Tales From the Dark Side
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.
"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.
When Sed plunged headfirst into the arrest-detox-jail spiral, Hopkins' career in the Sidewinders took off. Sed sat in prison and watched as Hopkins landed record deals and achieved a modicum of national success. Further coloring their complex partnership is the fact that Hopkins married and divorced Sed's one-time girlfriend (former Sidewinders drummer Andrea Curtis) -- a fact that still rankles to this day. Their working relationship is fraught with subterfuge, sly manipulation and squabbles over money.
"This is, to be honest with you, this is the one and only thing that we are ever going to do," explains Hopkins over the phone from his Tucson home. When talking about Sed, Hopkins chooses his words carefully, not so much out of bitterness, but rather a guarded sense of respect.
"There are some financial problems that him and I are experiencing and that tends to cloud the idea of us even being musicians. If we're squabbling about this and that it takes away the good feeling from the songs. At one point, we thought we would get Billy to join the Luminarios. There was a lot of hope that it was gonna work out and then it became apparent that it wasn't. You just have to enjoy the process of making music and playing it live. With Billy, it's different. He's up there in [Phoenix]; he's kind of isolated. We can't do a lot together and it's a frustrating situation.
"I must say this about Billy," he adds. "That guy really has a beautiful voice. He is really is expressive with his words and the guy is a poet."
Hopkins and Sed grew up together in the affluent foothills of Tucson's Santa Catalina Mountains. Long before Hopkins -- who, at 43, is three years Sed's senior -- ever clutched a guitar, Sed co-founded The Pedestrians with neighboring teens John Venet and Dave Seger. Amped on up-to-the-moment glitter, punk and new wave records from London, New York and Los Angeles, The Pedestrians single-handedly jump-started Tucson out of its sleepy cover-band/cowboy-bar blues. From The Pedestrians' ashes came the genesis of bands that later morphed into rock-press darlings: Giant Sand, Green on Red, Naked Prey, the Sand Rubies.
In the summertime, when Hopkins would return home from prep school, records and weed were the order of the day. "We would go out, dig up the bamboo bong that we'd stashed," laughs Sed. "All of us guys would compare bands and smoke pot. We would show each other what records we collected. Richard's whole thing at that time was jazz-fusion. Not jazz, jazz-fusion. There's a big difference." He stops and half-shrugs, then adds reluctantly, "You know I like my fusion, too. I'm guilty, too."
"Finally in the mid- to late-1970s, I had enough Mahavishnu, and the Dixie Dregs, Jeff Beck's Wired, all that stuff. All of a sudden, one of those summers I had grossed out. My watershed was with Patti Smith. I really started saying 'fuck this.'
"But," he adds, "We still had a real love for Thin Lizzy, Phil Lynott especially. That twin guitar attack . . . those boys could really play some guitar. By that time, except for the Liz, I was done with that shit. I had sold all that stuff off. I bought Velvet Underground and Television."
Though they shared a common background and musical passion, at the time the idea of forming a group with Hopkins was never broached. For one thing, Hopkins didn't even pick up a guitar until 1980.
"I was just a good-time pot-smoking kinda guy wishing I could," laughs Hopkins. "When I first started playing guitar in 1980, I was really trying to play jazz but I didn't know how to do it."
The Pedestrians' rudimentary but impassioned playing had huge impact on the fledgling musician, enough to make Hopkins believe that learning the guitar could be a life-changing endeavor. "Bands like The Pedestrians were my salvation. It wasn't until I saw The Pedestrians when I realized 'Hey, I could do this.'" (Hopkins repaid his debt to the band this past year when his record label, San Jacinto, released a crude-sounding but historically invaluable live album of The Pedestrians debut gig at Tucson's famed Pearl's Hurricane bar.)
In 1979, Hopkins threw a backyard bash at his folks' house. He hired The Pedestrians as the entertainment. The event lives on in Tucson new wave folklore. The party is viewed as the first step towards a scene that would launch careers of some of the Old Pueblo's favorite sons.
"That party at Rich's was the living definition of the Patti Smith song 'Dancing Barefoot,'" recalls Sed wistfully, nearly a quarter century later. "Because we broke all this glass accidentally and everybody was so into it they were just dancing on the broken glass . . . blood was everywhere."
Seated in a booth at a generic, tan-toned eggery in downtown Phoenix, Sedlmayr is working on a round of eggs and home fries. His prison-etched tats, sharp, skeletal frame and occasionally foul-mouthed dialogue have the restaurant's snow-haired patrons shaking their heads. Still, Sed, as revealed in both his lyrics and an as-yet unfinished novel, has a gift for lending a poignancy to things without all the indulgent ennui and track-mark self-pity.
"[Rich and I] started working up at my parents' house on the porch," says Sed, explaining the simple writing process that led to The Fifty Percenter. "I only mention that 'cause it's a nice memory for me. You know, just two acoustic guitars and looking up at the Santa Catalinas. [Hopkins] has a special style when he plays acoustic. He did some really interesting things on this that he normally doesn't do."
En route to Sed's downtown digs he asks to make two stops. The first is at the bank to cash an unemployment check. The second is a pawnshop. He enters and the employees all know his name. He counts out five twenties and receives change. A few minutes later he's walking out with the only guitar he owns. He moves wearily, with a labored effort, and the instrument seems almost heavy in his hands.
Much of Sedlmayr's life has been spent like this -- falling in and out of hock. Arguably one of the most gifted songwriters to emerge from his generation, it's unlikely that he will ever be recognized by more than a handful of people for that fact. It makes you wonder how much of his talent has been wasted, how things could have been different if his life hadn't been offered up as a sacrifice to junk and jail. Hence the paradox. It's Sedlmayr's life and struggles -- the collected experience -- that give his songs such wrenching beauty and grace.
As he slowly lifts the guitar into the trunk, it's obvious that the years of abuse have left his body ravaged, and Sed tires easily these days. As his health continues to deteriorate -- the ultimate price of his excess -- it appears that Billy Sedlmayr has some more demons left to slay.
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