We all love our drag shows and circuit parties, but artists like Billy Hough keep a rich tradition of fringe queer nightlife alive: scrappy punk-fused rock-n-roll, exciting improvised stage antics and a sharp wit informed by literature and current events. An actor and writer as well as a musician (he and his brothers also comprise a popular band, by the way), Billy and stage partner Susan Goldberg’s live show series “Scream Along With Billy” brought banter, tunes and excitement to stages all over town, including Club Cumming. Now a darling of the livestream, Billy can’t wait to get back on the real stage… but for now, the show must go on!
Thotyssey: Hello Billy! Thanks for chatting with us today! So the temperature has dropped a few degrees and autumn has begun… is it Good Riddance to Crazy Covid Summer 2020?
Billy Hough: I love autumn. I do. I’m a hoodie-rat. And I grew up in Mississippi, so the unbearable heat would break that first night and you knew it was gonna cool off… so there’s that. Our summer (in Provincetown) was too busy and too slow. Sue [Goldberg, my stage and musical partner] and I are (like all our live performing friends) completely out [of work] until Phase-Whatever. So we’ve played with different versions of performing online. Facebook Live is problematic, but it has given us a chance to play for our fans and also to do a different show every week—a self-assigned task that keeps us from going crazy. We’re found better than a lot of folks out there, but acknowledging that—it’s been tough.
Is it weird to play live to a vacuum of sorts with your digital shows?
It is and it’s not. I mean, usually I’m playing in a dark room with a bright light in my face—so I can’t see the audience even when it’s packed. But I can feel them… you know? From whether you believe in spirits talking to you, or the way you can sense an “energy”‘in a room very different than you expect: the actual currency of emotion and pheromone and fear and joy.
The reason we stick with FarceBarf up ’til now is because the audience (our friends, natch) respond in real time. If they would laugh at one of my jokes they “haha” now, and (far more likely) when my jokes flop, they post crickets “Scream Along with Billy” has always been a live collaboration with the audience. Sue and I always have much bigger sets prepared than we have time for. And the evenings build themselves on the weather or the news, the vibes (I know) or just the fucking energy in the room. If we’re doing Bowie, we might plan on “Starman” but the audience is “Queen Bitch.” If it’s the Ramones, we may have “The KKK Took Mt Baby Away” planned, but the audience needs “Danny Says.”
Our desire to give that room the show they need is one of the reasons we’re still as Gang Busters about our show 15 years later, and why our kids keep showing up. I don’t get their comments in real-time as I’m playing (though my boyfriend, Captain Fun, who shoots the shows and can see the comments will apprise ya of trends and pleas) but I see them the next day when I watch the show. And it lets me develop new skills for this current epoch. Did I read them right? Wrong?
PS: I don’t watch the shows because I’m a narcissist. I am certainly a narcissist, as anyone in my line of work should accept. Spoiler alert: we’re all narcissists. I just think performers have to acknowledge that, laugh at themselves, and use it to forge a less selfish relationship with their audience. I may be wrong, but I’m still here, and that’s as good an explanation as I’ve got.
So you’re a writer and and actor among other things, although here in NYC you’re best known as a live musician. How did you begin as a creative person growing up, and what were some of your influences?
I wanted to be a writer. I went to college to be a playwright, and while there I got bit by the acting bug. After college I was in New Orleans writing a novel about rock-n-roll, and I needed to do more research. So I formed a punk band (Surrender Dorothy) with my best friends in the cassette room at Tower Records, and that was that.
I moved to Boston and founded the [theatrical company] Gold Dust Orphans with Ryan Landry, Scott Martino and Andre “Afrodite” Shoals. I concurrently began my long career with my band GarageDogs (with my two brothers and Devin Maguire, later Sue herself on bass). So I’ve kept the acting, composing and writing itches scratched. It’s a long road to establish yourself in any of the arts, and I feel like any craft (hate that word, but bear with me) I would adopt would require–nay, deserve–a lifetime of study and practice.
So eventually when the GarageDogs went on hiatus, Sue and I started “Scream Along.’ It combined all those disparate elements —writing, acting, playing, singing, plus: slam poetry, performance art, comedy and whatever else I could throw in (oh and puppetry, of course… I always forget the puppets. And nudity… we’ve done a lot with nudity). Not to mention art—posters each week through collaboration with artist Nina West, beautiful videos through collaborations with Anne Stott, Melissa Kinski and Chris Kelly. The ability to collaborate with so many people to make our own punk rock “Factory.”
I have too many Influences to name, but “Scream Along” is basically Richard Pryor’s ‘Sunset Strip,’ Lou Reed’s “Take No Prisoners,” and a Sandra Bernhard’s “Without You I’m Nothing” (though a million floors below those three master works).
Amazing! So definitely these past few decades, the opportunities and venues for artists in NYC have really dwindled, even though artists and performers built this city. But some have speculated that the Covid lockdown may have driven out the rich and bougie and might open up to artists again!
We’ve been very lucky in New York. We started playing a few times a year at Joe’s Pub, which still supports crazy, and have found a home away from home in Club Cumming. We also found ONCE in Somerville as a home base in Boston. These clubs are all suffering, and many of my friends and I worry that when we can finally do live indoor shows again, there may be no one left. I encourage everyone to donate to specific clubs you love, or to organizations in general who are fighting for these venues. If you are broke (and who isn’t?), there are petitions and proposed aid packages for small clubs you can support with signatures and letters. CBGB was a mom and pop venue. NYC may clear out again, and the broke kids may come back. But we’ll need the venues more than ever.
I was listening to an improvised tune you and Susan performed back during the Obama / McCain election that really resonated for today’s situation. It was basically like, “life will go on and has gone on, no matter what happens.” It’s a timeless sentiment, but I would give anything for McCain to be president today instead of what we have!
Do you get disappointed that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of valid “protest music” happening, or is that just a quaint idea that wouldn’t resonate today?
I do think it has a hugely valid place right now. My good friend Anne Stott is keeping that tradition alive, for one. And my brothers and I have a new album full of protest; our first swingle (coming October 12) “American Dream” is practically an epitaph. There’s also the music of rage, which is probably being recorded in basements around the world. There will he a tsunami of pain on iTunes by Christmas.
Hopefully! I bet you’re missing Club Cumming, a venue which was unique suited to “Scream Along With Billy.” Do you have any favorite memories of performing there?
The Feast of Lou Reed with Justin Vivian Bond doing “Candy Says.” Lili Taylor’s “Life on Mars” at our Bowie show. The debut of what would become “Cocksucker Blues,” and my kid brother Matt being transformed into Divine at our John Waters tribute.
“Stream Along With Billy,” your digital version of “Scream Along,” returns this Tuesday (now 9pm) with a tribute to amazing punk pioneer Patti Smith! Do you have a favorite Patti tune?
So as a musician and a writer, you are uniquely equipped to teach a digital seminar (on October 1st, 7pm) about the classic Mikhail Bulgakov novel The Master And Margarita. Tell us a bit about why this book is important both in the literary and music worlds.
The book resonates now because it reflects a period of time in Russian history when a youthful and idealistic revolution (not a bloodless one, certainly… I’m not taking sides) replaced a monarchy with…an authoritarian dictator. The huge social upheaval to remove power from a few and give it back to “the people” was easily commandeered by Stalin into a total fascist state. It was such a cynical time, the book actually asks: what if God (or whatever mystical force lies out there) is actually fighting on the other side? What if the “bad guys” are getting support from a heartless universe that only loves power? That sounds heavy, but I’m not being hyperbolic. We have become a fascist country even as we’ve all been marching and voting and watching MSNBC. That’s exactly how the author was feeling when he wrote it. Now: it’s actually hysterical, and it’s a Russian slant on “magical realism,” so the lead character is the Devil and his Sancho Panza is a giant alcoholic cat. It’s a smart, laugh-out-loud adventure that has more in common with Vonnegut than Marx.
Marianne Faithfull pushed it on her then-lover, Mick Jagger, who famously read it in an all-nighter, went to the studio the next morning, and wrote “Sympathy for the Devil” in tribute. Fuck, it’s a distraction really–we all need those more than we need anything at the moment–but there is hope in it. What is the point in making a great work of art when the world is ending? What do you do with your intellect and compassion in a world that punishes both?
These are certainly questions that these days feel like “life or death” to me. I don’t know if Sue’s and my commitment to mount a full-throated “Stream Along” every Tuesday–regardless of how we feel or what happened on the news that day–does anything but allow us to piss on the sidewalk and say “we showed up.” I don’t know if that matters at all. But it’s all we got. It was the same with Bulgakov writing this book. He knew it would be banned. Knew it would find no readership until long after his death. So why make it so great? Perfect even? This moves me, and we need to wrap ourselves in anything that moves us. “Hang on out there,” it says. “I’m coming.”
What else is on the horizon for you?
The GarageDogs upcoming album Beyond Good & Evil is the best record I’ve ever been a part of. I’m collaborating on a killer song with the always brilliant John Cameron Mitchell, and I continue to write for PleaseKillMe.com—next up is my treatise on Marianne Faithfull. My wonderfully supportive boyfriend and I are going “next level” moving into a new place together and getting a cat. We’re working every day to enjoy the moments that are light and wonderful, and training ourselves to roll with increasing levels of crazy all around us. We can’t change much of what’s happening, but that which we can change? That which we can show up for and apply pressure too, we’re all in.
In terms of planning for the future when things are so unforeseeable, I’m trying to remind myself that the future has never been certain. We just got spoiled by years of relative stability. So we’re going to toughen up, enjoy as much as we can, make the best fucking albums and jewelry (his gig) as we can. And keep showing up. Good luck. And thank you.
Thank you, Billy!