My Life in the Church of Nobody

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Approximately three years ago (the time period of my life when I was living with my mother in South Jersey), I was driving my car listening to NPR. I was listening to the show “All Songs Considered.”  I had tuned in about halfway through, and was listening to a conversation with a musician whose name I never caught. He was a very serious man, he took his music very seriously and everything he said was heavy and dense, laden with meaning, a man many people might label as over-serious, and off-putting to some. But it was just the kind of talk I like, because I like art  that is discussed with reverence. At the end, him and a small band played a song, the title of which I didn’t catch, although I caught some of the words. (it was “Nobody Knows”, although I have yet to find a recording of a live version that rivals the one I heard on NPR that day). The performance was absolutely haunting, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. Unfortunately, I had still never heard the man’s name, or even the name of the song. Eventually I Googled some of the lyrics, and I did manage to find out who he was: Willis Earl Beal. I YouTubed him, watched some performances, and fell quite in love. Not only was his music amazing, his lyrics were literature, and his voice had a bluesy-country-rock quality I’d never heard anywhere before; he sounded like God would sound if he was slightly drunk.  But on top of all that he had a philosophy to his entire oeuvre, a philosophy of nothingness, of him being nothing, of channeling the universe, and all of us also being nothing. It’s a pretty intense philosophy, and more than I can really explain here in this blog, and maybe more than he could even explain to you, but something about it, somehow, connected deeply with me. I bought his debut album, Nobody Knows, on vinyl as well as CD, and even bought two extra copies on CD and sent to friends of mine who I thought might appreciate his music. I dove deeply into some of his online videos, they were not music performances but helped to fully flush out his philosophy, The Church of Nobody. It would be fair to say that for a short time at least, I was a disciple. Being interested as I am in tons of things, he slid off my radar a little bit after a few months, but would always pop back up here and there. I would say not two months will go by without me going to a small Willis Earl Beal  phase.

Willis isn’t famous by almost any definition in America. You’ll never see him in a magazine, (although you might see his name briefly mentioned Rolling Stone). But there are a few circles in which he is very famous. Some of the alternative music press covers him extensively, treating him almost like the next Bob Dylan, with the positives and the negatives that might come from that. He appeared in the much lauded independent movie, to vehemently mixed reviews. Music and culture critics are very torn on how to take him and how serious he is, and his philosophical approach to music, which some say is absolutely brilliant, and some say means almost nothing. Following his debut album, Nobody Knows, he put out an album the next year, Experiments in Time, which I must admit even I was not a big fan of. It was too aimless and meandering, seemed thrown together in order to put an album out. It was also markedly different than the album prior, and if nothing else, I had to respect his change in direction.

Flash forward to yesterday. I work at a nationally recognized coffee chain. I was sitting out in my lobby, doing some work on my laptop, when I looked up and saw what I thought at first was a kind of hapless man, walking around with a cell phone, looking for an outlet to plug it into so he could charge it. I had to snicker because of how fairly helpless he looked doing it, but there wasn’t much I could do to help him as none were open at the moment. I went back to my work. A few minutes later something caught me out of the corner of my eye. I looked up to see the same man, who was with a woman about his age, at one of my outside tables, apparently having trouble with a bee. He was trying to shoo it away from his table with a magazine. He was up and running around, and the woman he was with was laughing at him. I chuckled to myself, and then did a double take. The man was wearing a Willis Earl Beal T-shirt, that has his Nobody logo. My first initial thought was, holy cow, a Willis Earl Beal fan! It would have literally been the first time I had encountered such a thing. But then I realized the man I was looking at roughly matched Willis’ description. I looked at his face, and it was him! There was absolutely no denying it in my mind.  Willis Earl Beal was at my place of employment. And before I knew it, I also realized that I was getting up to going talk to him. I can’t really describe the surreal nature of this, especially since I now work in a suburban Harrisburg, Pennsylvania store, not exactly the sort of place independent artists travel through frequently.  But there was never a moment of hesitation in my mind, or any rehearsal of what to say, or even a moment of nervousness. I just said to myself, I’m gonna go talk to Willis Earl Beal . And that is what I did.

I walked out the front door, turned the corner, and cognizant of the fact that they might not want interrupted or bothered, I said, “I’m sorry, but are you Willis Earl Beal?”  He definitely looked startled, as did the woman he was with, and he said, “yes I am!” The exact wording of what followed kind of escapes me. I thanked him for the music, and he expressed some shock that he had been recognized. Even though he is a large figure in some critical circles, he’s not a man who gets recognized often. We quickly began speaking very much like equals, like two people who were just talking to each other. It was one of the most surreal, electric experiences I’ve ever had. Now, while I’m a fan of Willis Earl Beal , I can’t say that he is absolutely one of my favorite musicians. That would be misrepresenting the case. He would not make my top 10. Would he make my top 20? Absolutely. I am passionate about a whole lot of things, and Willis Earl Beal  certainly falls into that category. So all of a sudden, I go from working at my job in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to sitting across the table and speaking quite frankly and candidly to Willis Earl Beal. This is the sort of thing that simply does not happen.

After a few minutes I admitted I had not heard his latest album (Noctunes), and he offered to sell me a copy of it on vinyl out of his car. I quickly ran to the neighboring  supermarket to get some cash, which I overpaid him for by a little bit in appreciation for his artistry. He signed the record for me, and him and his girlfriend (who is the woman he was with) did not appear to want to stop speaking to me. The three of us had a good rapport, so I just continued to sit there and talk to him. We spoke a lot about the nature of creating art, and how one’s voice and talent evolve over time, and how  some of your earlier stuff can become unrecognizable to you. I told him about how I dabble in writing, and we spoke about that craft as well as the craft of music, me admitting I know nothing about creating music but my intense appreciation for it. We spoke about what it is like in our culture to become known like he is, but still struggle financially, and what is like to have people you don’t know recognize you, and how that changes you as a person. All in all, it was only a 20 minute conversation, but it was very real, and a very intense experience for me. I daresay in some ways it seemed to be a pretty intense experience for him too, not only to be recognized, but I think he rather enjoyed the conversation, as did his girlfriend,

I excused myself even though I had much more to say and didn’t necessarily have to get back to work, but I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. I went back to my laptop, and looked up periodically every few minutes, to the astonishing sight of  Willis Earl Beal sitting outside the window. He was there for about another hour, when I watched him and his girlfriend walk off and get into his car. Another astonishing fact that came out of this meeting was the fact that he is playing a show here, in Harrisburg, tonight! How such a thing slid under my radar, I won’t know, but you best believe I will be there. I quite some time ago stopped hero worshiping people, thinking that the famous or semi famous people that create the things I love are somehow different or more elevated than me. So I definitely do not have a feeling that I was in the presence of a different sort of person in this experience, but the infinite level of statistical improbability of what happened, coupled with the ease with which the two of us fell into conversation, and the depth that we reached, cause a sensation in me but I don’t even have a word for.

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9 Responses to “My Life in the Church of Nobody”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    That is amazing stuff!!

  2. I think maybe because I replied from my phone? just guessing

  3. Absolutely amazing! I’m so happy for you to have met him and you are going to the concert!!!

  4. Kyle Sundgren Says:

    That’s pretty damn awesome! I know I’m behind here. I saw that you spoke with him again and that he loved your writing. That’s got to be an unparalleled experience! Was he well received at the show that night? Good attendance? Did you tell him you’re also a podcaster who took a necessary hiatus but will be returning soon? Sorry, had to do it :).

    • sethdellinger Says:

      It truly was an unparalleled experience! It really is just absolutely INSANE that it happened. The show was pretty lightly attended (about 200 people, a total shame, not just because I think he’s awesome but you can clearly see on YouTube videos from past tours that the dude can pack places). But the people that were there were legit fans and received him well. Give up about the podcasts dude. I am officially retired! Sorry homie

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