It was a Saturday night at Borders in Westlake, and the place was so packed, there wasn't even an open seat in the café/reading area. Standing in the corner, with only a guitar and amp, a quirky songwriter calling himself Hungry Bill was playing his "psychoustic" songs about partying with Charles Manson and being transformed into Adolf Hitler. Singing in a quivering, constipated voice that recalls ex-Talking Heads singer David Byrne, Hungry Bill seemed deranged himself. And the response was tepid at best -- when he asked if it was too loud, one patron browsing through the magazine rack whispered to a friend that he wished Hungry Bill would "just stop playing." The café area had started to clear out a bit (especially the closer you got to Bill), but most people were tolerating the strange singer. Then, Bill launched into "Pink Pinata," a song about a group of teen pranksters who fill a pinata made in the shape of a pig with shit, and he crossed the line.
"The person from Borders who helped set up my equipment came up and asked, 'Do you have any more songs with swear words in them?'" Bill recalls. "I said, 'Well, I guess I won't do the song called "Loner with a Boner.'" I said, 'I'm sorry. I guess it wasn't cool.' He said, 'It wasn't cool, man.' There was this vein popping out of his forehead. It was kind of a tense environment."
Bill was told never to return to the Borders in Westlake, even though the next show he played at a Borders in Columbus a couple of days later went over so well, he was invited back there for three more shows.
"That Westlake experience scared me, but they loved it in Columbus," Bill says. "I was surprised, because the people in Columbus didn't look any different, but I would go into these explanations of songs that they loved. I played a song about a stalker, and one woman who had been sent to jail for stalking really identified and came up to talk to me about it afterward."
Hungry Bill, who lived in Cleveland for three years while studying at Cleveland State University, was born in the Pittsburgh area and lives there now, practicing law out of an old house on a commercial street where he resides with two cats. Formerly a public defender who barely scraped by on a small salary, he's only recently started doing well enough to devote more time to his music. He performs every Friday night at a Pittsburgh coffeehouse called Café Au Lait, has just released My Weird Uncle, his first CD (following three tapes -- Eat Beer, Meatloaf Salad Surgery, and Live at the Beanery), and has started playing regionally.
While he initially called himself Battlin' Bill, Bill Pelger adopted the name Hungry Bill because of his reputation for having a voracious appetite (he's won several pancake-eating contests and once beat out a Pittsburgh performance artist named Phat Man Dee, whom he describes as "a 250-pound woman with a shaved head and tattoos"). In keeping with the culinary theme, Bill even hands out menus at his shows that list the names of his songs under sections for appetizers, side orders, entrées, and desserts. Hungry Bill says that the weird personalities he presents in his songs aren't necessarily indicative of what he's really like.
"I have a very vivid imagination," he says. "I've never been in jail or been hospitalized psychiatrically. I'm pretty normal."
So that song about building an ant farm "half the size of Idaho" is just a fantasy?
"I have built an ant farm," he admits. "I keep most of these stories in books and treat them as short stories. A lot are fantasies, but they're sometimes based on realities.
"When I lived in Cleveland, I went apartment hunting, and I responded to an ad about a funeral home in Lakewood," Bill says, explaining the song "I Cannot Live Inside the Mortuary." "They showed me these efficiencies downstairs, and they told me a lot of mortuary students lived there because it was a good studying environment. I think on the other side of the room was the embalming room. Who wants to be sitting there late at night hearing something being wheeled down the hallway?"
Inspiration for another song came when Bill went to see an Aerosmith concert in Cleveland a few years ago. The band canceled, so he and his friends took their party elsewhere.
"We met this wild and crazy woman who said she had washed clothes for Led Zeppelin, and they were trying to kill her," he recalls. "She said her name was Joni Mitchell, and she led us to this commune in these woods in this bad section of Cleveland. There were people walking around who appeared to be totally stoned, and there were stripped Volkswagens. We partied with them a bit and then left."
Bill agrees that there's a similarity between his material and that of the Talking Heads, but maintains that authors, rather than musicians, are more of an inspiration.
"Most of my influences come from my reading -- Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and William Burroughs," he says. "But when I find something that's funny and really rocks, I like the combination of those two."