Billy : First, I’d like to thank you for asking me to do this. I’ve never really talked about my entire career in music with anyone before. As I changed musical styles and adopted different names and personalities over the years, I would always disassociate myself from the past, deny or ignore all of my previous work and start over again. Then, of course, I started shooting heroin, and I dedicated myself to doing that exclusively for nearly twenty years. It’s great to be here.
When did you start getting interested in music and did you want to become a pro?
I was born in 1956, and throughout the Sixties I loved the British Invasion stuff – Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Yardbirds and especially TheAnimals. In 1968 at the age of twelve, I became interested in hard rock music – Jimi Hendrix, then the first two Led Zeppelin albums, you know, just like all of the kids I knew. At the same age, I started smoking weed and drinking alcohol.
In New York City at that time, the biggest radio station WABC-AM played nothing but Top 40. I found an FM station called WNEW-FM that played “album rock”, songs more than three minutes long, music that was more adventurous and experimental. One night, I heard them playing “Rock and Roll” by the VelvetUnderground, and I was fascinated by the music’s simplicity, its directness, Lou Reed’s New York accent (like mine!) and the gritty nature of the lyric. I got hooked. I started reading Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, looking for new and different sounds. I discovered T.Rex, and I immediately fell in love with Marc Bolan and his music. I had a life-size poster of Marc playing a red Gibson Les Paul hanging on my bedroom wall for years. I decided to take guitar lessons and I soon learned basic scales and chord theory. While I liked playing rhythm, I had no interest in leads or solos. I practiced playing chords and singing along in my head. I learned most of the songs on T.Rex’s Electric Warrior and The Slider albums, and learned to sing them pretty well. I also learned a few simple Led Zeppelin songs like “Whole Lotta Love” and “Communication Breakdown”.
When I was fifteen years old, I played and sang Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” to my first love, high school girlfriend, and soon-to-be first wife, a girl named Pati Lopez. Pati ran and told some local musicians at my high school that I could sing, and I soon found myself in singing in front of a crowd of over 800 people at a local battle of the bands. Three of the other singers got stage fright, and I ended up singing with four of the six bands scheduled that night! I feel I should mention that I had smoked so much hashish and drunk so much wine before the show to get over my initial stage fright that I could barely remember the lyrics to any of the songs, most of which I had never even sung before. The next day, a hot local band in Queens asked me to front them. We called ourselves Marasmus, which is the “swollen belly” disease children get when they are starving to death. We played cover songs at high school dances for a year or so and made some decent money. During this time, I gave up a scholarship to university in order to have a child with my girlfriend Pati and get married. When she divorced me and kicked me out a year later, I had nowhere to go, so I joined a working cover band in the Bronx called Rondo and started playing in night clubs for money all over New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
There I was approached by some musicians in an interesting band called Gates Pass. They came from upstate New York, they had been around for nearly ten years, and several well-known musicians had been members at one time or another. I was playing in Rondo and I was barely twenty years-old. They were all over thirty, and far more experienced than I. From the beginning, I had been told that I had natural charisma, real star quality onstage, and I seemed to be advancing and growing quickly as both a singer and a performer - perhaps a little too quickly. We formed a group called Clockwork (like Orange), playing some deranged, musically divergent cover material in our own unique way. We started becoming quite popular, and in no time I had hooked up with Linda Blair, the star of the film The Exorcist.
She and I were soon living in a house in Connecticut together. She was seventeen, and I was twenty! I found myself addicted to drugs, living with a movie star and singing in front of crowds of up to 2,500 people at a time, in spite of the fact that I had NO fucking idea what I was doing or how I had gotten there. In December ’76, Linda went to shoot a film in Hollywood, Clockwork took a month off, and I started driving down to the east side of Greenwich Village to visit some of my junkie musician friends every night. It was then that I was introduced to snorting heroin, and I found myself spending days and nights getting fucked up and having sex with strangers and waking up in places with no idea at all how I’d gotten there or who I had just fucked. I also started writing and jamming with some people in that scene, very glampunk/NY Dolls attitude but Ramones-type of energy. We played at a loft party, a gallery show, then booked a block of studio time but got too fucked up to show up and record on time, but stayed just long enough to play a couple of songs for the people who’d been waiting for us! Then the guitarist overdosed and it was all over, like a strange dream. Linda came back from Hollywood and found me all punked out – short, spiky, dyed-black hair, dressed in leather and rubber and safety pins and zippers, and it was over. Clockwork kicked me out for being strung out, Linda couldn’t stand me (and neither could I), so I went back to Queens and begged my way back into my parents’ house for a few months. I was barely twenty one years old, and I had become a father, a husband, an ex-husband, a drug addict, an up-and-coming rock star who was living with a movie star, a punk rocker who had retired from the music business.
In 1979, I returned to the music business after a hiatus of more than a year. I had cleaned up and gotten healthier, stronger. I began to take my voice as an instrument more seriously, and I decided that the best thing I could do was work on my singing, develop some style and stamina, away from the spotlight. I found some young, eighteen year old musicians in a band called Toys and talked them into dumping their singer and hooking up with me. I got us a manager and an agent, convinced them to play punk rock covers and started playing the club circuit all over New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire. For a year and a half, we played every single night, sometimes thirteen nights in a row before my voice got too shot to sing. In 1980, I started studying with an opera singer named Katy Agresta who lived in the Ansonia on 72nd and Broadway. She was teaching Jon Bon Jovi, Cindy Lauper, Annie Lennox, even Joey Ramone. I was her student for more than three years. I left Vixen in December of 1981. I never recorded anything with them. I had formed the band to develop my voice, my stagecraft and my style. It was never intended to be a “serious” project, but more “under-the-radar.” I didn’t count on us actually becoming popular. We were voted Best New Band of 1981 by the readers of the EC Rocker, then called the Good Times. It was really quite a shock. I quit soon thereafter.
In some of the pictures I saw, you appear very Bowie-ish. Were Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and David Bowie your main influences at this time?
My influences as a singer: Jagger, Plant, Bowie, Alice, David Johansen, Jim Morrison, Little Richard and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. As a performer: Bowie, Iggy, Freddie (Mercury) and Jagger.
What did you do between Vixen and Kill City Dragons?
At one point, I was approached by Anthony and Pete Pagan from The Throbs. When I didn’t act quickly enough and jump on the offer, they drove up to Canada, got Ronnie Sweetheart and signed to Geffen Records. I became determined to get out of the Scrap Bar and start a new band. Ronnie and I became friends, even though I once bounced a beer pitcher off of his head for calling me “Billy G. Bartender!” I gave up an offer to buy 25% of the Scrap Bar and went to London and formed the Kill City Dragons instead.
So at one point you met Stiv Bators. How ?
In ’79, Vixen had become quite popular rather quickly, despite the fact that we were only playing cover material. It was all about our style onstage. We were getting a lot of work from a guy named Mitch who booked bands into a punk rock club in Flatbush, Brooklyn called Zappa’s (it was on Avenue Z, get it?). On Halloween night ‘79, we opened for The Dead Boys and The The. Stiv’s microphone had blown out during his sound check, so I agreed to lend him a new mic worth $250 that I’d bought for myself as a birthday present a month earlier. He got really fucked up before the show, and proceeded to beat my mic to pieces onstage during his set. After the show, when I flipped out and started screaming at him in the dressing room, Cheetah beat the shit out of me. I thought the guy from The The was going to faint! That night, I hung out and got fucked up with Stiv, Cheetah and Knox from The Vibrators.
Over the years, I seemed to cross paths with Stiv and Cheetah a lot, even getting into an argument with them at a bar on St. Mark’s Place in the Village called the Holiday. Cheetah and I were always talking about starting a band together, it just never seemed to happen. That’s why, when Steve (Von Saint) and Dave (Tregunna) called me from London in ’89 to say that Stiv and Brian James had broken up The Lords onstage at the Marquee, I just flew to London and jammed with them. It just felt right to follow Stiv, I guess. We even talked about the possibility of Nasty Suicide joining the KCDs in the beginning, though he did appear onstage at the KCDs first live gig at Loose Lips. Nasty and I became very good friends for a couple of years in London. He used to stay with me whenever his wife Simone kicked him out of the house for drinking.
Steve von Saint was also in the entourage of Stiv Bators. Did you meet him then ?
You also made a demo pretty fast, right? How many and which songs were taped ?
Just Devil Calling. We did it “live” in the studio in a single afternoon.
Can you tell more about the KCD Newsletter? Who handled your fan club ?
A girl named Maria Davies poured her heart and soul into running the KCDs fan club. If not for her tireless work, along with our friend, artist and videographer, Mark Campbell to help her document everything, create and market our merchandise, promote us to the public, the musical community and the press, we would never have caught on so fast or gone as far as we did.
English press was pretty supportive. I'm quite sure the French never talked about the band. What about the rest of the world, any feedback ?
The English press was, overall, extremely supportive, with few exceptions. I mean, we appeared on BBC America and made the cover of Sounds and NME without a recording or publishing deal. The Japanese press absolutely adored us, printing reviews of our live shows in England, I was told. Strange, don’t you think?
Newsletters, T-shirts, posters, press features, apparently the band knew how to manage things. Since everything was going so well guess it was natural to release an EP by yourself. How was it from the inside ?
Like I said, KCDs owed our success to a couple of very dedicated people who worked incessantly for us, real friends, true fans of what it was that we were doing. For them, it was a labor of love. I never appreciated that at the time. Now, I am humbled by it. By the two of them, and by the fans who so readily embraced us.
Why did you released an extended version of the EP rather than another live EP like Guns N Roses or Bang Tango did a couple of years before ?
I was in the Shooting gallery by then, I had nothing to do with it.
Which were your favorite songs ?
Devil Calling was always my favorite, especially live. I haven’t owned a copy of the EP in twenty years and I don’t really remember what is on it. At the time, I liked singing Inspiration. I loved Black Death – give me a drug that ain’t trying to tease me! Be My Lover was my cue to really scream my fucking brains out, something I have always loved to do.
What about record labels. Any offers from them since you were the hot new band ?
All of the major and minor labels and publishers were watching carefully, but not one of them made an offer. Business people found us somewhat worrisome. We were hard-core drug addicts, seriously fucked up and more than a little dangerous.
Things went fast for the band, even the split of the first line-up with Dave and you leaving in 1991. Was it because Andy Mc Coy came with a full bag of promises or also because cracks started to appear between the band members and the honeymoon was over ?
I announced my intention to leave the KCDs on my birthday in September, and then left the band after the show at the Borderline in October of ’90. I was dissatisfied with the way that the songwriting was going with Steve, and I always felt that Danny saw playing with me as a let-down after playing with Stiv Bators. The Lords were Danny’s favorite band, so I can look back now and understand. At the time, I took it very personally. I was very immature about it. I was already insecure about the constant comparisons to Stiv Bators, and I bristled at the merest mention of Michael Monroe. Anyway, I had been offered one or two signed projects, on Atlantic and Atco/America, but I hadn’t made up my mind at all. Dave got in touch and said Andy was back in town and wanted to talk. Initially, I said I wasn’t interested. But Andy and Dave persisted, so I went to meet them. Andy had some good demos, he liked my ideas, and he made me many promises. Uzi Suicide/Geffen had just bought the rights to the Hanoi Rocks catalog, so Andy had lots of money just then. Also, Polygram had signed a band called Mother Love Bone and sent us a promo copy of their CD Stardog Champion which, at the time, I liked very much. Polygram wanted to sign us to Mercury Records immediately. They said that we’d bang out the album, and then the two bands could do a co-headline tour of the U.S. together. It all sounded great. We formed the Shooting Gallery over the phone with the company in Los Angeles from a hotel in the West End of London. Then, before we could fly to America, the singer of Mother Love Bone, Andy Wood, died of a heroin overdose and they broke up. Six months later they found a another singer, signed to CBS Records and called themselves Pearl Jam. Dave flew to Germany to marry his girlfriend before coming to the U.S., and Andy and I got on a plane and flew to Los Angeles. Holy shit.
But Andy already tried to get you the year before, right ?
No. I believe Andy came to see the KCDs at the Hippodrome the first time because there was such a serious press and industry buzz surrounding the band, starting with our first gig at Loose Lips in Soho in September ‘89. Nasty got up and played with us on Devil Callin’. People had flown in from New York, Helsinki and Tokyo just to see and hear us play our first show. Isn’t that incredible? It was quite unexpected at the time (though Steve Von Saint was also a very able publicist, always promoting the band). I find it all very humbling now. Soon, we were headlining the Marquee and the Hippodrome after being together for just a couple of months. Thanks to Axl Rose, Andy had sold the publishing rights to the Hanoi Rocks catalog to Uzi Suicide/Geffen for quite a lot of money, and he and Angela were flying around the world doing I-have-no-idea-what. Spending lots of money, I suppose. They showed up at the Hippodrome, but Andy started giving me all kinds of attitude, in my own dressing room. I then reminded Angela that they were at my show, not his, and she started barking at me about Andy being such a big star, so I asked to have the two of them escorted from the theater. Dave was freaked, he said nobody did stuff like that to Andy. Andy and Angela really were behaving rather badly. He and I never discussed anything till a year later, after I’d already quit the Kill City Dragons.
Andy, Dave and I talked about Paul from the beginning, but Paul was playing with Mike Monroe or Iggy Pop, so we went with the drummer who played with Andy briefly in L.A. named Jamie Scrap Phillips. He was a brilliant drummer, and still a good friend. I lived with him briefly in the early days of the band, and we became quite close. Jamie was close to my late wife, Irene, who died in 2009 from an infection caused by shooting heroin with me for 19 years, right after I finally got clean. Jamie and I just reconnected recently, he runs the Viper Room in Hollywood these days. Unfortunately, back then he lacked the stamina and sheer physical strength necessary to do the songs justice in a live setting, and Mercury insisted that we replace him. He got a raw deal financially as we all did by the time Shooting Gallery was over. Paul stepped in and became our drummer in early ’91.
What were Mercury Records plans for the band?
to be continued...