For years he'd lived on the government handout that so many jobless Britishers collect, conveniently neglecting to report his art-related income. " 'Working on the black,' is what you call it in England," Childish explains by phone, preparing for a rare United States minitour which will bring his group Thee Headcoats to Bimbo's on Aug. 8. "Most people I know have something going on, a racket. I'd call mine the 'poetry racket.' "
"I only worked for a short spell, when I was 17," says Childish. "I worked in the dockyard, and I decided I didn't want to do it. I've always been a bit single-minded about that."
Though he may not care to earn an "honest" living, Childish's work ethic is nonetheless impressive. Under his own name and with Thee Headcoats, the Pop Rivits, Thee Mighty Caesars, and the Milkshakes, he has recorded upward of 80 albums, every one of them in a stripped-down, cockney-accented anti-style that casts the timeless rock 'n' roll rave-up as a traditional folk form. Most visibly, in the early 1990s he released a handful of records with Sub Pop, where the members of Mudhoney were his champions and sponsors. (Lo-fi avatars Beck and Jon Spencer also count themselves among Childish's fans.)
After years of prodigious alcohol consumption, Childish says he went on the wagon about three years ago. Having a clear head has improved his output considerably, he says: "Rather than losing anything, I started feeling very much the same as I did when I was 15 or 16, when I was really into it. My experience is that the work has not suffered any lack of energy at all."
He's happier with his lyrics, too: "I didn't used to bother quite so much with words in songs. Some of the lyrical content is quite high now," he says cheerily. "Rather than 25 percent, I feel like 50 or 75 percent of the lyrics now have some sort of merit."
Fifteen-odd years of drunkenness, however, will certainly take its toll: "It's always surprising for me to hear covers of my songs," he admits. "I think, 'That sounds quite good,' and they say, 'Oh, it's one of yours.' "
Of course, the sheer volume of his back catalog would make memorization difficult for the most focused of musicians. "When we record," he explains, "I take the song along and teach the others, and then we do one take. A lot of it we can't play live, because I don't know the words. We know it for about three minutes, when we record it."
According to its owner, the name "Childish" is a product of punk's earliest days. "We used to go to the shows up in London," Childish recalls. "I started writing a punk fanzine. Everyone seemed to have a weird and wonderful name, so I wanted one. I was called Gus Claudius, and [a friend] said, 'You're not Gus Claudius, you're Billy Childish.' "
As with so many punks, Childish went from audience member to performer seemingly overnight. With his original group, the Pop Rivits, he began as a singer, not learning guitar until he was "about 20." The observation makes Childish laugh, as if he has yet to play the instrument properly.
For a brief moment, the Pop Rivits and their early '80s successors, the Milkshakes, enjoyed a modicum of attention from the hyperbolic British press -- coverage that hasn't recurred, Childish says.
"It is a bit tiring sometimes," he admits. "You hear of other people doing a fraction of what we do, or a fraction of the integrity and intensity of what we do, being hailed as genius. And you occasionally think, 'Well, that isn't fair.' But of course, what's fair and what isn't has nothing to do with nothing."
"We don't spend any money on publicity, or advertising, or having our songs played on the radio," he continues. "I sort of naively think that at some stage, someone might notice that we're quite averagely good at what we do."
Whether or not anyone is noticing, Childish has seen a flurry of activity surround his work of late. In addition to the new Headcoats albums In Tweed We Trust and Knights of the Baskervilles, he has just published his first novel, My Fault, and an LP of spoken-word recordings, The Sudden Fart of Larfter. Locally, zine publisher Johnny Brewton just launched a new series of limited-edition chapbooks with a Childish title.
Though all of Childish's work -- crude self-portraits in woodcut, punked-up caveman rock, "nursery rhyme" poetry -- might be considered examples of "primitive" or untrained art, the artist is careful not to endorse any descriptive phrases.
"As a painter I can do very tight, commercial-looking work," he argues. "I'm not trying to do 'outsider' work or be primitive, any of these things. I'm really looking for essence, and energy, rather than acceptance, I suppose. ... I'm just trying to learn something from all this, rather than paint nice pictures and learn nice tunes."
He laughs once more. "Actually, I'm quite into nice pictures and nice tunes, as it happens. It's just that my idea of what's nice is very different."
Billy Childish reads from his work Wednesday, Aug. 7, at 7:30 p.m. at Saint Adrian Co. Books, 1334 Haight; call 255-1490. Thee Headcoats play Thursday, Aug. 8, at Bimbo's 365 Club, 1025 Columbus; call 474-0365.