Feel His Pain

Billy Bob has a simple plan: to sing about life and lovin' his wife

And then there are the songs he croons and croaks to his wife: "Your Blue Shadow" is a languid ballad about time spent apart on movie sets; "Angelina" offers a portrayal of their relationship so disquietingly intimate it's downright uncomfortable for the innocent bystander (imagine sneaking a peek at strangers going at it in a parked car). "They all said we'd never make it/Two crazy panthers on the prowl," he sings, as if just to her. "They said we would only fake it for a while/But we just looked at them and growled." Thornton says when Jolie heard the latter for the first time, she cried. Sometimes, it seems even his best efforts to reclaim the couple's life from the ravenous tabloids only further feed the beast.

"It's funny," Thornton says, "maybe I'm just different, but it's not hard for me to reveal all that stuff. I mean, people have asked me a lot since I've made this record, 'Isn't it hard to reveal yourself that much?' I wouldn't do it if it was. If I didn't want people to know this stuff, I wouldn't have even written the songs or said anything. Angie and I both get mail from people who've said we've actually affected their lives, and we've affected their lives at times when they felt, like..." He pauses. "I don't know if they felt hipper to be connected to us or they felt their own darkness was cool or whatever, or sometimes they just saw people felt like they did, but if they can see you can come out of it with a good life, think what that can do for people. If somebody actually does give a damn about what I've done with my life, and if they listen to a song like 'Private Radio' and then listen to a song like 'Angelina,' then they can say, 'I was standing on the bridge, too, and maybe I got hope.' So, in that sense, it's a good thing to put out there, and I don't mind puttin' it out there at all."

Thornton wants it made clear he is no dilettante, not just some fool actor out there trying to top the pops for grins. He talks about the bands he started when he was a kid in Little Rock (his first, when he was 9, was named after San Francisco Giants first baseman Willie McCovey); he mentions the bands for which he opened (Hank Williams Jr. and Black Oak Arkansas, among others) when he played in Tres Hombres, a ZZ Top tribute band that used to tour Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas. Music, he says again and again, is "my first love." He often reminds that when he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film, he also harbored dreams of becoming a recording star. Private Radio is nothing more than a dream come true, decades after the fact.

The man who isn't all there: Billy Bob Thornton doesn't know when to shut up, God bless him.
The man who isn't all there: Billy Bob Thornton doesn't know when to shut up, God bless him.

He is terrified of being dismissed as just another actor playing out the ultimate role--that of guitar-slinger prowling the stage, like a kid with a coat hanger and a mirror. He gripes that no one complains when a musician transitions into acting, but damned if the singing actor isn't a thing to poke fun at--be his name Sebastian Cabot, William Shatner or Thornton's pal and Armageddon co-star Bruce Willis. He also likes to say that if he had any intentions of topping the pops, he wouldn't have made such a somber album.

"This record is not a shock to people," he says. "This is what people would think I would do. I don't think you'd think I'd come out with a record like 'N Sync or something like that. Can you see four of me up there doing that? So many music people wanna cross over into movies, and they do, and I think it's easier for singers to become actors because of the nature of movies these days. Movies kinda look like rock videos to start with, and they can make the transition to big, fluffy commercial movies, because they're an easy place to fit in. But as an actor who tries to become a singer, you're compared to, like, Mr. French or something. It's ridiculous.

"If I was tryin' to make a vanity project, if I was tryin' to do something that was gonna make me money and make me popular on the pop charts, it wouldn't have been this record. I would've tried to find three other guys and make a record where we're singing about teen-age girls. I'm not sure what they want, but it sure wouldn't have been this."

Once revered and beloved as good ol' boy made great, Thornton's too easily dismissed by the smirking and cynical as a one-hit wonder. Private Radio ain't gonna help that. Likely, it will be treated as a novelty at best and an indulgence at worst. And he couldn't care less.

"I don't fit," Thornton says. "I just don't. When people said, 'Hey, you need to be seen. It's getting to be awards time; you need to go out and talk to people,' I didn't fit then either. I tried. But it made me feel sick. I gotta tell you, the last couple of years, man, when I go out there, I literally just get sick to my stomach. My wife and I stay home. We get out when we have to for something, but I literally--and she'll tell you this--I start to itch when I know we have to go somewhere."

Jolie is heard in the distance, shouting for her husband. They have to go somewhere. To Petco, to fetch food for their dogs. What a freak.

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