November 6, 2017

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November 6, 2017

To me, writing very personal songs in the blues, at first anyway, seemed like a strange thing to do.


Usually, the lyrical subject matter comes across as a more generic formula — subjects like, "What happened to me this morning/today/this year", "Aren't we all having fun drinking and eating Southern-style food?", "That's it, I've had enough of yo' shit; I'm outta here" are the poetical go-to places for content.

But a member of my own family—a blues-loving road nomad of sorts himself—deserved a song of his own: Bill Carroll (Sr). And I thought that more people should know about him, via "Wild Bill".


"Uncle Billy" was taken from our world a lot earlier than his friends and family would have liked, thanks to the Big C, but there is plenty to be said about the way he lived his life; much of it makes people smile at the very mention of him.


I knew him as a great story teller. Many of us did.


Upon every visit to my folks' house as a child, you'd know that once dinner was over, and couple of drinks were had, and the peanut dust was getting spread all over the playing cards, Uncle Billy would take the floor with captivating stories about his life — leaving the 'Troubles' in Belfast to find 'something more interesting to do' in France...the French Foreign Legion (of course, right?), shifting upright pianos through a first floor window from the roof of a truck via a single plank, training German Shepherd dogs in the gentle art of ripping your arm off, drinking moonshine in a remote Legion outpost and watching the clock 'slide up and down the wall', and getting together with two mates from the security gatehouses of the Port Kembla steelworks and riding pushbikes across Death Valley for the Heart Foundation. Yes, pushbikes.

After leaving home in the late 90s, I saw Uncle Billy pretty much annually for Christmas, or more so if he and his mates on motorbikes passed through where I was living at the time. It wasn't until more recently I realised how much of an impact he had on others, too. Of course, I knew about his contrasting life as a bikie retiree (his favourite saying was, "I used to work", when someone was bitching about their job) who liked a bourbon and nothing but soft grass to lie on at motorbike rallies, and his annual charity adventure of putting on a Santa suit in thirty-degree heat to deliver gifts to underprivileged kids of the Illawarra.

In the biker community, it turns out that "Uncle Billy" was known as "Poppy Bill", such is the affection and regard his fellow bikers held for him, one of whom, it turns out, was my first guitar teacher. The "B.R.A.T. Illawarra" motorcycle club, as well as those from the Ulysses (motto: 'grow old disgracefully') club, knew Bill very well. And when I met a few of them, I got the idea that the stories he told around me as a child were, whilst true, a PG-rated version of some of the experiences he really had. By all accounts, things that happened with the Legion would often jolt him awake at night, due to what he saw and what he had to do under orders. And at rallies, more than a gentleman's tipple of alcohol was consumed.


But under an often hard exterior, you didn't have to dig deep to find a soft and caring interior. And I think his best trait was his mix of positivity, energy and humour. Oh, and honesty — mince words, "Big Billy" did not. Anecdotal evidence from a day I accompanied him to a dog club session in Wollongong is testament to his frankness:


He points to a woman who is overusing a choke chain on a poor non-responsive Alsatian. 


"See that lady over there?"


"I used to think she was a bit of an idiot. But now I know she is."


It also became apparent later on that his taste in music was similar to mine. He'd carry a harmonica to rallies (never got to jam with him!) and play blues licks over anything anyone was singing. He once told me he loved George Thorogood, and when I showed him Stevie Ray Vaughan, he nearly lost his mind with excitement. 


So, with these stories and his love of the road and having a good time, what better bloke to write a song about?


It was also well-known that he loved the 1970 song "Joy to the World", by Californian band Three Dog Night. So in full tribute, I took stylistic inspiration from the song also known as "Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog"—a straight 8ths groovy feel, gospel-y chords and upper-mid-tempo attitude—and wrote "Wild Bill".


Note: the 'soldier stealing steak' was a fellow who would steal potatoes from Billy's plate every night in the mess hall (something you never do to an Irishman). After a few successful attempts at this passive-aggressive assertion, he one night found himself with a fork through the back of this hand — the last time he reached over Poppy Bill's plate.



1. He left home for the Legion

Marched the Champs Elysees

Took no jive at the table

From soldiers stealing steak

Tough as nails on the outside

But a heart of gold you just can’t mistake


CH. Wild Bill

You’re never over the hill

Wild Bill

You got your own free will

Got some gasoline and whisky

And you never ever wanna sit still


2. Through the California desert

Pushing 50 degrees

Pushed the pedals for no medals

For nothin’ but charity

Headed for Nevada

But dreamin’ of the land of flame trees


­­CH2. Wild Bill

You’re never over the hill

Wild Bill

Don’t need prescription pills

Got some gasoline and whisky

And you never ever wanna sit still


3. Schutzhunds in the back yard

Their bite is worse than their bark

And he’s cruisin’ down the Hume

From dawn until dark

Two wheels on the tarmac

Lookin’ for a place to skylark



Ride on

Poppy Bill, ride on

Ride on

Poppy Bill, ride on




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