Culturespill » 2008 » September

The Best Album You’ve Never Heard: Bill Fox’s “Shelter From the Smoke”

2nd September

mice.jpg
Bill Fox with The Mice in the 1980s (Far Right)

Trying to find Bill Fox these days is a bit too much like trotting the globe in a hot air balloon in search of Amelia Earheart’s plane. And trying to find an actual album of his? Well, it’s kind of like stumbling upon Atlantis, only to realize it’s just a foil reconstruction accompanied by a crayon map to the real deal.

Some swear his 1998 masterpiece, Shelter from the Smoke, is available on iTunes–so you click that stupid iTunes icon in the lower-left screen of your mp3-crippled laptop in a frenzy, only to find, yet again, absolutely no trace of this brilliant phantom. Then you read that something called “Scat Records” actually talked to the man–which, after all this time, sounds a lot like that dude who took publisher McGraw-Hill to the cleaners with his bullshit story about how Howard Hughes had chosen him to write his autobiography. So you dig a little deeper and find a story about how Shelter and his other solo gem, Transit Byzamtium, are actually going to be reissued, and that Shelter’s due out in September (as in, like, now.)

Then you go to the Scat Records website and find a tossed-off note explaining that “Bill Fox’s Shelter from the Smoke is going to be an ’09 release” now, because they “couldn’t get the art together in time for the deadline.” This along with a stale promise that “Bill stopped writing and performing music a few years ago, but has plans to start back up again relatively soon.” Emphasize “relatively,” of course. The saga of Bill Fox’s mystifyingly difficult journey to the wider attention he so richly deserves continues, relegating him now to that dreaded remainder bin of American culture–the one marked “cult status.” Wonderful.

About 9 years ago, when I began this half-life of a music dork, I took some buddies of mine to a record sale being held up in NYC to benefit a favorite college station of mine, and stumbled upon an album called Shelter from the Smoke by a guy named Bill Fox. I had never heard of him, but the dutiful indie elves pitching CDs for their label “Cherry Pop” pushed it hard, and I bit–in the same way I bit and bought a bootleg box set of Dylan’s so-called “Albert Hall” shows with the promise that it wouldn’t have the garbled, “recorded from ten-thousand leagues under the sea” sound of most bootlegs, only to find, 200 dollars later, that it had the “recorded from ten-thousand leagues under the sea” sound of most bootlegs.


Bill Fox with “The Mice” in 1988

Fortunately, however, Fox’s album was no tinny bootleg; it was a masterful onslaught of 18 folk-pop diamonds mined in Fox’s own apartment, often with little more than a guitar to accompany a voice full of honey and heartbreak–a lachrymose and vaguely effeminate wail so eternally young that it brings to mind a nest of just-hatched birds clamoring for a worm. Many great ghosts haunt these songs–Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Eliot Smith, Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, Nick Drake. You can hear Dylan’s “My Back Pages” calling from the chorus of “Junked Lot Serenade” where Fox sings about how “all the stars form their tragedies at ten.” Shades of The Byrds’ “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” color the lilting and bare-bones folk revival of “I’m Not Over Loving You,” and I think Tim Hardin dies somewhere in the distance of “Brittany Goes Right Down,” an instantly hypnotic dirge worthy of its own spot on the Velvet Underground’s Loaded (preferably in the capable hands of Nico.)

For whatever reason, I hadn’t listened much to the album since then, and hardly even gave it a second thought until Dave Eggers’s magazine The Believer came out with a piece by a guy who called himself “lefty” and went on a not-entirely fulfilling pursuit for the ephemeral Bill Fox, who had by then retreated back into telemarketing hell in some soul-choking cubicle wilderness of Cleveland, Ohio, banished to a bitter self-exile from unattained dreams. “I’m dying to lay some tracks down somewhere,” he would say in 1998, shortly before his comprehensive vanishing act from the music scene, “I’d love to record a rock ‘n roll record, but I’m not in a position to put up my own money right now.”

He’d long-since abandoned the local punk outfit he fronted with his bro on the drums, Cleveland’s “Mice,” back in the mid ’80s. “No longer was that garage-pop thing relevant for the kind of songs I was writing,” Fox told the Seattle Weekly ten years later, “I just kinda let it crumble.” He would learn not too long thereafter–to the dismay of the artist and to we who might have heard all the albums he never could afford to cut–that what will crumble will crumble whether or not he cared to “let it.”

In another prophetic concession published by Seattle Weekly in 1998, he would say “”I’m able to go a few months without working with the money I got from SpinArt”–the label the picked up Shelter from the Smoke after Cherry Pop released it to absolute critical and commercial disregard a couple years prior–“But I’m a telemarketer, and I’ll end up in that business again when the money runs out. Just living and writing songs.” All of which came true, except for the whole “writing songs” part: rumor has it that the man no longer even owns a fucking guitar, so complete has his disgust with the industry’s blindness to talent become. How fitting it is, then, that we too are left clinging to the very hope the man himself apparently abandoned so long ago, the thin likelihood that we may someday hear all those tracks he was “dying to lay down somewhere,” someday, somehow.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

One More Track:

Over and Away She Goes

Hear an interview with Bill Fox (1998)

Bill Fox Fan Page on Myspace Here.

Praise For Bill Fox:
Things I’d Rather Be Doing: “It’s a shame that Fox has soured on music, because he’s awfully good at it. On his two solo discs, he offers a total of 36 songs, and nearly all of them are keepers . . . This is folk in spirit more than sound, the songs so well crafted as to feel like public domain wonders rather than 10-year-old pop tunes recorded in the basement on weekends by a 9-to-5er.”

The Narrative Review: “Stylistically, it perhaps hearkens back to early Dylan, only it has a more polished sound despite the fact that Fox recorded it at home. Fox is accompanied by nothing more than his own guitar, but he manages to flesh out the sound through his superb playing. Fox’s voice however is not like Dylan’s nasal twang, but is surprisingly effeminate. There’s something Nico-esque about it, although it’s nowhere as a deep or given the fact that he’s from Cleavland, Germanic. However, given my literary predilections, what gets me most about the song is the craftsmanship of the lyrics.

Rakes Progress: “I’ve been clued in and listening to Bill Fox’s albums Shelter from the Smoke & Transit Byzantium. They’re pretty wonderful, I think, especially the latter. I might not go so far as to call Fox a lost genius, but he seems to have a healthy respect for the Great American Songbook and knows his craft, which makes for great pop music (that unfortunately isn’t popular at all, but could or should be).”

The Driftwood Singers Present: “It’s hard to know why Bill Fox didn’t emerge as one of his generation’s great songwriters, but we hear tell of personal dilemmas that set him back and sidelined him from the music business altogether. Mental and emotional fragility infuse his songs, which are often the sound of idealism dog-paddling to stay above the cynical waters of modern life.”