Name: William Brett of Buck Gooter
Occupation: Songwriter, vocalist
Current release: Buck Gooter's Head in a Bird Cage is available via Ramp Local. The album was recorded during the band's most difficult time, when founder Terry Turtle was diagnosed with cancer and hospitalised. Billy Brett remained in touch with him all the time and kept recording what would ultimately become their last album together. Billy remembers: "When he wasn’t wondering what the hell was happening to him he was wondering what the hell was happening with the music and wishing he could get up and rock. We managed to record him singing from his hospital bed when he rose up out of the deep fog of painkillers. He was ready to work. I made the four hour round trip to visit him a few times a week. At some point in October, Terry’s doctors tried to get me to convince him to consent to assisted suicide by painkillers, aka “making him comfortable”. I was his advocate and had to prove to these people that he was cogent and wanted to live. These were extremely traumatic experiences for me and I was coerced by impatient doctors into having these conversations each time. Depending on Terry’s level of lucidity, when I’d ask him “What do you want to do? Do you want to live?” he’d either shake his head “YES!” up and down, eyes wide as possible, or say “I’ll tell you what I wanna do - I wanna get up out of this bed and rock with Buck Gooter!” This latter statement was repeated on the last day of his life." This is what makes listening to Head in a Bird Cage such an equally thrilling and devastating listen: This ferocious blend of broken blues riffs, doomsday vocals, industrial ambiances and hypnotising grooves sounds nothing like a farewell. It sounds like a demand to stay, to continue, to create forever.
If you enjoyed this interview with Billy Brett of Buck Gooter and would like to find out more about the band, head over to the Buck Gooter homepage. Or pay them a visit on twitter and bandcamp for news and updates.
Your experience of watching Terry die must have been horrible. Did you have any prior concrete experience with death? What happened inside of you the moment he told you he was terminally ill?
It was an awful time in most ways when TT was hospitalized, but it was always a relief to see him no matter what, especially when we were able to chat and joke around like we always did. We had the most amazing hang the day he passed away.
I’ve had family members pass away but I was never able to be with them on the down slope as I was with Terry. I got to see the process unfold. He didn’t know he was terminally ill until pretty close to the end. No one knew, really. The doctors would never make that call. Terry didn’t believe he had reached the end. It seems quaint now after seeing COVID rage for so long, but we actually thought he had a chance to live on even after he was on a respirator multiple times and the cancer had destroyed his immune system.
From your account in the press release, Terry seemed stunned that this could be happening to him. That said, do you think we can ever be fully prepared for death?
The only way you can prepare for death is to live life to the fullest and cherish every day like it’s your last. Let your loved ones know you love them and try to do good by them and others. Cause less pain than you’ve suffered in life. All we have is now. You can’t take it with you. I know, it’s easy to say and hard to do but I try. TT really did as much as he possibly could with his time on earth. He overcame a lot of obstacles and worked hard towards his own wonderful vision. What more could you ask for?
In your notes you mentioned that Terry made you finish the album and continue performing his songs. Do you personally find the thought of living on in one's art consoling?
If a little piece of you can be slightly immortalized in song or art, that’s wonderful. I won’t need it when I’m gone and I won’t know what became of it but it’s neat to think my work might be effective after I pass away.
What remains of Terry in his music?
If I don’t do it no one else will. There’s not going to be any Buck Gooter cover bands anytime soon and we won’t make it onto classic rock loop radio or whatever so I’m the keeper of the flame and the singer of the songs. I’m happy to do this work for Terry. It was nice of him to give me the band and bestow upon me the honor of taking care of his legacy.
So much of TT remains in his music - his sensitivity, sophistication, curiosity, humor, and wit are all there for anyone that cares to listen. He was more than his music and art but he left tons of wonderfully idiosyncratic examples of who he was in his work. I go into a lot of anecdotes and analysis of his work on The Terry Turtle Archive and that’s been a wonderful way to reconnect with memories and tell fragments of his story.
With their genesis in mind, isn't it extremely painful to perform these songs?
No! It’s wonderful and cathartic to perform the HEAD IN A BIRD CAGE set. This album was created with Buck Gooter’s tenacity and vision energy, which doesn’t allow for pain. (Big laugh there) We always worked through stuff and made the music happen no matter what. We didn’t let the world get in the way of our songs. TT was present throughout the process both directly and indirectly. It was strange not having him in the room for a lot of it but his spirit was there. I saw him multiple times in the room I wrote the record in after he passed away.
You kept working on new music with Terry until the end. There are plenty of examples of artists working intensely on new work on their deathbed, from Arnold Schoenberg (who was physically broken, but wrote some of his best pieces) up until David Bowie. What was your impression about what changed in Terry's approach to creating in these last months? What was it that he still wanted to say through his music?
Again, TT never really accepted that he had arrived at death’s door, even on the last day. He said,“Yeah, I’ve got cancer… or so they say”. He’d just gotten off a respirator and was too weak to eat or drink.
On the flip side of that, Terry feared he had cancer and thought it was killing him since 2011. Our album “Beyond The Rotting Leaf” was actually recorded between hospital stays. He’d figured out that when you’re impoverished, listed as “schizophrenic” in your medical records, and on Medicare, there was only one way to get doctors to take you seriously: threaten to kill yourself. So they locked him up in the behavioral health unit in the hospital back then and he demanded tests to be run on him and they didn’t find anything but also didn’t give him all of what he needed or take him super seriously. He ended up surviving for many years on a more positive outlook and his own form of nutrition and exercise.
His doctors never took him seriously and wouldn’t run tests on him for years. When he felt like he’d broken his shoulder doing a one-armed push up, he had to beg for the CAT scan that revealed he’d been walking around with a broken neck for at least 8 weeks and that a tumor had eaten away some of his vertebrae. He could’ve had the cancer that killed him the entire time I knew him. Bladder cancer can live inside you for 15 years. That’s the United States healthcare system for you. They failed Terry majorly. He had to threaten suicide again after the first operation on his neck because he still wasn’t taken seriously or given answers about his condition. He’d been left home alone to fend for himself for a week in a neckbrace (his head in a bird cage) with no at-home nursing care other than when we would come over every day and check on him after work. He was hospitalized for the rest of his life after that suicide threat.
I will say, though, that earlier in 2019 when we were hashing out this record, TT had planned to include multiple death related titles: “Nailed To A Cross”, “Dying To Believe”, and a re-working of an old tune of his called “Flying Back to Death” that we didn’t get around to. I think those songs were just the dark side of Terry that got planned for that record and we never got around to planning the lighter side - the animals are cool songs, the clever protest songs, or whatever else from that side of him. I think he always laid out the dark stuff in a way that was very hopeful.
“Nailed To A Cross” is about the journey of life and the different turns you can take. Dualities. It has both the light and dark within it. “Dying To Believe” is about facing your darkest moments and not succumbing to them.
During Terry's illness, was there any music that you found helpful to ease the pain? Or was the opposite true – that it was no longer possible to listen to any other music? What's your take on how music can offer concrete solace in the face of death or very difficult phases in your life?
On the day that we found out Terry had a broken neck and he was whisked away to a hospital an hour north of home, Tool’s album “Fear Inoculum” was released. TT was a fan and had been excited about the record since it was Tool’s first album in thirteen years or whatever. We jammed it on the trip home from the hospital five days later and he loved it. That ended up being the last time we rocked an album together on a drive. I’d spent my entire adult life mostly cruising around with Terry and listening to music. So “Fear Inoculum” ended up on constant rotation in the car after that for months, even after he passed on.
In the hospital, TT often didn’t want to listen to anything but the nature sounds channel on TV. On his last day he asked to hear a song of his called “I Wish She Loved Me”. It ended up being the last song he ever heard. Alethea and I covered it last year. She was there with us in the hospital the whole time.
Music is everything, it’ll definitely transport you from a low place - possibly lower, possibly higher? It’s worth the trip either way, especially in hard times.
With some hindsight now, how do you feel has the experience changed your approach to music? Do you feel as though you have the need to work through these questions in future releases?
Between TT passing away and the pandemic rendering the music lifestyle obsolete or impossible, I’ve taken a break from writing music. I’ve written and recorded dozens of records at this point. I’ve spoken a lot of personal truth in Head In A Bird Cage over some music that I’m happy with, so, considering these things, I’m resting now.
I still practice. I will record more when the time is right. I have ideas about how to incorporate Terry into the band and there will be music but for me these experiences led me to a place of taking a breather and enjoying other aspects of life instead of constantly creating. Terry was a major motivator for the constant output I experienced in the past. Hopefully this time of calm will be the processing period for what I’ve felt and the music can have its own life and personality when it arrives. Hoping for new frontiers.
What's your own view on life and what happens when it ends?
I’m not a religious person and I don’t put much thought into the afterlife but the concept of “changing channels” resonates with me. We’re in one of limitless dimensional layers and when the lights go out in this one we’re folded into another. If I had to hazard a somewhat spiritual/metaphysical guess at this point I would say that’s what happens.
I believe in ghosts - even if they’re not tampering with this dimension from another, your mind is still creating the “ghost” for you and that’s real enough.
Music can express the unspeakable. What can it express about life and death which words alone may not?
Society is low on empathy. When someone says they’re grieving, it’s often hard to feel that with them in the moment. It takes a leap of the heart and probably a deep connection to the person or something extraordinary to get right there and feel it from a conversation, for many people.
But a grievous song? Odds are you’ll feel it immediately upon listening. They say music pre-dates language. I believe it. We’ve been feeling it as a species for a long time. It outlives us too.