From the recording Butch
Butch – This song is as subtle as a brick to the head, which incidentally, landed one of my cousins in prison. My cousin was holding the brick. This one is going to be difficult to talk about, because it’s an ugly story and there is no way to tell it without pissing some family off. But the minute I named this Butch, I knew what I was stepping into. Butch is my uncle. My mom’s brother. And to say they don’t get along is an understatement. I’ll spare you the history of that rift, but I’ll say there was a time when my mother was the only person Butch had left to turn to. Those days are long gone now. When it became necessary to settle that debt, things did not go gracefully.
The day I wrote this song, I was in Oklahoma to deliver the eulogy for my grandfather’s funeral.
Being Okies, nobody in the Billings family seems familiar with the concept of a hotel. When my family rolls into town, we just swamp the shit out of whomever we are visiting. Two bedroom house? No reason 18 people can’t sleep here. Try to be the one that doesn’t impose by getting a hotel and suddenly you’re the fancy-pants asshole who is too good for your family. Best to just roll out your sleeping bag and lean into the fray. Of course, with that many people in a small space, tensions inevitably mount (there is always somebody feuding) until some huge dramatic blow-up occurs and everyone acts caught off guard on how it happened. There is yelling. Then screaming. Threats of violence. Sometimes actual violence. Then everybody gets drunk and gets over it.
Some feuds go on for years. Such is the case between Butch and my mother.
My grandfather’s house isn’t actually that small. He built it himself, adding on to it over the years in a strange evolutionary layout that only made sense to him. Living room, hot-tub room, another living room. Bedroom converted into a kitchen-pantry. Two thousand sprawling square feet. One toilet. Two bedrooms. Out in the sticks of Poteau, Oklahoma, he and my grandmother didn’t get much company, so his house didn’t need to serve anybody but his own quirky needs. If the horse wanted to pop his head through the screen door and join them while cooking breakfast, that was fine with him too.
So this was the scene upon which we descended. I don’t know how many of us were piled in, but there was overflow sleeping in motorhomes and conversion vans as well. Still, with the patriarch gone, the house was full of sorrow and emptiness, regardless of the number of people we crammed into it. So we drank and smoked and tried to laugh and tell old family stories. Smoking killed my grandfather, but that didn’t stop my grandmother from lighting her cigarettes directly under the nose of her own oxygen tube. We argued with her, trying to make her understand that while wearing the oxygen she could light her entire head on fire and none of us would even see the flames. She listened quietly, waited until nobody was looking, and kept on doing it.
But if that were the only argument of the week, I wouldn’t be writing this story, and there wouldn’t be a song called Butch.
I am not a morning person. But sleeping in isn’t much of an option when you are sharing a room with half a dozen people. Still, this particular morning was the rudest awakening of my life. At 6am, I heard a cacophony of screaming voices, but through them all, I could make out my mother’s. There was clearly violence on the brink, so I jumped out of my bag, and ran to the kitchen. There, I found my Uncle Butch with his left hand wrapped around my mother’s throat, and his right hand cocked back in a fist. I was barely awake, but it took the strength of several other uncles to keep me from jumping over the counter. They managed to separate my mom and Butch, but the hatred and violence swelled up in me like a hive of wasps on fire. Had I been armed, my grandfather wouldn’t be the only person we buried that week. That is not hyperbole.
My Uncle Larry and Uncle Dub ushered me into another room, where I paced back and forth like a caged tiger, both fists clenched tight, waiting for a target. They were talking to me, but I heard nothing but the white-hot flashes of murder pulsing in my brain. It took a long time for me to even decipher what they were saying.
“Are you okay?”
“I am nothing close to okay”, I seethed in a hoarse whisper, as I finally found my voice.
These were the first words I’d spoken since jumping out of my sleeping bag. I continued to pace, not knowing where to direct my energy. I knew where I wanted to put it, but I had two men preventing me from leaving the room. As I calmed down just barely enough to put a rational thought together, I decided I had a choice. I could wait them out, and go kill my uncle. Or I could walk out into the field and try to work this shit out another way. I thought of my grandfather. I grabbed my guitar and left the house, not bothering to grab a shirt.
I wanted to smash my guitar more than I wanted to play it, but I kept walking until I came upon an old rusted piece of farm equipment. I sat down and began to bash away at my guitar. That was when I noticed my younger cousin, hiding in the brush about a hundred yards away. He had followed me out and he was watching me. And for some fucking reason, he was taking pictures. But that was the least on my mind, so I ignored him and directed my hatred toward my instrument. I have pummeled men and had them pummel me with less anger than I felt in that moment. Not having anywhere else to direct my rage, I was consumed by it. So to release it, I wrote this song fueled by as pure murderous anger as I’ve ever known. This song was, and still is, unadulterated primal violence.
Writing it allowed me to walk back into my grandfather’s house, and later to deliver his eulogy as we laid him to rest. It allowed me to let Butch shake my hand after the funeral, with tears in his eyes, and tell me I’d done the family proud as we commemorated the life of his father. As far as I know, he’s never heard this song.
I mentioned in my last post how I set rules for recording, but gave people very little technical direction on how to handle my songs. Instead, I described the emotions behind the songs and let them interpret those feelings in their own way. So I told every musician on this recording the story I’ve just told you. I told them to play like they were watching their own mother threatened. Hands wrapped around her throat. A fist cocked back, ready to punch her in the face.
This isn’t a pretty song. But I think the people I worked with got it. And if anybody in my family doesn’t, I don’t give a shit. Both Alison and my mother asked me not to call this song Butch. Understandably, they didn’t want me to add fuel to the fire of an already volatile family rift. But a man who threatens and hits women is no man at all in my book, and deserves no protection from the truth. And Butch is a perfect name for this song. It encapsulates the very heart of it. If my Uncle Butch has a problem with that, he knows where to find me. I have just enough education to believe Isaac Asimov when he wrote “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent”. But I have just enough Billings in me not to give a shit. And I still remember how to deliver a eulogy.