All the papers around Chicago are talking about, and hence contributing to, the explosion of local ex-outsider musician Willis Earl Beal. People are pretty damn starved for authenticity these days, and ironically they can only find it in the bizarre and austere. We're so used to Photoshop and digitized slickness that we just swoon over a little grit and dirt and tape hiss. (This is also why we're currently posting tons of photos to the Internet that are filtered to look lower-quality than they actually are.) I spent last summer leading wilderness expeditions for teenagers, and I was amazed how often they commented that an amazing vista looked like something out of a movie--the truth, of course, is the exact opposite, but we've arrived at a cultural moment where we're so accustomed to being lied to by advertising and polished images that reality itself has become untrustworthy. It's too real, the images too bright; it must be hiding something. Hence also the pre-"worn" blue jeans and baseball caps parents have been incredulous over for a decade, etc. We need something a little rough around the edges. In Beal's case it's his sound as well as his life story. We've been fed too many politicians whose lives have been squeegeed and flattened for easier public consumption; anymore we can only feel genuine identification with someone whose life has been weirder and harder than ours. Only a larger-than-life story feels lifelike.
Whatever you think about his music, you've gotta love some of the delightfully unpretentious things Beal said this week in an interview published by the normally stupid-ass RedEye. Best concert you've seen in the last year? "I don't like concerts." New band you don't know personally that deserves to be big? "I don't really know any new bands." Chicago's best music venue? "The Jackson 'L' stop."
And my personal favorite: "I think I'm a credible artist, but like all things I think it's more hype than anything, personally."
Here is a guy who had an opportunity to play himself as hipper than those reading the interview (the normal strategy for all artists/musicians in these situations, desperate as we are to pick up any sort of that intangible cachet that will make us feel legitimate) by dropping a name, any noun, anything at all--and he chose to be totally honest instead.
Two things I've ascertained to be commonalities among all of my favorite musicians to work with and, often, to listen to: 1) they maintain a positive attitude; 2) they don't care what people think. They just don't care.
I've spoken before about the subtle and layered bullshit castles that artists construct when we talk about our work. We can't help it, we're too interested in doing the work whilst also continuing to eat. It's kind of amazing, though, how quickly the rest of us start to sound frivolous, how swiftly the castle dissolves into dust, when someone just sits in an interview and manages to act like himself. I suppose Beal at this point might be engaging in his own brand of posturing--it's pretty hard to avoid--but for where we are in 2012, it seems that posturelessness might be the most effective posture.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues