He's the self-proclaimed, mail-ordained (or disdained, as he puts it) minister of the First House of Polyester Worship. His powers are so great his followers, when commanded, gleefully pound the drum part to "Wipe-Out" on the walls where he performs, while he knocks honky-tonky hell out of his electric keyboards. He's six-foot-plus of bone and gristle and long, stringy red hair and wit that cuts deeper than a Ginzu knife. He's the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz and he's comin' to save your soul and damn your hide and make you laugh until the Devil is rocked from his perch on your spleen. Can I get an amen?
Years before sending away for his postmarked ordination, the Rev was an ordinary teenage kid growing up in Maryland, listening to the blues and R&B being pumped though 50,000 watts from WLAC in Nashville. But despite twelve lessons on the Farfisa organ, Billy C. didn't seriously play piano until he was in his twenties. What made him go back? "Boredom and alcohol," he says. "I was working as a teacher/counselor-slash-year 'round maintenance person at a summer camp for the mentally retarded in Winchester, Virginia. They had this old beat-up piano down in the lodge, and when I had nothing better to do on a cold night in the winter, I'd go down to the lodge and bang on the piano. There was nobody there at the time. And there was this little bar down at the end of the road. I got drunk one night and asked the guys in the band if they wanted a piano player. And they were like, 'Oh, hell yeah.' I didn't really play for a living till A let's see, I haven't had another day job since" A he pauses for a long yawn A "August of '79."
Billy C. made up for lost time, diving head first into the blues. At one point he even spent a month living with barrelhouse legend Sunnyland Slim. "He was in Virginia," says the Rev reverentially, "and I was working at a bar. He came through there, and the band was gonna put him on a bus to his next gig, and I said, 'Fuck that, I'll give him a ride.' I had a hearse at the time, and he thought that was pretty funny. 'Well,'" Billy says mimicking the old blues player, "'I'll be ridin' in one of these soon enough. Might as well see what it looks like from the front seat.'" The two became close friends, and Wirtz ended up crashing at Slim's digs in Chicago, literally studying the master's every move.
The concept of the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz was inspired, as were so many great ideas, by an evening with James Brown's Live at the Apollo, Volume 1. But the concept "has pretty much been there from the get go," he says. "I started doing the solo thing in '82 and I made an album called Salvation Through Polyester which was all of about 800 copies. I had a pretty serious alcohol problem for a while and had to deal with that A and then in '86 I recorded Deep Fried and Sanctified, and it wasn't until '88 we were able to get it out. Things have always taken awhile in my career."
Sure, ye of little faith may be muttering, make fun of televangelists, easy target. But, the good Rev claims, his shtick boasts deeper origins. "It's a throwback to a time even before TV preachers. It's more like the radio preachers and the itinerant snake-oil salesmen. I sell Lucky Mojo Oil and do quite well with it," he says of a sideline that would make any Mary Kay rep blanch. "Love Potion No. 27 A triple strength! Yeah, buddy! It just turns you into a virtual Billy Ray Cyrus!" How well does the stuff sell? "It helps buy the crab claw dinner every now and then."
The traveling salvation show has evolved beyond satire. "Televangelists are always good to poke fun at, and I did that for awhile," says Wirtz. "But now it's kind of its own meta-reality above that. It's kinda like a joke, but it isn't. People really take it seriously A they'll drive 200 miles for a gig or a show or a crusade, whatever you want to call it, friends! And it is kinda different. That's probably why certain kinds of fame and fortune have eee-luded me, even though I'm doing quite well, gig-wise. It's like, How do you categorize it? And in today's world of one-from-column-A and one-from-column-B entertainment A 'Are yew a comedian or a myew-sis-shun?' Well, I'm neither, I'm a social commentator and a boogie-woogie player."
And a damn good one at that, good enough to be invited to blues festivals throughout the nation. "I go on and say the f-word by mistake over the microphone and everybody's rollin' in the aisles. But one bluenose comes up and goes, 'I really don't think that's appropriate,' and then you don't get that gig again. That's happened a bunch of times." And with songs like "Inbred," "Honky-Tonk Hermaphrodite," "Mennonite Surf Party," and "Can't Put My Finger on It," it's not difficult to imagine many blue noses getting out of joint, particularly in the South, which is often the butt of Billy's barbs. "It's not an outsider talkin' 'bout 'look at those people.' There's a good part of me in all that, you know. In some of the most deeply southern states, like Memphis, it's turnin' 'em away every time I play there."
And if the Rev looks more like a pro wrestler than a clergyman, it's because he has a foot in that topsy-turvy world, too. "I was a manager with Florida Pro Wrestling out of Tampa. I was one of the on-air personalities and would come on and say, 'You little ignorant rednecks with your zit-faced hormonally overactive teeny-bopper girlfriends sittin' there in your double-wide munchin' on your Zagnut bars, lookin' to me goin' "I don't lahk heem:" That's too bad! 'Cause I'm here to stay and I'm gonna make champions, so you better get used to it! That's the truth, hallelujah!'" Now the man who once recorded a song called "Sleeper Hold on Satan" might be stepping back to the ring. He's currently editing a wrestling video in which he plays a role. In a similar cultural vein, the Rev has recorded a pilot for NPR radio and is awaiting word from the broadcast moguls.
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Although he describes the Carolinas and the Virginias as his "bread and butter," Billy C. is currently playing gigs from Seattle to Miami, the latter being one of his favorite tour stops, where he can load up on cigars and cafe cubano. One of his goals is to sneak a peek into the El Credito factory, where they manufacture his favorite smokes, La Gloria Cubanas. "If they let me in to look around, I'll be in great spirits. I'll smoke a cigar, drink a couple of those coladas, or whatever those little rocket-fuel Cuban coffees are called...I like Florida this time of year."
One new tune is sure to endear the Rev to South Florida's harried songsters A "The Jimmy Buffett Song." "That's just about a guy and people ask him to play 'Margaritaville' just one too many times, and he kind of snaps. I always dedicate it to all the local musicians, especially the solo players. 'Cause you get those people from Michigan, heavily sunburned, 'This is my first time in Miami, and we're from Michigan! And we love Jimmy Buffett! And we've seen Jimmy Buffett A how many times have we seen Jimmy Buffett? Fifteen times! Pleeeease play Margaritaville!'" Yes, there is a hell, and it's swathed in polyester, and the Rev. has seen it close up, bringing his visions back to save us all from the mundane and stupid and hpocritical. Can he get an amen?
The Rev. Billy C. Wirtz performs at 9:00 p.m. tomorrow (Thursday) at Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 531-7557. Admission costs $5.