Bill’s Story Chapter Four

The ‘road’ carries with it a unique set of responsibilities. Some have the constitution to endure and even make the touring life a success. It has much more to do with character than talent. People often asked me when I was traveling, “Don’t you ever get lonely on the road?” My response was always an affirmative ‘No!” Of course I wasn’t lonely. I had the band, the music and my great comforter, Smirnoff.  Many musicians can continue, with or without alcohol and drugs, to travel and party and make a life of it. Some have died trying. Others have done well. I am one who could not handle the loneliness without booze. I am also one of those who could not handle booze. If logic were enough, I could have stopped. But it took a hard fall to the pit of despair for me to reach out, seek help, and become the artist that I am today. I am grateful for the fall. I regretted the lives I may have hurt. Yet I have made amends wherever possible and have spent many years since living the incredible journey of life in the here and now.

Mornings on the road began around ten in the morning awakening with dry mouth, headache and a general feeling of depression. A giant glass of Hawaiian Punch filled with motel ice would begin the body’s revival accompanied, where possible, by a sauna, hot tub, or float in the motel swimming pool. Within the hour, the craving for more alcohol would inspire Bill to jump in the van and drive to the nearest liquor store for a pint or quart of vodka or rum and grapefruit juice to flush it down.

“I hated the taste of booze but I craved the effect so I would get back in the van, hold my breath and chug a half pint to pint of booze followed by at least half a bottle of juice all while holding one breath as hard as I could. It was a great effort. My body always tried to reject the booze so I tensed every muscle and turned bright red while chugging. Within a minute, the pain was gone and long forgotten as the liquor kicked in and I checked out. I would spend the next few hours exploring the native surroundings which could be anything from corn fields to theRocky Mountains. After an hour or so, I would finish the bottle I had bought and destroy the evidence so no one would know I was drunk. If they knew, they might try to stop me and I could not live without my liquid friend.

“By the time evening rolled around, I was sober enough to play the gig, whether it was a show, duo or trio. I seldom drank during the gigs which left me with an underlying depressing feeling that I could only ignore as I poured my heart out on the keys. Audiences seemed pleased for the most part – we were usually asked back – and tours always made me good money. But an evening’s worth of not drinking would crowd out the good feelings and the further I got away from a drink, the more depressed I would feel. So after the gig it was always party time.

“Late night, desperate for anything to feel good, anything is possible and everything is acceptable. I got into some pretty sticky situations with fans, waitresses, strangers and band members more than once. Somehow, I always managed to stumble my way back to my hotel room before dawn where I would pass out for the five or six until it would start all over again.”

Bill continued this routine for five years in four different shows. He had gotten married before the first tour and often traveled without his now ex-wife. When she came along, he had to go through even greater pains to hide the drinking and the late night carousing and learned to make up a thousand lies, lies that eventually caught up to him. Soon bill would hit his bottom, for his sensitivity to despair, guilty conscience and love of his fellow human beings could not be drowned out. And a kind spirit would soon reveal itself, take over, pick up the pieces and open the door to a new and amazing life.

There comes a time in every human life where either the truth will be revealed or sickness and death will prevail. Bill Webb was one of the fortunate ones to whom truth was revealed, truth that enabled him to contact the source of all life, the power, the love.

“Perhaps running away will do the trick,” thought Bill at age 27.  He tried it and found within six months that you cannot run away from yourself.  He stopped in San Antonio, Texas, sobered up with the help of some new friends, and began to discover what he was really made of and what life was really about. Bill was scared. Terrified, actually. He was afraid of the elusive beast in the woods, the ghostlike apparition that used to appear to him in the basement when he was a child, fleeting, never clear, always accompanied by terror and a warm curiosity.

Through support groups, therapy and treatment, his fears were revealed to him little by little over a period of two years. One by one he overcame these fears often by facing the people of whom he was the most afraid. He was to discover, slowly at first, that he had the capability of loving and being loved, of helping his fellow human beings, of connecting with a joy he never could find in his fear-driven days.

One of the most remarkable changes was to affect his entire music career from that time forward. 

A few friends were sitting talking in the living room and Bill shared that he was a musician and had played and toured in many bands.

“Play us a song on the piano!” Delores, the lady of the house insisted pointing to an old out-of-tune upright piano along the living room wall.  Delores was a middle-aged, once beautiful native Texas blond with the harsh rugged lines of a weather-beaten cowboy. She was straight-forward and bold with the heart of a saint.

“I really don’t know any songs. I play with bands. I never played alone,” replied Bill.

“There must be somethin’ you can play,” Delores retorted.

“I just know electric piano or organ parts for the songs the bands played. Or keyboard bass or synthesizer stuff. You need a singer, a melody, drums, stuff like that.”

“Well, play one of yer organ parts then. Come on! Pick a song one of yer bands did!” Delores would not be silenced.

“OK, then, but it won’t sound like much. Like here’s the electric piano part for ’Just the Way You Are’ by Billy Joel.” Bill starts playing it. “As you can hear, there is no melody or anything. You really need the rest of the instruments.”

“Can you sing it?” Delores requested with a raw confidence born out of the Texas wild lands where she was raised.

“Well, ah, ah, I don’t have a microphone or a PA. I mean…it wouldn’t sound very good.”

“Oh just go ahead! Sing it out Billy!”

So Bill squeaked out the entire song. At least he thought he was squeaking. One he was finished, the room applauded loudly and Delores lavished him with praises for his incredible talent. He had been playing in bands and shows for so many years, Bill had forgotten that he knew how to perform solo.

“You outta be playin’ in piano bars and restaurants!” Delores exclaimed as Bill shook his head in complete disagreement.

The next day, as he needed a job anyway, Bill reluctantly agreed to let Delores drag him around to the local restaurants and bars to find him a solo gig.  Had it not been for this remarkably insightful and bold woman, Bill may never have played professionally again.

After knocking on many club doors and coming up empty (no piano), Delores and Bill stepped into a bar on the San Antonio Riverwalk to see a young man sitting behind a grand piano playing electric guitar and singing.

“Go up there and tell ‘im you play the piano,” nagged Delores.

“I can’t do that, that’s his gig,” whispered Bill.

“Come on! He’s got that great big piano sittin’ there doin’ nothing! Tell ‘im you’d like to sit in and play it!”

Well, there was no shutting her up save to do the dastardly deed. Bill not only got to play the piano, but people starting throwing requests at him and all kinds of tips in the jar. The guitar player stood behind him listening or playing chords, as he lavished Bill with praises and encouraged Bill to play more. As it turned out, Bill knew a lot more music than he even realized.  On the spot, he took the keyboard parts of songs from the bands and added melodies and improvised new arrangements.

At everyone’s insistent, he played until closing never once leaving the piano or taking a break.  He stood up when it was over and thanked the guitar player so much for letting him have so much fun. He had never realized performing could be so exciting. The guitar player handed him the tip jar and said, “Take it. You earned it.” He would not even let Bill split up the money. Bill later discovered the guitar player made his living performing at that bar and had a wife and child to support. He was in no position to give away money, yet he did!

Bill left with a new-found confidence and started a new career as a soloist playing such places as the famous Durty Nellie’s Irish Pub on the San Antonio Riverwalk and the Velvet Turtle Piano Bar and Lounge.

Eventually he got gigs for parties in the great mansions of San Antonio and Dallas, Texas.  He formed trios and quartets and played many parties like Van Cliburn’s birthday party in Fort Worth, Texas and the after ballet party in the Jaffe mansion with Baryshnikov and the San Antonio Ballet. But the best was yet to come as Bill began to discover the one true talent that was always in his heart, to write and compose his own music.

Next: ‘The birth of a Composer’