Will Oldham and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy | 04/10/07

Image: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

Will Oldham on Bonnie 'Prince' Billy: Will Oldham on Bonnie 'Prince' Billy:

Hear my story, stout islanders, for what are you if not my beloved audentia , my "hearers", in the language of the Horace. It is the small kindnesses, the simple offering of doughnuts for instance, that tape us all together through the war and wildlife that blacken our calendars.

My request could not be smaller: to consider the following account before deciding whether you shall place your valued trust in me or in the bitchery of the Bonnie "Prince", for our "curious arrangement" has been rent for ever more and no true admirer will be able to credibly straddle our severed dominions from this point forward. If, after hearing me, his new-age safecracking continues to please, then I will abandon you to the waving signs, confetti and balloons of his new publicity campaign. In the rust belt of my country we have a saying: "You do not see the accordionist beat his son."

To wit: the truth is a hidden thing. When I discovered Billy in 1994 he was just a young headbanging child, a local collector of fantasy statuary, written up in our humble Clarion-Ledger for dashing a medicine ball at the head of another youth. I paid his fine with dues from the Ladies' Tennyson Club, of which my aunt and guardian was the treasurer. I had need of him to be "the face" of my recorded serenades, for, truthfully, I am hairless and horrible to look at. I am not some hail-fellow-well-met who might two-step through the Ark-La-Tex circuit in promotion of my tales of vanished customs and customs yet to be. I needed another to succeed, and though I knew Billy to be the feckless sort of riff-raff that hangs about the Spencerville Gin playing mumblety-peg all day, I also knew him to be a talented mimic whom I could mould into my acoustic likeness.

I would not allow him to do interviews for the first round of albums, for I could not predict what rubbish or tommyrot he might spew into the recorder, but I did send him out as my marionette, to play infrequent concerts, while my first release, under the name Palace Brothers, thrived in the broadsheets under a mantle of bar-smoke. Each time he returned from these performances, though, I noticed an accretion of disdainful hauteur, a dwindling of his already poor notion of thrift, and an increased reliance on magical thinking that should have presaged in me our current estrangement. For the second album, I placed my own darkened visage on the cover to rein in his callous insolence.

When after the fourth release I had our record service place my own name on the new merchandise, he assailed me with threats of arbitration. He threatened to expose our beguiling arrangement unless I put his new and gaudy stage name, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, on the spines of all future releases. Because I was convalescing from a painful cryptorchism at the time, I complied with all his demands. From my attic sickbed window I saw how Billy shouldered former playmates out of the way on the village square. He soon acquired a New York tailor and a team of fast horses that blasted by the salutations of old friends. When I requested that he begin to perform favoured older works such as Silver Threads Among the Gold and Kathleen Mavourneen, he balked and instead added the songs of rude and unscrupulous cads like Kenneth Chesney and Timothy McGraw to his live repertoire. How I dreamed of walloping him with my withered arm!

When, furthermore, he informed me that he had secretly recorded an album of my early compositions in the mode of these Nashvillian omnibus conductors, my dormant brinkmanship was finally aroused. See here, my soi-disant Prince! You'll have no more of my songs to sing! Furthermore, the royalties from your dreadful cover album will only fill my coffers with more gold - gold that will enable me to purchase the plastic surgery that will make our faces and forms indistinguishable from one another! If I could I would conjure a manticore to devour your form, Billy, but instead I shall let ignominy be your penultimate reward and a blank headstone in a dreadful fen your final recompense! And to you, fair England, I shall see you post-operatively anon!

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy on Will Oldham:

Gentle people, you know many things when you see them. I am taking this opportunity to cast some light on one of those many things. It's been 10 years, really more, that I've had to stand in shadows or under painted lights, and now I must rise up vicious and move into what is my birthright. In 1994 I was approached by an odd-looking cripple from two doors down, who had always, somewhat deservedly, been an object of ridicule where we grew up. He was a hairless and shrivelled man that lived with his aunt, an old crone whom nobody liked. Parents instructed us not to stare or pelt them when they hobbled by.

It was a troubling situation around town; still, we didn't like him any more because of it necessarily, although maybe it helped us lend an ear after watching a tolerance movie, like ET. From their house all kinds of racket came - disgusting noises betraying the inhumane and the illegal, by whom and upon whom nobody knew, for our friend's voice was not unlike that of his aunt, androgynous and bad. His name was Will, and still is, down among wherever he sits now, increasingly ill and worried and sweating - so that even though it once seemed impossible for him to appear more sickly and pathetic, it is happening still!

I could hardly stand the odour of medicine and rotting flesh the last time I went there. I went to tell him to "sod off" and that he was welcome to scribble and call and wail all he wanted from now on. For I knew and know what I was and am doing here right now, more than he ever could, and that is positive. What he said back then, when we first met outside the courthouse, was that he was obviously discouraged by God in this world to pursue anything public, to communicate as it were or deliver to any what was truly inside of him. And he asked me, not politely, to be his "face" and do exactly what he said, for which behaviour I would be richly and regularly rewarded. He gave me music, songs, song after song and would then shove me gently stageward saying, "Now fly little bird, fly away with this!" smiling eerily as he shooed me off with his little shrivelled arms. And then I would run from his gloomy parlour out of fear and relief into the hot sunshine.

Once around the corner, out of his eyesight, I'd examine the greasy sheaves of papers and scraps and tapes; I would get feverish and excited, sometimes even so much that my testicles began to retract into my very self. Yes, inside of those screwy packages were the keys to more than one man's destiny, many more in fact. It was always then up to me to follow his damned instructions (I can hear his wheezy nag still, yuck yuck yuck!) about what should be said where, who should be sung to, what girls to kiss and make love to, how to walk, how to dance, how to skip, how to present! Which was fine because I had never thought of any of this before, so.

But he - he always stayed down near where he slept, even after his guardian died a few years into this project. I was honest, for a long time, bringing him reports and most of the monies I collected from the selling of concert tickets. I even offered gratitude (fool!) and brought back to him serious amounts of encouragement and praise. So he continued to pack me off to Australia and Africa, and Florida, too. But here and there I started to grow, as a young man does, and would sometimes kiss a girl that was not prescribed, or shout notes that were not written, and sometimes even then deliver a verse or two of my own, though they are not recorded as yet. It became time, as it will always become time, for a man to do something right and claim his own. What happened then is that I told him (because he didn't know - no he didn't) about foods and sunshine, about good and healthy joyful living, all things that he loathed and was sure were unnecessary but are not, as we know!

Good God and just breathing and sucking a lungful of pure water! God, endorsing the muscles of the leg! Climbing trees, please, and telling her that you love her and asking her, for instance: "Where does this limb go, prithee, please tell me it goes ... right ... there" - and it does! Well, he didn't know any of this. He probably never will. But I do and won't unlearn it. So I will now personify the alleviation of his constant misery. And what I have done is to seal it all beneath my ribs, these baby songs that I have made my own by saying so. They can live more and higher and richer in my throat; finally cleared of his Gollum sputum, they are really very pretty. Finally, I want to make a toast to him inside his private hell: here's to you, Will, and your happiness. You may now bow down, and kiss the boot of Bonnie "Prince" Billy!