About two weeks ago, I had the idea to write a post about each person I’ve played music with over the years and what I learned from each one. I made a list. There are 50+ people on it.
Before I could do a single entry, Bill Petersen, The Invincible Czars’ long time keyboardist and possibly my best friend in Austin died last Thursday. I’ve been in a fog of daily sorrow since then.
Bill has to be in the top 5 most influential people I’ve played with. Maybe the top 1. We were fast friends and remained tight through thick and thin – musically and otherwise. Bill was truly like my brother. We were always in touch, even if we were annoyed with each other. We dressed the same. We liked the same music and movies. We even lived together for a little over two years after my divorce. I was so lucky he had room in his life for a guy 10 years younger than him learning the lessons he already had.
Bill and I had an instant spark of intense friendship. I liked him a lot immediately. I’ve only had that with a few other people in my life. (I married the only girl on that short list so far!) For that reason, this will NOT be as short a post as the ones that will follow for other people…
MUSIC BILL SHARED THAT IMPACTED ME MOST: 70s era Scorpions, Brave Combo, Buck Owens (much of the other stuff we listened to we both already liked!)
WHEN WE PLAYED TOGETHER: July 2004 – December 31, 2012 and then on and off until October 9, 2014.
HOW WE MET:
Bill answered and Austin Chronicle musicians wanted ad back before Craigslist made such things obsolete. He auditioned for the Invincible Czars in July 2004 at my house on Whispering Oaks with his Roland Juno 6 (aka The Poland) and after a single warm up gig at Room 710 (where we decided to drop accordion for good!), he went on the band’s first real tour two weeks later. Two nights in, Adam introduced him as “Willie Poland” in Albuquerque and Willie remained active until Jan 2013 when I asked him to take a break to focus on his health. Bill always kept the show going – even after his first heart attack in March 2009! He was back behind the keys a month later playing with us. He also logged more hours behind the wheel of our van (Van Halen) than anyone else.
WHAT I LEARNED FROM BILL:
It’s hard to pinpoint the MAIN thing I learned from Bill because I learned so much from him – The show must go on. Be on time! Age doesn’t matter. Who cares what your parents think? If it sounds good, it is good.
And so on.
Age was hardly ever a factor in Bill’s consideration of what he or anyone wanted to do or should do and he lived the way he wanted with no regrets. He didn’t have kids. He didn’t have a restrictive day job. Those things would’ve kept him from pursuing the lifestyle he wanted. Though I’m more of a workaholic, I’m basically on the same path and it was good know someone else a little further down.
Those were all great things, but I think the main thing Bill wanted me to learn was that if you can’t do something well, don’t bother.
He lived that way professionally and personally. Unlike most of the people I know, Bill truly loved his day job working on high end home theater, lighting and stereo systems. He didn’t phone it in by day so he could rock and night.
In spite of what appeared to be a messy bachelor pad, Bill kept the important things that he needed daily well-organized and in order. I wish I’d picked this up from him! When I went through his stuff last week, I found all his Invincible Czars sheet music in neatly labelled binders – even stuff we hadn’t played in many, many years!
If he cared about something, Bill was a measure twice and cut once kind of guy. He let the less important stuff fall by the wayside. He knew nothing was permanent (including himself) and there was no point wasting energy and time on details that didn’t matter.
He often said that his clients would pay top dollar (even two or three times as much) to upgrade their systems from 97% amazing to 100%. That’s great for rich people with disposable income but the rest of us can’t afford to make everything in our lives at 100%. We must prioritize. That was an extremely valuable sub-lesson for me.
It frustrated Bill when others didn’t live by the same mantra or adhere to his standard of quality. He would fly into a fury with incompetent or unhelpful sound engineers at our shows. He would grill event planners over details that they should have worked out weeks ahead.
I was usually mortified. These were often the very same people I’d had to sell on hosting our band in the first place and I didn’t want them angry with us. Ultimately, Bill was right to be annoyed. Although he was surly with them, these people probably learned some good lessons by having to deal with an angry keyboard player who often knew more about their sound system, stage, acoustics, lighting, electrical wiring and event planning than anyone in their organization. Most of the time these were one-time gigs anyway so I shouldn’t have been so fearful.
Sometimes I was the one getting grilled!
I felt a huge sense of accomplishment when I would book a high paying show. Then Bill would ask me for details I hadn’t thought of – is there parking? Do they have lights? What if it rains? What time do we have to leave? load? How’re the tires on the van?
This often got heated. It was true that I was new to this realm and just as ignorant as some of the aforementioned event planners, but he rarely acknowledged that I’d just scored us a paycheck sometimes as much as 3000% what we’d make on a Saturday in Austin at a club.
As I did more and more of these bookings, I stopped feeling overly grateful for gigs and adopted Bill’s first question as my own — “We could be doing ANYTHING else with our time. Why this?”
Eventually, I had the answers Bill wanted and his grilling became minimal. I thank him for helping me learn that lesson – hard as it was.
Bill sometimes was frustrated with himself. His attention to quality set a standard he struggled to meet himself within our band after his first heart attack. As his health affected his abilities and endurance, he continued playing with us even though it was so hard to do it well. I thank him for doing so, even though I often thought he hated being there. I’m glad we continued to communicate musically.
I also learned the young bull/old bull joke from Bill:
A young bull and an old bull are sitting on top of a hill looking down on a field of grazing cows. The young bull says, “Let’s run down there and @#$% a cow!”
The old bull says, “No. Let’s walk down there and @#$% them all.
Bill was the old bull for sure. He didn’t write a ton of music, but everything he finished was a gem. Bill didn’t want to run down the hill for nothing and I just wanted to get there before all the cows wandered off. He needed me to drag him down there and I needed him to keep me from burning out before we got there.
This is my favorite piece by Bill and one of my favorites The Invincible Czars or I have ever played. It is actually my arrangement of a cue Bill wrote for our first silent movie soundtrack so I was happy to be part of the creation process. We played it at his memorial:
I wish Bill had made it with me to the point that I’d become the band leader I should’ve been for him. I know my trials and errors burned out a lot of people and I thanked him at one point for staying on the path with me.
I was using his computer the morning after his passing and was surprised that one of his tabbed bookmarks was this very blog. I thought he just ignored my musings here. I hope he saw that I was learning the lessons he’d try to teach me all along.
I’m so lucky that I got to tell Bill how I felt about him. After his first heart attack, I had five years to show I cared. I feel like I could’ve and should’ve done more, but overall, I think we had a great run and I feel fortunate that the incident that could’ve halved our time together didn’t.
Sometimes we didn’t communicate well. We hardly argued, engaging more often in cold wars of tense silence in our apartment. A truce was always celebrated, though, with an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I cared about him very much.
When Bill joined The Invincible Czars, his brother Mike told him that he was joining a whole new family. Mike was right! I’m so glad that Bill’s family recognized our band as such an important part of Bill’s life. In going through his things, everything has an Invincible Czars sticker on it. It was Adam who always said, “Proud to be (a Czar)”, but I think Bill might’ve been the proudest of all of us. I’m so happy that something I began had such a place of importance in his life and that those close to him thought so, too. I thank them for including our band in the services for their son/brother/partner.
The last time I saw Bill was about 6 days before he died. I don’t know why, but I felt compelled to give him a big hug and linger there a minute. I’m so glad I did.
Rest in peace, Sweet Willie Poland. I hope to see you again.