Billy, it was so rude of you to leave
Sixteen years ago this week, the world lost a great rock star, cut down way before his time. So early did he die that most of the world never got to see or hear him. Those of us who enjoyed his performances over a few, brief, sweet years here in Portland will never forget.
His name was Billy Rancher, and when he burst onto the local bar scene he was hardly old enough to drink in the places he was playing. In 1980 and 1981, after he and his brother Lenny broke up their band the Malchicks, Billy assembled a new band around himself and called them the Unreal Gods. They proceeded to tear the house down with an amazing array of rock and ska influences all rolled into a brand of music that Billy dubbed "boom chuck rock." "Boom chuck, boom chuck, boom chuck -- ch-chuck" was how the drums would go. We'd all sing along -- with the drums, mind you! It was that catchy. And, quite unusual for the local circuit they were riding, the Gods were playing mostly original numbers -- only an occasional cover to be heard -- which made it all the more stunning.
Boom chuck rock was as danceable as all get-out. The little La Bamba club downtown and the big Lung Fung Dragon Room out on SE 82nd Avenue would positively steam up when the Gods hit the stage. And it was visual, too, with a pair of tasseled Goddesses who proved to all who witnessed them that, yes, go go boots could make a comeback at any moment. The scene was so theatrical, so electrifying. Hard to take your eyes off the stage, it was so intense. The charisma flowed from a lot of directions, but one thing that drew the entire audience in was how much Billy and his mates cared about this music. I remember shaking his hand in the foyer of some dive one night after his show was over. (You stayed to the end of the Unreal Gods, even if you were going to look and feel like hell at work the next day.) And the guy shook every last hand walking out to that parking lot as he sipped on a shotglass of peppermint schnapps.
Funny music, too. Tongue in cheek through at least half of it. Songs like "My Girlfriend's Drawers" (possibly referring to furniture, probably not) and "Rude Buddy Holly" ("Buddy, it was so rude of you to leave!"). A young man's outlook, but with wicked wit and wisdom.
The band cut an indie record on its own and headed down to L.A. to show it around. They signed a record deal, and I think they may have even cut an album in a big-time New York studio. Fame and fortune seemed just around the corner. But it wasn't long before the amazing journey took a major detour: Billy, in his mid-20s, was diagnosed with lymphoma.
The medical ordeal took Rancher away from us for a long time, and when he came back, the story was different. It had to be. Now on top of everything else, Billy was being a strong fighter in the face of The Big Reality. But he kept going, with songs about Christmas, songs about his girl, songs about peace. Not as funny, not nearly as raucous. But still jaw-dropping awesome.
I saw him backstage one time after he got sick, at the hotsy-totsy Schnitzer Concert Hall, of all places. The hall had just opened following its big renovation, and a bunch of performers were doing a benefit for some noble cause. It was late fall of '84, I think. I was an extra in a dance/performance art piece being done by a friend, who in those days was known as Vincent Martinez. Anyway, while a large group of us were waiting to go on with Vin, in comes Billy and another guy -- I think it was Lenny -- and they worked out a little acoustic number on a guitar or two. It might have been "Happy Santa Claus," but I may be misremembering. Knowing about Billy's medical condition, I was craning my neck to see if I could get a glimpse of how he was doing. He looked o.k. for that night, at least.
When you're a 20-something partying in a club, it's not easy to tell whether what you are enjoying so much is timeless, or just the group du jour. Your hormones are raging, you're finally grown up and trying to figure out what that means, and it may not be until years later that you can appreciate what mattered and what didn't.
But we were right about Billy Rancher. He was an Unreal God, indeed.
If you ever see the album "Boom Chuck Rock Now" for sale, and you don't have a copy, buy it. If you don't want to keep it, send it to me and I'll buy it from you. I think the CD is readily available in a few places for around $15. The vinyl LP, on the other hand, is a collectors' item. I've heard prices of $50 and $65. But you won't get mine for 10 times that.