William Paul Kerr (10.21.1951 – 6.7.2016)
photo: Whitney Ward
His friends called him “Willie”. He hailed from Lebanon, PA – a working class area outside Pittsburgh, formerly home to a major steel mill operated by Bethlehem Steel. Like most young men from that area, Willie went straight from high school to a job in the steel mill. It was a decent, honest living and Willie was an honest man with a heart full of kindness and humility. But there is a whole lot more to the story than that.
Marrying your high school girlfriend and settling down to raise a family was the path that the vast majority of his peers quickly eased into, but that was not the life for Willie. Willie chose the bachelor’s life, and his salary from the steel mill allowed him to live a sort of blue-collar bon vivant lifestyle, indulging in his love of ‘honkey tonkin’, Rolling Rock beer (from the original brewery in Latrobe, PA), baseball (The Cleveland Indians and the NY Mets) and building his vast collection of records.
Willie had a voracious appetite for music: the country music his parents listened to on the radio; the 1950s rock and roll records his older sisters played at home; the British invasion of the 1960s that led to the discovery of, and a deep love for, Chicago and Delta Blues; 1970s Glam Rock and then, Punk. Punk is the part of the story that led to his life in New York City.
Around 1976 Willie began spending his days off traveling to New York City to see bands play at CBGB. He was there for the Heartbreakers, Ramones, Television, Dead Boys, Dictators, The Cramps, et.al. His distinctively tall, gangly figure, clad in worn jeans and leather motorcycle jacket with Converse high top sneakers, would have made him look like a lost Ramone were it not for the lush head of wild blonde curls he sported (a ‘whitefro’). Legend has it that Joey Ramone himself stumbled up to Willie one night outside CBs and accused him of “copying” his “style”. Willie grumbled back, “You think I WANT to look like this?”
Willie had a special relationship with The Cramps in their early days in New York. There was a natural bond between the young man from a PA steel town and Lux Interior and Nick Knox, who were both Ohio natives. At least one of the band members slept in a Bowery basement that had no bathroom – a drain in the concrete floor served as a makeshift urinal. Scraping change together for a coffee at Phebe’s would allow access to an actual toilet when needed. Willie served as “roadie” for the Cramps. When the band played out of town gigs, Willie would pass out in their van full of gear at the end of the night – a faithful, if inebriated, watchdog. Willie’s huge head of hair can be clearly seen in the audience, in the photograph on the back cover of The Cramps “Gravest Hits” EP.
At some point in the mid-1980s the steel mills of PA began to close. Willie moved to New York to play bass for DaWillys. Willie played a Ventures Mosrite bass that he purchased at Sears when he graduated high school, and provided a mostly upright backbone to the vibrant, chaotic bluesy punk music of the band that would reach their apex at the top of the local music scene dubbed “Scum Rock”. His fellow band mates and the audience members were at least a dozen years younger and looked up to Willie as an icon… a flesh and blood link to their inspirations from the early CBs era. When his last check from the steel mill was spent, he moved in with other local musicians and found employment at Midnight Records, a shop on West 23rd Street specializing in independent, rare and reissued punk, garage and blues music that also had its own record label featuring NYC veterans like The Senders. Willie’s position at Midnight was much more suited to his talents than factory work. He held court with a can of Blatz beer as shop patrons hungrily gobbled up his rock and roll war stories and musical recommendations.
Eventually Willie quit the band, the record shop closed, Willie moved back to Pennsylvania, quit drinking, and quit following baseball. He grew bored with rock music and embraced bluegrass, a genre whose musicians could “really play.” He found employment in a flowerpot factory and moved into a spacious apartment in his hometown. He enjoyed traveling to festivals to see his favorite female blue grass singers, and was looking forward to retirement. But that is a chapter of Willie’s life different from the one we are remembering here. The Willie we remember would stand, swaying like a sky-scraping palm tree, clutching a 40-ounce beer in a paper bag in one hand and the sports pages in another hand, grumbling “F**ck ’em all but six.” – the amount of pallbearers needed to carry a coffin. Willie left many, many more friends behind than that. He could have a parade of pallbearers that would stretch the length of the Bowery.
Willie passed after a short battle with brain cancer. At his request, no memorial service was held. A tribute will be held at 2:00pm on Sunday, July 17, 2016 at Otto’s Shrunken Head (538 E 14th St, New York, NY 10009, phone (212) 228-2240). Friends and fans are encouraged to gather and share stories, music, and Blatz Beer.