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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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.

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