I first heard of Willis Earl Beal through Found Magazine. Gracing the COVER OF ISSUE #7 was a flier Willis had made in an attempt to meet a “nice pretty girl” and inside was an interview with Willis himself. At the end of the interview was a note telling readers that if they wanted to see some of Willis’s artwork or hear some of his music they should e-mail Found Magazine. I was intrigued by the interview and, as Willis and I lived in the same town, I wanted to see what this guy was up to. So, I e-mailed Found and they told me they hadn’t actually received anything from Willis yet. Could I track him down, collect some of his work, and send it on to them? Well, sure, I could do that. After all, Willis wasn’t hard to reach; his phone number was on the cover of Found Magazine.
While walking home from work one day I gave Willis a call and told him that Found Magazine wanted me to send some of his artwork on to them. He said he had some CD’s with him right then and that we could meet at a nearby Wendy’s, where he was applying for a job. So, I turned around and headed over to the restaurant. I didn’t know if we’d have much to talk about. All I knew about Willis was what I’d read in Found: that he liked nighttime, oatmeal and heavily favored the music of Norah Jones. As it turned out, he also liked Werner Herzog, Bob Dylan and William Burroughs. Alright, then.
I took the CD’s home, not sure what to expect, and put one in the player. The first track I heard was “Blue Escape.”
Once Willis began singing, my first thought was, “I want to be in a band with this guy!” The music came across like a bedroom mix of Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, the Dirt Bombs and Cat Power. So, I called him back and said I could play some drums, my girlfriend could play guitar, and he could obviously sing and write songs. Did he want to be in a band? Willis was up for trying something, but it took awhile for us to find a place to practice. Our first session was on a cold winter’s afternoon in an open barn, the snow-capped mountains of central New Mexico in the distance. It sounded good. In a short time we had a few tunes worked-out, including some from his home-recorded CD’s. One that Willis never seemed too keen on but that we pretty much insisted on playing was called “Monotony.”
Over the next few weeks we managed to practice once a week or so. We got a set together, booked a show, and got a lead on some recording time. The weekend before the gig we were set to rehearse but Willis didn’t show up on time. This was unusual. An hour later he called saying he was on the way to the airport and was flying back home to Chicago. He and his girlfriend had broken up the night before and he couldn’t stand being in New Mexico another day. He'd told his landlady to just throw all his stuff out. And that was that.
Who knows what might or might not have come of Willis’s songs? But we understood that he had to leave. And many of the songs he was writing seemed to be about his relationship; it would have been hard for him to keep singing them. It’s too bad we didn’t record anything though. My girlfriend and I spent a whole Saturday in thrift stores trying (and failing) to find a simple boom box. Even a practice tape would’ve been nice. Here’s one we eventually worked-up called “White Noize.”
Anyway, Willis is back in Chicago—hopefully writing some new songs—and I figured I’d post a couple of his tunes here on City of Dust. All three of these were from his original home recordings, mostly played on instruments he kept pawning. If anyone wants to hear more songs—and there’s a lot more—get in touch and maybe we can find a way to get them out to folks. Willis can sort of be found at WILLISEARLBEAL.COM. But the best way to contact him is still to just give him a call.
WOCA medium-format photos are from Albuquerque's West Mesa, the old SANTA FE PENITENTIARY, and the ALBUQUERQUE RAILYARDS, respectively.