|Photo illustration by Ryan Ward|
As a child, Billy West heard voices in his head — not the kind that tell you to burn the neighbor’s cat — and he had an imaginary friend. “It was weird because I really thought I saw this guy,” claims West, while sipping soda water at Hollywood Billiards. “I was in a whole other world. I was inward and I would create characters and talk to them. I would emulate relatives, look at their mouths and try to talk like them and get their mannerisms. I didn’t know why I felt like an alien. I watched others to learn how you cry or how you laugh. I felt disconnected from the world and that’s where all this came about. I wasn’t trying to make fun of people. I was desperately trying to learn to be in this world, like I was trying to find a blueprint or a design for living.”
That blueprint may have started to take some real shape when Lucille Ball died.
While working for the promotions department at WXRK radio in New York in 1989, West did an impersonation of Lucy on her deathbed that caught the attention of the King of All Media, Howard Stern. West’s imitation of the decaying redhead had Howard blowing his baked-potato lunch through his prominent proboscis and sparked, for many an avid Stern fan, the most memorable era of the world’s best-known radio show. West’s roster of characters — including Stooge Larry Fine, Mayberry’s deputy Barney Fife, racist Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, a super-gay Raymond Burr, George Takei of Star Trek fame, a sex-craving, snorting-like-a-pig Tonya Harding, the irrepressible Jackie Puppet (based on Jackie “The Joke Man” Martling), and too many more to list here — has reached legendary proportions in the annals of Stern-show history. West’s stint on the Stern show, from 1989 through 1995, served as a springboard that launched the very animated West into cartoon superstardom. West has voiced such luminaries as Popeye; Nickelodeon’s Doug; Futurama’s Fry, Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth, Zapp Brannigan and Dr. Zoidberg; Ren and Stimpy; and the new Woody Woodpecker. In short, he’s taken the place of the governor of voice-over specialists — the late Mel Blanc. Not bad for a guy whose real passion is the electric guitar.
At one time West thought his keen chops on the guitar would be his ticket to fame and fortune. Growing up in a turbulent Detroit household where his father often beat and verbally abused him and his brothers, West found refuge in his instrument.
“My father tried to kill me at least 10 times. I was his whipping boy and I could tell by the sound of the key in the door what kind of night I was going to have. Once he pulled a knife on my mom and me, and she and I had to lock us in the bathroom. It was a real-life ‘here’s Johnny.’ I never knew if I was going to get ‘okay dad’ or the maniac.”
To escape, West would retreat to the basement of their house, where there was a Sears Stella guitar that had been “borrowed” by his father from an uncle. These popular low-end guitars were a sort of cross between a baritone ukulele and a baseball bat. Billy would stare at the finish and play with the machine heads. When the family moved to Boston in 1963, his mother bought him an acoustic guitar that had “strings like piano wire and really high action,” so it was unplayable for the fledgling picker. He eventually tuned the instrument to one chord and used his index finger to bar chords. (A technique favored by early blues players as well as rockers Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Rory Gallagher. Ritchie Havens is famous for playing like this, only he uses his thumb.) West graduated to a Trump electric guitar that “had three pickups and looked like a jukebox because it had so much junk on it.” He was finally able to dump his one-finger technique and within a couple of years he developed into a badass player. He played in several bands over his 17 years as an active professional guitarist chasing the dream.
In 1978, West’s spandex license was revoked and he quit the music business. He started working at a small Boston radio station and trying his hand at comedy on the side. “The bands were getting younger and they just kept coming; they were like Viet Cong and I felt like a fuckin’ loser because I hadn’t done anything real. I started fooling around with comedy but nobody told me you had to have an act. It’s hard to find the sweet spot doing standup comedy. Some nights it would actually work just throwing shit against the wall, and other nights were like going to hell in a used Chevy.”
While working at the radio station, West made a tape of himself doing some voices and characters and gave it to a friend of his in the security alarm business, of all things, who in turn played it for a client of his at WBCN radio in Boston. In 1980 Billy landed a job producing bits and doing voices for the morning show at WBCN. He also developed an alcohol and cocaine habit that landed him in rehab in 1985. It was certainly getting fashionable by then. “When I got out of there after a month, all I wanted to do was make up for lost time. I wanted to work hard and I wanted it to be quality and I wanted to get control over this beautiful gift I seem to have been given.”
West eventually went south to New York to work at WBCN’s sister station WXRK, whose top-rated morning DJ was Howard Stern. West’s first appearance on the Stern show was actually in 1988, as a walk-in guest from the Boston sister station, before he moved to New York.
“He had me on the ropes, that guy Howard. I thought I was so clever in Boston but these guys played for real. This wasn’t paintball. This was bazookas and flamethrowers,” West recalls. “It was like the difference between normal radio and this form of atomic bomb. I loved it. I fell in love with him and I loved the whole shebang and I came out of there shaking. Watching him was like watching Larry Bird get the ball or Jeff Beck pick up a guitar. When he took up the microphone all hell broke loose, but it was interesting hell.” Some months later, Lucy lay on her deathbed and Billy became part of what he describes as an “avalanche of comedy” on the Stern show.
In 1990 he auditioned for a couple of Nicktoons for Nickelodeon TV. One was called Doug, about a painfully shy 11-and-a-half-year-old boy, and West won several roles on that show. At the same time he was approached to do a revival of Beanie & Cecil, and though it aired only four times on ABC, the producers were impressed enough with West to want him to voice their next new show: Ren & Stimpy. “I’m looking at them [early sketches of Ren & Stimpy] and wondering: What are they? Are they microbes? Is one a mosquito? I got it suddenly. . . . It doesn’t matter what they look like. This is beautiful. One is the quintessential asshole — he’s a combination of five different assholes — and Stimpy was like a man-boy, only he was a cat. I used the Larry Fine voice from The Three Stooges for Stimpy and pitched it way up to adhere to a cartoon unisphere rather than the earthly one that we live in.
“Ren was a cross between Peter Lorre, Burl Ives and Kirk Douglas.”
Not realizing the show was already becoming a cult hit with the “cartoons for adults” crowd, West began the grueling task of traveling between New York and Hollywood, shooting commercials for M&M’s (he was the red one) and Honey Nut Cheerios (he was the Honey Bee) in Hollywood and doing the radio show in Manhattan three days a week.
He left the Stern show one day after making Alpo out of Robert Downey Jr.
“Howard would use me as an Akita, an attack dog.” These attacks were usually delivered via the Jackie Puppet. “Howard would say [sounding just like Stern], ‘I got Conan O’Brien comin’ in here and I haven’t got one fuckin’ thing to talk to him about so just attack him.’” West wound up O’Brien and many others to the point that they would want to go to blows with the puppet. It was beautiful.
But when the station pressed West to sign a waiver clearing it of any responsibility for his bits, he decided the time had come to set out on his own.
“The general manager of the station shoved a piece of paper at me stating that I would be personally and financially liable for any court cases brought against the station and told me to sign it,” claims West. “That really blew my stack. That’s the one reason I won’t go on the show or call in to the show. When the GM asked for the paper the next day I told him I left it on his desk. After that show I told Howard I was going Los Angeles to pursue my own career. I hugged him goodbye and that was that. I still have that piece of paper somewhere.”
West moved to Los Angeles and into the Oakwood Apartments by Forest Lawn Cemetery. “If you have a Hollywood career you start out at the Oakwood and when you’re 85 years old you wind up an acre away at Forest Lawn,” West jokes. Soon after arriving, he found himself working up to 10 cartoon series at a time, and able to move to the Beverly Hills side of Coldwater Canyon. He fell in with a clique of fellow heavyweight voice-over artists and was living out his dream. “I made friends with all these guys and to this day they’re the finest people I’ve ever met, these voice actors.”
But he never fully put down the guitar or stopped thinking about making music.
Now armed with a new CD, Me-Pod (available at www.billywest.com),
West is once again slinging his six-string and playing a few choice gigs. “I got
to record and play several gigs, including the David Letterman show, with Brian
Wilson, which was a dream come true . . . that voice.” West cites Jeff
Beck, Jimmy Page and the Yardbirds as his major influences; his style runs the
gamut from subtle finger picking to blistering leads, and he’s a good singer to
boot! West’s new CD opens with a sweet story-time narrative delivered in his best
“kindly uncle” persona, then blasts in the heartfelt rocker “I Gotta Get Laid,”
and from there West references everything from the Beatles to James Bond to Motown
to power pop. His voice slides easily from one musical style to the next. “As
a voice artist I like to sing a lot of different ways so musically I break it
up like a script from Futurama and sing with a voice fitting the song.”
Meanwhile, West keeps as busy as he can by doing television and radio spots. Along
with Ren & Stimpy writers Jim Gomez and Bill Wray, he is currently writing
a pilot called Billy Bastard (www.billybastard.com).
It’s based on West’s past as a mean drunk and drug addict. The film mixes live
action with puppets. “I want to be a producer so I can hire myself.” At least
that’s what he tells himself.
West is in no hurry to reunite with Sirius radio’s new $500 million man, now that the FCC regulators are apparently off Stern’s back.
“I don’t know if it’s the kind of show I want to do now,” says West. “I may not fit in. I’m too old to quibble about money. I chose to do voice work because I’m protected by AFTRA and SAG and if I had my choice to do a show on satellite radio, I would do my own show. Plus, I hate the winters in New York. They’re just terrible.”
As for the well-being that seems to have eluded West for so long, he’s getting a handle on that as well. When some concerned friends prodded him recently, he went to a doctor to find out why he had felt so bad all his life, and after several tests it was determined that he had hardly any levels of serotonin and other things critical to a healthy mindset. “It’s nice to find out when you’re 50 years old that you’ve had chronic, low-level depression your entire life,” he laughs. West was prescribed an antidepressant called Serzone that made up for his lack of serotonin. “It put me on a normal playing field with everyone else,” he says. “I could finally get my brain out of second gear.”