Billy's Blues

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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.

"I really dug the Pistols, but I was always more toward Patti Smith, Television, Stooges--more toward the American end," he says. "And in [Tucson] there was this small group of like-minded people; it was like our answer to the hippie thing 10, 15 years before. Although I felt torn between the two 'cause I was sorta part of that whole drug culture."

In fact, Sedlmayr was cultivating rock 'n' roll vices like weed and coke and selling them to supplement the income from his odd record-store, construction and gas-station jobs.

"Cocaine had already started being a large part of my life," he says. "I would go down to Mexico and pick up a kilo or two [of pot], just in Nogales. We would put it in the tire wheels and drive it over; we weren't very careful at all, not in those days.

"For a while, I was working at a . . . gas station on Congress and I-10, called a 50-percenter. That station was getting tourists--it was one of the last stations left off of Route 66 before they closed them all--the ones that would get cars in there with out-of-state plates.

"They'd stick syringes of this smoke into the alternator and all of a sudden the alternator's smoking. They would slit the tires. In 25 minutes, some family from Kansas would have four new tires on their car, a new alternator, and a new battery. The 50- percenters would split the profit with the gas station. I was just a pumper, but I would get a cut, too. At that time, I was living two separate lives. I would go there in the morning and it was all drugs; that was the first place I had ever shot drugs, and at night I would play. It was drugs and rock 'n' roll."

The Pedestrians fell apart soon after a gig supporting the Ramones, and Sedlmayr moved into a house behind a strip bar called the Cabaret. He also continued to ingest and sell drugs.

"When that band broke up, man, that broke my heart," he says ruefully. "I remember feeling just devastated."

That fall, Sedlmayr met a gifted guitarist named Rainer Ptacek, a friend who would later stick by Sedlmayr through all his downward spirals.

"Rainer came into a bar I was at or something; I remember I can still see him, exactly how he looked comin' in and saying, 'Hey, you know, I've seen you play with The Pedestrians and I really dig how you play. Would you like to jam sometime?' I went over to his house and played, just guitar and drums, and it was so intense. He was doing stuff I never heard."

A guitarist/songwriter named Howe Gelb arrived in Tucson from Pennsylvania and met Sedlmayr through their mutual friend Rainer. Sedlmayr brought in Dave Seger, guitarist from The Pedestrians, and Giant Sandworms was born. Sedlmayr's dad even floated the band cash, enough to record and release its first record, a memorable four-song EP that was on white vinyl and came in a plastic baggie as if it were drugs.

The Sandworms, with their hand-in-glove groove, funkish off-rhythms and pop singsong refrains, quickly had a fan base in Tucson. The band relocated to New York, but Rainer stayed behind.

The band played Manhattan clubs like CBGB, Peppermint Lounge, Mudd Club and Danceteria and attracted raves in magazines like New York Rocker and Trouser Press, but nothing substantial was happening for the band, nothing to catapult it to the next level. And worse, Sedlmayr developed a heroin habit and descended into the dope netherworld of Manhattan.

"I'll never forget going to 125th Street and Lexington in Spanish Harlem to meet this old black couple who had the best heroin in Harlem. It was like 34 flights up in this big Harlem tenement apartment, and I'll never forget this old black guy who listened to country music," Sedlmayr says, laughing. "We did heroin; I snorted a bag of it. That romped my ass; I couldn't talk. I'll never forget walking out to the street in the dead of winter and there being just a sea of black faces. I don't think I put it [heroin] down; I started mainlining it."

The band bailed on the big city and made the Tucson scene again, releasing a single, "Cross of Wood," in early 1983. The next year the Sandworms spent a month and a half in Denver recording in a huge studio owned by Jim Messina, resulting in an EP that included a gem of a tune called "Long Sleeves," a kind of track-mark confessional written by Dave Seger, who was watching Sedlmayr struggle with his dope demons.

Big-label promises ensued but, again, nothing materialized, and Howe Gelb fired Sedlmayr from the Sandworms. The Giant Sandworms shortened their name to Giant Sand.

"Somewhere around this time, me and Howe were pretty much at odds; we always were. I worked really well with Rainer and Dave. I also went to rehab, at Sierra Tucson; I had overdosed a few times," Sedlmayr says matter-of-factly.

"I was young and I wasn't gonna grow up for anybody," he adds. "I would miss dates, interviews, and that is groovy if you're fuckin' George Jones, but not if you are trying to make it. I felt real bad about it. It was fitting."

Throughout the conversation, Sedlmayr punctuates his harrowing stories with occasional bursts of enthusiasm and laughter followed by moments of obvious sadness, then silence, as if catching himself in an emotion he wasn't supposed to feel. It is hard for Sedlmayr to recall himself before prison because, for him, prison changed everything.

"The next year or so [after Giant Sandworms] became a routine of getting strung out and going to treatment," he says. "My identity had been music for so long. And I had sold all my drum kits and everything I had."

He wound up on the island of Oahu in Hawaii at the Habilatat treatment center, a place known for its unmerciful brand of reform. Sedlmayr was to remain there for two years. He lasted two months.

"I just couldn't see two years of that any more than I could see two months," he says. "I ended up leaving and catching my first case [arrest] for aggravated assault and robbery. I was languishing in the old underground Hawaiian jail for a . . . I don't know how many weeks. I had never been in jail, and there I was with drunken sailors and huge Samoan gang members weighing in at 400 pounds wantin' my bowl of rice, ya know. I was scared; I wasn't a kid, but I was. I was 24 years old, but I was 17.

"When I got out, I jumped bail and made it back to Tucson where nobody wanted me. An old family friend bought me a plane ticket to Minneapolis where an ex-girlfriend lived, but she had fallen in love with the guy that ran Twin Tone Records. I didn't have a penny and nowhere to go. I had nothin'. My first night there I got my ass whooped on by some cops. I also met Mark Olson from the Jayhawks who was playing on the streets. He really helped me out a lot."

In Minneapolis, Sedlmayr learned to play guitar, wrote songs and started a pop band called Stagger Lee. They did demos and opened shows for the Jayhawks and the Replacements. But Sedlmayr got strung out again and found himself back in Tucson with a head full of regret, realizing all his friends and ex-bandmates were doing well, making records and touring Europe, in bands like Giant Sand, Naked Prey and Green on Red. Bitterness set in.

"By this time, nothing was going on, just dope," he recalls. "I was hanging out in the barrios, knew everybody there. I didn't see none of my friends no more. I was living in the barrio Libre on South Sixth, where the flag of Sonora waves."

In Tucson's barrio Anita one day, Sedlmayr got nabbed when a flood of police kicked down a door of a dope house in which he happened to be sitting. The cops ran his name, and he found himself in a world of legal hell. After a futile trip back to Minnesota for a stint in a halfway house, he returned to Tucson and started another popular band (Las Cruces), went back to dope and letting people down. On Christmas Day 1987, the DEA came to his parents' house with charges of heroin and cocaine conspiracy, in the middle of the family's holiday celebration. Sedlmayr wasn't there; he was off in his own world.

"When push come to shove, man, I wouldn't grow up, I wouldn't stay away from the shit," he says. "And at this point, I didn't feel like there was any more options available to me. I didn't believe in treatment. I didn't believe that anything I had ever done made a difference."

The robbery came next. Then maximum-security prison.
"I thought I was in the land of the giants, all these yocked-up white boys covered in swastikas, the eses, the mau maus, the blacks. Total segregation. In the beginning, I said to myself, 'Well, I'll never become anything like that.' But you do become. Then the next years would be my becoming. I started to discover who I was and who I wasn't. And it was good, man, I needed it. There was nothing anybody could do to me physical or otherwise that could compare to what I thought in my head about myself."

He was doing time at Cimarron maximum security before being transferred to the Arizona state facility at Florence. Prison became Billy's womb, a center for nurture. He started working out, lifting weights. He was writing poetry and fiction through which he began the long process of resolve and self-definition. He started attending a creative-writing workshop led by Richard Shelton, a teacher at the University of Arizona.

It was Shelton who noticed that Sedlmayr had a voice, a sharp lyrical and poetic way of interpreting his relationship with all things around him. Shelton encouraged him to write. Soon, Sedlmayr's heartbreaking prose and poems began to appear in the Arizona State Prison Complex's literary magazine called Walking Rain. Shelton told Sedlmayr he could be a major voice in contemporary fiction. Sedlmayr's days became a ritualistic pattern of working out in the mornings and writing all afternoon and into the evening.

The seasons and years Billy saw come and go in prison were dotted with weeks and months in solitary confinement for numerous infractions, including heroin possession. At one point, he spent a year and a half in solitary, and he kept sane by writing and doing push-ups. But his physical activity didn't keep him from getting deathly ill. He had a bad liver from his history of sharing and using dirty needles, and in the hole the problem was magnified.

"That became my life in there; I did not believe I was ever going to get out, and with that heroin charge I was looking at another 25 years," he says. "To keep any semblance of your head together, you had to work very fucking hard to not devolve, to not just become completely at the mercy of either watching television 24 hours a day or lying on your rack. That's why I stayed with the weights, and when they took the weights away, I stayed with my push-ups and my sit-ups. That's why I stayed with the writing. I did whatever I could so I would not become total property of the system, which is what they want."

In late 1995, Sedlmayr was released from prison, and no one was more surprised than he. The longer sentence he was staring at was gone. He was outfitted with an ankle bracelet so the state knew where he was at all times. He called his old friend Rainer. He went back to Tucson, lived with his parents and started work as a breakfast cook, a job set up by ex-Pedestrians guitarist John Venet. He went about the task of mending severed friendships, ones he had burned in the past in his drug-induced insanity, and he returned to singing and playing. He played at that year's annual gathering of Tucson songwriters called the Wooden Ball with Rainer and Venet. He started writing songs and recording with Rich Hopkins and Los Luminarios, songs that ended up on their two European Blue Rose/Rough Trade releases, El Paso and Glorious Sounds. Sedlmayr had come home.

"Billy had gotten out of prison and had been out for a couple of months," says Sand Rubies/Los Luminarios guitarist Rich Hopkins, who has been a friend of Sedlmayr for more than two decades. "At one point, I was trying to work Billy into the band because we had written these songs, but it was a really difficult situation because I really wasn't sure if Billy was ready to be in a band. We actually wrote those songs to be in a separate project together, but I was getting confused as to what I could really do to keep things separate."

Two of the songs Sedlmayr and Hopkins wrote together, "Careless" and "Apology," are soaring examples of Arizona-bred songwriting at its best, and both songs find Sedlmayr in a voice well-suited to the confessional/redemptive tone of his lyrics. Unfortunately, Sedlmayr took yet another personal fall.

In February of '96, Rainer was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and not long after that, Sedlmayr started using again. His downward trajectory was as quick as it was brutal. He left Tucson after another round of predictable junkie behavior: cheating friends, stealing, owing money, etc.

"Billy did really good for a while, then at one point I felt like things weren't going too well for him," Hopkins says. "Things just started going down the tubes. We did the El Paso record and started to work immediately on the next one. I was recording Glorious Sounds at the Saltmine studio in Tempe, and Billy had moved to Phoenix--he was using again--so it was easy to get him down to the studio."

Sedlmayr took up residency in various Phoenix hotels along Van Buren and worked at a gas station, but mostly hustled drugs. He was involved in a car accident that did permanent damage to his vocal cords. In August of last year, he got busted with a nickel bag of heroin on Van Buren and went to the Madison downtown jail for six months. At Madison, Billy once again had to kick a huge dope habit. He nearly died.

"I must have lost 25 pounds in that jail; that really killed me," he says. "I couldn't eat the food, and it was so cold in there. I had to wait there before going to trial. I bopped a child molester in the head, and they put me in handcuffed isolation.

"I finally got back to prison [Cimarron outside of Tucson] in early January, and my homeboys came and looked out for me. When I got back in there, I felt like I was home; that is the one thing that stayed with me. I can't stress enough that when I got back to prison, it was the first time I had slept well in years."

When he was arrested on Van Buren, he lost the prized 12-string guitar that he had kept through all his years in prison, and six legal boxes from the joint that were full of all his writings--all of the poetry and prose he wrote while he was incarcerated.

"All of the stuff [writings] I have now is remnants that I rewrote from my mind."

Sedlmayr started work on his novel in February, and it is a poetic dichotomy of two different men and their momentum fueled by drugs, booze, rage and need. He got out of prison in July and is planning on remaining in Phoenix to finish his novel, put a band together and hopefully get a record deal. It sounds like cause for optimism, but Sedlmayr's been down this road before. He can only hope that it doesn't lead him down the same old path.

Billy Sedlmayr is scheduled to perform on Monday, November 16, at Long Wong's in Tempe. Showtime is 9:30 p.m.

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