May 7-13, 2009
Local veteran brings the blues home from Vietnam
by Jimy Valenti
The man they call Boston Billy is afraid his old Korean harmonica is about to get him in trouble once again.
“My brother and I are having a contest,” he says. “We trying to out-panhandle each other. I’m not allowed to play though, ’cause that’s cheatin’… Awe, hell with it. You girls want to hear a song? You deserve a song.”
William Mahoney, 59 of Boulder, known as Boston Billy, wears an old denim jacket over a brown hooded sweatshirt. His long beard is mostly white.
Boston Billy leads two young women on the Pearl Street mall to his bench and grabs an old harmonica out of a dusty beige backpack.
“My brother’s gonna get mad,” Billy says. “See, he don’t play music.”
The man Billy calls his brother stands across the mall asking for change and gives Billy the evil eye. Billy ignores him. He shows the girls his harmonica.
“This is my baby,” he says.
He shows them its age, and how the sides have come apart from years of wear. He brags that he can play this broken old harp better than anyone.
“I’m the best,” Billy says. “You won’t find anyone can blow as good as me.”
Boston Billy takes a deep breath. He bends a long note, his hand quivers getting every ounce of sound out of the old harp.
“That’s Louisiana blues,” Billy says.
“What the hell, Boston!” says the man Billy calls his brother.
“I ain’t playing for money,” Billy says. “I swear.”
His brother walks a block east and continues asking strangers for 50 cents. Nobody stops.
Boston Billy’s harmonica rings across the Pearl Street Mall, echoing through the vacant storefronts. The girls smile, bob their heads and stare, grateful for their private show.
“I lost it all… I lost my job... I lost my wife… Oh, I lost my life… Oh, I lost it all,” sings Billy.
Boston Billy had a girlfriend. He was going to marry her. He knew her parents. Her name is tattooed on his left forearm. His first tattoo, Julia, is barely visible after 40 years. He got the tattoo in Seoul, Korea, on R&R after his first tour in Vietnam. Two days later he received his “Dear John” letter. Julia met someone else.
“It was a love thing,” Billy says. “I really thought it was a love thing.”
Boston Billy was drafted into the Vietnam War in 1969. Despite being opposed to the war, he decided not to follow his friends to Canada. He said the toughest part about being drafted was when the army cut off his waist-long hair. Boston Billy said it brought tears to his eyes.
He was in the Army’s 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles. The Screaming Eagles tattoo is still engraved on his chest. Boston Billy completed 105 jumps in the bush and left his first six-month tour unscathed.
His music wails into the night. The girls thank him and leave. A couple in their late 40s walk up to Billy just as he puts his harmonica away.
“How do your lips not freeze to that thing,” says the man.
“It sounded incredible,” says the woman, bundled up in a long black trench coat, scarf and hat.
“We heard you from all the way down there,” says the man. “That was…” the man searches… “awesome.”
“I’m the best there is,” Billy says.
“I don’t doubt it,” says the man. “It’s my wife’s birthday. That song you just sang was special. We really liked it.”
The man, dressed for his wife’s birthday dinner at one of Boulder’s upscale restaurants, hands Billy a wad of money.
“Here is a million dollar bill,” says the man.
The man hands Billy a real estate promotion guised as a million dollar bill wrapped around nine dollars.
“Well, you two deserve a song,” Billy says. “Let me show you them Louisiana Blues. I’m gonna get in trouble though. My brother and I are having a contest.”
The couple politely declines their private show, saying they’re cold. Billy won’t let them leave without performing an impromptu song.
Boston Billy takes a deep breath.
A woman in Seoul carried a heaping burlap sack full of cheap harmonicas while Billy was on R&R. Boston Billy said he had just got paid $186 and was looking for something to take the edge off.
“I wanted something to keep me company,” Billy says. “I wanted to play and relax. All the shit going on around me — I thought I could deal with it a lot better. I’ve been playing ever since.”
Boston Billy learned to play the harmonica in the bush. The first song he learned was “Home Sweet Home.”
“I learned I could play that thing till there’s no end to it,” Billy says.
The couple thanks Billy for their private show and disappears into the night.
A friend walks by. “Hey Boston!” she says. “Old man, what’s happenin’?”
“Ahhh… get a job!” Billy says.
His friends who are panhandling behind him erupt with laughter. The woman asks Billy if he wants any extra blankets tonight. He says he always needs more blankets.
Music meant a lot to Billy in Vietnam. It kept his morale up and raised the spirits of the other troops. They called him the joker. Billy liked cracking jokes and regularly told the boys they would make it home.
Shrapnel ripped through Billy’s body. He lost a finger on one hand and a lot of blood. He was medivacked out of the bush to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.
“I always knew I was coming home ’cause I have a strong heart,” Billy says as his Boston accent sneaks through.
Boston Billy has lived on the streets for four years. He worked as a machinist at the Celestial Seasonings plant in Boulder before he lost it all.
“I got the news while at the work, the graveyard shift,” Billy says. “They says, ‘Hey Billy.’ and I thought, ‘Aw, jeez, what I do now?’
They says, ‘You ain’t do nothing. It’s your kid — she’s been in a car wreck.’ And I started drinking. I still been drinking, four years.”
Boston Billy lost his daughter, Jessica, in a car wreck. He wasn’t there.
“I’m just waiting, just waiting to go,” Billy says. “I’m not scared of dying though. I feel like I’m gonna outlive ’em all. That’s the scariest feeling. ’Cause then I’ll be alone.”
Boston Billy walks into a large group of street people. Smiles abound while Billy rips on all of them. His brother passes him a bottle wrapped in brown paper.
“If you don’t know blues, you can’t play ’em,” Billy says.
Boston Billy takes a deep breath and plays the blues.