photos by andre grossman
I write this piece with a very heavy heart for many reasons. Already this year sucks worse than last year for me, and the ongoing onslaught of rock and roll passages has really hit too close to home this time.
William Ogilvie passed away on January 11th, 2017, aged 53. To many of you reading these words, he was known as Billy Syndrome. To say this man was the consummate rock and roll renegade is an extreme understatement. If the story of his life were written in book form, it would be one of the juiciest reads in rock history, believe me. Over the course of his life, Billy would both create and witness rock history. His first band, a hardcore punk group called the Pricks, featured a man by the name of Rick Rubin on guitar. The same year they formed, 1981, Billy witnessed the infamous Public Image Ltd. "riot show" at the Ritz -- just one of literally thousands of concerts he attended over the years. By the mid '80s he'd caught the home recording bug, forming Porcelain God with his best friend James Sherry, a/k/a Evil Jim Friendly, and by 1987 the two of them were tearing up the lower east side of NYC together.
It was in mid-1988 that Billy first appeared on my radar. At that time, the antifolk scene was forming, comprised of a group of young, like-minded folks forging a new sound fusing '60s folk with modern punk. Banned from famous westside folk clubs like Cafe Wha and Folk City for being too raw, they found the less sophisticated east side far more welcoming and set up shop there. Many of them were, in my honest opinion, not much better than the more polished modern folk acts uptown, though I did eventually come to appreciate the likes of Roger Manning and Paleface and a few others. But Billy Syndrome completely transcended the very definition of antifolk the very second he first walked through its door. No one brought more punky swagger to it than him, and when I first stumbled across him at an antifolk fest in July '88, his performance stood out like a sore thumb accordingly. I took immediate note of him and vowed to investigate him further.
A few months later I dropped by the studios of WFMU radio and my dear pal William Berger was waiting for me excitedly. He had a new song cued up that he just couldn't wait to play for me. It was "Have You Seen The Cows," from a compilation of antifolk acts called "White Trash." And the artist was none other than Billy Syndrome. What a watershed moment it was! Totally unlike anything we'd ever heard before, it sounded like some slice of alien hardcore beamed down from Mars, led by those raving lunatic vocals of Billy's I'd soon grow quite fond of. Even as one who was used to strange music by then, this was heavy stuff to me.
Needless to say, I started attending Syndrome gigs whenever I could after that. In the process I found an even newer scene forming in a seedy little Brooklyn neighborhood called Williamsburg. Its hub was a loft turned performance space in a shady part of the 'hood called the Lizard's Tail, run by a European immigrant husband-and-wife artistic duo named Terry Dineen and Jean Francois. Berger and I caught a solo performance of Billy's there one weekend and quickly found he was even more out there onstage than he was on vinyl. Well, the next thing I knew, my own musical duo, Living Guitars, were booked to open for Billy the next time he played there! I was quite humbled to say the least. That night, Billy watched our entire set with rapt attention, then approached us as we walked offstage and said, "You guys were really great, man. You want some acid?" I politely declined his offer, but my partner Jet accepted, which caused me a bit of worry a couple of hours later when he and I found ourselves at a rooftop party after the show. I still remember keeping a very close eye on Jet the rest of the night, in case he suddenly thought he was Superman!
I moved in with Evil Jim for awhile in late '91 and Billy lived right across Fort Greene Park from us, visiting regularly. It was then that our friendship really took hold, over many evenings of beers, bowls, and listening to and raving about music. Billy absorbed popular culture llke a sponge, holding the Grateful Dead, Public Enemy, and the Ramones in equally high regard, and was always buying the cool new albums the day they came out and giving me verbal reviews of each one. One day I went to visit him and he played me something I'd never heard before, a live version of "Listen to the Band" by the Monkees that ended in an extended noise jam, and I almost died. Billy knew lots of things I didn't and delighted in sharing them. In '93, we went on a tour of the midwest together as bandmates in the Thundering Lizards, and when we heard the phrase "finders keepers" from somewhere or other one day, we both immediately started singing the obscure Beach Boys song of the same name. We were both eccentric to the core, and he was a true kindred spirit.
Shortly after he and Evil Jim finally settled in Williamsburg, Billy launched his own record label, Slutfish. This label's primary purpose was to release records by, you guessed it, Billy Syndrome. I don't know where the hell he found the money to do it (he sometimes claimed it was because he'd put himself on a diet consisting almost entirely of Kraft Dinner and cheap beer), but for awhile in the mid-90s it seemed like he had a new single out every time you turned around. Often on colored vinyl, always pressed in the smallest of quantities, and distributed almost exclusively around Williamsburg by Billy himself, those Slutfish sides are all rarer than your average Misfits singles today. He also released several vinyl albums and full-length CDs under his own name and with projects like the JFK Jr. Royal Airforce and Mummies of the Insane. They reveal a wealth of indescribable insanities of every stripe, rolling punk, psych, folk, r&b, hiphop, and noise into one big fat blunt and topping it off with his unhinged persona and otherworldly world vision.
At his best, in songs like "Fish in the Rain" and "No Power," he was so catchy he had you singing along. Sometimes, admittedly, he could be indulgent and downright unlistenable. But he was always interesting no matter what he was doing. This hit-or-miss quality applied to Billy's live shows as well, but even at his worst, you couldn't take your eyes off him onstage. To me he was the single most unsung outsider music legend there ever was. (Irwin Chusid, please take note.) Billy was also a very talented artist as well as musician, doing all the artwork for his releases himself, and I still have fond memories of laughing till I cried binge-reading the entire series of issues of his ultra-rare mid-80s underground comic book Puss The Cat, perhaps the funniest comic book series I've ever read in my life. (Seriously, someone needs to get them online in PDF form. Now.)
When the internet became part of our lives, Billy and I took to communicating via AOL Instant Messenger, and in the later years of our friendship we had dozens of long, insane online chats, some of which I still have the printed transcripts of. He was always hilarious and down to earth and happy to share his thoughts about current cultural and world events. We still saw each other sporadically at shows until I first moved to Florida in the summer of 2004. The following summer I went back home for a month, visiting as many friends as I could. I saw Billy three times that month, in the audience at a partial reunion of the MC5 in Central Park, and onstage as a member of Brian Wilson Shock Treatment and JFK Jr. Royal Airforce, those last two in the final week of my stay. We enjoyed some quality time together which I would ultimately be very thankful for. It would also be the last time I would see him in full health.
Not long after my return to Florida from that month back in NYC in late August '05, I received word that Billy had suffered a stroke just five days after I'd last seen him. He was in a coma for two weeks, eventually being transferred from Mount Sinai to the Park Terrace Care Center in Queens after regaining consciousness. The general lack of online info about Billy was frustrating as fuck, and ultimately led me back to NYC a couple months later to check up on him. I wound up moving back home for awhile the following year, in part to monitor Billy's progress and take it upon myself to create the online coverage on him no one else seemed willing to bother with. I began a series of news updates on the original version of this blog I'd spun off from my now-defunct Myspace profile, which attracted the attention of the publisher of the short lived antifolk fanzine Urban Folk, for whom I ultimately wrote a piece on Billy's plight, fleshed out with quotes from emails he had sent me about his condition.
Things were never the same for Billy after his stroke. He was paralyzed on one side, wheelchair-bound, and living on a meager disability pittance. The first time I visited him in the hospital I understood about every third word he said. He eventually regained his speech, though, and before long it became clear there was another big thing his stroke hadn't robbed him of -- his incredible personality and outlook on life. Once out of rehab, he had many caring friends willing to make sure he was back in the loop, wheeling him to Hawkwind and Brian Wilson concerts within weeks of his discharge. He still managed the occasional live appearance, and did a good job for awhile of continuing to keep in touch with me, though in the last couple of years of his life I began to hear less and less from him and began to worry more and more about him. Billy was not one to make others suffer through his pain and I truly believe only he himself knew the full extent of the pain he was in, because his persona never failed him. It could reasonably be argued that his misfortune only made him more determined to be who he was. Sadly, that determination could only carry him so far, but the fact that he survived another 11 years and 4 months is testament to his not wanting to give up the fight.
The story I have just told only scratches the surface of Billy Syndrome's life and what it was like to know him. He was truly one of the nicest guys I've ever known in my life, and perhaps even number one in that respect. Billy was humble, modest, wickedly funny, deeply spiritual, philosophical, positive, and just plain cool. Music was his religion from cradle to grave. He lived his life fearlessly and unapologetically, truly believing in his vision every step of the way, even post-stroke. On top of all that, he was the truest of New Yorkers, never leaving his city and even remaining in Williamsburg as it changed all around him. When I wrote about him for Urban Folk, I was quick to note that antifolk music was already firmly in the hands of the next generation, and made damn sure those newbies got the point in the course of one simple sentence which summed it all up in a nutshell: "Billy Syndrome was antifolk long before you were, and has taken its very definition to extremes you never will." Indeed I think that says it all.
Bill Ogilvie was a friend of mine. I consider myself truly fortunate that he was a part of my world. I know he is in a much more cosmic place now, and I take comfort in that and all of the amazing and incredible music he gave us. Thank you, Billy, for everything and more. See you on the other side, brother.
(Please feel free to share your memories of Billy Syndrome in the comments!)