Willis Earl Beal: super unknown | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Willis Earl Beal: super unknown 

This below-underground Chicago songwriter wants something that might be impossible to get on purpose: a cult following

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Willis Earl Beal in his grandmother's backyard

Willis Earl Beal in his grandmother's backyard

Michael Boyd

While browsing at Myopic Books this past February, I saw a peculiar flyer: "I want some friends & stuff," it read. "I am not a Weasel." It included a name—Willis Earl Beal—along with a phone number and a drawing of a slender black man, apparently a self-portrait. I tried calling the number that day—and then several more times over the next few months. In late May, I finally talked to somebody at the other end.

Beal, 27, turns out to be an aspiring artist in several disciplines—he draws, plays music, and writes poetry and fiction. "I like to believe I do art because I have to do it—it's like vomit," he says. "I don't do art because I love it so much. Not that I don't, but it's a natural thing."

Beal hasn't formally released any of his songs, but in the process of getting to know him I've heard quite a few of them. His eccentric acoustic antifolk is soulful and earnest, and his lyrics are moving—he often writes about the difficulty of connecting with other people, as you might expect from a man who posts flyers looking for friends. In some songs he's discouraged about women; in others he wonders how to figure out what everybody else already seems to know. At one point he sings about showing up at a bar in costume and realizing he's the only person there wearing a mask.

Unfortunately, the odds that you've heard Beal's music are slim. He's been writing and recording for four years, but he has yet to perform in public. And the closest he's come to putting out an album has been leaving CD-Rs in public spaces around Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he lived from August 2007 till June 2010.

Despite his extremely low profile, though, Beal already has fans—including Davy Rothbart of Found, a magazine that publishes found materials like letters, snapshots, and to-do lists. A reader gave him one of Beal's flyers at a Found event in Albuquerque, and Rothbart put it on the cover of the seventh issue, which hit stores in January 2010. Inside was a four-page interview with Beal. (I hadn't seen that issue when I found the flyer in Myopic, or I might've had a better idea what I was getting into.)

Now Found is releasing a 200-copy edition of a box set called The Willis Earl Beal Special Collection, which will include Beal's poetry, artwork, and the 17-song album Acousmatic Sorcery. At press time Rothbart hoped to be ready to take preorders on Thursday, July 28.

If the set comes together, it won't just be a beginning for Beal; it'll be the end of a long road. Due to a combination of bad luck, strange circumstances, and his own idiosyncratic decisions, he's had a hell of a time releasing his own music. He has all the tracks from Acousmatic Sorcery in order on two cassettes—he dubbed the songs himself from several unsequenced CDs of his own material—and since March he's been talking with Rick Riggs, co-owner and engineer at Roscoe Village studio Handwritten Recording, about converting the whole "album" into a digital format. Problem is, that would've cost him $100, and Beal is essentially un­employed—in early June he quit a job at FedEx, which paid $130 a week, after less than two months. Right now he's living at his grandmother's house on the south side and doing occasional temp work.

Beal also doesn't own a computer—to check e-mail and apply for jobs, he visits the Saint Sabina Employment Resource Center about a mile from his grandma's place. He knows it's important for musicians to use the Web, but he prefers to stay offline. "Do you sell your soul or do you get on the Internet?" he asks, implying that they might as well be the same thing. Staying off the Web, he says, would "get these young people understanding what it's like to hustle as opposed to just typing."

Needless to say, Beal hasn't posted his music to Bandcamp or Soundcloud or Facebook or anywhere else. But there are a few of his songs on the Web. After my first attempts to call him failed, I found some of his music on a blog called City of Dust. A post from October 2010 titled "The Sound of Young America" has three mesmerizing home-recorded tunes—including the haunting "Monotony," which I couldn't help but play over and over. Beal recorded them while living in Albuquerque, and the man behind the blog, John Mulhouse, got his hands on them after seeing the Found piece and contacting the magazine in spring 2010 about how to hear Beal's music. The Found article had invited readers to write in if they wanted some, but the magazine had never gotten any from Beal. Rothbart suggested that Mulhouse, who lives in Albuquerque, contact Beal directly—after all, his number was on the flyer on the cover of the magazine. More than a year later, that call would lead to The Willis Earl Beal Special Collection.

Beal's flyer was a sort of holy grail for Found. Much less sparse than the one I responded to, it had not just his number and a self-portrait—this time in a suit—but a lengthy personal ad meant for "a nice, pretty girl" to find. "I'm not some flashy, excessively sweet food. I'm more like a biscuit," he wrote.

click to enlarge One of Beal's flyers on the cover of Found
  • One of Beal's flyers on the cover of Found

Even the story of how Rothbart got the flyer—and met Beal—is extraordinary. "A couple of years ago, a crazy thing happened in Albuquerque after we performed," he writes in his introduction to Beal's interview. "A woman named Jessica Carr passed me this strange, intriguing flyer that she'd found on the sidewalk in front of the building that houses the Alibi, Albuquerque's awesome alt-weekly. I began marveling at what a wonderful find this was and reading it aloud to the people around me, when all of a sudden we heard a voice sitting a few rows back say, 'Hey, that's me. I'm Willis Earl Beal.'"

"In retrospect," Beal says, "I call it a sociological experiment. But I think I was really reaching out. I was lonely." In Albuquerque he'd worked a string of low-level jobs, often on the night shift, which contributed to his isolation. "People really understood it, because there was humor and there was sincerity."

In his interview with Found, Beal talks about sleeping on the streets of Albuquerque right after his move, his medical discharge from the army in 2005 due to intestinal problems, and the strange encounters he's had with people contacting him through his flyer. At one point Rothbart offers to change the phone number on the flyer when Found reprints it, but Beal declines. "I don't mind if people call me," he says. "That would be cool. I like people."

Beal heard from a lot of people after the article came out. He says a high school girl living in Hawaii would call him often, usually at 2 or 3 AM. A doctor called to give him advice about his stomach condition. Rothbart claims that Mos Def got in touch with Beal too.

A note at the end of the interview, which explained that Found was working on a way to connect its readers with Beal's art, writing, and music, attracted more than 100 e-mails. But even when Mulhouse met with Willis and sent a batch of his songs to the magazine last spring, nothing came of it—Found is just one of Rothbart's projects, and it's taken him till now to get around to releasing the music.

Mulhouse first caught up with Beal at a Wendy's—Beal was applying for a job—and they hung out for a couple hours. Mulhouse went home and cued up one of the CDs Beal had passed along. The music floored him, and he wasted no time inviting Beal to start a band. "I think his voice is classically good, in the tradition of old R&B singers, old blues singers," he says. "He's got a real earthy quality about him."

Beal is a self-taught musician, and he claims he never sang before he moved to Albuquerque. "I started singing in order to deal with the initial homelessness and the fact that I didn't know anybody," he says. Once he found steady work and a place to live, he began accumulating instruments.

He ended up with three guitars—a red electric he got at a garage sale, a brown acoustic he bought for $100, and another, smaller acoustic from a flea market—plus a lap harp and a collection of pots and pans for a homemade drum kit. To record he used a cassette-based karaoke machine with one working speaker and a $40 Radio Shack microphone, tracking each instrument individually and finally adding his voice. For special effects, he had to get creative: he'd put the mike up to the body of an acoustic guitar and sing into it for reverb, or cover it in a plastic bag and hold it under a running faucet. "It takes a lot of imagination to have no talent," he says.

Beal can put together a hell of a tune from spare parts, and the rough edges in his recordings—off-the-beat drumming, accidentally overdriven vocals, out-of-tune guitar chords—just make him sound more earnest. He so badly wants to express himself that he'll push right up against his limitations—and sometimes ignore them entirely.

Rothbart compares Beal to cult musicians like Wesley Willis and Daniel Johnston. "There's this raw kind of beauty in the work of people who are living life as outsiders," he says. "Like Willis would say, they're the biscuits of the art world."

This isn't lost on Beal—he admires Johnston and Willis as well as fellow outsiders Sharkula and Jandek. He says they helped inspire his move to Albuquerque and his plunge into music. "I felt like I had this divine purpose to become an underground cult legend," he says. "I had to get out to Albuquerque, because Albuquerque was the place where I was gonna grow as an artist." When he left Chicago for New Mexico, he'd just been fired from a night-shift security job at the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower, as Beal likes to point out). He'd developed a romanticized idea of Albuquerque as a beautiful, barren place, informed by a 2003 film called Off the Map. "A guy who worked for the IRS went out to Albuquerque to audit somebody, this family, and decided that he was an artist, and he never came back. I think it was Santa Fe," he says. "Much to my dismay, Albuquerque was nothing like that."

What Beal did find in Albuquerque was a champion: Mulhouse and his girlfriend, Emily Nelson, practiced with him once or twice a week for a month in spring 2010, fleshing out ten of his songs. Mulhouse plays drums and Nelson plays guitar, and they've been making music for a couple decades. "It wasn't so much for us to be a band," Mulhouse says. "It was more for me to have a way to get him out there." They scheduled a recording session and booked a show at the Blackbird Buvette, a bar where Beal had been working.

It looked like Beal's career as a musician was finally about to begin, but just before his live debut, he left town. The studio session never happened either. He and the woman he considers his first girlfriend, Jessica Fink, had broken up, and on June 5, 2010, he returned home. Fink's parents, who also lived in Albuquerque, paid for his ticket, and he flew to Chicago with just the clothes on his back.

In New Mexico, Beal had lived in an apartment of his own for the first time, and since returning he's had to readjust to living with his grandmother, Annette Wheeler, and his 23-year-old brother, Antoine. He sleeps on an enclosed porch and sometimes, if the weather permits, on the roof. He plays with the feral cats that hang around the property, sometimes feeding them or burying the ones that die. He occasionally fights with his brother, and he doesn't pay his grandmother rent anymore, like he did when he was working more regularly. He's also having trouble connecting with people in his neighborhood. "I'll turn on some Bo Diddley and I'll get into the music and start dancing, and people will walk by there and they'll look in and be like, 'That guy is crazy,'" he says.

He hasn't had much better luck with folks outside the neighborhood. When he went to a meet-up in Wicker Park organized by online writers' group Just Write Chicago, he says, the other writers were uninterested in the excerpt he read from his novel in progress, Principles of a Protagonist. ("It's about a guy who's trying to go up the street to get some nachos," he says. "But he's got attention deficit disorder, so he can't fucking get up there.") And his grandmother asked him to stop posting his flyers, which now use her landline number, after she got a couple of weird calls—one of which Beal says was from someone claiming to be a cop.

"Externally, my life is total loserville right now," he says. "But I feel like I'm just beginning. I feel a lot better about my life than a lot of other people might think."

Beal hasn't written or recorded any music since leaving Albuquerque in such a hurry, but his former landlord mailed him his CDs—that's why he was able to put together the cassette version of Acousmatic Sorcery he took to Handwritten Recording. He never managed to pay for the digital conversion of that tape, which Riggs wrapped up last week. Luckily, Rothbart and Found took care of the studio bill for Beal so they could proceed with the box set. Riggs has become a fan, like Rothbart and Mulhouse before him—he fell for Beal's music while working on the conversion. "I think he's just a super imaginative songwriter," he says.

Beal has tentative plans to celebrate the prerelease of The Willis Earl Beal Special Collection with what might almost count as a show: if all goes well, sometime this Thursday evening he'll perform at the Jackson el stop, either on the Red Line, on the Blue Line, or in the tunnel between them. A friend from Albuquerque has made him a CD of five instrumental tunes, and he'll sing along on a boom box. Beal says they sound a little like house music—that is, nothing like his own material—but he thinks they work with his voice.

Beal has no concrete plans for another release, and if he's ever going to have one, it's probably safe to say that the music business will need to come to him—he doesn't seem interested in learning its rules. When I first met him, I asked if he had priced out a pressing of Acousmatic Sorcery—at the time, he was talking about releasing it with another full album and elaborate artwork, in a package like Tom Waits's Orphans box set. "Priced?" he said. "No. I don't think realistically. What are you talking about?" 

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