Friday, February 24, 2012

Billy Beale still loves us, wrote us a letter from prison; benefit show Saturday at RecordBar

Posted By on Fri, Feb 24, 2012 at 11:37 AM

Billy Beale, center.
  • Billy Beale, center.
I first met Billy Beale back in 2008, when I was a bartender at the Brick. As one of the newest members of the staff, I was scheduled on Wednesdays — open-mic nights. Owner Sheri Parr called it "Anything Goes Open Mic." I believe she was hoping the stage time would be filled with jugglers, belly dancers, one-man bands and fledgling entertainers who just needed five minutes of precious stage time to get over their hump and hone their craft.

Instead, Wednesday-night slots were often filled by local comedians and a few singer-songwriters, usually playing on beat-up, out-of-tune acoustic guitars. For a short period of time, at least, Billy Beale was one of the regular performers, new to me (but not to the small entourage that seemed to follow him in each week). I was more impressed by Billy's high tolerance for Crown Royal than his guitar skills. Most of the time, he ordered his bourbon and followed it up with a "Please, just for me, honey?" or an "I love the ladies and I love the Crown!" He stood out in a sea of wannabes, a weathered old man with a seemingly checkered past and a propensity for binge drinking.

Eventually, open-mic nights dropped off. Local comedy just didn't bring in a crowd. One night, an angry, Asperger-ish comedian called Sheri a "cunt" after she cut his mic off during a particularly offensive and racist tirade that had pretty much already cleared the room. That was the end of "Anything Goes." All of the employees were generally relieved.

I didn't forget about ol' Billy Beale though. Sometimes I would ask around to see if anyone had heard of him, to no avail. In 2011, he popped back up in midtown. I didn't know where he'd been, but I knew it was time to tell his story. By the time I had caught up with him, though, he was in the trenches of legal problems, wearing an ankle bracelet and facing a lengthy prison sentence for crimes that he was unwilling to discuss.

Because we at The Pitch are always on a quest for edgy shit, I couldn't help but bring up Beale's legal problems to my editors. I didn't want to disrespect the man, but I knew his legal troubles were an important part of his narrative. "Keep pressing him," they advised. "We'll print it later, but we want that backstory."

And so I followed him. I met his son, Cody (who had a neck tattoo that said, "Billy Beale Loves You"), who seemed wary of my presence), and his sister, Kat, a gentle woman who was dedicated to helping Billy remain comfortable through his trials and tribulations. I went to one of his court dates in Platte County and I sat on a sagging couch at an old house in Liberty listening to him record what would later be the CD he'll release tomorrow night, Slide Dog Billy. The more I got to know him, the less I wanted to put the focus on what I'd learned were DUI charges.

Unfortunately, what I wanted wasn't that important the closer it came to the deadline. I pleaded with Beale one last time over Fourth of July weekend to discuss his legal problems on the record, because soon after the article printed, he was going to get locked up. He wouldn't budge. He claimed that he would be remembered for his music, and the rest didn't matter. I sent our music editor, David Hudnall, a text from the 80/35 Music Festival in Des Moines that weekend, tearfully abandoning the project. "It's just not going to work," I said.

In the end, we did made it work. The feature ran, and Beale didn't hate my guts. He was proud of his headline "Old Dirty Bastard" and thanked me for the words — one of the few rewards you get when you write for an alt-weekly.

The "secrecy" of his jail time was thrown to the wind when Hudnall and I received a press release from Jody Hendrix, founder of Little Class Records (and producer of Slide Dog Billy), saying that Beale was essentially broke and needed to raise some money. "Despite his felony DUI incarceration, KC's current punk, country and blues scene is pulling together to release a local Blues legends first release in over a decade!" Hendrix' press release said.

A few weeks ago, I sent Kat an e-mail and told her that I wanted to give Beale a chance to say his peace from a different place. Last Friday, I received a letter from Beale (prisoner number 58258 H.O.II 2082) from the Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in St. Joseph, via his sister. I decided not to transcribe the entire handwritten (in pencil) five-page letter and instead relay the important parts. As one could imagine, he has a lot of time to think about where he is. These words have been edited only for maximum readability.

On the bureaucracy of the pen:

Behind these walls it's an upside down, backward world of "don't cross the yellow line," "hurry up and wait," "yes, Boss," "no, Boss" and following the rules which change from one guard shift to the next. If you request to see a doctor, a case worker or a parole officer, you must "fly a kite." This is the process by which you fill out a form stating your request and in five to ten days, it will be answered by mail, which takes another five to ten days... This is just one example of the frustration an inmate suffers daily. Remember when you were a kid and someone wanted to put you off on something and they'd say "go fly a kite"? No doubt it's the origin of this ritual.

On getting respect in the pen:
The place I am now living in is a lonely, rough-and-rumble environment for a man in his sixth decade of life. It's a place where the inmates society is based on one man's respect for another. There are daily confrontations and conflicts that normally end in bloodshed. Myself, I am a very respected man in the whole prison yard due to my guitar skills that were introduced to the population through your article that was passed around by one of the guards here upon my arrival. Of course, your words alone weren't enough — they still had to be shown. But the article opened doors for me without a fight and once again, as always, my music and songs saved me. I won the respect of my fellow inmates.

On what he does in the pen:
I landed me a job in the music room of the rec hall. My job is to keep the instruments in good playing condition and check them in and out to inmates that are allowed to play them. It's like having my own music store except nothing is for sale. I also give lessons and even the guards stop in and request to hear songs. Of course, I perform them for them... I do have my favorite musicians here that I prefer to play with. I call us "Wild Bill's House Blues Band." We have only done one performance and that was during the holiday season. It's the first band I've ever had with matching uniforms! LOL!

On what he misses about life on the outside:
What I miss is Kansas City! Performing... the ladies... a cold glass bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola... food that has taste... slide guitars (no slides allowed here)... my dog... my kids... my friends and fans... Coyote Bill's House Rockers and anyone else that plays real Blues from the heart... my panel truck and driving... Timeless Tattoo... FREEDOM... and my smokes, Lucky Strikes! The closest I can get in here to a Lucky is to buy Marlboro's and break the filters off.

On his crime:
Much to my dismay and dislike, DWIs are being handed the stiffest penalties of all. That's what landed me here this time and it being the third felony conviction of my life and having two prior convictions of other crimes — it's "commitment" as the penal system refers to them, making me a recidivist. They are requiring me to serve two-and-a-half years including time served in county. The release date the parole board has given me is June 27, 2013.

I'm told that I'd be better off if I were a sex offender when it comes to parole matters. Car thieves, dope cooks, drug dealers, and yes, child molesters will all walk out of here in less time than a man convicted of a DWI! This is mind blowing to me! But I am assured by judges, prosecuting attorneys, the parole board, and the prison system that this is correct, due to the hard work of Mothers Against Drunk Driving... So I suppose you can rape their children, sell them dope and steal their car but heaven forbid you pass them on the street after having a drink! Whoever this makes sense to needs to maybe put a bit more logical thought into it.

But... that is the law, I broke that law, and we're all the better off now. I won't breathe the fresh air on the other side of this fence until I've been punished a certain amount of time required by said law.

On tomorrow night's gig:
What I'm going to miss is my CD release party at the recordBar on February 25. One of the most important gigs of my entire career and the only gig of my own that I've ever missed in 47 years of performing! Nonetheless, thanks to Jody Hendrix and Them Damn Young Livers, there is a CD... I will be there in spirit even if my body is absent!

Makes you think twice about drinking and driving, doesn't it?

Saturday night at RecordBar (1020 Westport Road, 816-753-5207, therecordbar.com), Little Class Records presents the Slide Dog Billy record-release and benefit show with Them Damned Young Livers, Cadillac Flambe, Blue Boot Healers, Crybaby Ranch, Electric Lungs, Bad Ideas, the Fall Down Drunks, Rich and Uncle Penny Bags, and Mati MA, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Admission costs $10.

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