“September 11 gave people a keyhole…a way to understand Basinski’s music. It was catastrophic beyond imagination, not just physically but to our psyche. It affected everyone’s lives. That opened up possibilities for people to stop and listen.”
Like William Basinski, I too climbed to the rooftop of my home in Williamsburg on September 11th, watching the tragedy just across the river and also struggled with the resultant trauma of what we bore witness to on that fateful day. Some 20 years on, I profiled Basinski for Texas Monthly, exploring trauma, music as a healing force, the scent of orange juice and cigarettes, and the blues.
(Below the jump, I also added a few paragraphs that were ultimately cut due to space, going deeper into Basinski’s childhood and upbringing and early days in NYC.)
Erwin recalls that as a young boy, Billy was very capable and athletic. When Mark was 7 seven and Billy was 5five, Erwin bought his eldest son a bicycle, but he Mark had a hard time learning to ride. Meanwhile, “Billy just hopped on the bicycle and rode off.” Mark remembers one incident as a child, when his mother had asked her kids to take a cheesecake out of the oven while she was out. “I dropped it on the floor, so my first thought was I’m going to have to run away,” he laughs over the phone. But then his younger brother took charge. “With Billy’s presence, we managed to make another cheesecake –—he even remembered to make the pretty graham cracker crust– —and put it in the fridge. And my parents didn’t even realize.”
Billy’s attention to small details crops up often in casual conversation. Almost any story he tells will include minutiae like a “1964 baby blue Lincoln Continental with baby blue leather interior” or “4-inch stiletto heels.” That awareness transfers over to his social media presence, which is often photos of fashionable footwear –—like a pair of snakeskin boots— or the wisteria blooming in his backyard or multiple angles of the inflatable flamingo floating on his pool.
“I walked into Kennedy’s Saloon and there he was and that did it,” Elaine says of meeting his life partner Basinski for the first time. Their mutual friends were throwing a “Kroger party,” wherein all guests dressed outrageously and convened to wander the aisles of the local grocery store, being their marvelous freaky selves. Basinski’s shopping cart was filled with a tape recorder playing his weird music: “I just knew there was something special about him. We just were kind of united at that moment.”
“I don’t know when Billy came out, but he was ostracized,” his cousin Smart recalls. “Billy was gone and no one in the family was in touch with him.” But when Smart’s band booked a US tour in the mid-1980s and they found themselves discombobulated in Manhattan, his older cousin came to the rescue: “We showed up on a Friday night, in a crazy traffic jam in the Holland Tunnel. We pulled over and I called Billy from a payphone, totally freaking out. From then on, he was our den mother.” Basinski showed the band around town, including one memorable party. “He took us to this art opening from his friend, Basquiat. We went to the opening of the Warhol-Basquiat show!” Smart says, remembering the afterparty that found a bunch of Texas teenagers mingling with the likes of Warhol and Yoko Ono. Greater still was the example his older cousin provided. “It was mind-blowing and really life-changing to see this whole other world: ‘. You can live however you want, create your own environment.’”