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Talking About Willie at The Moth: Funk Like That Never Dies

July 30th, 2011 by Jeff Simmermon

I used to live in Richmond, Virginia, in a row house that was exactly the color of a bunch of dirty old Band-Aids. My rent was $175 per month, and a schizophrenic street mystic named Willie used to come over several times a week and demand to hear Rick James’ “Ghetto Life.” He and his lady would dance to it, over and over, all day long until we had to kick them out.

I told a story about the experience at The Moth at Housing Works Bookstore in SoHo, NYC back on June 23rd — you can see video of it here:

Willie is one of those rare people who is both a classic archetype and a completely unique individual. I can see how someone might see my story and think I’m reaching for this cartoonish stereotype of an older cracked-out street character, not unlike Chappelle’s Tyrone Biggums or Richard Pryor’s Mudbone. Except I’m white, too, and I worry sometimes that I could be perceived as indulging in a reductive racist stereotype on top of whatever else is going on in that story.

Then I think “fuck that, just because I’m white doesn’t mean I don’t get to have a real, complicated friendship with a black man who is literally too funky to function within mainstream society.” It really happened, you know. You change things around a little to make your memories fit a story arc, but Willie is real as hell.

Possibly too real.

Here is some video that I took of him near dawn on the night that we met, dancing in my living room to “Ghetto Life.” It’s pretty short, because a) I was plastered myself and b) I have always believed that you’re either documenting something or participating in it. Shortly after I took this I chucked the camera and started dancing right along with him.

These are a few photos of Willie and his Lady that I took later on in the summer, getting drunk on my front porch and dancing to, you guessed it: Rick James.




Willie told me, in all seriousness, that although I may be “mostly bitch”, the spirit of true blackness resided in me all the same. “You made that sculpture, man? You made that thing? That thing black as hell, nobody but natural-born nigger-hands could make that thing live like that,” he said, cackling. Then he gave me a fragrant half-hug.

I can’t say that I miss Willie, exactly, as he was really, really hard to be around a lot of the time. But I miss those laughs, and that incredible, loose, free funk that he could hand out like a wizard giving presents.

The last time I saw Willie he was wearing two grass skirts: one in the classic position, and the other under his armpits, encircling his otherwise bare chest like a festive tank top. He had a police whistle in his mouth and was directing traffic in the middle of the road in front of a church on Sunday morning.

I don’t know if his body is still alive or not. But I hope that insane funk like that never dies.

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