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Billy Sedlmayr, bowed but unbroken

Billy Sedlmayr’s Harlem River Drive album cover.

Courtesy photo

Billy Sedlmayr’s Harlem River Drive album cover.

It's landlord David Block on the line.

"God, he's going to die in there. I'm going to have a body on my hands."

There's a pause.

He continues, "The people going in and out of there, so there's the matter of the drugs and sanity. Cocaine or heroin. It's no way to be in this area."

As tenants go, Billy Sedlmayr's a tough one, fairly fresh from prison. Still heavily into narcotics as a means to survival, maybe a means to an end. It's 2000, and he's still buffed out from the big house, bigger maybe than his bones could hold, like one of those bodybuilding ads in ancient magazines where the spindly punk becomes a he-man and gets the girl. The hep C, of course, now eating into him, but with those slender drummer hips intact.

"Anyway," Block adds, "how is Billy still alive? I just don't want Billy dying in my place."

* * *

Phoenix New Times just hired me on staff and I was flush with a real adult wage for the first time ever so I moved out of the Garfield barrio, off Van Buren and 11th Street. My then-girlfriend felt unsafe there. Goodbye to scoring drugs off the ice-cream truck. Goodbye to comradely Mexican and South American neighbors, the endless Tejano and Bud Light. Goodbye to the white asshole cops who looked down hard on any whites living in a brown-skinned hood.

I talked Block into letting Billy move in to my casita, which kept my connection to the place I loved, and because I knew Billy would dig it too. I'd already written a feature about Billy for New Times. He'd already penned "Tucson Kills," his signature tune. Heard him play it a number of times with his acoustic guitar in dusty Phoenix backyards and living rooms where no one paid attention.

Yes, he's my friend, but I still wrote about him. As I am now.

Billy and I had been friends since the first punk-rock days in Tucson. I saw his Pedestrians at a backyard house party near El Con Mall, hosted by band keyboardist Chris Cacavas and his mom, ground zero for Tucson punk rock. Blew my 16-year-old mind. Billy sang and played drums like any gifted kid dedicated to a deep, varied record collection, plenty of glam, punk and intellectual pop and folk, and all that jazz. He was giant. I was 17 when Billy, who's a couple years older, shot me up with cocaine, the first time I'd ever used a needle. (There's so much self-hatred with needle use, down to the skin stab, and Billy had created his own self-harm regime.) Billy cringes that he shot me up when I was a kid. That's how it is. You feel good from the drugs you took so you want others to feel good too. It's a decadence, and we had love of William Burroughs and Johnny Thunders and Keith Richards.

Soon we were in New York City at the same time. I was working at a record store on Bleecker Street, and Billy was trying to get Giant Sandworms off the ground. Rainer had quit that band so it was down to Howe Gelb, Dave Seger and Billy. ("We got to Jersey and Rainer Ptacek said, 'See ya!' He was way better than us.") There was brilliance in them; they were writing some of the best songs any of us had ever heard.

I remember the Sandworms lived briefly in this bizarre Barnum & Bailey lion house in Oakridge, New Jersey. Billy tells of this guy he'd met there. Jimmer, a henchman of some rich guy Billy had scored weed for while working at Tucson's Al Bum's record store. He's the one who owned the Jersey lion house. Jimmer turned Billy on to heroin. Billy would take Harlem River Drive to score. In the early '80s Harlem was another world, in the throes of a mad heroin epidemic. Jimmer introduced Billy to this guy James West, who'd just gotten out of prison for robbing 17 Sunoco gas stations in 48 hours on a speed run. A New Jersey newspaper dubbed West the "Sun of Sunoco," hence the song on Billy's new album Harlem River Drive.

click to enlarge Billy Sedlmayr at home. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Billy Sedlmayr at home.

Billy says, "James West scared the shit out of me, and left an impression. He slit my tires and took my battery to show me you did not disrespect him. Jimmer was my friend, man. He died of AIDS when I was inside."

From there, Billy's hold on Giant Sandworms didn't last but a couple more years. There were other bands, good ones too, and recordings. His entire existence became an uneasy symbiosis of music and hard drugs and writing—poems, songs.

We remember Billy's junkie cons, the cheating friends of possessions, the pawnshops, owing cash to everyone and everywhere, etc. The Dairy Queen robbery that saw a cop fly off the back of Billy's getaway pickup, and wounded. The hard time, the prison yards. Nine and a half years, and then he fucked up and three more after that. All told.

His addictions sucked his bones out, took all his teeth, and the beatings by prison guards—as he hung hogtied from a shaft—might've killed him. As he told me then, "There was nothing anybody could do to me physical or otherwise that could compare to what I thought in my head about myself."

Owed apologies to anyone. Apologies. Just another junkie. Onetime written off by everyone who loved him.

I've noticed people generally don't know what to expect from Billy when they meet him now, but at minimum, a busted man, who, judging from his outward appearance, maybe should be treated for something, or in a wheelchair.

* * *

It might be easy to dismiss Billy as a guy who considers himself an outlaw folky, some anachronistic Sam Peckinpah anti-hero. But his songs are never an outlaw's boasting memoirs. There is self-pity, yes, but not from victim-y vantages, and not from inside some tragic greater conspiracy, like how the justice system totally fucked drug addicts.

Pain isn't relative and Billy is conditioned to severe limitations in life, even the daily sulks of not getting yourself where you need to be, to the doctor, to the methadone clinic, to the gig. It's forever the mercy of another.

In this world, Billy's life is a yarn filled of should-be-dead addiction, crime and punishment, and more addiction, hospitals and, now, redemption.

In this world, Billy's life and song is about how writing and music redeems, how great art can bestow upon a person respectability, that writing great songs can transform a busted, non-violent man into a truth-seeker, trading hard prison time and pitiless self-assault for defenses of the heart. It's very masculine, and it's been done, of course, among myriad singer-songwriters, from Glen Sherley (but he committed murder-suicide after prison, after Eddy Arnold and Johnny Cash and others recorded his songs) to David Alvin Coe to Steve Earle. Begin the list of rappers: Gucci Mane, T.I., Lil Kim ...

Usually—and I say this wholly aware of how hyperbolic it sounds—many of Billy's songs show a kind of untranslatable mystery. Beauty from areas few others see, either because they're too disconnected, too happy, too adjusted, too depressed, too whatever. Gives Billy's songs a necessity, for him, and, perhaps, for the world around him. Only greats find that sweet spot.

There's a rich internal life that Billy draws from in his songs that protects him on the outside, and that makes them spiritual. His lyrics are often soliloquies, these tunes of self, filled of well-wrought characters, remembered conversations, dead loved ones and longing and dreams.

In Billy's life the songs redeem, so the inclination to romanticize his life proves more powerful than any of his misdeeds. If you don't know him, the songs can be something else, but they are never less powerful.

Billy's "Tucson Kills," for example, now heard on 2014's Charmed Life, arranges beautifully themes he returns to often: father, son, Tucson, dope, prison, prayer-like self-protection, reclamation, even mariachi. There's a hilarious third-person reference ("You tell 'em Bill!"), so you see he's outside himself, poking fun at himself. He had to live that life to write that life, and know exactly where to squash the pretensions and self-seriousness.

The new album simmers, continues where that song left off. It took a double-down effort, in fits and starts, to make Harlem River Drive. Problems, too many to name, mostly involving Billy's health and dire finances, and the scheduling of XIXA chief and album producer Gabriel Sullivan. But it wouldn't be any other way. It's Billy's life, a handful of nickels, some pain killers, music and books, and a jitter that follows him everywhere he goes. Sometimes the impulse to reach out to help keep him upright is too great.

His girlfriend Sarah Spieth, a smart woman who cares for others innately, has been there with him since 2014. They met in a writer's group at UA poetry center. Her self-conscious maternal tasks help Billy immeasurably. Their bickering and scrabbles and curses, their love, their mutual respect. She saw through his temperamental squalor and found beauty. She never judged. He sees all beauty in her, says as much. Still, they go to couples counseling. "We need it," Billy says. But there's no denying their love is potent: Many songs on Harlem River Drive are either for Sarah or about Sarah.

* * *

It's just before Thanksgiving and Billy's hobbling around his one-bedroom apartment, chipper in a red UA sport hoodie, blue jeans, balancing a cup of Trader Joe's instant coffee. It's one of those classic low Tucson cinderblock places where daylight is always shadowy. Personal and family mementos (one of boyhood Billy on Santa's lap) decorate walls, and posters of Miles, Hendrix, Holiday and Superfly. Books and movies fill a bookcase and piles of hand-scrawled writings on legal pad paper cover tables. He writes and writes, longhand. Place smells dirty-sweet of ashtrays, coffee, chocolate. His chalky cigarette voice upholds his tenacious thinking in run-on monologues, from anti-Trump tirades, to the greatness of Nas ("he can write!") or Hendrix ("If you're that beautiful, you're not long for this world"), or Bobbie Gentry (A story involving brother bank robbers who turned him on to Gentry in jail).

click to enlarge Family pictures on Billy's wall. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Family pictures on Billy's wall.

Gone is the blond from his spiked coif (it's turning the color of an overcast sky), and there's ever-slight boyish innocence about him that he's miraculously held on to, even as his body became a corpus of creases and hard rides. Scars override skin and tattoos, mostly from a run-in with a greasy shower and feral cat in Phoenix: MRSA. That episode nearly finished Billy off for good, more than a decade ago. Spent three months in a Phoenix hospital, treated by doctors in hazmat suits. "I had it up and down my arms and it went down into my hip."

That hip was an easy MRSA target, already weak from drumming. So doctors cut most of that hip out. Now bones fragments chip out, scrape nerve endings. "They said I wouldn't last a hip replacement," he says. "But I'll be damned if I'm in a wheelchair." He requires special shoes, one fitted with a tall sole to offset his body tilt.

"There are a million other things wrong with me," he says. He learned he had celiac disease at 45, his immune system trashed from the get-go. He sits down and draws up a pant leg to reveal a lower leg swollen like a bowling pin, deep purple and black. Hep C ruined it and there's no circulation. The worry is the leg might necessitate amputation soon. But the drugs. He's on methadone ("my Nazi juice"), had to get off all the pain meds prescribed to him by a nurse who retired. Hip and body pain is absolute. He's hunched over, moves like a 100-year-old man.

"I had a suitcase full of pain meds and the nurse said she'd find someone—she knew how much pain I was in—but she didn't." Doctors unfamiliar with Billy balked at prescribing him such doses of pain meds. "I toured Austria and France because of her."

A minute later, he adds, "I complain all day about my pains to Sarah, and she hates me for it. Who wants to be with someone like that?"

Now picture this shrinking man, holding court, a living lean-to. Stops mid-sentence, marvels at a beat in distorted computer speakers, this one "Little Man" by Atmosphere, a wondrous street rap bestowing intelligence upon its listeners, which Billy loves.

"It's street without the 'niggas' and 'hoes,' which I'm not allowed to say," he says. His voice lowers, he looks away, embarrassed, and adds, "I started bawling when I first heard this ..." He freezes, one arm caught in the air, like an orchestra conductor (his arms just fail sometimes). "The song is beautiful, and I don't have a kid but I get it." Billy's dad died earlier this year. Floyd Sedlmayr, a loved Tucson philanthropist, nature lover, financial wiz and local legend, a somewhat different legend than that of his son. Billy got to make peace with his father in the years leading up to his death. Couldn't have been easy, the only son; the sin or the sinner.

Billy grew up in a fairly privileged world. Chicago-born, moved to Tucson as a toddler. First band in seventh grade with Dave Seger and Tucson legend Van Christian (Serfers, Naked Prey). Kicked out of Tucson High and Canyon DelOro High School, too bright and stoned. Later, GED in prison.

Dad and mom were charitable, kind, mostly. Liberal parents, but not "exactly an S.L.A., Che Guevara-poster-on-the-wall liberal like me," he laughs.

His mother inspires pride in Billy, how she was an advocate for reproductive rights decades ago, and her involvement in the "Gang of Four" in Southern Arizona Planned Parenthood. Billy rattles off story after story about her.

Billy's forever on the mend with his family. For years he talked to me about the love for his parents and two sisters. And recently how down he was not to be invited to speak at his dad's funeral. He knows of the suffering he caused his family, all those years, the DEA at the door, the arrests, the lawyers, the headlines, the failed rehabs, the prison. Billy knows, better than anyone. Sometimes he thinks he willed the suffering upon them. That must kill him.

His voice drops. "But I'm like a guy who's into his family but the family's not into him. I was always proud of them."

* * *

It was Tucson singer-songwriter-producer Gabriel Sullivan who guided Billy musically on his two solo albums. Sullivan believes in him. Together they put together Billy's 2014 solo debut, Charmed Life, and assembled his backing crew, hilariously christened the Mother Higgins Children's Band (after the frightening schoolyard legend for Tucson's juvenile detention center).

click to enlarge Leo Schwamm (left) and Billy Sedlmayr play live acoustically. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Leo Schwamm (left) and Billy Sedlmayr play live acoustically.

Supporting Musicians on Harlem River Drive include drummer Winston Watson, pedal steel man Connor Gallaher, bassist Thøger Lund, keys man Jason Irman, Jon Villa on horns and whistles. Producer Sullivan plays some drums, guitars, and sings. XIXA's Brian Lopez contributes too. That's singer Katherine Byrnes on the lovely, most pop song on the album, hit-in-a-just-world "Stoney Coat." His consistent live companion, guitarist Leo Schwamm (who co-wrote the title song and toured France with Billy a few years ago). His old Pedestrians mate Chris Cacavas even turns up.

Sullivan's airy production and orchestrations slink and creep like a hoodoo rising from inside the chord changes. Sullivan's like Daniel Lanois on a roll, and if he hailed from the Sonoran Desert. His sonic voodoo matches Billy's scorched-soul recollections and prayers with tense grace. Smoldering mesquite and bare-boned saguaros all around. Billy says of Gabe: "He's a real spiritual cat. I feel like he's my younger brother and my older brother. He makes you feel good about who you are."

Harlem River Drive is going down as one the best albums released anywhere in 2018, if anyone cares about such things anymore. Songs of a man slithering into a creative peak while his body disintegrates, whose heart keeps him upright. His voice, both sweet and savage, sometimes grim and broken, is like what Kris Kristofferson said about Larry Jon Wilson: "He can break your heart with a voice like a cannonball."

Highlights include the fully realized, languid opener "Germany." It's contrite, gentle and pretty in its bruises. Billy sings, "Kids will cry, you know they will fuss/Sarah draws and blows away the crayon dust."

"Germany" is everything I thought about Sarah when I met her," he says.

click to enlarge Piles of Billy’s writings. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Piles of Billy’s writings.

Billy penned the beginning of "My Father's House" in prison, and it floats effortlessly on lines like "winter sets herself down like UFOs." He wrote "Naturally She's a Woman," while suffering wretched interferon side effects, "for Hep C. It was kicking my ass." A listener would never know. It's pure '70s pop-soul, Bacharachian too. "White Powder Ma," a stormy rock 'n' roller Billy penned with former MC5 bassist Mike Davis, when he was alive and sober, and living in Tucson. Billy's honored to have done anything with the (unsung) rock 'n' roll giant, but he nearly blew it.

"When I met Mike, I was fresh out of the pen," Billy says. "I told him, 'I had pictures of you on my wall.'" Billy sparked a cigarette enhanced with heroin while sitting beside Davis. Davis freaked and their friendship nearly ended. "He and Brother Wayne Kramer, they did their time," Billy says, shaking his head. "They were ahead of me."

That song, he adds, stands as a tribute to Mike Davis, "and to Rich Hopkins too." (Note that Sidewinder/Sand Ruby Rich Hopkins included an earlier version of the song on his 1996 album El Paso.)

Album lodestar is its finale, "Apology," a Rich Hopkins co-write. It's a solemn trip atop Connor Gallaher's mourning pedal steel. There's dislocation in it, as if Billy's forever sorry for even being here at all: "To say that death ain't nothing more than life's apology/This is my apology," he sings.

Billy Sedlmayr performs Dec. 29 with Tucson Salvage writer Brian Jabas Smith, Maggie Smith (showing the Tucson Salvage documentary) and poet Maggie Golston. EXO Roast, 403 N. Sixth Ave. 7 p.m. For more info, and to purchase the Billy Sedlmayr albums, go to Billysed.com.

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