After his promising career evaporated four years ago, the songwriter disappeared. Inside an 18-month long, transatlantic journey chasing down a musician-in-exile.
The Fortuna Inn is the last sun-battered motel at the end of Drachman Street, a few doors down from the Meat Rack Bar & Grill, on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. Through the cracked windows at the back of a second-floor room, four-foot palm shrubs are scattered around an arid, empty swimming pool. In the alleyway out back, Biro-scrawled graffiti depicts a cartoon Satan hovering above a swastika. Planes pass overhead twice an hour, interrupting the persistent jingle of an ice cream truck a half-mile away.
In December 2016, one of the king-sized rooms on the second floor belonged to Willis Earl Beal, a 32-year-old musician with a reputation for self-sabotage living in what seemed to be a self-imposed exile. Every morning and evening, he’d stand for two hours outside the Goodwill downtown, busking; most nights, he’d stay with his girlfriend, Amie, in her studio apartment nearby. But since quitting his job hauling boxes around a Target warehouse in November, he’d spent most of his afternoons in his room recording his new album, Turn, the latest in a long line of ambient, synth-inflected LPs.
I flew from New York to Phoenix one Friday that December, took a shuttle to Tucson, and walked two miles the Fortuna, where I’d booked a three-night stay in the room beneath Willis’s. I’d spoken to him on the phone a dozen or so times already, but he’d been reticent to talk about a few things, and I figured it would be better to speak with him in person. I wanted to find out how he’d been living in the two years since he’d changed his performing name to Nobody, walked away from his lucrative contract with XL Records, and faded into semi-obscurity.
That Friday, Willis picked picked me up in front of the Fortuna in his grey 1992 Buick Century. He was dressed in the same uniform he’d worn onstage in his pomp: a black fedora, black T-shirt emblazoned with his Nobody insignia, black button-down with the same logo stitched onto the pocket, black jeans, and black cowboy boots. A black highwayman’s mask lay, eyes-down, in the back seat.
He drove me to Amie’s studio apartment—she was at work—talking about worst-case scenarios along the way. He was worried, he said, about hitting someone with his car; the thought of that happening gripped him from time to time, and he found it hard to shake. But for now, he wanted to make some food.
At Amie’s, with taco meat cooling in the pan behind him, he slipped into a sermon. He pointed into the future with a plastic spatula and talked about the interconnectivity of all things: his new album, his presence in Arizona, the weed he was about to smoke, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan. “All connected,” he said. He served two tacos up into a clear tupperware, ate one, and handed me the second. Then he sat with his legs crossed on the dusty brown carpet, smoking weed out of a blue ceramic pipe. He lit the bowl with a red Bic, sucked in the smoke, and exhaled slowly, leaving a thick cloud around his perfectly picked two-inch afro, before cutting through the haze with a slow-motion karate chop.
And, for the first time, he talked to me a little about his now-faded fame. He told me that he regretted what he referred to as “the sickness,” his all-encompassing term for materialism and greed. “I had 18 grand in my account and I was complaining,” he said before pausing, staring towards me, and disrupting the marijuana smoke with a hyena-cackle laugh. “Man, that was, like, five, six years ago.”
I pointed out that it had been just three years since he’d gone on tour in support of his second album, Nobody Knows.
He paused for a moment and let his smile hang. “I am such a fucking idiot,” he said, staring at the greying wallpaper to my right. “Sometimes I think I’m like Forrest Gump, a real fucking idiot, you know? I thought it was that long ago.”
He turned back towards me and opened his left fist: “Time is like sand slipping through my fingers.”