An Interview with Rev. Billy of the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir

Performance artist Bill Talen, otherwise known as “Reverend Billy,” first met Rosalie Sorrels in northern California in the late ‘70s when he ran the Solo Mio Festival and booked her as a guest. Talen is now the leader of a group called the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, a New York-based activist group that tries to discourage mass consumerism.

Sorrels credits Talen with helping her cross over into theater performance, an area that had always intrigued her. In turn, Talen says Sorrels helped inspire his storytelling style. To this day, the two still stay in touch.

Reverend Billy - Rosalie Sorrels came into my life when I lived…in Bolinas, California. She was a mythical creature, a mountain singer-woman with dangerous friends who could appear in various places around San Francisco. The first year or two I was just kind of aware of her presence but not daring — too shy to approach her, really — but just feeling her presence. And then I became homeless and then not homeless and as I became not homeless I was swept indoors by a group of people who are part of the Rosalie Cult and eventually was able to meet her and become anointed in the Rosalie Church. Amen. Hallelujah! Praise Be! And I’ve always craved her approval. I’ve always yearned for the blessing and the “You are doing alright, kid.”

IdahoPTV Producer Marcia Franklin – Do you think of her more as a singer or as a storyteller or as a performer?

Reverend – I think Rosalie is one of the people who taught me something I’ve adopted in spades in the Reverend Billy Project. She taught me that those labels shouldn’t pull you around. I think she taught me to be interested in what I am interested in first, to cultivate my sense of fascination. I try to adopt that. I saw her do it. I see her do it every time I’m with her, every time I think of her.

Franklin – Not being in a box, you mean.

Reverend – She doesn’t simply think outside the box. She casts aspersions on the box from outside. Hallelujah!

Franklin – Do you have any favorite stories about Rosalie?

Reverend – You mean a favorite story about Rosalie besides the big one that we’re now a part of her? You mean a smaller story within the outrageous, careening story that is this relationship?

Franklin – Did you guys ever perform together? I know you hired her for Solo Mio.

Reverend – The Solo Mio Festival — she was a star in a festival that Life on the Water Theater produced in Fort Mason Center and other parts of San Francisco. Bruce “Utah” Phillips and Rosalie, on two different occasions, were in the Earth Drama Festival and the Solo Mio Festival in Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. Just across from Alcatraz.

Franklin – Could you talk about how Rosalie sets up her songs by telling a story before beginning the song?

Reverend – Well, I’m exploring some of the same issues as the basic Rosalie aesthetic, which is singing-talking and talking-singing. People say about a good preacher that they are talk-singers. They open up that landscape between talking and singing. Rosalie drops into a song very slowly by repeating 3 notes and gives you this remarkable context on a chord that wants to complete itself but doesn’t; she is radical that way. That story before the song is a revolution for me. I’m just very interested in that. I always studied that. I always studied the border between the singing and the talking in a good Rosalie Sorrels concert.

Reverend – My feeling is that — and this is something I learned from Rosalie Sorrels — there may be a theme that rises to the fore: raising children, labor questions, aging. There may be a theme that rises to the fore in a song or in a cluster of songs, but there is always the presence of a greater theme that informs all the information, all the content. It’s always there and I think that it’s the thing we feel most strongly, as the story before the song is building before it breaks into the song.

The song is the completion of the ritual, but the going-to-the-ritual from her personal life is a statement that is beyond the content that we all sense. I would say that it’s an undying, implacable and rascally sense of humor that must be brought to the most egregious sorrows that life is going to bring you.

I think a lot of people from a successful Rosalie Sorrels concert are going out the door with a kind of preparation for the sorrows that they will have. And in our puritanical society we’re not necessarily prepared for sorrows. We’re not very good at it. Grieving is one of the things we do worst in this culture. There’s a lot of research into grieving in Rosalie’s work. She knows a lot about how Irish and Scottish songs went from major to minor chords when they went through a certain mountain pass in Appalachia as the American families missed their loved ones, missed their homes and had a kind of longing in their souls. She brings that to audiences who, after all, are given a false happy ending constantly, CONSTANTLY!

I recently read a study that said we are exposed to eight or nine thousand events a day and they are almost all about the denial of death, the denial of craziness, the denial of the dark side, the denial that people might be bad. It’s the false happy ending, the false happy ending so that you’ll buy this. So that you’ll buy my perfume, my car, my shirt, whatever I’ve got to sell you. Rosalie is a note of trickster sanity against that prevailing falsehood. Hallelujah!

Franklin – Why don’t more people know about Rosalie?

Reverend – I think more people do know about Rosalie Sorrels. And, as one of my mentors, another example would be Spaulding Gray and Kurt Vonnegut. Rosalie Sorrels is in this group of people that I have focused on who have reinvented celebrity. Spaulding called it “horizontal theme.”

You say, “Why don’t more people know about Rosalie?” They do. It’s just that Rosalie doesn’t need to have the Nielson Ratings. She doesn’t need to have that sort of pop measurement. Amen.

Franklin – Do you consider her to be “Western”?

Reverend – My exposure to her is as an urban person. I know her as a San Franciscan and as a New Yorker. I married a Western girl and ended up going up the canyon as a result of my marriage because sovereignty opened up the territory of Rosalie’s home after Rosalie sang at our wedding. We had other Western people at the wedding, but I know her as an urban person. I think the point is that she has an urban sensibility that makes it possible for her to have a relaxed conversation with Susan Sontag as easily as she has a conversation with a cowboy poet.

I like people from out in America. I like people who come into the five boroughs from far away. I did. People come into New York and start saying they’re a native. It’s an act of bravado but it’s also a tradition, a cultural tradition. And she has that. I love her Western imagery. I love the expanses. I lived in South Dakota and Minnesota and have now spent a great deal of time in New Mexico because of my new family. The horizon here is vertical and I like the complication of having great horizons described here where I’m trapped.

Franklin – What have you been up to lately?

Reverend – We are about to depart from St. Mark’s Church, here in New York City, in two bio-diesel busses. We’re going out across the country — the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, myself and a film crew. We’re going to go back into America and try to keep people from shopping so much in the shopping season.

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When to Watch

Rosalie Sorrels: Way Out in Idaho premieres May 19, 2007
Check your local listings.

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Rosalie Sorrels: Way Out in Idaho DVD

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