The first time I met Will Oldham I was nervous, nursing a headache, and scared to death of his reputation. I was about to interview him for Comes with a Smile, the magazine I was working for at the time. As Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, he’d recently released an album of re-recordings of old Palace songs. He was doing interviews after years of not doing them. He was regarded as one of the most difficult people to interview, notoriously reticent and often downright recalcitrant – a sort of Indie Lou Reed; monosyllabic, hostile, and cranky.
I sat in the hotel lobby and waited. Oldham finally appeared wearing a ratty pink bathrobe, an Old Testament beard, and a pissed-off expression. He took one look at me, turned around and said something to his publicist, then immediately went back upstairs to his room. My headache was getting worse.
He came back down half an hour later, looking like he’d just peeled his face from the pillow, and dressed in bizarre billowing Camden market hippy threads. We sat down at a small table, only a few inches separating us. He looked dishevelled and distracted as I muttered the usual preamble platitudes. He looked like he wanted to be anyplace but here.
I took a deep breath, drained my espresso, and asked him what it had been like doing a creative writing MA at Brown under the legendary Robert Coover. It was as if he’d suddenly been plugged in or I’d whispered some intimate secret he thought no one else knew about him. “Uh, that’s interesting,” he muttered.
I tore up all my prepared questions and spent the next 45 minutes asking him about books and movies, watching him becoming increasingly animated as we both sipped strong black coffee. It was intimidating to say the least. His eyes were fierce and relentless and they never left my face. I knew that any facile questions or lazy research on my part would make him clam up instantly. I told him that Master and Everyone, his recent album, took me a while to like. I told him that it took the breakup of a ten-year relationship before I understood the record. He smiled through his beard as I asked him whether I’d projected my own life into the lyrics or if the record really was a concept album about breaking up and suddenly finding yourself free, happy, and unencumbered. “That’s it, exactly,” he replied, beaming.
Then the conversation went back to books. We both loved Surf Noir, a little-known yet surprisingly fertile sub-genre, and we talked about how Kem Nunn‘s The Dogs of Winter was possibly the best novel of the last ten years. He asked me what kind of books I wrote and I said ‘Tourist Noir’ – people going on holiday and getting into bad crazy trouble. He leaned across the table, suddenly serious-eyed and intense, and said, “do you want to hear a story?”
He told me that in the mid-nineties a friend of his was working for a charity in Zaire (now DRC Congo). Will was at a loose end between records and decided to join his friend for a few weeks of backpacking through the wilds of Central Africa. They’d spent some time in Burundi, appalled and horrified by the reeling ethnic bloodstorms of that country in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, and they decided to cross the border into Zaire.
The border post was a ramshackle tin shack, rusty, rotten and dark. Oldham’s friend had a visa and a reason to be in Zaire so they let him across the border but Will didn’t. The soldiers took him into the shack, this dark dank place full of crawling things and black smears patterning the walls. The commander joked about making a necklace from Will’s ears as a present for his wife. He kept asking him if he was a spy. Will said no, I’m a singer, a musician. The commander laughed and told him to prove it, to sing. Will sang ‘Arise Therefore’, one of his recent compositions, a song unlike any you’ve heard before, stripped of melody, metre and rhythm, abstract and amorphous as a Paul Klee painting. They let him go after that. “It was the scariest time of my entire life”, Will confided.
A Dark Redemption
A couple of years later I was plotting my next novel, A Dark Redemption. I knew the book would be about three student friends who go on a trip to Africa – a trip from which only two of them return. The three students get stopped at a roadblock after taking a wrong turn and end up in the clutches of the Lord’s Resistance Army. I was fascinated by Joseph Kony and his army of eerie-eyed abducted children. I wanted to look at how the decisions you make as a young man stalk you for the rest of your life.
Up to this point I had it all plotted but I couldn’t figure out what came next. A beating or torture were too obvious, somehow robbed of their terror by having being used in countless books and movies. And then I remembered Will Oldham’s tale and it was one of those moments when all the disparate elements of a story suddenly and indubitably click.
The soldiers find a notebook that my main character, Jack Carrigan, writes songs in. They accuse him of spying. They interpret the musical notation, the chords and staves and crotchets, as code. Jack tries to explain sheet music to people who’ve never even seen a piano. Needles to say, Jack ends up sitting in that shack, forced to sing to prove he is who he says he is.
That’s how these things begin. A stray comment or anecdote settles at the back of your brain and then one day becomes the plot for your next book. I have Will Oldham to thank for that and for the long garrulous chats about crime novels and surfing and survival stories as well as the singular dream-poetry of his music. The Will Oldham you’ll find in the book is the Will Oldham I met, not the other Will Oldham, the one who grunts and mumbles and answers every question with an aggrieved sigh and a warning.
The last time I saw Will Oldham was by the backstage door of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. I was with an artist friend who’d once asked Will if he’d sit for a portrait. Will peeked out the door into the London night and saw my friend. A look of terror spread across his face and he quickly slammed the door and disappeared back into the darkness.
Follow Stav Sherez on Twitter (@stavsherez). Stav’s novels include The Devil’s Playground, The Black Monastery and A Dark Redemption, the first in a new police procedural. Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, edited by Alan Licht, is available from Faber.