Reverend Billy’s Revelations

Issue 276

Reverend Billy remembers two friends who left inspiring legacies of art and activism.

Reverend Billy Talen Dec 19, 2022

Friends, I don’t have my regular advice column to share with you this month. We are mourning two friends of mine who passed days apart, John Sims and Hamish Kilgour. 

John Sims had a vision for the American South. Every one of his projects exploded the way things were. He took the sentimental anthem “I Wish I Was In Dixie Hooray Hooray” and brought it to a dozen different musical traditions, folk, blues, rock, gospel, calypso… The singers (of many races and backgrounds) sometimes were mocking at first, but then many rose to a complicated acceptance of the song while replacing its history with sorrow, anger and energy. The project is a master-stroke, ultimate critique combined with forgiveness. “I wish I was in the land of cotton….”

And then my Brooklyn neighbor Hamish Kilgour died. It feels like he is still walking, as he often did, up the road in front of our home into the cars coming one-way toward him. Hamish’s radical vision was to be thoroughly himself in a completely predictable monoculture of early-80’s rock.

“Confederate Gothic” by John Sims
Hamish Kilgour

Hamish and his brother David formed the New Zealand indie band “The Clean” and became a major influence from their indie-rock community at Flying Nun records. The Clean were punks with a reputation that went around the world without marketing, while Van Halen, Kansas, etc. floated through the culture like corporate aircraft carriers.

Their music was self-made with real-life stories, subtle as it was bombastic, and driven by Hamish’s fierce drums. In the way of the punk revolution, they had an everyday appearance and the authority that comes from knowing who you are. For political anti-consumerists trying to break the trance of corporate culture, the punks were a key guide.

Each of my two friends leaves us freedoms that started out as their personal battles. John and Hamish had a brazenness in the face of big, old institutions. The Neo-confederacy and late power rock were both stagnant at this point, each of them macho and corrupt. But as we have seen, such money-driven boredom can help an original person focus on the mysterious things, which is the beginning of justice.

John and Hamish both got handed deaths at a young age. Their communicating to revolutionaries was sudden and fleeting. How do we sort out the teachers of original life from the thousands of celebrities, “the human products,” unasked for models raining down on our heads? The heroes in media stories are such a constant barrage that we have to disengage from totalitarian consumerism as a conscious martial art and go to the likes of John Sims and Hamish Kilgour as a focused act of independence. 

Then we have to create rituals of remembrance, to help each other keep the love and work real. They are gone now, and we face a thousand prefab memory events like Columbus Day, Thanksgiving and the St Patrick’s Day Parade — often based on falsified histories. St. Christopher, St. Patrick and Thanksgiving (or is it Thankstaking?) only offer colonizing violence to celebrate — defeating the ocean, defeating the snakes, the mythologized beginnings of a centuries-long war to seize control of a continent. John and Hamish didn’t control others with queens or gods — they invented a personal form of entertainment, generous to their audience, a kind of conversation.

And they were cultivators of friends. And we friends got the funky stuff too, the murmurs and rumors and sighs, their self-doubt. But that hemming and hawing was their compost of wild thoughts that they built into something radical.

And now they are dead and the whispers and sighs that friends allow one another, those little sounds that friends’ share — gone. Just a 500-mile dark silent wind is there now. John and Hamish are telling us to feel the sorrow, go through the whole thing and lift the memory; we have free-use of their courage.

The two are spirits among us, as the preacher said. We will walk into our activism guided by these friends.

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