by Jim Walsh
Don't sprain your brain trying to put into words what Bill Batson means to this town; all you'll come up with is some jive about him being somewhere between The Foshay Tower and First Avenue in terms of icon status; that the big lug deserves a statue next to Mary Tyler Moore on the Nicollet Mall or at least a plaque on the servant's entrance to her house in Kenwood or, at the very least, a rock 'n' roll high school named after him in his native northeast Minneapolis.
All of which lowballs it, as you will discover when you ask a few people who know him best to articulate Batson's impact, and, to a person, they all let out the exact same "words fail" spit-take and start stammering right along with you.
"I have no problem calling him a legend," offers drummer Tommy Rey, who joined the Batsons when he was 17. "It's amazing to me that he doesn't slow down. I mean, guys come and go in this town. They burn out, they disappear, they change, but these guys just keep going. He never quits. He just rocks, and he does it better than ever."
You're to be forgiven if you're not instantly familiar with the name Bill Batson, who will celebrate his 50th birthday this Saturday at the Turf Club, with his bands the Mighty Mofos, who will do a 25-song tribute to The Who that promises to be, um, slightly more satisfying than that running-on-empty Brit institution's last stop here, and the Hypstrz, who will do what the Hypstrz have been doing for four decades: turning their amps up and laying to waste most other versions of what is known as rock music.
"I think we might have to set up a spanking machine for him that night," says Ernie Batson, Bill's brother and partner-in-crime since Bill asked his older brother to join their first band, King Kustom and the Kruisers. None of the Batsons' bands have a Myspace page, web site, or publicist, but it says here that Bill has the respect of most everybody who has ever made his acquaintance, and remains the embodiment of what Iggy Pop said about fame: "Anyone can be famous. What matters is what you're famous for."
What Bill Batson is famous for is his integrity -- as a person, frontman, local music supporter, and soundman at the 7th St. Entry who, according to former First Avenue manager Steve McClellan, "trained 90 percent of the soundmen in town. The good ones, anyway."
"He's one of the hardest-working men in the music world," says Bob Mould, ex of Husker Du and Sugar. "Bill and I worked together for many years, and I could always count on him to 'be there.' In our business, where travel is demanding, chemicals are abundant, and egos are fragile and inflated, Bill was always punctual, sober, and straightforward."
"We're not dealing with fucking Saint William, here," says former Mofos bassist Jim Boquist. "He is a tough S.O.B., and I could tell you stories about him settling up [with club owners at the end of the night] that made me glad to know him. There is no one better to have in your corner."
The first time Mark Engebretson met Batson, Engebretson was a timid rock fan with dreams of being a singer. He saw King Kustom at the Snail Lake Ballroom. He knew Ernie, who was friendly, but not Bill, so he asked the guitarist for permission to go up on stage. Just to see what it felt like. When he crept up there between sets, Bill came from out of nowhere and screamed, "Get the fuck off the stage, man!"
"I'm still not sure he was kidding, but I always say he's one of the top five people in the world," says Engebretson, singer for the MOR's and Whole Lotta Loves. "He's why I started singing. He influenced me, and tons of people. When we first started our band, we just sucked. And he and Ernie would come over to the basement and just cheer us on at our practices."
"He's always wanted to see people do as well as they can -- for the most part," laughs Ernie. "He can be pretty disdainful of people who are not making the best use of their abilities. He likes people who have something on the ball and are making an honest effort to do something. He doesn't like music that is paint-by-numbers or cut-and-paste, or doing the obvious or not putting any personal stamp on it. He's always telling me about some new band he saw: 'They're not great now, but they've got something going on.'"
In that sense, it's no exaggeration to say that Batson's work ethic and no-bullshit approach helped sow the seeds of Minneapolis's persnickety rock legacy: Be original. Work hard. Have fun. If you follow your heart, people will help you. If you pose, they will ignore you.
"He's always hated bands that were contrived, American Idol contestants," says McClellan. "He likes the new and fresh, and sees the energy in kids and says, 'They may not have songs right now, but they're a good bunch of kids. Bring 'em back and let 'em open for U2.'"
The image of Bill Batson on stage is indelible: the wild eyes, searching the floor for collaborators, the maniacal grin daring anyone in the joint to tell him there's a better band on the planet at the moment. Clapping his hands like a butcher readying his next cut. Slicking back his hair like a greaser before a race. Jousting with the microphone stand like a javelin thrower.
But in the end, another, quieter, image may capture him best: at the end of the night, or between sets of someone else's band, wrapping up a guitar cord. One end looped around his elbow, the other in the palm of his hand, a bemused look on his face that suggests the wisdom of one who knows himself and the key to rock.
"There's a way that Bill wraps cords, and it's the right way," says Boquist. "He showed me. And I've wrapped my cords his way ever since. You take the two quarter-inch plugs and put 'em together in your left hand and pull the remaining cord in your right hand, then you bring that loop up to the plugs and when you get it to a reasonable length, you do that one wrap-around like you're tying your shoe. It's not rocket science, but it saves cords and they pack better, and I learned that from Bill."
The Mighty Mofos, The Hypstrz and Superhopper perform Saturday night (9 p.m.; $5) at the Turf Club, Snelling and University, St. Paul.