There are plenty of local bands and musicians we all agree should be national stars, major-label projects, MTV pinups. If any of them were half as good as Billy Yeager, we might be right.
And I have just one request for every artist currently residing in pop music's Top 40, the ones who've already "made it" A write a song as compelling, evocative, personal, and beautiful as Yeager's "Little Puggy." Then we'll talk.
That Yeager wrote the song -- just one of eight beauties on his latest tape -- in about five minutes while driving to the recording studio is beside the point. That the mandolin gracing it sometimes hums a bit out of tune is the point. It's intentional. It's alternative. It's genius at work.
Yeager -- who you may have met in these pages in the December 2, 1992 issue -- lives in a casual, touristy beachfront section of Hollywood (Florida) where summer never ends. When he took "Little Puggy" around the neighborhood and played the tape for those apron girls behind their counters, they all cried. You would, too, if you heard the haunting sadness of the recorded-in-one-take song's plot line -- a woman, her daughter, and a man who would be theirs play three-way emotional Ping-Pong against that Peter Buckish (if Peter Buck had a tenth of Yeager's talent) mandolin backdrop.
That gentle, remarkable ballad is, of course, counterpointed -- by the chunky-chunk sections of "Cool Summer Groove," the malicious funk riffs in "Eve's Garden," the crisp electric-guitar solo (played through what Yeager admits is a "five-dollar amp") in "Crosswords," a song that is so relentlessly infectious no cure can be found. In an approach typical for Yeager, he mixes musical ingredients like a mad scientist given free reign in the labs of a university. In the studio he tells a classically trained cellist to "slap" her instrument, an order she doesn't quite understand because it isn't "proper." He brings in a full chorus for background fills. He does what he wants, and what you least expect. And it works.
Yeager recently returned from Los Angeles, where he shopped the tape, got a little surfing in, was hit on by Janet Jackson, and spent lots of time hanging out with his friend Perry Farrell and the rest of Porno for Pyros.
Working with Jerry Georgettis, a biz insider who -- like Bruce Hornsby and Lollapalooza honcho Ted Gardner and others privileged to have heard material that hasn't been released to or performed for the public became an instant supporter and advisor, Yeager took his tape and package to the major record labels. But he refused to leave it with them. Listen to it right now, he told them, or forget it --your loss. The musician extraordinaire admits that sometimes he's "an arrogant asshole," but really he's simply an artist who refuses to compromise or sell out.
At one point on the trip Yeager had just finished surfing when he wanted to visit the studio and see his Porno for Pyros pals. "I was a mess," says Yeager, normally an impeccable rock-style dresser. "My hair was matted down and I just threw on some shorts, combat boots, and a flannel shirt. I felt uncomfortable going to a place where Janet Jackson and David Bowie are. But when I walk in there, everyone notices me, starts saying how, after a few days in L.A., I was finally dressing the way you're supposed to, that I was finally hip."
Some labels gave Yeager grief about his tendency to dress in spectacular French-cut suits, sparkling get-ups, elaborate and formal togs. "Too clean is what they said. But what they don't understand," Yeager says, "is that that is the alternative. I'm as alternative as it gets because I don't wear flannel or go out in a T-shirt and shorts."
Yeager can cook gourmet food as well as he can cook up killer tunes. The metaphor is not lost on him. "Your best pop music," he says, "is still Velveeta and white bread. Put on Dvorak's 'Largo' -- once you've tasted lobster, you see there's no comparison. But some people still go down the peanut butter and jelly aisle without ever looking down the aisle that has spices and cooking wine and truffles."
While he was on the Left Coast, Yeager also considered joining the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who are looking for a new guitarist. The gig pays very well, Yeager notes, and it would give him a financial foundation as well as major-label credibility for his own career. Back home, Yeager says he's become frustrated with the meandering nature of the Peppers' decision-making process and has pretty much lost interest in the job.
He also still refuses to take part in South Florida's music scene. "I could be a big fish in a small pond," he says. "But I don't think small. I intend to be a big fish in a big pond. It's like surfing. I sit way out and wait for the big waves. Everyone else is catching the little waves, getting a small high, and I'm still out there waiting. When the big one comes, I'll pass them all by. You'll hear me eventually, but it'll be at Sunrise or the Arena."
How does one get to the Arena? "I don't practice guitar and I don't practice making love," Yeager says, grinning slyly. "They're the same. I'm great at both of them. I stopped practicing when I was fourteen. I was great then, I still am, and I get better with age whether I practice or not. Women always say I was the best. Same with guitar. I don't play it, I make passionate love to it."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Once the world recognizes Yeager's genius, he will seek to solve what he sees as its biggest problem -- meaning the world's. "I get mad at people who don't believe in charity because there are so many problems. I say just choose one, and work on that one. My cause is hunger. I sponsor one child, but when I make it big, I promise half of any money I ever make will go to ending hunger on this planet."
He's savvy enough to know that music alone can't accomplish such goals. "Music is beautiful," he says. "But it sucks, too. It's good for nothing except emotion, to feel happy or sad. But music meant for something, well, that's different. David wrote the Psalms as a message to the people. It's irrelevant what I say, or what anyone else says. Make a lot of money singing 'goo-goo-ca-choo' and feed the starving children. That'll do a lot more than sitting around going 'imagine all the people.' I'll kiss the feet of the man who serves soup at a shelter before I'll ever kiss some rock star's ass. It's bullshit, total bullshit."
It might be stretching the point made by the sweet psalmist of Israel, but David hit on something when he wrote, "Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us." Free yourself of earthly and ungodly constraints and you, like Billy Yeager, might see a future different than the one you accept as predestined.
Then again, there's something to be said for timing and luck.
"I don't know, but there's just something about me and black women," Yeager says as he sits in the kitchen of his beachside apartment stroking the ears of his friendly pet rabbit. "I was hanging out in the studio in L.A. This woman walks up and asks me what time it is. I tell her 7:30. She walks away, and everybody comes running over to me: 'Man, do you know who that was? Janet Jackson!' I tell 'em so what, you know, she just wanted to know the time. 'No, no,' they're telling me. 'There's a big clock right behind you! She didn't care about what time it was.' Oh, man. I waited and waited for her to come back out. Eventually I got distracted and she must have slipped by. Someone told me they saw her leave. I ran out of the studio, and there goes her limo. I was chasing it down the street.