For some musicians moving away from a rural town to a big city ends in success – records, concerts, tours and so on. For some it does not. Unfortunately, the latter proved true for Billy Vail, an eccentric busker who plays guitar two to three times a week in Harvard Square. Although dressed in vibrantly colored clothes, Vail concealed himself rather well, quietly sitting in a former entranceway near the Garage on JFK St.
In high school Vail thrived at the arts and admitted he did terribly at every other aspect of school. He played brass instruments but didn’t see a future in an orchestra or big band setting, so he transitioned to playing guitar. He played rather fast-paced yet mellow finger-picking folk guitar, similar in style to John Fahey or Bert Jansch, but at a volume that was barely loud enough for those walking by to hear. When I asked why he played so quietly, he responded with, “I’m not much of a guitarist, man.” He is very much a guitarist.
Arriving in Boston from Idaho in 2001, Vail was focused on forming a band with which he could create music to spread transcendental knowledge and light a spark in some people. He defined reality as what the majority thinks, and the majority believes in egotism. Vail manifest a positive reality, shifting the common ideology away from egotism and toward a more generous, altruistic attitude. He was to use his music as the influence for this transformation.
Without a foundation, a house cannot be built. And that is exactly what happened in Vail’s case. After arriving in Boston with about 20 albums worth of material written to stir up the music scene, he invested his money in promoters who proved egotistical, the exact mentality he was targeting to reduce. Vail saw his money evaporate and his dreams of becoming a professional musician and rocking clubs with huge crowds come to a sudden halt. In 2005 he hit a low point. “I started hitting the bottle,” he told me. “I mean, Ialways hit the bottle, but I started really hitting the bottle.” Since then Vail has been homeless 14 times. He has lost his drive to be a musician. In his words, he’s “jaded”.
Despite all of these shortcomings, Vail still finds time to give back and promote the arts, volunteering for art shows at Youth on Fire in Harvard Square, a program of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts that helps homeless teenagers. Although Vail may not have succeeded to the magnitude he wished in spreading altruism, he still gives back himself, which speaks volumes after all he has been through.
You can find Vail from time to time busking in Harvard Square where he will most likely be wearing his colorful homemade pants. He is looking for a pair of size 14 boots for the winter.