Billy Childish: Artist, Hero, God

Meet Billy Childish. Artist, author, poet, photographer, film maker, singer, guitarist and much, much more. He's a living, breathing English cult hero who has influenced the likes of Tracey Emin, Kurt Cobain and Kylie Minogue. No wonder he turned down Celebrity Big Brother...
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Meet Billy Childish. Artist, author, poet, photographer, film maker, singer, guitarist and much, much more. He's a living, breathing English cult hero who has influenced the likes of Tracey Emin, Kurt Cobain and Kylie Minogue. No wonder he turned down Celebrity Big Brother...

Billy Childish is a true cult hero. Over the past 30 years, he has produced over 40 collections of poetry, recorded more than 110 full-length LP’s, created over 2,000 paintings and written two novels. Not bad for someone who left school at 16 as an undiagnosed dyslexic. After being refused entry to the local art school, he worked as an apprentice stonemason in Chatham Dockyard, before purposely smashing his own hand with a 3lb club hammer, declaring that he’d never work again.

True to his word, Childish lived on the dole for over 15 years, and has dedicated his entire life to the creative pursuit. After dating Tracey Emin in the 80s, he has now turned his back on mainstream culture, and lives a no-frills life in the leafy environs of Chatham, the birthplace of chav culture. His house, where we meet, is humble but beautiful – a time warp to a different era. His simple, heartfelt paintings adorn the walls, an ancient analogue telephone hangs on the wall. Some water is boiled on the stove to make green tea. Sporting braces, a neckerchief and donning a handlebar moustache, it is not just the decor that looks out of place in 2008. But then again this is no ordinary man, this is a man who attracts a cult following like no other. Meet Billy Childish. Artist, hero, God.

Jack White has said that he is a huge fan of yours, are you familiar with The White Stripes?

Here are my comments on Jack White. Sterling chap, congratulations, I hope you have a nice life. That’s for Jack. Kylie Minogue, sterling lady, very polite, hope she has a lovely life. Tracy Emin, sterling artist, lovely girl, hope she has a nice life.

Kurt Cobain?

Bit too late on, maybe he’s having a new one somewhere, I hope he has a nice one.

That’s all the celebrity stuff out of the way.

And David Bowie, a piece of advice, you are not a martian, grow up. And I’m sorry if that’s upsetting, please like me and buy one of my paintings.

What advice do you have for the people that think you’re a freak?

I’m meant to be some sort of weird freak, because I’m sincere and intelligent and interested in the things I do and that is freakish, and that makes me somehow wildly eccentric. I’ve got some advice for you, don’t wear a baseball cap, and be interested in what you do, and people will think you’re a complete freak. You might not dress exactly the same as the next person on the street and you might have your own taste in things.

Actually, one more celebrity question. You were invited on to Celebrity Big Brother right?

Yeah. I don’t think it’s my job to be on a programme like that and I don’t think it would enhance my life or the lives of people I know. If there’s no benefit to anyone then there’s no point doing it. And that is a good way of judging our contemporary culture. The lack of benefit of it means there’s no point having it. I understand people want to do things in the evenings but maybe they should learn to crochet.

You’re nearly 50, like Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. Are you becoming a grumpy old bastard?

The most uncool thing you can have is people pretending they’re young. Making out you’re a teenager when you’re not is really dumb, because it’s already tough enough for teenagers without adults pretending to be there as well. And that’s why we have chaos, because the only thing that’s of value is being young and sexy. And the weirdest thing is that the more young and sexy people are the less they are young and sexy, so you get very confused.

"David Bowie, a piece of advice, you are not a martian, grow up. And I’m sorry if that’s upsetting, please like me and buy one of my paintings."

Do you listen to any contemporary music?

No I haven’t really listened to any contemporary music since 1977. I think, you know, The Ramones worked out how to do a pop song, a three chord brilliant pop song, you don’t need to take it to another stage, it doesn’t need repeating

Who are your favourite of the punk bands?

The Clash’s first album I liked a lot. I like Richard Hell and The Voidoids. My favourite group at the time was X-Ray Specs. But I never bought anything after the second single. It’s like The Clash, I never bought anything after the second single.

Was that a conscious decision to stop buying the music?

No I just realised it wasn’t any good. My friend gave me ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’ by The Clash and I thought ‘crikey, this has gone bad fast’. The Sex Pistols album I never bought because it never came out when they said it would and it didn’t have all of the songs on it. I really liked The Jam a lot. And the first time I saw them in '77 they were playing on the floor, next time I saw them was on a 4ft t stage and the next time we saw them they were 20ft away. And I’m really naïve, you know, I didn’t pay my entrance fee to be this far away from the stage. This is exactly the opposite of what I thought they were going to do, so it’s a conscious disappointment, my stopping buying records was a genuine reaction to not liking what’s happening.

Do people recognise you in the street?

Some people but not many luckily, because no one’s interested. Some people recognise me because we used to play gigs round here and they’d seen me in the newspaper, but most people think I’m a freak and shout abuse. It’s less violent than when I was a kid, in the punk days it was dangerous but nowadays it’s just intently yobby here in Chatham.

Isn’t Chatham the birthplace of the ‘Chav’?

Well I don’t really understand that because we always use the term chav, I sometimes use it. We used to call each other ‘chavvy’ when we were kids, it just meant mate.

Now everyone says it.

I’ve noticed that they’re using that, it’s unpleasant. We used to say “alright chavaroony”? Chav is slightly more working class. My brother who went to grammar school never would have used “chav”. It’s more dockyard. It wouldn’t be derogatory.

Where do you do your shopping?

People are shocked to see me in Tescos, but where else am I going to go?

What do you think of people purchasing art and the extortionate amount of money that art sells for these days?

Don’t know if it does.

If you look at Damien Hirst… What do you think of his art?

He doesn’t do art, he’s a banker. And I think Damien will probably be intelligent enough to concur on that. As far as the value of art goes I don’t think there’s a Van Gogh painting worth more than £250,000 pounds and he’s my favourite artist.

"I don’t really understand that because we always use the term chav, I sometimes use it. We used to call each other ‘chavvy’ when we were kids, it just meant mate."

I read somewhere that you practice a type of meditation where you do 10 hours a day?

There’s a retreat where you do ten hours a day for ten days.

What was that like?

Hell.

What would be a typical day for you?

I don’t play music if I can help it. Typical day would be getting up, having a wash, cleaning my teeth, drinking some water, having a cup of tea, sit and meditate for 15-20 minutes, do some yoga, have some breakfast, in between I might do some emails or write a song or work on a novel. Speak to a few people on the telephone, go down town, maybe pick up my son from school, do some drawing with him, maybe do some yoga with him, do some stretches. Cook some tea, buy a bit of shopping. Those sort of things. That’s about it.

15-20 years ago could you ever have envisaged the way you’re living now?

In the olden days I’d light a fire, or cook some porridge. There would be a lot of drinking involved. And maybe a little bit more working out where the women were. The clubs with women. Negotiating your harem, that takes a lot of time. All you need to do is get rid of your harem, and get rid of any sort of drug, and everything else falls in place.

So do you have any regrets about the way that you lived your life in the past?

Regrets serve no purpose, so they’re not really…I presume on a neurotic, subconscious level I probably do regret but I’m not aware of that so I don’t really get involved in that. I try to get rid of the drama of regret. Actually that is the other thing about living, to get rid of drama. You see we’ve talked about harems and drinking. People like drama in their lives. It’s the simulated experience of being alive. It makes them feel that their life might be interesting. People love a bit of chaos because it’s sort of a stimulant. So that’s why they like to drink as well, but it’s only a stimulant. It’s not real. You see, all of those things would be great if we were gods, then we could be in a state of orgasm the whole time. But we cant. Not be chemical means anyway, it just doesn’t work. You can’t keep a stiff dick for that long.  So you have to find other ways of engaging with the world, rather than disengaging.

You strike me as a very happy sort of guy.

Usually, but that doesn’t fit in with what people perceive, or how the interviewers like it to be perceived.

"All you need to do is get rid of your harem, and get rid of any sort of drug, and everything else falls in place."

You’re right, I did expect someone very different.

I think something I’ve noticed is that often I am asked about something, and because I answer, it is perceived that this is a burning issue for me. And it’s not. People enjoy interviewing me and having me in the press, because I’m opinionated, but it doesn’t mean that those opinions are the most important things to me. Like in America when we were signed to Subpop, and some of the questions I was being asked, I was like why not ask a gas station attendant, he’s got an opinion about it as well.

A lot of people in your life have hurt you. Do you forgive them?

I’ve done my best to. I don’t know deeply that you can on a subconscious level, but I forgive people in prayer everyday, so my intention is towards that, and my intention is towards forgiving myself, forgiving other people, so I have the right for forgiveness myself. Which is a smart way of trying to negotiate the world, and I recommend it to anybody. People don’t understand why we have a world where people war against each other, or why we have wars within the world, but if they look at how they relate to their family and their friends, they’ll understand everything.

Billy Childish is a true cult hero. Over the past 30 years, he has produced over 40 collections of poetry, recorded more than 110 full-length LP’s, created over 2000 paintings and written two novels. Not bad for someone who left school at 16 as an undiagnosed dyslexic. After being refused entry to the local art school, he worked briefly as an apprentice stonemason in Chatham Dockyard, before purposefully smashing in his own hand with a 3lb club hammer, declaring that he’d never work again.

404

True to his word, Childish lived on the dole for over 15 years, and has dedicated his entire life to the creative pursuit. After dating Tracey Emin in the 80s, he has now turned his back on mainstream culture, and lives a no-frills life in the leafy environs of Chatham, the birthplace of chav culture. His house, where we meet, is humble but beautiful – a time warp to a different era. His simple, heartfelt paintings adorn the walls, an ancient analogue telephone hangs on the wall. Some water is boiled on the stove to make green tea. Sporting braces, a neckerchief and donning a handlebar moustache, it is not just the decor that looks out of place in 2008. But then again this is no ordinary man, this is a man who attracts a cult following like no other. Meet Billy Childish. Artist, hero, God.

Jack White has said that he is a huge fan of yours, are you familiar with The White Stripes?

Here are my comments on Jack White. Sterling chap, congratulations, I hope you have a nice life. That’s for Jack. Kylie Minogue, sterling lady, very polite, hope she has a lovely life. Tracy Emin, sterling artist, lovely girl, hope she has a nice life.

Kurt Cobain?

Bit too late on, maybe he’s having a new one somewhere, and I hope he has a nice one…

That’s all the celebrity stuff out of the way.

And David Bowie, a piece of advice, you are not a martian, grow up. And I’m sorry if that’s upsetting, please like me and buy one of my paintings.

What advice do you have for the people that think you’re a freak?

I’m meant to be some sort of weird freak, because I’m sincere and intelligent and interested in the things I do and that is freakish, and that makes me somehow wildly eccentric. I’ve got some advice for you, don’t wear a baseball cap, and be interested in what you do, and people will think you’re a complete freak. You might not dress exactly the same as the next person on the street and you might have your own taste in things.

Actually, one more celebrity question. You were invited on to Celebrity Big Brother right?

Yeah. I don’t think it’s my job to be on a program like that and I don’t think it would enhance my life or the lives of people I know. If there’s no benefit to anyone then there’s no point doing it. And that is a good way of judging our contemporary culture. The lack of benefit of it means there’s no point having it. I understand people want to do things in the evenings but maybe they should learn to crochet.

You’re nearly 50, like Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. Are you becoming a grumpy old bastard?

The most uncool thing you can have is people pretending they’re young. Making out you’re a teenager when you’re not is really dumb, because it’s already tough enough for teenagers without adults pretending to be there as well. And that’s why we have chaos, because the only thing that’s of value is being young and sexy. And the weirdest thing is that the more young and sexy people are the less they are young and sexy, so you get very confused.

Do you listen to any contemporary music?

No I haven’t really listened to any contemporary music since 1977. I think, you know, The Ramones worked out how to do a pop song, a three chord brilliant pop song, you don’t need to take it to another stage, it doesn’t need repeating

Who are your favourite of the punk bands?

The Clash’s first album I liked a lot. I like Richard Hell and The Voidoids. My favourite group at the time was X-Ray Specs. But I never bought anything after the second single. It’s like The Clash, I never bought anything after the second single.

Was that a conscious decision to stop buying the music?

No I just realised it wasn’t any good. My friend gave me ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’ by The Clash and I thought ‘crikey, this has gone bad fast’. The Sex Pistols album I never bought because it never came out when they said it would and it didn’t have all of the songs on it.  I really liked The Jam a lot. And the first time I saw them in 77 they were playing on the floor, next time I saw them was on a 4ft stage and the next time we saw them they were 20 ft away. And I’m really naïve, you know, I didn’t pay my entrance fee to be this far away from the stage. This is exactly the opposite of what I thought they were going to do, so it’s a conscious disappointment, my stopping buying records was a genuine reaction to not liking what’s happening.

Do people recognise you in the street?

Some people but not many luckily, because no one’s interested. Some people recognise me because we used to play gigs round here and they’d seen me in the newspaper, but most people think I’m a freak and shout abuse. It’s less violent than when I was a kid, in the punk days it was dangerous but nowadays it’s just intently yobby here in Chatham.

Isn’t Chatham the birthplace of the ‘Chav’?

Well I don’t really understand that because we always use the term chav, I sometimes use it. We used to call each other ‘chavvy’ when we were kids, it just meant mate.

Now everyone says it.

I’ve noticed that they’re using that, it’s unpleasant. We used to say “alright chavaroony”? Chav is slightly more working class. My brother who went to grammar school never would have used “chav”. It’s more dockyard. It wouldn’t be derogatory.

Where do you do your shopping?

People are shocked to see me in Tescos, but where else am I going to go?

What do you think of people purchasing art and the extortionate amount of money that art sells for these days?

Don’t know if it does.

If you look at Damien Hirst… What do you think of his art?

He doesn’t do art, he’s a banker. And I think Damien will probably be intelligent enough to concur on that. As far as the value of art goes I don’t think there’s a Van Gogh painting worth more than £250,000 pounds and he’s my favourite artist.

I read somewhere that you practice a type of meditation where you do ten hours a day?

There’s a retreat where you do ten hours a day for ten days

What was that like?

Hell.

What would be a typical day for you?

I don’t play music if I can help it. Typical day would be getting up, having a wash, cleaning my teeth, drinking some water, having a cup of tea, sit and meditate for 15-20 minutes, do some yoga, have some breakfast, in between I might do some emails or write a song or work on a novel. Speak to a few people on the telephone, go down town, maybe pick up my son from school, do some drawing with him, maybe do some yoga with him, do some stretches. Cook some tea, buy a bit of shopping. Those sort of things. That’s about it.

15-20 years ago could you ever have envisaged the way you’re living now?

In the olden days I’d light a fire, or cook some porridge. There would be a lot of drinking involved. And maybe a little bit more working out where the women were. The clubs with women. Negotiating your harem, that takes a lot of time. All you need to do is get rid of your harem, and get rid of any sort of drug, and everything else falls in place.

So do you have any regrets about the way that you lived your life in the past?

Regrets serve no purpose, so they’re not really… I presume on a neurotic, subconscious level I probably do regret but I’m not aware of that so I don’t really get involved in that. I try to get rid of the drama of regret. Actually that is the other thing about living, to get rid of drama. You see we’ve talked about harems and drinking. People like drama in their lives. It’s the simulated experience of being alive. It makes them feel that their life might be interesting. People love a bit of chaos because it’s sort of a stimulant. So that’s why they like to drink as well, but it’s only a stimulant. It’s not real. You see, all of those things would be great if we were gods, then we could be in a state of orgasm the whole time. But we cant. Not be chemical means anyway, it just doesn’t work. You can’t keep a stiff dick for that long.  So you have to find other ways of engaging with the world, rather than disengaging.

You strike me as a very happy sort of guy.

Usually, but that doesn’t fit in with what people perceive, or how the interviewers like it to be perceived.

You’re right, I did expect someone very different.

I think something I’ve noticed is that often I am asked about something, and because I answer, it is perceived that this is a burning issue for me. And it’s not. People enjoy interviewing me and having me in the press, because I’m opinionated, but it doesn’t mean that those opinions are the most important things to me. Like in America when we were signed to Subpop, and some of the questions I was being asked, I was like why not ask a gas station attendant, he’s got an opinion about it as well.

A lot of people in your life have hurt you. Do you forgive them?

I’ve don’t my best to. I don’t know deeply that you can on a subconscious level, but I forgive people in prayer everyday, so my intention is towards that, and my intention is towards forgiving myself, forgiving other people, so I have the right for forgiveness myself. Which is a smart way of trying to negotiate the world, and I recommend it to anybody. People don’t understand why we have a world where people war against each other, or why we have wars within the world, but if they look at how they relate to their family and their friends, they’ll understand everything.