SOMERVILLE -- The wig went missing in New York City. A few weeks ago, after Billy Hough wrapped up his unfiltered take on one of Lou Reed’s most difficult albums at Joe’s Pub, he couldn’t find the ratty blond rug he’s been wearing onstage for nearly 20 years. Ever since he began doing Scream Along With Billy.
Scream Along is the name by which Hough refers to his long-running burlesque of classic albums. Over the years he’s paid tribute (in a manner of speaking) to the music of David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, the Rolling Stones, and many more. He brings his ragged, raunchy version of Reed’s album “Berlin” to ONCE at the Rockwell in Somerville on Sunday.
Hough, who’s in his early 50s, has been shredding Boston stages since the mid-1990s, when he moved here with his younger brothers, Paul and Matt, and launched the GarageDogs. Hired to play piano in the basement-level Grotta Bar in Provincetown after settling there in the mid-2000s, he was looking for a way to keep crowds coming back when he hit upon the idea of slaughtering some of the sacred cows of album rock.
For the first show, a thorough dismantling of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” Hough asked Susan Goldberg to join him on bass. They’d met through a mutual affiliation with the Cape Cod theater maven Ryan Landry.
“She sat in on bass and never left,” recalls Hough, sitting in the dressing room at the Rockwell on a recent weekday afternoon.
His raspy voice and reckless stage presence created a stark contrast with the usual performance fare in P-town, he says: “It was a bunch of queens wanting ‘Oklahoma,’ and it made me angry.”
But anger doesn’t account for the joyful abandon of a typical Scream Along show, which often features battered keyboards, various stages of undress, occasional substance abuse and, of course, all-aboard, over-the-top vocals. A punk polymath, he’s as comfortable performing the plays of Samuel Beckett as he is straddling a Styrofoam motorcycle in a campy send-up of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” He’s even masterminded a musical theater rendition of the entirety of Robert Altman’s classic film “Nashville.”
To distinguish the Scream Along shows from his more conventional piano bar gigs, Hough created an alter ego — an absurd version of himself, “like Stephen Colbert used to do,” Goldberg says. “He put the wig on and it let him loose.”
Goldberg, more than a decade older than Hough, quickly realized that she needed to provide an anchor for his mercurial stage persona.
“I’m sort of the monolith,” says Goldberg, a Revere native who studied briefly at Berklee. “I’m just there, holding it down. I’m the Ed McMahon.” All these years after their unlikely pairing, she jokes that Hough calls her his “music wife.”
“More like his grandma at this point,” she adds with a laugh.
Hough’s punk-rock bona fides got a boost after he met Legs McNeil a decade or so ago. McNeil, a co-founder of Punk magazine and the co-author of “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk,” took an immediate shine to the singer. Soon Hough was accompanying McNeil at readings, bashing away at songs by the Ramones and Iggy and the Stooges.
“I fell in love with Billy,” says McNeil, who grew up in Connecticut and lives near Philadelphia. “It just seems like he’s always been a part of my life.
“I love seeing Billy in his element. He has such a weird voice. And I love the patter between songs, too. He’s kind of like a vaudeville act.”
Hough was born in Bakersfield, Calif., the oldest of three sons to two school teachers. When he was 8, the family moved to Mississippi, where his father would become the local TV weatherman. At 16, he traveled to South Africa as an exchange student. In college, he was the president of his fraternity.
He came out while living in New Orleans in the early 1990s. He says he drove home from a drag bar to Mississippi one night to tell his parents, then turned around and drove right back — to close the bar.
Besides making music (or attempting to break it), Hough has acted in several independent feature films. A few years ago he starred in Beckett’s one-man play “Krapp’s Last Tape” on the Cape. More recently, he was hired by the New York City bookseller McNally Jackson to lead an online book discussion group, including titles ranging from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” to Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
The wiry, fast-talking Hough is a self-taught literary aesthete.
“I made myself read something hard every time I hit a 5 or a 0,” he says. At 25, he read “War and Peace.” At 30, it was “Ulysses.”
“He can pretty much do anything onstage that’s asked of him,” marvels Goldberg. “It floors me.”
Over the years Hough has endeared himself to a gallery of P-town personalities. The author Michael Cunningham is a friend. The Violent Femmes’s Gordon Gano once sat in while Hough was having his way with Gano’s band’s debut album. When Hough got married last fall to Christopher Wilcox, a fellow musician, John Waters presided over the ceremony.
After McNeil introduced Hough to Danny Fields, a rock ‘n’ roll legend who managed the Stooges and the Ramones, Fields did some name-dropping of his own. He described Hough as “the exact midpoint” between Sid Vicious and the cabaret singer Bobby Short.
That sounds about right for his excursion into the depths of “Berlin,” which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. A theatrical song cycle that the rock critic Lester Bangs once argued “may be the most depressed album ever made,” it’s a bleak rock opera about prostitution, addiction, the perils of parenting, and assorted other calamities.
Goldberg’s partner, the artist Debbie Nadolney, who was in the 1990-era Boston band High Risk Group, will sit in on drums during Sunday’s Scream Along. Magnetic Fields’ Tony Kaczynski will be on hand as well.
Hough may not take his tributes seriously, but the people who come together around him can testify to his artistic generosity.
“Once he knows you,” says Goldberg, “he’ll give you the shirt, and everything else, off his back.”
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
SCREAM ALONG WITH BILLY: LOU REED’S “BERLIN”
At ONCE at the Rockwell, 255 Elm St., Somerville. April 30. Doors at 7 p.m. $18.03. oncesomerville.com