Where do I begin my absolute saddest post yet? Another friend has gone to the great beyond, and this time it really, really, REALLY fucking hurts, for this one had a deep, deep influence on my life in almost a million ways. I didn't start the Brazenblog with any intention of becoming an obituary writer, but fate just keeps on intervening, and so here we go again.
And there is no better way to start this one off than by stating with all due modesty that were it not for William M. Berger, this whole Ray Zinnbrann/Ray Brazen thing might never have gotten even half as far as it did. Most of the story of the Lo-Fi cassette underground scene Bill championed and gave voice to (which in turn led to that first gig) has already been told elsewhere on this blog. It's better that I refer you back to this entry than repeat myself. (Bill always told me he didn't like to repeat himself, after all.) I've also dropped the odd tale or two about him into a few other posts here and there. Allow me, then, to take this one to fill in many details I've not previously shared, and to celebrate him on an even deeper and more personal level still.
When I first met Bill, it was the dead winter of '86 and I was in a bit of a transitional period musically. No longer interested in hardcore, I'd plunged myself into a frenzied revisiting of the music I'd loved before punk rock came along in a frantic search for what I wanted to listen to next now that punk was dead to me. I was slowly but surely beginning to find some of those answers already by listening to other DJs on WFMU, but when Bill entered my life, the real answers finally came to light. In the very first minute of our first conversation we both discovered a shared love of the Godz, and right there and then I knew I'd found a friend for life. I had also just rediscovered Pink Floyd's first album, with Syd Barrett, after replacing my long-lost childhood copy of it, and his love of all things Syd was another major early bonding factor. In fact, in the years before internet and Youtube, the mere mention of the possible existence of film clips of Syd was enough to set him off thusly: "You mean actual footage of Syd actually moving his hands around on a guitar and moving his lips in front of a microphone? Wow!" I vividly remember him exclaiming once.
The 1980s were an incredibly fertile period not only for innovative, forward thinking, experimentally minded indie music, but also for the renewed discovery of forgotten music of the past, particularly psychedelic and garage rock. Many DJs were exploring and presenting all of this great music old and new in various contexts, but Bill's was the show which really sewed it all together into something that made sense to me. He knew of my punk past and was incredibly supportive of my desire to move on musically. Every week, without fail, he would pull something out of his (or WFMU's) vast music library that would make me go, "Holy fuck!!!! What IS this???" (In particular, I am eternally indebted to him for my very first exposures to the wonders of Krautrock.) His show was known as "The Hip Bone" then, and the more I listened, the more I realized we were both looking for the same things in our musics of choice.
And every week, without fail, I would travel to the WFMU studios to hang out with Bill, absorb his wisdom and his aura, and watch him work both as DJ and station music director. I learned much from that experience, and honestly admit now that I probably hung around there a lot more than I should've. But he never turned me away once, and for that I am grateful. It was the very, always-open door I had been seeking. Radio and music were indeed Bill's destiny from the start, being the only son of Larry Berger, a major figure in commercial radio who ran WPLJ in the '70s. The late, great John Zacherle was a DJ there back then, and Bill often spoke fondly of how his dad would leave him in ol' Zach's care now and then, even crediting Zach with turning him on to the Dead Boys of all bands!
Again, I cannot stress enough that our bond began with Lo-Fi. Whether Bill actually was the first to use that term to refer to home-tape music, as the Wikipedia entry on it has claimed, is debatable -- I know it wasn't the first time I'd ever heard the word "lo-fi" -- but it was perfect and it stuck like glue. Every tape I'd send him, he'd play, no matter how far-out it was, and many other like-minded folks who'd sent him tapes were given similar treatment. It could very well be true that I may have never taken my own music as seriously as I wound up taking it, if it had not been for his support and enthusiasm.
As a case in point, the very first tape I gave Bill was a selection of cover versions of songs I'd appreciated in my pre-punk years, an excursion into the music I was trying to find new direction in. Years later he posted this tape, "Takedowns" (its title a goof on the name of Bowie's all-covers album PINUPS), along with other significant lo-fi tapes of that period, as a free download on WFMU's now-dormant blog. I admittedly feel a bit embarrassed by some of my performances on that tape now (especially the cover of "Cat Scratch Fever," whose composer's political views I definitely do not endorse), but nonetheless respected the spirit of his posting and even pitched in some liner notes for the digital reissue, which you can read in the comments section under the download. And as Bill's influence on my life grew, my music grew with it, and my follow-up recordings soon reflected a substantial improvement over "Takedowns."
And then there were the many friends I made through Bill. Like my musical life at that time, my social life was also in a state of flux, but soon I had tons of friends again, some of whom were fellow WFMU DJs and some who were fellow home tape artists. The "Lo-Fi Live" showcase we played in early '88 was the turning point for all involved, and laid bare not only Bill's sharp instincts as to which pieces fit, but his ability to unite like-minded freaks like us as well. The most precious of these unions was between me and Mark "Jet Screamer" DeAngelis, with whom I formed Living Guitars (swiping the name from an old easy listening group of the 60s) which would produce what still stands in my mind to this day as some of the very best music either one of us ever made, and which also performed a memorable live set on "The Hip Bone" in early '89. Though this duo wasn't long for the world, it brought a whole new focus and discipline to my music which hadn't been there before, and I still apply the lessons I learned through Bill, Jet, and others in my work to this day.
But more than anything else, Bill Berger was my friend, and for a long time my very, very best. Our association quickly progressed well beyond WFMU and included many times spent going to shows and laughing at the world around us. In our early days we talked of forming a band he wanted to call White Cat Heat (after a track on the first Godz album), but it never came to fruition. We were both big-time Butthole Surfers fans and saw them live many times, and Camper Van Beethoven and Pussy Galore were other much-shared live favorites. Often we were joined in our carousing by his dear friend, another equally amazing man and fellow WFMU-er named Terry Folger, the man who had answered the door of WFMU when he knocked on it for the very first time. Terry also became a very close pal of mine, and I would ultimately play drums for awhile in his band Van Gelder. (TKF, as we called him by his initials, passed away far too young in 1994. Perhaps I will tell his story in a future post... it's another great one entirely.)
We were, of course, always up for discovering new talent, and one memorable night in May '88 at ABC No Rio, following sets by both Jet Screamer and myself, our unsuspecting ears first heard an all-girl band called the Gamma Rays. Oh my god, did we fall hard for them. They ended up playing live on his show three times, and eventually he would wind up romancing their lead singer, briefly replacing their guitarist, and helping his successor transform herself into the internationally reknowned rapper and DJ Princess Superstar. All of which seems like a hell of a lot to have done for just one band, but that's how he worked when he truly believed in something.
And then there was Fly Ashtray, comprised of several fellow lo-fi artists from the Bronx, who became legendary in our hearts and minds in a very short time. The mutual admiration society soon manifested itself as Uncle Wiggly, the band Bill formed with original FA members James Kavoussi and Mike Anzalone and released several albums with, including two Mark Kramer-produced efforts on his famous Shimmy Disc label, each and every one of them a diamond. And I cannot forget Smack Dab, led by a truly charming transplanted southern belle (complete with accent) named Linda Hagood, who he helped take from a lo-fi bedroom project to a real band, with him as their first drummer. The peak period of our friendship was in perfect sync with what I consider to be the peak period of NYC's Lower East Side, then on the knife-edge of the gentrification which was slowly but surely creeping up on it. Moving to NYC was another thing I may never have done had it not been for Bill's influence. Man, those were the days.
All this time I thought Bill and I would surely be this tight forever, but things changed quickly as we moved forward into the '90s. The scene was changing and so was he, and for many reasons I began to disassociate myself from him in '92 or so. Certain personal demons (which I respectfully choose not to detail here) had entered Bill's life by then, altering his personality and his appearance to the point where I could no longer bear to watch it. For a long while, truth be told, I was worried sick that these demons would ultimately kill him (not to mention a few of our associates). It was a pretty scary time to say the least. In the late '90s, though, he finally dealt with the demons, and the Bill Berger I knew in the '80s began to re-emerge accordingly.
We reconnected around '96 and I recall telling him in a fairly scolding voice that I'd been extremely worried about him, but was just as thankful he was sorting out his problems. But before we could really pick up where we'd left off, he moved to San Francisco for awhile. He reconnected with a high school friend during this time, married her and moved back to New Jersey, where they hosted one hell of a blowout at Rubulad in Williamsburg, Brooklyn which still stands high on my list of best parties I have ever attended, equally as memorable as the Lo-Fi live show. Though the marriage was short lived, it produced his only son, appropriately named Sid, who by all accounts he loved more than anything else he'd ever created in his life.
Incredibly and perhaps ironically, in later years the whole hardcore and underground metal world which had been my main thing before I met Bill (and which he liked a little bit of back then, though not loving it outright) became HIS passion, something I never saw coming for a second, even back in '87 when his jaw dropped to the floor after I played him a Hellhammer track as an example of where I'd come to him from. He'd been turned onto black metal music during his time in 'Frisco, and couldn't stop raving about it when he returned to NJ. I was shocked to say the least!
Soon his WFMU show was reincarnated under the new name of "My Castle Of Quiet," a show where he also displayed his love of experimental noise, yet another of our shared sonic interests. Yet even within the context of his self-imposed new format, he still found time to squeeze in glimpses of his old "Hip Bone" self, most notably re-discovering the Butthole Surfers in his last days. And admirably, he embraced his new passion with the same fervor as any he'd embraced before. I admit a lot of the black metal and new punk music he was now heralding wasn't to my taste (though I did like a select few bands) and as such, I didn't listen to this new show quite so much (whereas I'd never missed a single episode of "Lo-Fi" or "The Hip Bone" back in the day). Nonetheless, I respected his choices and encouraged him as I'd always done, knowing deep inside they were the choices of an honest musical intellectual of discriminating tastes who knew what he liked and didn't care if you (or, for that matter, me) did or not.
In the strangest twist of fate of all, though, in the last year of his life a Florida friend of his named Matthew Moyer became a friend of mine as well! I'd met him at one of my gigs shortly after he began writing for Orlando Weekly last year, and his Popnihil label has seen several of its tapes played on MCOQ. (Matthew revealed to me that Bill also had many other friends in the Jacksonville area where he is based.) Bill's love of extreme metal also inspired him to start the Prison Tatt label, releasing many albums and tapes in the last ten years, and there was talk in the air of possible PT/Popnihil joint releases as well as a live MCOQ appearance by Matthew's band Burnt Hair.
But late last year, Bill's life slowly but surely began to unravel. In November, just after the election, a stroke put him in the hospital. He rebounded well enough to resume his show and make a few personal appearances, most notably taking the lead vocal on a cover version of the Damned's "New Rose" aired live on WFMU during its 2017 fundraiser. Following surgery to correct some issues the stroke had caused him, he seemed well on the road to recovery and looked and sounded accordingly. But fate plays tricks on us all, as we well know, and now, one of the brightest lights ever to illuminate my life has been dimmed. I feel both deep sorrow for this tremendous loss, and major regret that I didn't stay more in touch with him in his last years.
Just before his stroke, we had a long online chat on a Saturday afternoon that I'm so glad I printed out and saved the full transcript of for posterity. We talked about the same things we'd talked so much about back in '86 when we first met -- underground music, cassette tapes, and WFMU -- and in pretty much the same way as always. They remained his passion right up till his final breath, and surely made his difficult last days a lot easier to deal with. It was a beautiful chat, and almost took me right back to that fateful evening in February 1986 when I accidentally stumbled into WFMU's record library -- which, as a non-staffer at the time, was against station policy -- and was not kicked out, but welcomed with open arms by a man who was on my wavelength, knew so much more than me, and was more than willing to share what I didn't know myself yet.
As a DJ, he was second to none. In my world there are only two kinds: Bill Berger, and everyone else. (Yes, that even includes my childhood radio hero, Dan Ingram of WABC). You never knew what he was gonna do next, but you always knew it was gonna be great, even before he did it. As a musician, he made all the others he championed, jammed with and supported to become better musicians themselves. His guitar playing -- oh, dear God. What a six-stringed genius he was. He was a student of the Dick Dale School Of Upside Down Guitar Playing, but ol' Dick never had half the imagination Bill did. Some of his solos on the Uncle Wiggly records, all played on his trusty old Telecaster, are among the best I've ever heard in my life.
And as a person, well... he was a god to me. Sometimes I wondered which parallel universe had gifted me with his presence. He was that otherworldly. Say what you will, but I'm confident many others who knew him would back me up here. He was the kindest, funniest, craziest, most gentle, most nurturing, most fun loving friend to me EVER. He was honest and straightforward and (to be sure) a bit short-tempered at times. We traded tapes regularly throughout the '80s, and I still have all the mixtapes he made for me (mostly of both obscure and well-known psychedelic and garage rock) as well as cassettes of his earliest home recordings, made under the name of The Happy Cat. He introduced me to a ton of people who became very close friends and changed and helped me in many ways, many of whom I've named here and many more of whom I haven't but who surely know who they are if they're reading this, and I thank each and every one of them as much as I thank Bill.
When I played that magic Lo-Fi night at the Lismar Lounge on Feburary 10, 1988, my very first gig ever, surrounded by an adoring audience of my fellow Lo-Fi colleagues, I certainly didn't expect to bring down the house the way I did. It was confirmation that Bill was doing something very, very right, and as soon as I finished my last song, soaking up the wild, thunderous ovation, an ecstatic and proud Bill leaped right onstage, grabbed the mic and yelled into it, loud and clear, "RAY-ZINN-FUCKING-BRANN!" There was fire in his eyes as he did so, and I'm damn proud to say I was a source of that fire. My performance that night was, by my own measure, rather messy, yet I still regard it to this day as one of my best, for many reasons which transcended any self-critical feelings I may have had afterward. And the number one reason of all was William M. Berger.
Thank you, Bill. Thank you so much. Thank you for putting up with my insanity, for supporting my music, for helping me find new friends and build an audience for my music, for all those gigs and parties you took me to, for all the live and radio shows, for naming that one (unreleased) Uncle Wiggly instrumental "Living Guitars" in tribute to my music, for turning me on to the music I'd been looking for all my life, for giving me and so many other musicians a voice and making us feel like it was worth it to make music no matter how many or how few were listening, for telling me to always be true to myself no matter what, for shielding me against a few shady characters who tried to start trouble with me on my very first visit to ABC No Rio, for advising me against associating with certain others you saw were more trouble than I could see at the time (and always being right in that regard), for letting me cry on your shoulder now and then, for putting more fun into my life than I even sometimes knew what to do with... and for being a true hero, champion, legend, and dear, dear friend in my life. Even when we drifted apart you were always on my mind. I was so hoping you'd beat the odds, but it was not to be. I wish I'd reached out to you more in my final days and am profusely apologetic now for not doing so. It's a damn shame you won't get to hear the Buttholes' reunion album, or see Tarantino's Charles Manson biopic.
Rest in power, Brother Bill. It's been very, very, very real. I hope you and Terry Folger and Vanilla Bean are already talking about providing heaven with some groovy new lo-fi music. I'll be listening for it when I get there myself.
Now please sit back, all of you, and enjoy this Uncle Wiggly show from 1990. And marvel at his brilliance, and let his light shine. Forever.