BILL
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BILL

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""swinging modern sounds: the book of love" by Rick Moody"

...And then there was the other John, and he’s the one I mean to write about here. The other John was from New Hampshire, where almost no one was from, in the Kittredge Cult. And his family was particularly mysterious, although maybe all our families were mysterious somehow, inexplicable, not normal, if in fact anyone’s families really is. Among the mysteries of John’s family was his brother Bill, who had Down’s Syndrome. John was very engaged with the question of Bill, and would talk about Bill (for example, I remember in senior year when we were listening to “Mongoloid” by Devo, John expatiating on the chromosomal peculiarities of Down’s), but in an understated way that only revealed how important and formative the situation was. John was otherwise, I think, a very strange guy, a mixture of totally open and provocative and completely reserved. He was hard to get to know. He did pretty badly at St. Paul’s. He was barely getting by, as I recall it, and gave most of his effort to visual arts, and not much to anything else. Also: he wouldn’t do any drugs at all, which was really rare in our group. He was straight edge in a very druggy group.

I lost track of John for a long time. Twenty years? I’d say at least twenty years, maybe more. I’m not sure anyone from our group kept up with him, and in fact the Kittredge Cult wasn’t very good at staying together later on, anyway. I lost touch with most of them, except Lizzo, who was our class agent for a while. Julian went to med school and settled in Burlington. Locky became, I think, an immigration lawyer, in DC. Johnny Mart, was swallowed into the movie business. Chrissie got married. Lizzo married a doctor, an infectious diseases specialist. I became a writer. Somewhere in the nineties, when I was lucky enough to become friendly with the Magnetic Fields, Claudia Gonson, manager and pianist/singer thereof, mentioned John one day, and it turned out it was that John, the John I’d gone to high school with, the artistically gifted and rather solitary guy with the Down’s brother. Then it turned out that John had actually played with the Magnetic Fields some, before they were the Magnetic Fields.

So John lives in the Boston area, turns out, like a lot of people from my high school in NH, and he plays music, makes albums and singles under various assumed names (among them: Bleat, who MySpace page is shown below: ). But the amazing part, and this is what I wanted to write about, is that he also plays in a band called Bill, which, as you can probably imagine, features his brother Bill. In the lead singer’s position. (Bill has a MySpace page, and that’s the first place to stop if you’re interested in this story, and it’s here.) Now, Bill does not have a conventional voice, if you are used to, for example, the American Idol melismatics and histrionics of faux R&B vomitus. But if you have become used to limited vocal training used to suggest greater emotional complexity (I’m thinking of Bob Dylan, or Shane McGowan, or David Thomas, or the later Captain Beefheart), then you are ready for Bill. Bill, in fact, is one of the singers who has most interested me in recent years. What John Gage does, with the rest of his band, is create a variety of idiomatic rock and roll stylings in which Bill attempts to find his way. The first album by Bill was called BAT MAN, and I think it came out more than a decade ago now, though I guess it was seven or eight years ago that I first became aware of it. (There’s a MySpace page for the album here.) Bill writes his own lyrics, of course, and as the title BAT MAN might suggest, they are pretty direct. “Bat Man,” the song is about Bat Man. And one of my personal favorites, “Big Foot,” is about Big Foot, which to my way of thinking is a perfect idea for a song, and I wish I’d got there first. “Big Foot” sort of has a proto-punk/Velvets/Stooges feel to it, and Bill doesn’t hold back on the vocals, which he never does, really. Because he’s not really worried about melodic development, he is free to pursue theatrics (and rhythmic genius), and this he does, going from whispered or somewhat mumbled passages to first-class blues shouting without bothering about transitional stuff. This means Bill has an expressive voice, and, frankly, it’s a lot more expressive than mine. “Steve Pepper” is a more metallic sounding number, with some very good lead guitar playing (and I should say that John and his collaborators make the backing tracks sound easy, which they can’t have been). And “All My Heart and My Life” is more of a power ballad, where Bill’s vocal is refreshingly novel against the ballad backdrop. Most of Bill’s myriad MySpace pages have amazing video, and the video on Bill’s main page of “Big Foot” is particularly incredible, because it’s shot outdoors and is interrupted by someone coming by to complain not only about the noise, but about the fact that John appears to be taking advantage of Bill, which Bill, himself, adamantly denies.

The larger question, the somewhat disappointing one, is thus raised. What is the purpose of this music? For me this gets to a related and more interesting question: Why make music in the first place? There’s a very specific reason for making this music, as John has pointed out on numerous occasions. People with Down’s Syndrome require cerebral stimulation or else they lose function. That is, if you treat a person with Down’s like they are impaired, they will eventually suffer with that impairment. Bill has a lot of related issues that come with his condition, including some heart problems, and I think that John has made it his business to provide Bill with a visceral and unimpeachably miraculous kind of stimulation, the sort that not one in a hundred thousand families can provide for their loved ones with Down’s: the stage. What could be better? And Bill is kind of a ham (there’s a great story on one of these pages of Bill, at John’s wedding, providing a toast three times, because he was so happy to do it).

On the one hand, therefore, this is music that has a very specific purpose, giving Bill something to think about, more than his rather limited janitorial day job. But then there’s the question, what’s in it for John? Part of it is a sense, I think, that his life is made better by having Bill in it, but in this limited interpretation, that presumes that Bill has to be ill, and that John has to be selfless. The other piece of it for John, I suspect, or so it seems to me as a listener, is that Bill is his brother. Bill and John, actually, have some things in common–an eccentricity, a very strange sense of humor, but also a surprising and welcome loyalty to one another that comes out in their shared output. Music, that is, is something that you make with people. A lot of musicians do it alone, these days, on computer, but for me, music is at its best when its collaborative. And the model of the collaborative musical environment is the music made by families. It’s what got me interested in music, and I’m sure it’s true for many, many musicians out there (you can see it in how many bands are composed of families, The Moore Brothers, Gentle Giant, the Felice Brothers, the Stanley Brothers, the Kinks, AC/DC, to pick just a few examples at hand). Bill’s recordings, then, are the music made by this family, by these brothers, and it doesn’t sound like a lot of other music, at all, but it sounds complex, emotionally complex, and resistant to easy listening, but rewarding according to how much effort you put into listening and how much you try to greet Bill on his terms. These things are true about all the best music, all the best recordings, all the most impressive live shows: they challenge and delight according to the extremity of the challenge.

Maybe it’s because of how successful and moving the “Big Foot” video is that John has now, for some time, been working on a movie starring Bill, an Elvis movie, in which Bill plays the Elvis part. The film is called Elvis’ Dream Attack, and the rumor is that it’s actually going to be finished in 2009. I think John has been editing it and then reshooting for many years now. I have seen only the trailer and a few stills, and it’s fair to say that Elvis’ Dream Attack has its Ed Wood-like qualities (and let me say that I admire Ed Wood a great deal), and that even in the bits that I have seen, Bill, who doesn’t speak very often, looks like he is having a great time. I can think of no other person, frankly, who is better equipped to play Elvis. - the rumpus.net


""Choromosome Ubu" (french)"

Connaissez-vous l’art-thérapie ? Bill Gage non plus, probablement. Bill ne fait pas de musique pour se soigner ; Bill est tout simplement musicien. Certes, Bill est également trisomique, et personne autour de lui ne fait semblant de l’ignorer. Mais quand on écoute BILL, le groupe dont il est le chanteur et l’inspirateur, ce n’est pas forcément à ça qu’on pense. Pour être franc, la première fois que j’ai entendu BILL sur MySpace, j’ai pensé à David Thomas, le leader caractériel de Pere Ubu. Pourtant, ce dernier ne souffre d’aucune anomalie génétique connue, et personne n’osera prétendre qu’il soit intellectuellement diminué. Alors d’où vient la comparaison ? "Est-ce qu’il est en train de dire que David chante comme un mongolien ?" se demanderont, méfiants, les fans de Pere Ubu. Euh, non. Je suis en train de me rendre compte qu’un "mongolien" peut être chanteur de rock. Que si l’on appliquait les critères habituels de "normalité" aux artistes, il n’y aurait tout simplement plus d’art - il ne resterait que l’entertainment, cette forme dégénérée de l’expression artistique dont on a extirpé tout ce qui mérite d’être exprimé pour ne laisser que ce qui sera facile à vendre le plus rapidement possible au plus grand nombre. En cela, Bill est aussi un symbole de résistance, ni plus ni moins que Thomas ou que tous les artistes qui s’obstinent à être eux-mêmes, sans rien sacrifier aux rêves éphémères du "succès". La seule différence réside au fond dans le fait que Thomas possède les outils intellectuels pour théoriser sa déviance. Bill se contente d’être Bill.

Quiconque écoute BILL ne peut, bien sûr, ignorer les limitations du vocaliste : ne comptez pas sur lui pour de grandes envolées poétiques, ni même, la plupart du temps, pour des paroles intelligibles ; quant à sa conception de la mélodie, elle est assez rudimentaire. Mais l’essentiel est ailleurs : soutenu par un groupe créatif (emmené par son dévoué frère John), complètement investi dans son art, Bill dégage une passion, une énergie et, pourquoi ne pas le dire, une émotion dépourvues de tout artifice. Sa générosité a de quoi mettre la honte au front de plus d’un chanteur célébré. Alors que l’on pourrait s’attendre à un ânonnage répétitif (rock on, Wesley Willis, on t’aimait beaucoup aussi), sur son album Bat Man , BILL se révèle tour à tour inquiétant (le chanteur aime les films d’épouvante : atmosphérique et menaçant, The Spider colle la trouille, tandis que Big Foot est agressif et grinçant), bizarroïde (Chinese), voire franchement crétin (Steve Pepper ou le heavy metal à la sauce BILL)... Sur les musiques volontairement hétéroclites que lui propose le groupe, Bill pose sa voix avec un instinct souvent épatant, improvisant le texte au gré de l’inspiration du moment. Avec une étonnante versatilité, il vocifère, murmure, crie, apostrophe, bégaie, grogne... Bill aime aussi terminer sur un "THANK YOU" ou un "GOODBYE", histoire de bien nous faire comprendre qu’il a fini.

Pour le coup, j’ai bien envie de m’inspirer de lui. MERCI. AU REVOIR. - Jediroller - indierockmag.com


"BILL • BAT MAN review"

BILL • BAT MAN • Grasshopper • Unintentionally invoking the soul of the late Wesley Willis, who graced us with hits like "I Whupped Batman's Ass," the Down's Syndrome-afflicted Bill "sings" chaotically over avant-garde drum machines and sound effects. The really scary part is that this record is really, really, REALLY interesting. You almost can't believe what you're hearing – it's mostly unintelligible, but I couldn't stop listening. It's incredible. It's the weirdest damned thing I've ever reviewed. Drugs recommended. - impact.com


"myspace bands to watch"

...Much more literally special, are veteran American experimentalists 'BILL'. BILL are named after rawkus frontman Bill Gage, who happens to have down syndrome. Despite sounding a little like Portland nutters 'Old Time Relijun', BILL's highly distorted prog-grunge works unsettlingly well, in a Crispin Glover meets Axl Rose kind of way. One to scare your flatmates with at four AM. When they complain, bark and tell them to fuck off back to Enya. - analoguemagazine.com


""Bill Gage has Down syndrome. And his band rocks." Boston Phoenix"

Watching Bill Gage perform with his band, BILL, is an eye-opening experience. You go in not knowing what to expect, maybe even a little nervous on behalf of everyone involved — the crowd, the band, yourself. But then you’re witness to a sizzling and raw hard-rock display, and your reservations vanish.

Gage doesn’t so much sing songs as tear through them, his vocals occasionally sounding as if they’re coming from someone twice his size. As he sings “Big Foot,” a track off of the band’s second and most recent album, Bat Man, Gage bellows the title line over and over, all the while pacing back and forth like some caged beast, swaying to the ominous, industrial-ish score. You think for sure his voice is going to give out any moment, but it never does. It’s magnificent. - Ian Sands, Boston Phoenix cover story (excerpt)


Discography

WALKING STAR MONSTER (1987) / BEATLES CHINESE (grasshopper records, 1991) / "Blueberry Pancakes" - Produce (Set compilation, 1991) / BAT MAN (grasshopper records, 2004) / "Steve Pepper" - Drive-In Horrorshow Soundtrack (Drive-In Horrorshow Records, 2009) / "The Red Birds" - Wild Things, Vol. 2: Sounds of the Disabled Underground (Get In Or Get Out Records, October 1, 2009)

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Bio

BILL are a rock band, started in 1987 in New England and fronted by Bill Gage, a charismatic performer singing surreal, ever-changing lyrics in a wide variety of styles. He also has DS (Down syndrome). The band-name is one of the words Mr. Gage can write.

The group provides diverse sounds: art-rock, heavy-metal, acoustic folk-ballads, industrial riffs, etc, and Bill Gage continuously refines and re-works his vocal improvisations.

BILL's approach to songwriting is always in flux. The first album BEATLES CHINESE was shaped by a series of challenges the band gave Bill Gage: first to name the songs he wanted to do, and then to sing them, as the band figured out what to play, and each song was quickly recorded. The backing tracks for BILL's second record BAT MAN were recorded in advance. Bill Gage listened to the tracks, sang over them, and then named the songs (and the record).

Live, the BILL show presents a sonic kaleidoscope of punk, psychedelia, pop, and hard rock, Bill Gage tying it all together using his incredible voice and edge-of-the-seat performance (with theatrical touches like the cape he wears for "Steve Pepper"). Between songs Mr. Gage chats with the crowd, announcing the next song and letting the audience know they're about to hear something "really great". While some of his words are not always clear, his intentions are obvious and the crowd stays right with him. Bill Gage is a mild-mannered gentleman, until he has a mic in his hand: "Let's Rock and Roll!"

Past members include Stephin Merritt (1987) and David M. Curry (1996-2000). BILL are working on a new record.