Billy was a washboard player who dearly loved live music and good books. Many people knew him as The Reverend — a title he adopted during the 90s after he began publishing the Upper Left Edge from his little bookshop on the coast. An ordained universal life minister and grassroots activist, he often delivered salty sermons on environmental concerns. He could also be a prankster, especially at the pub.
Before moving to the coast, Billy made quite a stir in Portland. After helping to elect Bud Clark as Portland’s mayor, in November of 1984, Billy and other core supporters threw a party to pay off Clark’s campaign debt. Not a VIP dinner, mind you, with expensive seating arrangements. No, a people’s party, with plenty of live music and $10 tickets. Something worthy of a colorful insurgent who won in part because his posse had a knack for staging unconventional events.
They called it the Inaugural Ball. Local architect Phil Thompson, who supervised fundraising for the campaign, asked Billy to be in charge of the music. They reserved the biggest space in town, the Memorial Coliseum, which could hold fourteen thousand people. They filled it. Here’s how the event unfolded, in Billy’s words, excerpted from a piece published in Citadel of the Spirit (Nestucca Spit Press, 2009).
“Well, Bud agreed to the idea, even when I told him there were thirty-three bands that had helped during the campaign and they would all probably play, plus the Portland Jr. Symphony, and I wanted a professional sound system. If we were going to do it, it had to be done right. Phil Thompson gave me a check for a deposit and I took the bus to the Coliseum, and booked the date.
January is a pretty risky month in Oregon to throw a gig. We’d been experiencing ice storms and all sorts of bad weather in December. The manager of the Coliseum, Carl, a tough old German guy, was used to dealing with professional promoters, and when I told him my idea for the gig he almost laughed in my face. He listed all the things that could go wrong. He said things weren’t done the way I’d envisioned, and that he would not be held responsible for what was surely was going to be a fiasco.
My plan called for two stages on the main floor, each with a full sound system, and the manager said there wasn’t a sound company in town with enough equipment to do two stages. I also planned to have four stages on the concourse that surrounds the main room, each with a small sound system and a sound man. Each of the thirty-three acts would do a thirty-minute set, which figured out to five and a half hours of music on six different stages, leaving five minutes leeway for the bands to set up and tear down between acts. It was a schedule no one could be expected to keep, especially musicians. The bands on the main stages would have a half an hour to set up and tear down because one stage would be dark while the other was playing.
Gary Keiski and John Miller, regulars at the Goose who had helped on the campaign, joined me in the former campaign office behind the Goose, and with three-by-five cards with the various acts names on them, we went about making up a schedule. We found out that Carl was right: No sound company in town had enough equipment to outfit two stages at once in such a large venue.
Dave Cutter at Sundown Sound had volunteered during the campaign and said he would run one stage. For the other stage, I got in touch with Jody, a tall redhead who had been there for me before. She happened to be married to the owner of GreatNorthwest Sound, one of the biggest sound companies on the West Coast. She helped me out and we now had enough equipment for the main stages.
There was always something more to do. We called the stagehands union and negotiated for a better rate and the right to use non-union roadies. The Jr. Symphony agreed to play but we needed chairs and music stands for seventy musicians. I think it was Gary who called Lincoln High School and got them to loan us the chairs and music stands.
Phil was the overall boss of the operation and was to serve as Master of Ceremonies at the Ball. We needed a honcho to coordinate the roadies and security and enlisted Buck Munger, who also arranged for a Marine color guard to parade the colors at the Ball. We talked James DePriest, the conductor of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, into introducing Bud. The Imperial Brass wrote a special introductory piece to herald Bud’s entrance. My plan was to have something like I had seen at the Oregon Country Fair, where you would walk from one stage to another and each would have a different kind of music. The experts told me that it would end up as a cacophony, but I didn’t think that was as important as the fact that you had so many choices.
The local professional promoters like Double T and John Bauer Concerts told me to forget about all this stuff and just get the name bands and forget about all the little bands that had volunteered during the campaign. After all the object was to raise money, wasn’t it? Well, yes, I agreed but I said it was also important how you raised the money.
As we got closer to the date, the politics of the event began to surface. Lobbyists who wanted the Mayor’s ear came to the Goose to pitch. I found myself talking to a guy from a fireworks company who wanted Portland to allow fireworks to be loaded and unloaded at the Portland docks. He also happened to volunteer to stage a fireworks display for the Ball so we talked. The Steel Bridge just south of the Coliseum was being repaired and the on-ramp was closed off. We received permission to set up the display there so it could be seen through the glass walls of the Coliseum. It would be our grand finale at midnight.
More and more people were saying the event was getting out of hand: the Jr. Symphony, a twelve-piece jazz all-star band, my own twenty-two-piece Billy Foodstamp and the Welfare Ranch Rodeo, The Kingsmen of “Louie Louie” fame, a Marine color guard and now fireworks! They were right. It was getting out of hand but I’d forgotten bagpipes. We found a piper from the Clan MC or something like that. Toward the end, we got Pander to do the poster and enlisted Michael Burgess to write the copy and the introduction in the program. Once it was all laid out on paper, it didn’t look quite so crazy.
Early sales weren’t encouraging. All of this activity was going on during the Christmas holidays and people were often out of town or at least not at their desks when we called for help. But it didn’t matter, we’d reached a point of no return.
Somehow the day arrived clear and dry. We gathered at the Coliseum at 10 a.m. The sound guys had already loaded in and Gary Ewing was setting up his light show. As the day rushed on the chaos slowly became order. The mix of enthusiastic volunteers and seasoned professionals worked well together. When the sun started to go down the lines outside started to grow. We opened the doors at 5 p.m. and it seemed like everyone in Portland streamed in. I must have walked fifty miles that day trying to find and solve problems.
It was the largest gathering of musicians under one roof in the history of Oregon.
The first big moment of the night was Bud’s entrance. I had to fight very hard for my idea. Most people just wanted Bud to appear on stage and say a few words. I wanted him to walk from one end of the room to the other, through the crowd, greeting the people. Security went nuts! They said they would need a flying wedge to get him through and he’d still be mobbed. That’s where the Marine color guard and the bagpiper came in. Maestro James DePriest was on the north stage in the main room and was introduced by Phil Thompson, who stood on the south stage. DePriest said some kind word about Bud, and as the Imperial Brass played its special piece, he directed the now capacity crowd’s attention to his right, where a spotlight was focused on the flags of the United States, Oregon and the Marine Corps.
Then, behind the color guard the piper began. Security was trying to move the crowd, but when the Sergeant of the Guard barked his command, “Forward, march,” and moved out in a slow, measured pace, the crowd just parted on its own. Bud and Sigrid followed the piper and waved and shook hands as the procession moved toward the south stage. When they reached the south stage, Bud made a short speech thanking almost everyone in the world.
I was on the north stage with my band, and when Bud was done ‘whooping,’ he introduced us. At 11:30 P.M. the Kingsmen came on the south stage, and after playing some of their hits, finally told the crowd that this was the last song of the evening, and yes, it was going to be “Louie Louie.” We lit up the north stage and as many musicians as possible plugged in or grabbed microphones and the whole place went wild in an orgy of ‘Louie Louie, oh, we gotta’ go now.’
Phil Thompson finally called a halt to the madness and directed everyone’s attention to the south windows. The fireworks went off, sending up huge flowers of light blazing away in the darkness. People rushed to the south windows, and then outside to watch. At 12:30 a.m. the Coliseum was almost empty and I was standing on the floor of the main room with Carl. He was supervising his crew who were getting ready to freeze the floor for a hockey game the next day. He shook his head and said, “I don’t believe it.” Then he smiled for the first time since I’d met him.
We grossed over seventy-eight thousand dollars but because of expenses, another fundraiser was needed. Overall, the Ball netted forty grand in six hours. People started talking about making the Ball an annual event. It had been so successful that we got national press, and the word was out that Portland had a great music scene. I agreed to coordinate a second ball with the proceeds going to local charities and a group of folks in the music scene got together in my office and formed the Portland Music Association. Eventually there were eight Mayor’s Balls, one of which made the Guinness Book of World Records for the most bands under one roof in one night: Eighty-eight bands on eight stages in eight hours. Billboard Magazine did a major article on the Balls and several bands were scouted and signed for national labels at the Ball.
Bud was reelected for a second term and brought Portland national and international attention with his lederhosen, bicycle riding, the rose in his lapel, his “whoop whoop!” and “Expose Yourself to Art” poster. Once he left office after two terms he went back to the Goose. When Vera Katz was elected mayor, she declined to lend the name of her office to the Mayor’s Ball and it ended.”
It bears noting that folks who were closest to Billy believed he could pull off that astounding feat. He was already a mover and shaker in Portland’s music scene, having invested sweat equity in a variety of venues. People paying close attention knew he could help make amazing things happen, just as he’d helped Bud Clark to triumph over political convention.
Many of Portland’s bigwigs thought Billy was out of his mind, because they really didn’t share his way of thinking. “Sweat” is another word for “magic,” in this context, yet neither carries as much clout as property in the conventional hierarchy. At the time of the big event Billy was renting a humble trailer behind the Goose Hollow Inn, holding a day-job working as the pub’s janitor. Apparently that’s where he wanted to be, so he could be fully immersed in the creative flow. He wasn’t focused on amassing private wealth from that creativity.
It’s taken three decades for Billy to receive public recognition for the magic he stirred up in Portland. He’s been honored as a “side player” by the Oregon Music Hall of Fame, an eight-year-old organization that few musicians here on the coast have heard of. Better late than never, some might say. Lessons can be gleaned from the lag time.
Billy’s relationship with the music industry was evident in his description of what happened at the Mayor’s Ball. Further insights arise from his fellow musician and friend, Gary Keiski, who worked with Billy on the Ball and collaborated with him on the Upper Left Edge. Long-time readers know Gary as Dr. Karkeys.
“Billy didn’t just insist on asking all the bands to play,” said Gary. “He made sure every musician was paid $50, which was pretty good back then when rent was cheaper. He always tried to spread things around.”
The last year the Ball was conducted, Billy published the first issue of the Edge. A few sentences from him constitute the only editorial comment in that inaugural issue, which was otherwise devoted to promoting gigs for local bands. The comment was titled “Live Music!”
“One function of recorded music is to replace the player’s part in the interaction of musician and audience during the musical performance. An Irish Setter could represent the audience. There could be a rehearsal for ‘listening to music.’ It wouldn’t be the same…”
When recently asked what this says about Billy’s worldview, Dr. Karkeys responded without hesitation.
“Billy reminded folks that much of what we hear is a shallow representation of something important. Recorded music takes an important part of the human experience and attempts to make a copy of it. In the end it just becomes product. This is a natural result of a global culture that values profit more than human life.”
Portland might be bucking that culture, just a tad, by giving Billy his due at the Oregon Music Hall of Fame on October 4, 2014. That date happened to coincide with the Day of Atonement. Seems like a good time to affirm that a washboard player with very little money can help big magic flow in the world.
We’ll all fare better in the book of life if we shorten our lag time of gratitude for such gifts.