Church of the Poisoned Mind
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."
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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 Country magazine 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."
Since 1988 Reverend Billy has recorded six albums of Southern musical satire for Hightone Records with titles like Deep Fried and Sanctified, Songs of Faith and Inflammation, and most recently Unchained Maladies. Many of his song titles are, if nothing else, evocative: "Honky Tonk Hermaphrodite," "Grandma vs. the Crusher," "Mennonite Surf Party," "Sleeper Hold on Satan." His primary strongholds, he says, are in Pittsburgh, Memphis, and Miami. "People in New York and L.A. don't understand a lot of what I do, because there's a regional barrier there . There are people in Manhattan who go out of their way to let the world know that they are from Manhattan. With some of those people, there is still a great prejudice against the South. I mean they like it if that which comes out of the South is something of a rube in a safe kind of Dukes of Hazzard way. But if it's smart, if it's left of center, and it's dark, ya know, they have a hard time understanding it sometimes."
Naturally the press has described Wirtz as a weird, freaky dude. If disturbing appearances, outlandish behavior, and a generally twisted sense of humor are the standards by which weird and freaky are measured, then Wirtz probably qualifies as both. This is a man, after all, who, for six months in the early '90s, was the despised, loudmouthed "manager" for bad-boy wrestlers Steve Keirn and Mike Graham in Professional Wrestling From Florida, a bush league outpost for washed-up and wannabe grapplers. "I was the Rev. Billy Wirtz," he says with the sick, utter glee of a born professional-wrestling junkie, "and I'd go, 'Now if you ignorant rednecks can shut up for five seconds to let a man who didn't jump in the gene pool when the lifeguard was off duty like you people in the front row ,' and they'd all chant, 'Redheaded geek! Redheaded geek!' It was great."
In light of Wirtz's largely one-dimensional public persona as an endearing hillbilly psychopath, it was especially disconcerting to sit with him and a few of his musician buddies in the basement of a blues bar in Pittsburgh late last year and listen to the reverend deliver what amounted to a stirring, animated doctoral thesis in brief on the many virtues of Stax Records and Southern radio in the '50s and '60s. When he and his pals played a set upstairs a while later that night, Wirtz didn't come off as some Bible-belted bumpkin spinning silly redneck yarns for the Iron City crowd. His music was nuanced, beguiling, and quite often fiery. He practically beat the keys off his keyboard when he launched into some rapid-fire barrelhouse number, but then he would bring the room to a silent and stunned state of appreciation when he cut into a slow, smoky R&B original like "The Woman on Page 63," a song about a lonesome boy who fell in love with a Sears-catalog bra model.
He's reminded of that night and the enduring resonance of that particular song as he sits in his room at the Baymont, his piece of blasted kidney stone on the TV nearby, waiting to get off the phone and join his friend for some raw fish at a decent sushi bar down the street. "Yeah, we grew up in a completely different generation," he laughs. "That song is one of those that people like, but it causes them to brush away a manly tear from time to time."
Contact David Pulizzi at his e-mail address:
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