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Teenbeat TB564 Butch Willis Amateur On Plastic

In the mind of Butch Willis, he and his group The Rocks are the entry-level equivalent of Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band, Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band, or even the latter-day Rolling Stones. They play straight-arrow AOR hard rock, with a lot of sheen and just a little tiny bit of gristle. By Butch's way of seeing things, the only reason he and his band don't have a major-label record contract is due to clerical oversight.

To the rest of the world, however, he and The Rocks belong much more to the realm of such outsider musical artists as The Twinkeyz, Electric Eels, Shuggie Rodelle & His Imbiblio Band or the singing flea market cowboy Buddy Max, than they do to the world of arena rock. As evidenced by the two albums he released on his own Love label in the mid-1980s, Of and Forthcomings, Willis and his revolving-door band of D.C.-area musicians are anything but pedestrian. Would Bob Seger have a full-time band member whose sole duty is to stand there and chop at his throat while warbling vocal tones?

While much of Willis' material centers on banal topics given humorous slants ("Kitty Cat," "TVs From Outer Space," "Pizza On My Jeans"), he is equally capable of a sublime treatment of classical themes ("The Girl's On My Mind," "Everything's Alright," "The Garden's Outside"). At their best, his Rocks are capable of generating a surging undertow of rhythmic noise, over which Butch can pour out his heart and "throat guitarist" Al Breon can uvulate like there's no tomorrow, contributing a warp factor reminiscent of Tommy Hall's electric jug playing with the 13th Floor Elevators.

Willis's songs are exciting, his lyrics entrancing, and his quavering voice and unsteady physical presence are like watching a hobbled old lady trying to cross a busy intersection against the light. Add to that a Maryland twang ready-made for a John Waters Dreamland production or the cast of Heavy Metal Parking Lot and Butch's obvious sartorial splendor, and you've got the makings of a true star.

In August of 1986 Butch and I, along with his then-manager Jeff Krulik, met in Butch's bedroom in the basement of his mother's house in suburban Maryland to try to survey the lay of the Willis mind. The various medications he was on at the time had left Butch with a pronounced quake of the hand that made the lighting of each cigarette a time-consuming and potentially hazardous task, but otherwise the conversation flowed smoothly and agreeably. Butch had some great stories to tell, and had the kicker conclusion to just about every topic that came up. (See interview link at left.)

-Phil Milstein