A cult figure in America, Europe and Japan, Billy Childish is by far the most prolific painter, poet, and songwriter of his generation. In a twenty year period he has recorded over 100 full-length independent LP’s (with his bands the Pop Rivets, Thee Milkshakes, Thee Mighty Caesars, The Del Monas, Thee Headcoats, The Buff Medways, The Musicians of the British Empire, …etc.) and produced over 2,000 paintings.
Childish has published over 40 collections of poetry since the early 80’s. His novels include the idiocy of idears (2007), Sex Crimes of the Futcher (2004), Notebooks of a Naked Youth (1997) and My Fault (1996).
He’s interviewed here by David F. Hoenigman, author of Burn Your Belongings.
DH: What authors do you admire?
BC: I like Gogol, Dostoevsky, Knut Hamsun, Melville, Walt Whitman, some Daniil Kharms, the poems of D.H. Lawrence, some Robert Walser, Hans Fallada, and John Fante, amongst others.
DH: Have your literary tastes changed over the years?
BC:Well I learned to read when I was about 14 and the first book I read myself was Lord of the Rings, then C.S. Forester’s Hornblower books and some of the Carlos Castaneda books, the Toa Te Ching. Then when I was 17 and I got into punk rock, Dada and Lewis Carroll. Next I read Bukowski and Fante and worked back into Celine and the other stuff. I’m very keen on some Japanese short stories from before the war, and I like history that was written around that time as well. I don’t really like the aesthetic of the Beats or drug stuff.
DH: Who are these Japanese writers? Why do they appeal to you?
BC:I like the stuff I’ve read of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Motojiro Kajii, Ango Sakaguchi and some other stuff I’ve stumbled across. I like them because they tell good stories, have a sense of humor, and aren’t trying to impress you with their style all the time, they are simple and not up their own arse, quite Russian and quite English – as I understand the English of my grandfathers’ generation– in their humor.
DH: Are there any current authors who impress you?
BC:No, I can’t read current fiction without feeling the walls closing in – there must be good people out there but I can’t stand the fashion references and the drug related bullshit. For me Junky was just a lesson in not being a cold-hearted, murderous boring twat, for some reason others find this style “cool”. If the writer thinks he’s cool because he or she is fucked up, then it’s already over for me. And the English are the worst bastards. I always say that Dostoevsky sounds like he’s writing in 2020 and Martin Amis sounds like he’s writing from the 1860’s, only not that good. Will Self and Rushdie can drive you to tears with their self-aggrandizing prose: “9/11 was a terrible disaster, but what’s most interesting about it is me sitting here writing about it so you plebs can adore me”
DH: But aren’t Gogol’s madman and Hamsun’s hunger artist fucked up? And isn’t Raskolnikov murderous?
BC:I think Gogol’s characters are tragic comic and the writer is having fun and playing with the universe. That other chap Kafka seems to just be peering down the wrong end of a telescope, mind he’s very good at it, but the result cuts out – including the idiocy of such an action in the first place. Your Kafka fiends seem to want the world to be pretty narrow, sort of totally locked in. Gogol’s much more playful, as I’d say Hamsun is in Hunger.
Hunger has a Laurel and Hardy element to it, where you can see what stupid thing the character’s about to do next, you empathize with his madness, his sense of honor and confusion, want the situation to work out for him, yet enjoy the results of he’s idiocy. I’d say Hunger has a great depth and spiritual longing, a need to connect with truth that carries you along with the character and his human charm. In a way these writers of the past are like amateur prostitutes when compared with the hardcore pimps like Burroughs. Of course Burroughs, Amis, Rushdie, have hearts and souls but they are buried very deep under concepts and the need to be perceived as “cool” geniuses. Dostoevsky is of course out there on his own, his work including a vast array of human emotion, a whole universe with despair, elation, murder, God and redemption, so his fucked up character has meaning by the extent of his journey.
DH: How does literature influence your songwriting and visual art?
BC:Well I did some paintings of Robert Walser dead in the snow and I painted a man in a yellow suit who must be Johan Nagel out of Mysteries by Hamsun. Otherwise not a lot, songwriting is rhyme for me, where as poetry is blank verse. Of course most musicians call themselves poets because they want the kudos as well as the cash.
DH: Does the nature of Walser’s death have a certain significance to you?
BC:Yes, because he was a great advocate of walking and he dropped dead out there in the snow.
DH: Are there any songwriters you like from a literary perspective?
BC:Yes, I like a lot of Lead Belly, “Who Do You Love” by Bo Diddley, some Jimmy Reed, some Bob Dylan, Richard Hell’s first LP, some Ramones. I think it’s because I’m a fan of nonsense: Edward Lear, Dada – Kurt Schwitters. Basically I’m a sucker for nursery rhymes. “second verse, same as the first” (Judy is a punk rocker)
DH: How is the creative process different for writing novels, poetry, songs…etc?
BC:Writing novels is a bigger pain in the arse and I try not to get involved . I’m trying to stop writing novels as I have no ambition to be a writer, painter and certainly not a musician. I just do stuff sometimes.
DH: How is it different for visual art?
BC:You’re on your own, it’s mud pies and no audience (rather than a typewriter or computer and no readers). What I like about painting pictures is painting pictures. What I like about playing music is playing it and what I like about writing is when I make myself laugh.
DH: Do you ever get writer’s block?
BC:No, because I don’t care if I don’t write.
DH: Must art adhere to guidelines?
BC:Anything without formality is bullshit. So yes, it should formally try to communicate information and emotion, not get smart and wanky for the sake of impressing idiots.
DH: So are you against experimentation?
BC:No, I’m against smart, pretentious and wanky for the sake of impressing idiots.
DH: Have you ever thought something was wanky at first and then later liked it?
BC:It doesn’t seem likely, but it could of happened without me noticing.
DH: Should art challenge its audience?
BC:Not as its sole purpose, no.
DH: What’s the purpose of your art?
BC:There’s a few things that are going on for me. First, I enjoy playing with the colors and marks, actually making stuff, then I like a picture hanging on the kitchen wall as opposed to not having a picture hanging on the kitchen wall. Then I like other people to relate to it and me and I feel appreciated, or not, depending. The purpose of art is to improve our experience and communication with ourselves, the world and God. Which at the end of the journey are, I suspect, one and the same thing.
I’m sure that all people, including big show offs in the literary world, are on the same path, even when facing the wrong way, writing preposterous dross and sharpening their pencils with solid gold pen knives, but too much of it bores me.
DH: Have you ever wanted to be anything other than an artist?
BC:No, it’s the life for a pig.
About the author:
David F. Hoenigman is the author of Burn Your Belongings.