The internet legend is now just another internet myth. No, Bill Kirchen, “The Titan of the Telecaster,” did not pick up his 1959 Fender in a trade with a stranger on a bus.
“That story is an internet version of what really happened, and I really like the internet version better, but I’m not gonna sit here and lie to you,” laughed Kirchen, though like all such stories, there is some element of truth in it.
“It was actually a co-worker at the motorcycle messenger service and we sat on this bench together, waiting to go deliver blueprints in San Francisco by motorcycle, and he had the Tele and I had the (Gibson) SG and we traded,” he said. “But it’s a much better story that we were sitting on a bus and didn’t know each other.”
True, but one legend that isn’t in debate is that of the 65-year-old Kirchen, who is playing and singing better than ever as he heads into Joe’s Pub in New York City this Friday night for a gig that celebrates a career of over four decades and that’s still going strong.
“I have more energy now than I did when I was going around playing in my 20s,” he said. “It’s a whole different thing. I’m in a trio now and I’m working hard up there. I’m not just standing there with my legs crossed, smoking a cigarette and noodling. I’m not saying I did that in the past, though maybe a little bit more in that direction. (Laughs)”
Currently supporting Seeds and Stems, an album that contains re-recorded versions of several Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen classics, including “Too Much Fun” and “Hot Rod Lincoln,” Kirchen’s reason for the release was a simple one.
“The band (Texicali) has been a rockin’ unit now for me and the drummer (Jack O’Dell) for almost 20 years and about three years with the bass player (Maurice Cridlin), so we really wanted to document what we did together,” he said. “So we decided just to do ‘the people’s choice.’ These are the songs that stayed relevant and if it’s not relevant it stayed requested through the years.”
Of course, “Hot Rod Lincoln” is the cornerstone of any Kirchen set, a virtual history lesson of popular music over the years, with references to everyone from Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings to The Stooges and The Rolling Stones. Yet besides being a great tune that you can find something new in each time you hear it (how many songs actually give a name check to boxing promoter Don King?), it can also serve as the type of song younger listeners can hear and learn from.
“Somebody my age will come up to me and say ‘I know every single one of those songs,’ which may or may not be the case, but they’ll know a good percentage of them,” he said. “But I’d say even with a youngster, there’s gonna be a whole bunch of them that reminds them that they’ve heard it. And I think it’s attractive to them, even if they hear the ones they never had heard in the context of the ones that are already so familiar to them, and it may give them a little bit of a window into what the history of the guitar in pop music is. And certainly young kids love it because it’s a kind of guitar playing that they’re not really used to hearing.”
And like the resurgent Willie Nile, who is also in the 65 club, Kirchen’s music is reaching a generation that is starting to realize that you don’t need explosions, dance routines, and autotune to produce good music.
“There’s always people of any age at any time who are gonna respond to energy, to music that isn’t particularly dressed up and that tries to live on its own energy and its own emotional content,” said Kirchen, who has never really been interested in being one of the “cool kids.”
“We (Commander Cody) had our own little angle on the world and a love of that catchy, traditional music,” he said. “It’s been brought up in the past that music was more of a craft and a journeyman’s thing, and at some point it got labeled as art and started being skewed in an attempt to service and please these art critics, as opposed to entertaining the people. And my focus has always been to entertain the people. I’m an entertainer, and I don’t want to give myself too much credit for this great stance I’ve taken against the grain; it’s just what I want to do.”
Few do it better.
“I consider that I’m very fortunate to get to be an entertainer and to get to play this music,” he said. I love music – it’s my church. And I don’t take it for granted. It’s like I get to say ‘Hey, I love this and I hope you do too.’”
Bill Kirchen plays Joe's Pub on Friday, August 30. For tickets, click here