Billy Jenkins Again

Documentary trailer:
Documentary trailer:

Truly one of the least prestigious, least sought-after accolades in the history of the world, Billy Jenkins is probably the Bemolution’s favourite living musical artiste*. Please note, sadly, that that’s ‘living’ artiste, not ‘musically active’. Both spiritually worn-down and made financially unviable by the crushing commercialisation of everything, Billy Jenkins the musician has characteristically jacked it all in to officiate humanist funerals.

The Bemolution occasionally, certainly pathetically, writes to Billy to ascertain whether he’s any more likely to strap on his guitar again than he was during the last quarter, and he’s always gracious enough to reply:

“Me and music still not hearing ‘ear to ear’. The humanist funereal duties keeping the muse fully occupied – writing and conducting about sixty a year. That means an average of about 3,500 perfect emphatic words a week. Every week for the last five years…”

“The last CD I brought out – ‘Jazz Gives Me The Blues’ – took 26 funerals to pay for. ‘What you’re really saying is’, said Charlie Hart who recorded and produced, ‘that 26 folks had to actually die to make that record…’ Yup. And, with no-one buying anything, it ain’t worth the literal grief any more… The future is looking rather silent but faced with a smile.”

the blues collective

There Is No Lord Up There:

As he’s noted elsewhere: “Writers, visual artists, actors, directors, creative folks across all areas – we’re all in the merde.” When everything is measured against how much profit it will make rather than its objective merit, originality, individuality and soul go down the drain.

But what of Mr Jenkins himself – what is/was the fuss all about? Like a lot of the best – or, more objectively, our favourite – music, Billy works in a medium that’s hard to precisely nail down, whisking varied genres into a doughy concoction that’s strange, subversive and utterly unique.

In the lexicon of Jenkins, ‘jazz’ is a dirty word – stale, workmanlike, a wine bar band limping through ‘The Girl From Ipanema’. In his earlier days, Billy’s music most closely resembled a manically innovative take on the solo-blasted improvisational form that inevitably gets pigeon-holed as the J-word. But inflict one of his LPs on your average John Coltrane fan and they’re liable to implode.

Since the mid-90s, though, he’s changed tack, taking that approach and applying it the Blues, something which Jenkins treats as a kind of hallowed secular religion. He can’t sing, but that’s not the point. At a Billy Jenkins show, twelve-bar blues tunes about the dreariness of suburbia and the exigencies of modern life are interspersed with outbreaks of instrumental anarchy. The humour, ever-present, veers between dry, black, best-of-British and the kind of slap-stick bedlam that owes more to the Marx Brothers. But he’s not just Tommy Cooper with a guitar – to approvingly quote Jazzwise’s Trevor Hodgett:

“His humour springs from a deeply moralistic, even puritanical stance, and surely the adjectives normally applied to Jenkins – such as ‘zany’ and ‘quirky’ – actually diminish what in reality constitutes a serious and savagely satirical attack on commercialism and consumerism”.

Jazz Had A Baby:

The Bemolution knows for a fact that Jenkins bristles at the comparison, but he’s got all the good bits about Frank Zappa without the sneer, the misogyny and the avid capitalism – and with the added bonus of godless melancholia and a very British angst.

He’s also an astounding, irreverent guitarist, playing with a punkish fury and a very un-punkish technical virtuosity. Type ‘shred’ into YouTube and you can see thousands of American teenagers sitting in their bedrooms playing the guitar very, very fast, but none of them will do it with an ounce of the wit and individuality that Jenkins musters.

His sound can slalom from demented Wes Montgomery to crack-addled Freddie King in the space of a three minute number about White Van Men. Like a caterpillar slam-dancing on the fret-board, his digits conjure up blistering passages of Gatling gun guitar, voiced in one of the strangest, wiriest tones in the history of the instrument. It’s something to behold.

Alas, it’s something we’re very unlikely to ever behold again. The Bemolution has recently been consoling itself by repeatedly watching Blues Al Fresco, the DVD recording of a free open-air concert by Billy and his awesomely talented Blues Collective (Dylan Bates, Richard Bolton, Mike Pickering, Thaddeus Kelly) back in 2003.

We’d sincerely like to show you a clip to aid our Jenkins evangelising, but, in an age of dwindling revenue streams for old-style musicians, Billy has always been staunchly opposed to putting out performances that are commercially available for free and furthering a dismal trend that’s made it harder and harder for working musicians to make a living.

In one sense, it’s a shame – yes, it’s tragically sad that working musicians can’t make honest money the way they used to, but platforms like YouTube are a fabulous way of attracting new audiences. The Bemolution only discovered Zappa because of it, and has gone on to buy stacks of his music. But when we’ve toiled for weeks over a lovingly sculpted piece of aural art, then seen it dumped on the internet for free in shoddily compressed digital form and still had to scrape together the cash to feed the cat, then we’ll in a position to comment.

For now, then, here’s one of very few live Billy performances available on YouTube, which just happens to be of him singing in his back garden:

And if you’d like to sample some hair-raising, revitalising Billy yourself, you can buy Blues Al Fresco here, along with many other entries in his criminally neglected back catalogue

For some annoying reason, if you want to actually watch the video bit of a WordPress-embedded YouTube video rather just hear the audio, you have to either watch it fullscreen or click to watch it on YouTube itself.

*come to think of it, possibly joint favourite with Tom Waits

UPDATE: actually, having said all the above, the Bemolution did manage to dig up some Billy-sanctioned clips from the DVD (of abysmal quality, it has to be said) as well as some bittersweet promo footage.