Will Oldham and the Challenge of Keeping It Hyperreal
By Jonathan Cushing
here is a unique, recurring discomfort that comes with the donning of a stage name—both for audience and performer—but only when it is conscious, like a case of the hiccups you thought had ended five minutes ago. Pseudonymity has become so engrained in the way music is produced and consumed that most listeners don’t know the real names of Lady Gaga or Elliott Smith, nor do they particularly care. In many cases this is a healthy state of affairs, as the performer has the liberty of self-fashioning and the listener is unburdened with biographical detail. The case becomes fraught, though, once the audience does take a fanatical interest in the person behind the stage presence. The confusing of egos and alter-egos is a problem not only because it risks imposing a fictional identity upon the biographical person, but also because it can impinge on the listening experience itself.
When Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) took the stage, alone, at the Aladdin Theater in Portland in September, he was accompanied by any number of spectral selves. Crooning the first lines of an old favorite, “New Partner” (“There’s a black-tinted sunset with the prettiest of skies / Lay back, lay back, rest your head on my thighs”), he lifted one leg behind him and remained that way, flamingo-wise, for most of the song, leaning precariously towards the audience. The listeners packed into the Aladdin’s cinema-sized hall were silent and attentive as he incanted the signature lyric: “You were always on my mind / You were always on my mind.” Like a well-timed joke or an endearing concession of vulnerability, Oldham’s eventual return to bipedalism broke the audience-performer ice.
Over the course of the evening, Oldham’s presence mingled with the audience’s, and the stage became populated with other Will Oldhams and other listenings. He oscillated between the conversationalist and the artist, between the performer and craftsman. Then there were the contexts that any given audience member brought to bear. Longtime devotees may have summoned classic Oldham recordings, such as Days in the Wake (1994), released under “Palace Brothers,” Viva Last Blues (1995), under “Palace Music,” or any number of early, dauntless Drag City EPs. Others less familiar with his music may have connected the musician with the movie actor who appeared in films such as Matewan (1987), Everybody’s Baby: The Rescue of Jessica McClure (1989), or Wendy and Lucy (2008), to name a few. Some may have recalled his cameo in a tractor-themed Kanye West video. Those only familiar with his recent discography savored the experience to hear the older, rawer Bonnie, outside of the technically refined studio parameters he has made use of in recent years.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy may be the most famous songwriter you’ve never heard of. Dropping his name among even a reasonably with-it crowd of music fans will draw a number of blank stares. It will also elicit knowing nods, vague gazes of recognition, and, sometimes, effusions of appreciation or censure. In part, the level of recognition depends on the name dropped. Will Oldham has worked under the names “Palace Music,” “Palace Brothers,” “Will Oldham,” and, since 1999’s I See a Darkness, Bonnie “Prince” Billy. This final, stable moniker is reportedly a hodge-podge of elements from the names “Nat King Cole” and “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” the Jacobite “Pretender” to the British throne, although several other rings are present. Over the years, Oldham’s stage names have proven as protean as his pursuits.
In many ways, Bonnie’s paradoxically renowned obscurity is the standard for how music is disseminated and consumed today, even if Oldham has found a niche on the margins of popular taste. Even R. Kelly—one of Oldham’s idols—has swaths of songs that are never quoted or sung, staying beneath the level of “Remix to Ignition”-type phenomena in our niche-taste musical universe. These songs flow from car and home stereos, headphones and streaming apps, but hardly ever get their share of radio play. Nonetheless, a strong case could be made that the real reason Bonnie “Prince” Billy and R. Kelly have found snug beds on the margins of public scrutiny is because they share an uncommon willingness to explore the less glamorous—in fact, often shameful—corners of experience. Kelly’s latest, Write Me Back, was nominated for the Best R&B Album of 2012 and is a super entertaining, satisfying album, complete with an entirely separate album, made up of short, somewhat off-hand commentary on each song of the album proper. It is brutally honest about touchy subjects like fidelity and attraction, but also somehow light in the midst of its real talk. Listening to the album with the commentary is akin to seeing Bonnie play live. At the Aladdin show, he described R. Kelly’s music as being like a rotting piece of fish sandwich lodged in an evacuated molar cavity. It was meant as a compliment.
ldham’s talent and charisma have lead to a welter of attention from critics and journalists, the most prominent example a 2009 piece in The New Yorker. Sometimes it is hard to discern whether Oldham’s mystique is an effect of the media attention or its cause. In the era of digital footprints, artists without curated, traceable personal histories become cause for fascination. The result is that some artists become an ironic magnet for attention even as they enjoy many of the fruits of evading the spotlight. There is a myth of continuous and empirically verifiable identities which threatens the ancient birthright of any artist—the right of reinvention, multiple personalities, fissures between the personal and the dramatic—and which is yearned after by the same audience who sets out to demystify it. Simply not having such-and-such a social media page can be more effective, PR-wise, than having a well-cultivated one. Bonnie’s first onstage comment at the Aladdin show was a two-part list of the things that had depressed him most in the past month. One was the then-still-threatened bombing of Syria. The other was the trauma of starting a Facebook page for his local Louisville radio show.
It is pathological to have identified with a fictional being and then want to know who he really is, but it is also a broadly relevant and common desire. The extended interview, Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy, published in spring 2012—with a major publisher, ironically, considering Oldham’s philosophical and practical aversion to major record labels—is an attempted one-off satisfaction of curiosity surrounding Oldham’s life and creative practices. It is meant to assuage the friction between artist and biographical figure that some listeners encounter, although it may provoke more questions than it answers. For one thing, it does not explain why we may have encountered this friction in the first place, even if the book provides consolation in the fact that Oldham apparently experiences it himself: “What does it do to your psyche, to sing any lyric? I’ll never know for sure, but you know that every time it has some kind of effect.” Oldham often refers to “Bonnie” in the third person and speaks of his genesis as somewhat coerced—“They were seeking some sort of individual responsible for things, and I was just like, ‘OK. We’ll make one up”—even if, in the end, he admits that things have been easier since settling on a stage-name. Oldham at times speaks as if he were in thrall to Bonnie as much as the audience is. Bonnie is a super-human, one who doesn’t eat, sleep, or “leave stains.”
The disassociation between person and performer—or between commentator and artist—makes possible another, parallel space between Bonnie the performer and the chiaroscuro personas of his songs. As Oldham proceeded through his set at the Aladdin, sometimes with songs from deep in his repertoire (“Idle Hands are the Devil’s Playthings,” “Weaker Soldier”), sometimes with other, fairly recent gems (“Easy Does It,” “Black Captain”), the stage became crowded not with other Will Oldhams, but with his characters. It is the theater of his songwriting that is the most striking element—his ability to be himself and someone else simultaneously, or to displace or project himself just enough so that we feel that we are at once being sung to and overhearing him sing to someone else. There is an expectation of intimacy whenever you have one person with a guitar in a room full of people, but Oldham’s allure is that he makes use of a creative distance. “As soon as you respect another’s distance,” he tells Licht, “something automatically becomes better about your own life.” Bonnie speaks directly, but never to the listener, or at least never to a version of the listener that is at hand. The song is not fully heard until the audience identifies the listening position that the song creates. And assuming it is located, it can be perilously slick. Towards the beginning of the book, Oldham names the weird rapport that must be cultivated in order for a song to be successful:
I basically use other things that have touched me as examples, which I know share nothing with the person who was involved, and I know I’m sharing something that has nothing to do with anything specific at all. There’s something to be said about your emotional palette coming from your personal experience, but music is about changing things—like a book or a movie—you take a situation and construct a new one. The songs are not meant to be real life. They’re meant to have a psychic, rather than a factual bearing on the listener […] It’s real life of the imagination. I will always rewrite a song that seems like it is too connected to a real event, because the intention is always to create the hyperreal event, so that, ideally, more people can relate to it.
ntil shortly before releasing his first album, There Is No One What Will Take Care of You (1993), under Palace Brothers at the age of twenty-three, Oldham had been primarily a stage and film actor. Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy makes clear his debts to a variety of influences—from the Misfits, to James Earl Jones, to Nicholas Ray, to the Everly Brothers, to Oum Kalsoum—but in the above passage he articulates a very old tradition of poetry and theater. Although it may sound newfangled, this almost throwaway phrase,“hyperreal event,” is the old principle of fiction-making in general, and it is central to an ancient mode of balladeering, which echoes through Oldham’s stage name itself. There are certain songs where the general influence of folk-European minstrelsy is especially clear, such as in the lyrics to “Black Captain,” an open farewell letter from the down-and-out captain’s partner.
In R. Kelly fashion, Bonnie prefaced “Black Captain” with a vaguely personal, anecdotal analysis before moving into the suspended reality of his song. What do you do, he asked the audience, when someone you know “goes crazy?” Do you follow them down into the abyss or do you cut them off? It was one of the few inter-song remarks that prompted a battery of responses from the audience. There were enthusiastic partisans for both sides, until someone yelled “It depends!” “That’s the thing, though,” Oldham responded, “depends on what?” This kind of repartee, which skirted the playful edges of serious topics and often ended in organically-arrived-at impasses, was a common way of seguing between songs. Like his songs, Oldham’s comments were at once ludic and earnest, never veering close enough to either pole to be accused of flippancy or despair.
His pieces kick up the thin level of dust that has settled upon contemporary notions of sincerity—because although he has a sharp critical eye and wit, Will Oldham is emphatically not what would today be considered an “ironic” songwriter. If he can be called ironic at all, it is in the classical sense of having a window into shortcomings of which a character is unaware. Even this, however, is an insufficient assessment, since Bonnie’s personas often do seem painfully aware of their own faults, however belatedly. For example, there is the song “Bad Man,” which Bonnie performed a cappella after making the crowd-pleasing comment that “singing is one of the best feelings in the world and playing an instrument is one of the worst.” The song is a thoroughly creepy psychological confession: “Mind your own business and stay seven feet back / Get any closer and I’m bound to attack.” If there is irony here, it is in the contradiction between the speaker’s boasted misanthropy and the necessary yearning for intimacy built into any song lyric.
There is an equal risk of taking his words too seriously. His characters are deluded, strange, ill, sappy, and playful. They are comically morose and pathetic, as in the song “Whipped,” a slow, typically first-person Oldham song with a beautifully written, chromatic guitar part. Bonnie explained to the Portland audience directly after performing the song—and the audience had remained inert throughout—that he thought it was one of his funniest songs, although only once had an audience laughed, in Switzerland. This could be seen as a light indictment of the audience, or as evidence of the latitude allowed in any particular song’s audience rapport. Is the speaker of “Whipped” to be pitied, celebrated, made fun of, all of the above? Do we take the last word of the confused first verse as a book-ending summation of psychological weakness or as a punchline? “I ain’t older yes I’m older but that’s not where the scales have tipped / Oh, you know I’ve been chosen to be whipped.”
The characters meet the listener halfway, but never further. Oldham’s songs may cause certain effects in his audience, but the reverse is less true, just as misunderstandings do not shake his interpretations: “But I realized early on that I didn’t understand the live audience’s reaction, that they weren’t the best judges of whether you were doing it well.” His strong purpose as a recording artist sometimes leads to statements of disdain for the live performance experience, often cheek and jowl with expressions of warmth for his listenership: “It was just great to get to play shows for money [at Lollapalooza 1994], and have no audience, because that’s my dream: to get paid and not have an audience, that is my fantasy.”
At best, live performing is a way of staying in shape. On the other hand, Oldham expresses his appreciation for onstage banter and even confesses his fondness for hecklers, regardless of their intentions. It is the one-way spectacle of performance, in which his persona and his person—not necessarily the music—are front and center that Oldham finds distasteful. Oldham’s “events” are internal, unscheduled and private, occurring in the intimacy of one person with a record player or a pair of headphones. Amongst the ersatz friendships of social media and the directness of live performance, records are a social and economic anomaly. They combine anonymity with intimacy, priming the listener to develop an identity that only costs the price of admission, as opposed to the psychic toll of “likes.” Live performance risks an over-identification with the performer and primes unrealistic expectations in its ritualistic piety. Records can be embraced or rejected, but they are undeniable, non-fungible, event-producing artifacts, which anchor some selves as often as they dislodge others.
In the end, Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy is a magpie collection of anecdotes, although it does nobly attempt a synoptic view of Oldham’s career thus far. Any reader who is also a fan will have fun mining the book for Oldham’s musical influences or his attitudes towards recording and performing. As a cohesive book it is unsuccessful, although the failure may be as attributable to genre as it is to the content. Is a book-length interview meant to be cohesive, or even readable straight through? Still, the questions seem slipshod, while the interview seems arbitrarily organized. It has the feel of an extended blog post or a transcription of back-stage ramblings more than a presentable piece of biography. Again, this may be asking too much of a genre that is necessarily circuitous and resistant to the interests of a popular audience in its extended palaver. It is hard to come up with many outstanding examples of the book-length interview, although This is Orson Welles and François Truffaut’s interviews of Alfred Hitchcock come to mind. But Welles and Hitchcock seemed at some level to relish the cultivation of their public personas, whereas the book about Oldham is more concerned with putting daylight between the man and the stage presence. The cover-to-cover reader will come away with many gems of information, but only after sifting through mounds of trivia, obscure names, and repetitive questioning. It is a book to be skimmed rather than read. This has much to do with the fact that the book’s subject is far more engrossing than the book itself. Oldham’s alter-ego is constantly developing, molting, and fading within or without its previous parameters. Bonnie’s songs clear the ground for a kind of acting that is at once hazy and intimate, that challenges identifications with tropes of the stage persona and the person, as well as with the paper tigers of fantasized selves. We can forgive the book for not collapsing Will Oldham into Bonnie “Prince” Billy, even be grateful for it. It ensures, at the very least, two different hearings of his records and, as important, multiple castings of the listener.
Jonathan Cushing is a writer and educator living in Portland, Oregon. In the summer issue he wrote about contemporary Czech cinema.