales in a voice darkened by time and turmoil, Sedlmayr's work evinces a soul-baring intensity that is at times almost painful to listen to.

Sidewinders/Sand Rubies founder Rich Hopkins, who befriended Sed in the early 1970s, understands his talent better than most. When Sed was released from prison in the mid-'90s, the two hooked up and began writing together, a collaboration that bore fruit on a string of platters released by Hopkins' Luminarios collective.

This week the pair celebrate the release of a new album, The Fifty Percenter. The record -- completed in fits and starts over a five-year stretch -- saw an initial 2000 release in Europe, where it gleaned piles of stellar reviews. The disc includes a trio of newly recorded songs, remixed versions of Luminarios cuts and a handful of other sonic odds 'n' ends.

The Fifty Percenter is a record brimming with a sense of indispensability, a lovely and literate blend of style and substance that summons up several generations worth of ghosts -- from the Byrds and Love (the disc includes a cover of Arthur Lee's beautifully wretched "A Message to Pretty") to Crazy Horse and Steve Earle. Songs take inventory of old neighborhoods, failed romance, desert landscapes and barrio dealers.

The title track uses day laborers and working-class punters on the take as a metaphor for personal atonement; the haunting "Apology" shows a boy offering amends to quixotic lovers and family members for the pain he's caused; the peppery and loping "Careless" conveys the heartsick pall that appears when love ferments. The churning, ethereal acoustics and Hopkins' patented guitar sustain drive the sentiment home.

"Grace by Which You Fall," (taken from a live radio broadcast and featuring former Refreshments axeman Brian Blush) is testament to the fact that Sed's most inspired work emerged while he was doing time. The song is a confessional of debilitating melancholy rooted in the idea of a fateful loss that lifts his voice to gutter sainthood.

"One more hand in one more bar and one more last ride in that old car, no thanks/I think I'll see this through/As if you didn't know that I was true."

By song's end the protagonist is left staring as the taillights of his lover -- the last good thing in a life of self-inflicted wounds -- roll off into the night. It's easy to picture him destined for desolation and moving through some Tucson barrio, looking for a dealer and his next fix.

More remarkable than the songs themselves, perhaps, is that the record ever came out. The Hopkins/Sedlmayr team reveals a history of running tension and scoff, a casual friendship that morphed into a Cain-and-Able-ish kinship. The two are polar opposites in nearly every sense: Sed was kicked out of every institution he went to and never finished high school. Hopkins attended East Coast prep schools and graduated from Ithaca College. He joined the Peace Corps. Sed did drugs and went to jail.

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