The ghost of Billy Batson: Memories of a one-time Woodstock musical legend

Several years ago I wrote a piece on The Sled Hill Cafe for Woodstock Times in which I mentioned the once-infamous Billy Batson, who a few weeks after its publication reached out to me. We briefly traded a few emails. Sensing a desperation in Batson’s need to have his music heard, I abruptly backed out of the conversation. Unfazed, Batson sent my managing editor, Brian Hollander, a dauntingly fat file which found its way into the black hole of my “archives.”

Six weeks ago, Eric Parker asked me whether I’d be writing Billy’s obit. Cursory research reminded me of Batson’s importance hereabouts, though at that moment I still hadn’t remembered Billy’s trove ticking away in the archives. What was the wild man’s relevance here and now?

I happened to clean out a certain basement where Billy’s file eerily jumped into view.

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Originally from California, Billy hit town circa 1965. A photo from that year shows a wide-faced, strong-jawed handsome boy grown into a 20-year-old. But that’s not how we remember him. He got bearded and slim and grim fast.

Unlike the flock who’d followed Dylan here from Greenwich Village, Billy didn’t write and sing his songs accompanied by yet another guitar. He played the piano. Professor Longhair had to have been an early influence.

The guy had a vision. He came from somewhere twisted. Or maybe he came from somewhere that wasn’t twisted, and so perceived more clearly what the rest of us preferred to see as straight.

Billy became an instant hit in Woodstock the night he performed his song ‘bout Dylan’s point of entry. As many will remember, it was called “The Cafe Espresso.” The term “The Depresso” stuck. Here are Billy’s sneering first verses — soon to snarl.

 

I’d like to extend my warmest welcome … to everyone in this room.

                    I’m glad y’all decided to come by here tonite,

                         yeah t’listen to some of my tunes.

Of course you all have your own reasons for…being here — I know.

Most of you are …. just so bored with … no place else to go.

And some of you are thirsty! And just stopped by for a drink.

       Most of you don’t care what happens here tonight—

                      Just as long as you don’t haveta’ think!

 

Now the waitresses and the bartender, they’re a flock of fakes.

But they’ll be the first ones to openly admit just how much they

                                       Hate this place!

And then they’ll talk about the money and how hard it is to survive

                 And how they have to work six days a week

                          Just so one day they can be alive.

And the ladies who own this joint? The ladies who own this bar?

               They’re only in it for the money, honey–

                   They don’t care where you are!

 

Billy played “The Sad Cafe” at the Sled Hill to hoots and hollers (and where someone one night called him “Billy Batshit” – a moniker he’d never shake.) Billy even played “The Sad Cafe” at the Depresso. They loved it.

I first heard him play it at The Purple Elephant (today Sew Woodstock). One night Billy shared the bill with an outfit featuring guitar legend Teddy Speleos, considered in Greenwich Village as second only to Hendrix himself. The other band members were David Vittek on rhythm guitar, Marty David [deceased] on bass, and a forgotten drummer.

Why the supersonic Speleos and the forever embittered Batson decided to team up is a question for pages never likely to be written, unless it was that Teddy cranked his guitar up so damned loud that it forced Billy to do what he instantly realized he’d really wanted to do from the start — which was to scream like that wounded and ever-vengeful angel of biblical infamy. There was something biblical about Batson — something in him of the martyred abolitionist John Brown — even if Billy’s remained a thoroughly unrepentant fire. He’d die 40-some years later even more defiantly brilliant then he’d been here in Woodstock.

It all came to a rolling boil when Christopher Parker (today the most renowned of those painter/drumming Parker Brothers) answered a 1969 ad in Rolling Stone seeking a drummer for a rock band forming in Woodstock. Parker quit the School of Visual Arts to join what almost had to be called “Holy Moses,” the perennial invocation of Billy Batson, secret identity of Captain Marvel,
By now Woodstock’s incarnation of that emanation was drinking pretty heavy with Rick Danko and Richard Manuel (bless ‘em), whose influence you can hear quite clearly in several of the songs which next put Woodstock on its ear.

Maybe Rick spoke of Billy to Albert Grossman. Or however it went down, Albert next appeared to appear — if ever gloomily — interested. But the Baron of Bearsville proved slow on the draw the night Hendrix’s elsewhere notorious manager, Michael Jeffery, pulled out pen and contract first — or more enthusiastically. Billy and the band signed with Jimi’s man instead.

Holy Moses, their self-titled LP, was recorded at Electric Ladyland Studios with Michael Esposito credited as one of two engineers (though Espo don’t recall it too clearly). Now the ghost of Hendrix (tragically if most suspiciously dead in London) reared up magisterial amongst “guitars and clothes leant out by Jeffery” (sez Parker) during these rippingly raw sessions. They are today even more astoundingly alive than anything this side of Captain Beefheart. The album’s first cut, that definitive exorcism of barely contained rage, roared up from the shredded husk of earlier, merely sarcastic renditions of “The Sad Cafe.”

What happened next is shrouded by storm, since Batson himself — in the tome he sent Woodstock Times — dismisses “historical” liner notes from a then-recently pirated printing of Holy Moses as “errant imaginings.” Explained Batson, “The main reason for the demise of Holy Moses was … the death of Jimi Hendrix [and the fact that] Jimi’s manager, Michael Jeffery, didn’t quite have the clout he’d had before ….”

Then skipping over a minefield of 25 years (exactly how much of which Billy himself accurately recalled remains unknown) we finally learn about a series of botched operations on Billy’s lower back in the late Nineties, rendering him unable “to find work of any kind.” Prior to which, in ‘97 he acknowledges that more skillful operation on a throat cancer which defied risks of his speaking through a mechanical voice box “more abhorrent than death itself.”
Most importantly of all, layered into this same rage-filled portfolio, are two CDs crammed with Batson’s newer songs, circa 2010. Between glaring examples of “the good-time” music I especially despise are works of pure genius. A song called “I Can Identify With That,” for instance, in my estimation easily holds ground against the best of Townes Van Zandt, Johnny Cash or John Prine.

What Batson doesn’t ever refer to, but that photos of his impressively oak-adorned bedroom and vintage-instrument-strewn home-studio do, is the unverified rumor which came out of Europe at least a generation ago. It reported that Billy had managed, finally and definitively, to give up drinking under the ever-caring eye of Will Geer, for whom he became something of an adopted son. (Geer being that McCarthy black-listed actor who finally recovered his career playing “Grampa” on “The Waltons.)

Unfortunately, what Batson did not ever give up were his god-damned unfiltered cigarettes, which — contrary to his intended immortality — killed him dead in Costa Mesa, California. He was 72.

It’s impossible for me to sum up Billy Batson here. And it may prove impossible even with considerably more research. It should be noted with rust-encrusted irony that he’s best remembered locally for a song no one I’ve spoken to ever recalls him to have publicly sung hereabouts, even if Happy and Artie Traum were rarely allowed off a stage without the audience joining in on the chorus of Billy’s Woodstock anthem:

 

Ohh ho! “Uncle Jed Say”–

                               Isn’t everybody getting old-er each day!

                                Ohh ho! Who wants to fly?

                                I only want to live until the day that I die.”

 

My guess is that Billy Batson fulfilled the last words of this, one of his tamer songs, written as it was for “the second Holy Moses record” which never came to be. Other newer songs of Billy’s, which I sadly find myself among a mere handful of folk ever to have heard, are filled with inconsolable sorrow as well as vows of eternal love and fidelity. These songs remain all the more remarkable for the fact they were written and sung by an inexplicably redeemed demon I’d never have earlier predicted could ever Rest In Peace.

I’m still torn between wishing Billy Batson such rest and merrily envisioning him instead on a rant-ripping rampage to raise the dead and punish the living all across this mockery of a free nation. But this I do know. I’ll never know peace until the world acknowledges the best of Billy Batson, who adopted the name of the teenager fated to become Captain Marvel, the world’s mightiest mortal.

There is one comment

  1. Sally Grossman

    Tad, I need to speak to you about your strange attitude and use of words. Maybe the album just wasn’t that good. Maybe Albert wasn’t interested.. Albert and Michael were good friends. Meet me for a coffee at the Commune Saloon or Little Bear?

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