By Ashley Zimmerman
By Dana Krangel
By John Hood
By Ashley Zimmerman
By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
The Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is feeling great this afternoon as he chats by phone from his hotel room at the Baymont Inn in Little Rock, Arkansas. This is the best, in fact, he's felt in two weeks. "You gotta understand," he explains, "for the past three days my body has been trying to push this thing that's, like, the size of a kernel of corn out the end of my urethra. I have not really been in the greatest of spirits."
Kidney stones are the problem. A couple days ago, Wirtz underwent a lithotripsy, a procedure that blasts large kidney stones into many smaller stones. While Little Rock slept early this morning, Wirtz was in the bathroom of room 223 at the Baymont, painfully squeezing the largest of the freshly pulverized batch out the head of his penis. When the prodigious pebble finally plopped out, he fetched it from the bottom of the toilet bowl, washed it off, and saved it because his doctor would very much like to have a look at that little sucker. The "demon presence," as he drolly refers to the exorcised fragment of kidney stone, now rests benignly in a cup atop Reverend Billy's hotel-room TV.
Wirtz has long been a master of the odd expulsion, be it verbal or bodily. For 17 years Reverend Billy -- a towering, longhaired hulk of keyboard-pounding, soul-shouting, evangelical fervor -- has appeared before his hooting, beer-swilling followers in blues bars and comedy clubs nationwide as the chief proselytizer of his own First House of Polyester Worship, a sort of mad-dog, boogie-woogie road show that Wirtz has likened in its formative years to "shock theater with a piano background." He played a lot of serious blues back in the old days. Occasionally he'd work in one of the R&B or country-and-western chestnuts that he first heard as a boy in South Carolina and later fell in love with as a teenager growing up in Washington, D.C. But what really captivated his die-hard congregants was the other stuff, Wirtz's budding repertoire of original, satirical tunes wherein the good reverend took reckless aim at Southern culture and fired at will.
"Most of the Southern humor that you were getting at the time was at the Hee Haw level," he recalls. "There was nothing really wrong with it, but it was the safe, Jeff Foxworthy type of stuff. Mine was kind of about the folks who live on the other side of the street. It was about trailer parks and stuff like that, but it was about aliens, ya know, living in trailer parks and things like that. It was sort of this David Lynch-meets-Porter Wagoner kind of vision, with Fats Domino providing the music . Ya know, there was just a need at the time for a six-foot-five, heavily tattooed guy in a nurse's dress to sing songs about surfing Mennonites and mentally masturbating while watching Marcia Brady."
Beyond doubt there are few imaginings more distressing and mentally taxing than that of Wirtz prancing about a public stage in a prim white nurse's dress. Fittingly, the story of Wirtz actually donning the dress some years back for a biker show stands today as the most oft-repeated tale in Reverend Billy lore. "There was an element of danger there," Wirtz told New Countrymagazine in 1996, "and I wanted to let them know that they were dealing with a real bona fide, don't-get-him-too-worked-up kind of guy. My hair was flaming red and stuck out in every direction, and I had a chain saw earring and a nurse's dress. And they loved it."
Despite appearances and perhaps some forgotten clinical evidence to the contrary, Wirtz wasn't a fully formed, raving madman when he dropped out of his mama's womb 45 years ago. In all seriousness he claims to have come from a completely sane, middle-class background. He fell early for revered American roots pianists Jerry Lee Lewis, Amos Milburn, Moon Mullican, Hovie Lister, and Otis Spann. Beyond that, he says, "I just always admired the Frank Zappas and the Lenny Bruces and the Root Boy Slims and the people who took things one step further. There was a lot of truth in what they said. They just kind of twisted it and presented it back to people in a somewhat distorted manner. And I always kind of loved the old-style, R&B, James Brown school of really flashy clothes and that kind of thing. That, to me, was always the way it should be when you're an entertainer."
By the summer of 1979, Wirtz was a young man of 24 who had already been aimlessly kicking around for more than a dozen years in various rock, country, blues, and rockabilly bands. After spending a month in Chicago under the inspirational tutelage of grizzled blues pianist Sunnyland Slim, he settled into Harrisonburg, Virginia, with a firm plan in mind. In the waning days of disco and the dawning of new wave, Wirtz decided he would quit his day job if he could make $150 a week playing music. Sure enough, he says, "I got a job playing piano in a local bar, and that was the beginning. I haven't worked a day job since August 16th, 1979." At about the same time, Wirtz and a buddy saw an ad in the back of Rolling Stone that caught their attention. "We sent our three dollars off for our mail-order reverend's licenses," he recalls. "His never came back and mine did, and somewhere in my scrapbook is my official minister's license."