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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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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