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Willis Earl Beal

I was scared. Terrified of the idea of approaching him. Terrified of the idea of staring into his eyes. Yet even more so of talking to him. And then, when we crossed paths in a hallway, I got up the courage – I had seen him smile that afternoon, putting me at easy. I needed to talk to him to tell him what he had done to me in New York when I came across him by chance. The bar half full, at the counter drinking whisky cokes, his backpack glued to his shoulders, his dark glasses on his nose, his suitcase on hand. He got up on stage and the whole room returned. Everyone took ten steps back with jaws opened due to the presence of such a different world. There was total silence and then his voice.

That evening, Willis Earl had left me stunned. Stunned again when I was in front of him that August Saturday with the mind like a kid going to ask her parents if Santa Clause really exists. I talked to him about New York, told him that I waited religiously his concert that evening at Route du Rock, and then I finished by spitting it out: Chryde and I have been obsessing for several months the idea having him for ourselves, making him sing, of doing whatever with him, but doing something big. Willis smiled, “I like that idea, come see me after the concert,” he said. I felt my heart was going to pop out of my chest and I watched him leave.

Art and I came back to see him. We had spotted a tunnel somewhere in the festival. A long stone corridor lit in neon. We already saw him there, against the light, alone with his voice echoing on each street. We were quickly disillusioned: the other concerts were too loud, it would have ruined everything. We decided to meet him again the next morning. It seemed to be unpredictable; we didn’t know if this Take Away Show was going to happen. We were scared that he would slipped through our fingers, disappear, and we would never see him again.

Sunday, we did a tour of Saint Malo, the surrounding villages. We looked for the perfect spot. Castle ruins, a windmill. We still thought of that tunnel but the sunlight and the scale of the festival bothered us. We envisioned an immense field with mules scattered throughout. We imagined Willis singing in the middle of this massive place. We searched for other places, but then, while we stopped at a bar to ask the boss if he knew any buildings in ruins in the neighborhood, we heard him speak of an old abandoned shack. Fortunately, the house was just around the corner from the hotel where we had crossed Willis that morning – it had been right under our nose the entire time, hidden by tall grasses and the garden’s brambles that haven’t been maintained for years.

We entered through a broken window. The walls were no longer white, a broken chimney, pieces of glass everywhere, a pigeon dead on the floor, pencil hand-tracings on the walls, bags of rice, clothes on the floor and a pair of jeans on a hanger. The house was probably squatted, but while we were there it was empty. What we did not know was that a few hours earlier, Willis had already stumbled upon it himself. For fear getting in trouble, he did not go in. “I have hate insects. I heard noises; it was because of that that I did not enter.”

“I do not want you to lift up my t-shirt,” he cried as Henri turned towards him to attach his microphone when we joined him. Willis Earl Beal is one of those hard soothe. Like a man on a hunt, he seems to always be on his guard, ready to retaliate if attacked. He can be approached, closer and closer and in an instant it is the ax. No negotiation possible as his physical presence stuck us. I have never felt so small in front of someone smaller than me.

Reassured that there were no insects, Willis agreed to follow us. He preferred the tunnel but we must believe that our excitement eventually made him let go. “I am never euphoric,” he said before adding, “you can begin filming, I act as if I am being filmed all the time, anyways.”

We avoided the brambles again. We slipped between the broken glasses. Willis placed his hands on the drawings on the wall. Henri read him the murky phrases written next to them. They spoke of death and of hangings. Willis did not say anything, he only observed. He grabbed a hammer handle and a fishing rod that were lying around. There was an intangible tension in the air, one did not know if he would sing, scream, or run away.

He chose the first option. Suddenly he opened his mouth and his powerful and overwhelming soulful ring resonated within the ramshackle walls of the house. More noise, the creaking wooden floor and his voice. Willis had just taken control, taking control of the moment like Henri would later say, was for the want of taking possession of the place. We did not decide anything anymore: he was the boss, the leader, the ringmaster of his own show.

His feet stomped on the ground, his legs restless. He danced almost in a trance. We could not see his eyes behind his dark glasses. They must have been closed. Willis finished his song but did not keep silent. He spoke to the camera, as if it was the only one he could trust, the only presence he could tolerate. He recited a poem, and then began another piece.

We slept very little and being so tired I collapsed into tears in the most ridiculous way possible. That man, without an instrument or rather his voice being his only instrument, was there in front of us inviting us to dissect it, to plunge our hands into his belly without any tricks or special effects. His voice pierced through me, his sincerity and brutality as well. I left the room. Willis continued to sing, to speak, and to open the gates.

“Now you stop filming.” With a gesture, he closed the narrow door that he had let us borrow. Art put down the camera. It was done. We accompanied him just to the hotel. He got in his car and started it. We sat on a small wall. We stayed there for ten minutes without speaking, amazed and shocked. We had just touched the fingertips of freedom that rapidly escaped before we even realized what it was.

Translated by José