by Bob Hanshaw
“You can’t take stuff back, man. You can’t change it.” Billy Sedlmayr is sitting in his tiny midtown apartment, smoking a cigarette. There’s a picture of Rainer hanging on the wall, a poster for a show with Gabe Sullivan, family pictures, a few crosses. “I wish I could change a lot of things about myself… I’ve changed some spots, and some remain.”
Sedlmayr has seen plenty of Tucson history go by – plenty of it pass him by, as a spiraling heroin habit had its hand in ending his stint in most of the best bands he’s been in. And there were many of those: The Pedestrians, Tucson’s first punk band (more or less); Giant Sandworms, later Giant Sand; collaborating with Rich Hopkins of Sand Rubies; backing up Rainer Ptacek.
He also spent 12 ½ years in prison. A lot of things pass you by in there.
But Billy Sed is on the rise again. “I don’t want this article to be all about drugs and prison, man,” he says. Because there’s plenty else to talk about. His first solo album, produced by Gabriel Sullivan and featuring many other Tucson luminaries, was released at Club Congress this past Friday. “[The album] sort of let me tell my story… I’m real proud of it.”
It’s a bleak picture painted with lush colors. It’s a story of the hard desert, and a man who came through it scarred and bitten. It’s sometimes too close to the bone. “Some nights I can just sing through it, and then other nights, if I think about what I’m singing, then it’s different. You know what I mean? So sometimes it’s best to just ‘act as if,’ you know, don’t think too deep.” It ricochets from boyhood to the prison yard; from dim histories of Apache raids and Jesuits to the dimness inside a bar; from the angels to the dirt. It is, in short, a remarkable album.
THE DESERT IS NO LADY
Billy Sedlmayr’s early rise is well-documented, particularly in a long biographical piece that the Phoenix New Times put up 16 years ago. But a little thumbnail sketch will suffice to keep certain things in mind: That he started up The Pedestrians in 1976 after cycling through a few high schools. (“I didn’t get out of high school, got kicked out of a few. I used to be, I think, sort of proud of that. Anymore… a lot of things change as you get older.”) That The Pedestrians really launched Tucson’s punk rock scene with a landmark concert (captured on tape at the time, and released in 2001 by Rich Hopkins as An Evening At Pearl’s Hurricane). That he became a founding member of Giant Sandworms with Dave Seger, Howe Gelb, Rainer Ptacek.
The way Billy tells it, that band started when he and Rainer met. “He found me, I didn’t find him…. then I brought over Dave Seger, who I loved. His bass playing is incredible, his guitar playing is incredible, and Dave and me and Rainer were cookin’, man. And then Howie came and the band took a very different sound… So that’s what made us, it was a very schizophrenic band.”
After some early success here, the Giant Sandworms moved to New York – but Rainer stayed behind with his family.
“Rainer quit the band when he really got into his own thing, which was miles ahead of what we were doing.” Billy holds a kind of reverence for Rainer – or rather, a ferocity of memory that borders on reverence. An old heartache that has never really healed.
“We as a trio moved to New York City, me and Howie and Dave, and lived there for a couple years, played all the places you play. CBGB’s and all that. It was ’80 when we got there, I think… We lived in Alphabet City and it was a rough neighborhood.” Billy’s already extensive drug habit got worse. But he kept it together enough to do his part in transforming the band’s sound.
“We sort of turned into a different band there. I got really deep into dub with my drums, a lot of effects and pedals and stuff. It was a pretty raucous band… we came back here [to Tucson] and got another bass player, Scott Garber, and he played fretless, which reminded me of that band Japan… it reminded me of jazz, too, but we were not jazzy. It was real thick, real immediate rock and roll.”
He reminisces for a while about all the bands in the Tucson and New York scenes of the early ‘80s that he had known, all the people in them. The Serfers, Green On Red, Johnny Seven, The Pills, Naked Prey – Mark Smythe, Brian Smith, Van Christian, John Venet. When Green On Red moved to LA to seek their fortune, “Van moved back and put Naked Prey together, and that’s about the time, when they started doing really well, that I was let go from the Sandworms for… I couldn’t keep away from heroin. So – anyhow. That was a drag. It wasn’t the high point of my career or anything.”
That was 1985. Howe Gelb changed the name of the band to Giant Sand that year, and went off to seek his own crazy fortune as the voice of that ensemble, leaving Billy behind.
“Shortly after, I put together a really great band that I’m proud of called Las Cruces, which had my ex-wife in it, Bridget Keating, who was the best violin player I’ve ever known… Had Marx Loeb in it [on drums], Scott Garber on bass, Jimmy Miller on guitar. It was just a really cool band, and we were doing really good, and things were looking really good, and I flaked. Ended up going away, that’s when I went away, was January 1988.”
I ask Billy about what it was that got him put away. He gets a pained expression, the words come slowly. “You can look it up, man.”
“Nothing I’m proud of. I didn’t have a gun. Doesn’t much change nothing. I did what I did.”
LIGHT SHARPENS HER PIECE AGAINST THE PENITENTIARY
Man, I done ten years in your all’s backyard/Florence prison yards/make a man go crazy, then hard.
- “Tucson Kills,” Charmed Life
As much as Billy wants to leave prison behind, it was a powerful shaping force for him as a writer and songwriter. It would have been anyway, even if it weren’t prison, even if it weren’t the kind of place that forces you to adapt in order to survive – simply because it’s the place where he spent years developing his craft.
“I was gone for a long time… pretty much, in there, I just started to write. Write songs. Rainer had given me a tape that I could tune my guitar to, because I was given a 12-string by this really nice woman… I remember doing that in Florence constantly. Nobody ever minded, I was real respectful, never had a problem playing. But a lot of times I wouldn’t have [the guitar], you know, it would get taken away for an infraction or something. So I would write songs in my head and figure it out when I could get the guitar. And I wrote a lot of stories which I took my song lyrics from, and vice versa.”
Some of those “infractions” included heroin possession, even in prison. A tenacious and bitter thing to shake.
Sedlmayr took classes there with Richard Shelton, the head of the UA’s creative writing program at the time, “who spent 30-some years of his life giving it freely, to go out to the prison and work with men, writing. So he published some of my stuff and some other convicts’ stuff. So that was something, you know. But after a while in there, I let ‘out here’ go… you have to do that. Some guys didn’t, but I had to. It just became what it was. I was in there a long time.” The New Times interview has him talking about obsessively lifting weights, finding his place among the racial gangs. Crazy, then hard.
And the rug had been pulled out from under him when he got back. “It was very confusing for me, when I came out, to find my way… Everything changed in the music business, the computer thing happened, and the guys that I knew were sort of getting the last of the old-school [record deals, where] if you’re a good band, you get picked up by a label and they pay for a record and you have to pay ‘em back.”
He’s recorded a few projects since he got out, like The 50 Percenter with Rich Hopkins. “I used to bellyache about a lot of stuff, but there’s no use to it… we did some good things together. We made some money, and more important, we made some good music.” He adds, with a wry grin, “That nobody heard.” Nothing has really stuck. One of his favorites from that newer repertoire, a song called “White Powder Ma,” he wrote with Mike Davis from the MC5 – and it ended up on “an out-of-print album on a European label.”
He laughs. “They have it at the library.”
“It was neat to get to know Mike, you know. He’d been a hero of mine as a kid, so that was really exciting to me. And I liked Mike, he was really nice.” Billy pauses for a moment. “He died. A lot of good people die. Howie Salmon just died, and he was one of the most talented sweethearts that you’d ever meet. You can’t… every day, I mean, you never know what the next one’s gonna be.”
“There was a man that played the National steel guitar / He played in every bar / He was the brightest star.”
- “Tucson Kills,” Charmed Life
“I’m glad that he liked me and he took me on.” It’s not just that Rainer lifted Billy out of the funk of losing The Pedestrians when that band broke up, by starting the thing that would become the Giant Sandworms. Billy had a special relationship with Rainer, or vice versa, or something like that.
Anyone who remembers the music scene here in the ‘80s and ‘90s remembers Rainer: an uncommonly good musician, an uncommonly good human. He was one of the few who never rejected Billy, who quietly stayed through everything. Rainer, maybe, always saw in Billy what’s more apparent now – humility, sweetness, vulnerability – though it was hidden to most people behind a veil of addiction and youthful arrogance.
In our interview, some of the happiest moments are when he’s recounting his memories with Rainer. “When I first met him, he was working at the Octopus Car Wash. Or had just quit, I’m not sure which. But I always thought of him from that Springsteen line, and Rainer’s got enough great lines of his own, but I just – ‘Well I work all day at the car wash, where all it ever does is rain / Don’t you feel like a rider on a downbound train?’ and I always just think of Rainer when that song would play.”
“He was a great teacher, but he didn’t really teach… I would have come to the blues a lot quicker than I did, had he [done so], but I’m sure he knew that in time I’d find my way or I wouldn’t.”
“And he wasn’t always pleased with me, with my actions, man. Because his family, Patti, him, the kids, they supported me a lot, and I let ‘em down a lot.” But Rainer was still the guy who made Billy the tuning tape for the 12-string guitar when he was in prison, who kept giving him another chance. Including around ’96, when he asked Billy to sit in on drums with him again.
“I played a gig with Rainer right before he got sick, and that was a big thrill for me, to play with him again and my friend John. It’s recorded, it’s on a tape somewhere. It was a Wooden Ball thing that we did.” The Wooden Ball was an annual gathering of Tucson songwriters that had its heyday in the ‘90s.
“It was really a cool set. You can get it on KXCI. I just tripped out on it, I was like, ‘Far fuckin’ out, man!’ I’m glad that they kept this, you know what I mean? …It just shows, showed my love for drumming, showed my love for him, ‘cause I just tried to back him as best as I could, you know, as I was capable of.” Billy’s drumming style – before he, too, got sick – was active, skittery, heavily influenced by jazz. Flashy, even, at times. But for this, he relished the role of sideman.
“He was an incredible man, he was a pretty high bar… as a human being, just as much as a musician. He was just a really good human being. And a lot of years…” He trails off. “There’s a picture of him right there.” It’s in black and white, capturing Rainer’s expression as he stands on a stage somewhere. It’s right by the desk where Billy works. “And I have one of Vicha [Rainer’s mother] and Patti in my house, one of Bridget [Billy’s ex-wife] somewhere, playing her violin.” Memories of the people he loves come over him, and his voice gets quiet again.
“You don’t stop loving people, man. You know? You don’t stop loving people. Sometimes they stop loving you, but that doesn’t mean you stop loving people. Or I don’t.”
DARKNESS IN PHOENIX: ALL BENT UP
Rainer Ptacek died of a brain tumor in 1997. Not too long after that, Billy went up to Phoenix – at first, to escape all the old ghosts here in Tucson, the places, the drugs, that already tired cycle. It didn’t work that well.
“I went up there in 2000 or 2001… I lived in Barrio Garfield, which is right off of Van Buren and 15th Street, which was the ‘hood up there at that time. This was before the baseball stadium was being built. Right when they were just starting to do it. So they had moved everybody away that they found. You know, they always do that when they decide to build something like that, they have to move the indigenous peoples away. It’s gross and disgusting, but true in any city. You know what I mean. Happens in any city. But I watched it happen up there, really hard.”
The timeline breaks down a little bit when we get to talking about this time period. It’s not a happy one. By the time he came back to Tucson, he had been in and out of prison and hospitals a few times again. Billy didn’t want to bog the interview down with “medical shit,” but it all seems to have happened in the last decade or so in Phoenix.
“I lost my hip, they had to dig it, you know, cut it and stuff… Because of MRSA, which is a real nasty staph infection. It ate up that and my leg pretty good. Anyhow I don’t play drums anymore, obviously, and I miss that a lot. But that’s how it is.” Billy’s arms are streaked with scars that cross out his tattoos – according to him, tokens of the same infection.
While Sedlmayr was in the hospital, at one point, “places would come and try to get you to go to their hospice like you were going to die soon. It was weird, it wasn’t real positive at all. At all.”
“And there wasn’t physical therapy or anything, so they told me I wasn’t going to get out of my wheelchair, that that was it, you know… I guess about 2009 or something like that, I went and stayed at an assisted living place. I got myself out of the wheelchair. And [it’s] not perfect, I’m bent up.” But, as they say, unbowed.
“What drew me back, really, [was] family. Yeah. My sisters, I’ve got one sister down here, and a nephew and nieces. My nephew just had his second baby.” Somebody sent him a picture of that baby on Facebook, and he still seemed a little incredulous, grateful that he could have that much.
“And I’m not super involved, but you know, it’s nice to be involved at all. Because I really wasn’t for some time. Because of me, my fault. So that’s why I came down. For that.”
“I was super scared, too, not wanting to disappoint.” So much of his life had come down to setting himself up for failure and setting his loved ones up for loss. But he’s turned things around. Not perfectly, and not for the first time either. But enough to really get some important things done.
“Couple years ago I met a kid named Gabriel Sullivan at this Red Room. I went over there and I played, because his dad had heard, I think, my record with Richard and liked it.” It’s that Red Room where Tucson’s music community gathered, where Sullivan found the improvisational, spacious desert sounds that now mark his music. There, Sedlmayr had a songwriter residency and began forming the relationships that would eventually lead to the Mother Higgins’ Children Band and to his record with them, Charmed Life.
Sullivan and Sedlmayr formed a working relationship through the Red Room that spilled into the living room, where they (with trumpeter Jon Villa) turned long poems and short fragments into a cohesive, vibrant album. “[Gabe] and Jon are two of the most great players I know. A lot younger than me, and kind of young virtuosos, you know, that’s how I looked at ‘em. A lot of respect.”
At the house, “Gabe played a lot of instruments and we sort of bounced ideas off each other, and he had a lot of ideas for what he wanted to do, stuff in my songs. And I went with it, and it felt real good.” Sullivan’s production lent Sedlmayr’s aching songwriting a solid foundation, which in turn let Billy explore a wide creative range – songs from prison, songs co-written with old friends, a song improvised in the studio one day, all coexisting in a very tight stylistic space.
“I have co-writes with old homeboys of mine on there, so that makes me feel good.” Two with Dave Seger, one with Van Christian, one with John Venet. “Yeah, I’m excited. Every day I don’t wake up thrilled to death, but hey, I’m glad to be alive, and glad that this is happening, and I feel like I got a shot. Got as good a shot as anybody else, you know.”
The process has been difficult on the financial side. Everyone – younger generation included – thought that the album might be picked up by a label, but it was not. It was funded by Kickstarter and some additional donations, gradually completed over the last couple years. Nothing like the promise of major-label backing, the PR machinery behind you, a string of big concerts, the whole thing mapped out for you. But Billy is keeping it in perspective.
“I need to just enjoy it and do right by it.”
“I love playing with the band, especially, I love it when the whole band plays. It’s a killer kick… I sometimes try to even stand up, just hold the mic stand…. it goes along with pain, but you get adrenaline from people for energy, so it works out.”
It works out for him, and for us. Billy Sed’s stories, the ones he’s wrung so dearly from life, are ours to keep now. It’s a testament to his tenacity – and a testament to Gabe Sullivan’s belief in the worth of this music and this man, and a testament to Tucson’s willingness to come together in support of it all. That’s something for us all to be proud of.