Billy Hopeless won’t tell the Straight his age: “I ain’t sayin’—I’m eternal, I’m rock ’n’ roll, ever hear of it?” he retorts when we ask. He gives a little guffaw: “Never ask a lady her age!”
But put it this way: the Black Halos and Bonitos vocalist can remember sneaking in to see D.O.A. at the Smilin’ Buddha back in the day. He was underage at the time, and got by Igor the doorman by carrying Randy Rampage’s bass: “I’m with the band!”
A few years later, Hopeless himself would be taking the stage in Vancouver to sing with a speed-metal band called Debauchery; he’d get heat from his friends because of the contradiction between the punk patches on his vest and his Iron Maiden T-shirt, because the mid-’80s crossover between punk and metal had yet to hit. He quips now that he was “crossover before there was crossover”.
We’re sitting at Bestie, a wurst house in Chinatown, not too far from where Hopeless works. It’s pissing down outside. Hopeless has picked the place apropos of an article I’ve been asked to write for a German punk ‘zine, Ox Fanzine, to whom I often pitch stories; this time, my editor, Joachim Hiller, got in touch with me, when he heard about the upcoming Black Halos reunion. “They were on a quite big German label 15 years ago, called People Like You,” Hiller explains, not mentioning that the colourful version of the label’s name is “I Used to Fuck People Like You in Prison”. “It was run by two friends of mine, so they got quite a lot of exposure over here. And people liked their glam 'n' sleaze approach to punk rock.”
So—as I chomp my German sausage roll and Hopeless savours his stinky cheese and pretzel—we dig back into Black Halos history. I am keenest to know about my favourite Halos tune, “Fucked From the Start”. It’s off their 1999 debut LP, and was inspired by something once said by Pete Cleaver, singer/guitarist for Death Sentence and the inspiration for an infamous Evaporators tune, about the time Cleaver stapled his scrotum to a park bench.
“We’re at the jam space, and Hamm”—of course, he means Stephen Hamm, of Slow and Tankhog and, quite a bit later, the Evaporators—“came in and told us that Pete Cleaver had died,” Hopeless tells the Straight. “And the bass player at the time, who is now deceased, Robbie Hunter, had come up with this bass riff, and we’re trying to write to it, and I immediately started writing ‘Fucked From the Start’ about Pete, because I’d seen him the day before he died, and he had said that line to me, that ‘yeah, we’re all fucked from the start.’”
It’s a resonant lyric, but Hopeless—who grew up with a musically enthusiastic British Dad and Mennonite Mom—wasn’t thinking of his own background when he wrote the song; it’s more about “everyone’s,” he says. “Like, right now, I work in the Downtown Eastside in social housing. Anyone can sing about stuff, but if you’re there and you’re in it, then the words are true. You’re not just writing some fantasy, you’re actually writing about stuff that you know and you see. 'Like dirty needle in Pigeon Park.’ How many times have I been down on Hastings around Pigeon Park and seen that? And now I’m working there, I see it every day.”
The grim situation in the DTES is relevant to another Halos single, of seasonal relevance, “Homeless for Christmas”. Hopeless wasn’t ever actually homeless (“No, but we were on tour,” he jokes), but he’s got ample familiarity with the situation in East Van.
“Somehow all the places where we play punk music, where you end up hangin’, a lot of it is where the down and out are. That’s where the real shit is, and so you see a lot of it, and you get to know a lot of people, you make friends with people. I’ve always been open to anyone, so you make friends with people who are homeless, and you think about it: How hard is that? People can say anything you want.” Hopeless takes on a mock indignant tone, “'Oh, those people!’—yeah, you give it a shot, go on and sleep in the cold on the sidewalk. Try that. And at Christmas, people get on this thing where, ‘Oh, everyone’s giving to the homeless, but they’re just doing it for show!’ At least they’re doing something. What are you doing? You know? Are you helping people? Because people need help, and that’s what Christmas is supposed to be about.”
Of course, there’s more to the Black Halos than their old singles. They have a new 7-inch, on the Ontario label Yeah Right! Records, featuring “Geisterbahn II”, which Hopeless talked about a bit when the Straight met him a few years ago to shoot pinball. There is a new album in the works, likely to be produced by Seattle legend Jack Endino, famed for his work on albums like Nirvana’s Nevermind, Tad’s 8 Way Santa, and the Black Halos' 2001 Sub Pop album, The Violent Years.
Even more importantly, former Black Halos guitarists Rich Jones—whom Hopeless describes as the best songwriting partner he’s ever had—and Jay Millette, everyone’s “favourite Halo”, will be flying in to play not one but two reunion shows with Hopeless, at the Rickshaw February 7 and 8. The support acts are a crazy-good sampling of some of the finest rock and punk that Vancouver has to offer, with the Spitfires and Sore Points on the Friday and Chain Whip and Bishops Green on the Saturday.
“It’s gonna be awesome, I’m stoked on it,” Hopeless enthuses. “It’s the first time Rich and Jay have been back to Vancouver in so long, let alone playing in Vancouver. And we’ve got the best bands, the biggest bands in Vancouver for punk right now—or some of them; we couldn’t get them all on. But I keep sayin’, it’s like the movie The Warriors.” Hopeless takes on the voice of Cyrus, and declaims loudly—causing a sideways glance from our waitress—“I look to my left and I see the Bishops Green sitting next to the Spitfires, I see the Chain Whips sitting next to the Sore Points, can you dig it! …It’s gonna be great man, we’ve got a lot of special guests comin’, we’ve got new tunes, new shirts, new merch—yeah!”
And it’s not just a one-off, knock on wood. “We’re gonna hopefully start getting on the road again. This isn’t a minor threat, this is a major one, until we end up going ‘Screw you, I hate you’ again, or blowin’ up,” he laughs. “Who knows how long it will last? I never know. You can’t tell. You can’t live in the past, because that’s already happened. You can’t live in the future, because you don’t know what it could be; it ain’t happened yet. That’s why we have to enjoy this thing we call the present. It’s the greatest gift of all.”
Spoken like a true rock 'n' roller.
At the end of our lunch, Hopeless has a Christmas gift for me—a copy of Keith Richards’ autobiography, which I actually have not read, and a program from Randy Rampage’s wake (which I wasn’t at; Hopeless, of course, provided narration for Susanne Tabata’s essential history of Vancouver punk, Bloodied But Unbowed, featuring ample interviews with the likes of a host of figures in the Vancouver scene, like Rampage, Brad Kent, Brian Goble, and Zippy Pinhead, all of whom have since passed on).
Here’s my Christmas gift to him: if you’ve been taking Billy Hopeless for granted, if you’re still mad at him from some smartass thing he said on social media, or if you’ve somehow missed the Black Halos altogether (forgiveable, since their back catalogue is out of print and hard to find), you might want to start playing catch-up, because the new Black Halos recordings are a big deal, and the upcoming Vancouver gigs are even bigger. Just ask the Germans!
Merry Christmas, Billy Hopeless.