Bonnie Prince Billy. Showbox at the Market, downtown Seattle. Monday August 9, 2010. Doors at 8PM. All Ages. $22 General Admission, plus a $1.90 charge, the latter presumably for the pleasure of the paper ticket I recently found scurried away in the pages of Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon, a biographically-oriented history of the periodic table that I never finished reading. (Like a Beckett character I failed, then several years later failed again.)
The book was a gift from a woman I had met about a month before the show at a restaurant where I worked. She was in town for an interview and we ended up spending most of her non-interviewing time together. We then spent the next several months talking on the phone and emailing, juggling the two hour time difference from Seattle to Alabama. She was subtly beautiful, very smart, and riddled with idiosyncrasies: I liked her a lot. She took the job in Seattle and moved to town at the start of the new year. After she arrived I saw her one night for about an hour. Despite repeated attempts on my part I’ve never heard from her since. She went full Casper and stopped responding to my calls, texts, and emails. Social media relieved concerns that she’d had some terrible accident, or worse. But all of that is another story.
I went to the Bonnie Prince Billy show with my old housemate Greg. Several years before this show Greg fell 35-feet from a boat that was dry-docked and landed on his head in a field of concrete. Needless to say this injured Greg’s brain in many ways, the most immediate being that his brain swelled. As his brain was housed within his skull there was nowhere for the swelling to expand. To offset this, surgeons cut a hole in his head and removed a couple square inches of bone. Afterward Greg’s head was wrapped in white surgical tape, upon which were written the words, “NO BONE!” with arrows pointing to the areas where — well, his brain was no longer covered by bone. I remember sitting beside his hospital bed thinking: I could poke my finger right through that… The removed wedge of bone was put in a hospital freezer; a couple months later, after the swelling was gone, a time during which Greg wore a blue skateboard helmet everywhere (he slept and showered with it on), the bone was placed back into his skull.
(To demonstrate that some people simply have inexplicable luck, about a decade later Greg was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and had his large intestine removed. Surgeons cut out 5-feet of his insides and then reconnected what remained, like a plumber working around a broken pipe, an analogy I’m certain is so inept that any surgeon will cringe upon reading it.)
Bonnie Prince Billy is the stage name for Will Oldham; before landing on BPB old Will played under all sorts of stage names that involved the word Palace. That August of 2010 BPB was touring in support of the album The Wonder Show of the World, recorded with The Cairo Gang. I remember BPB as balding, pudgy and pale, the latter emphasized by a very noticeable amount of eyeliner. He wore an untucked, rumpled dress shirt dappled with several very obvious grease stains. I remember the band was great. Beyond that it’s a fog. Fortunately I’m one of those strange obsessives who keeps a journal, thus permitting me to fill in the missing gaps:
11:55PM: Just back from Bonnie Prince Billy @ the Showbox downtown. Absolutely amazing – one of the best shows I’ve seen in some time. He’s such an odd character – he reminds me of the boy at the opening of that spelling bee documentary, the Asperger’s kid, all twitchy and sliding and knotty-faced. He held his body like an animated crab. Greg compared him to a melting of Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury, which was apt. Great singer, awesome band. Really solid.
A year or two later I was in Chicago talking with my old college friend Ryan. I mentioned the show and Ryan scoffed. “Bonnie Prince Billy? He’s just a failed actor.” He said this decisively, as if BPB’s inability to become a successful actor was both determinant and indicative of larger meanings, a concept that struck me as odd — after all, I’m failed at all sorts of things, including reading Sam Kean’s book.
BPB is still making music, though I’ve kept up with very little of it. Every year or two I go back to his earlier albums, all of which are haunting, strangely beautiful, and directly cutting. I still regularly think of the lines: If I am gone and with no trace/I will be in a minor place, which is probably as good a hint as any if and when it’s time to form a search party on my behalf. As far as BPB’s acting goes: a couple years back I was watching Ghost Story when I realized: Hey, that’s BPB! The role was apparently cast explicitly to contradict Ryan’s point, for old Billy has the most lines of anyone in that entire film (although if you’ve seen the movie you know that doesn’t mean much).
Earlier today I texted Greg a picture of the ticket — Do you remember this?? He replied that it had been a fun show, though I take that with a grain of salt, having learned not to put too much faith in the memories of a man who’s had parts of his skull removed and then replaced. The woman who gave me that book had her birthday a couple months back: each year I get a notification from my calendar, where such information apparently lives forever. I wondered then, as I have every year since, What happened? Why did you disappear? I don’t hold out hope for an answer. To quote Bonnie Prince, maybe she just saw a darkness: in me, her, or something that included the overlap. Sometimes life just goes like that.