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Teen-Beat records founder embraces weirdness in new documentary about one of his lowest-selling acts, Butch Willis 

click to enlarge An old photo of singer and songwriter Butch Willis at a backyard barbecue. A Teen-Beat recording artist, Willis is the delightfully weird subject of Mark Robinson’s new documentary, “Amateur on Plastic,” screening as part of the James River Film Festival this Sunday at the majestic Byrd Theatre at 4 p.m. $5.

An old photo of singer and songwriter Butch Willis at a backyard barbecue. A Teen-Beat recording artist, Willis is the delightfully weird subject of Mark Robinson’s new documentary, “Amateur on Plastic,” screening as part of the James River Film Festival this Sunday at the majestic Byrd Theatre at 4 p.m. $5.

When musician and founder of Teen-Beat records Mark Robinson first saw Butch Willis rock out in the mid-1980s, he was hooked on the weirdness.

The bizarre songs were pretty great, too.

Resembling a space-age bearcat, the bug-eyed man with the Bob Seger-style mullet and thick Maryland accent sang straight-ahead rockers with lyrics like:

"Drugs will do it to 'ya. Rock! Rock! Rock! /Make you feel spicy /Make you feel icy /Make you want an ice cream cone /Make you wanna shovel for your own." 

On another song, he mostly repeats "I'm a Kitty Kat" over and over.

Willis was accompanied by the Rocks, a demented bar band featuring one Al Breon on throat guitar. He wore sunglasses and used the side of his hand to repeatedly chop his own trachea, producing a kind of helicopter yelping, like a stray cat talking into the blades of a table fan.

Regardless of the bewildered looks he inspired wherever he went, Willis sang like he deeply believed in the power of his own rock. Like he just might be the second coming of Mick Jagger — that is, if the Rolling Stones frontman had one eye knocked out and had nearly gotten trampled to death by a horse before deciding to be a rock star and going on a decades-long cocaine bender.

Similar to such outsider or "primitive" artists as Daniel Johnston and Wesley Willis, Butch Willis was totally unique and wrote heartfelt songs that were fun and deceptively inspiring. Unlike those two, he never found any kind of fame.

First-time director Robinson is hoping that his new collage-like documentary, "Amateur on Plastic," which he spent more than a decade making, will help change that.

"The thing that struck me about Butch was he was weird without trying, just naturally weird, whereas someone like the Butthole Surfers [whom Willis opened for once] tried to be weird," says Robinson, who Richmonders may remember from his own successful indie group, Unrest. "[Butch and the Rocks] weren't a part of any scene, which was also attractive in a way, they were just by themselves."

Unlike most music documentaries, the film does not feature talking heads providing context with illuminating Willis stories: Instead it's composed of old performance footage, public-access TV appearances and Robinson's videotaped interviews with Willis through various stages of his adult life ("like that 'Boyhood' movie," Robinson says, joking). It's not a stretch to say the film is told mainly through the singer's own words.

"I just wanted to be true to Butch. If this is the last thing that exists, I wanted it to be something that represents him," Robinson says, noting that he did conduct other interviews, which he occasionally shows as an eight-minute introduction to the film.

"A lot of their stories were like, 'I remember Butch opening the bedroom window and the air conditioning unit fell out.' You know these dumb things he did. They weren't really about the music."

After seeing Willis in April of 1985, Robinson would fall in love with his songwriting and release eight of his albums on his own Teen-Beat label, originally based in Arlington, as well as numerous singles and songs on some excellent Teen-Beat compilations. He's about to reissue Willis' second album on vinyl, he says.

"Butch was probably one of the lowest selling, if not the lowest selling, Teen-Beat act. But I was still like, "Why aren't people buying this?" Robinson says. "It's weird and not that accessible, but it's really good. So the idea behind the movie was: 'How can we tell people about Butch?'"

Robinson and his wife, Evelyn, and their family now reside in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and perform as the group Cotton Candy, singing various genres and covers of rare radio and TV commercials.

Jeff Krulik, director of the cult sensation "Heavy Metal Parking Lot," was also interested in Willis and shot an early cable access program and record signing in the 1980s. Both are used in the film. Over the years, Krulik continued to encourage Robinson to complete the documentary.

Robinson plans to release the film on DVD with extras, maybe a VHS release as well, and says he would love to put out a soundtrack, adding that most of Willis' recorded output has already seen release. "There's another [short] movie about the original guitarist Ray Wallace, and a couple other things I could put on [the DVD]."

He was inspired by another film showing at this year's James River Film Festival, Guy Maddin's "The Green Fog," to do a two-minute cut in the style of that experimental film [see story in this issue] that also would be included, he says.

Willis spent most of his unheralded music career playing in Washington and Maryland. At one time, he was a roommate of the legendary Root Boy Slim, an acid casualty who managed to score a deal on Warner Brothers with songs like "Boogie Til You Puke" and "Heartbreak of Psoriasis." Slim was a former Yale student and frat brother of George W. Bush's before experiencing a schizophrenic break allegedly due to high volumes of LSD and getting arrested on the White House lawn.

"When I put out records, I'm the number one fan and trying to get other people to agree with me," Robinson says, noting that the Teen-Beat label remains active, though it's "harder to break even these days."

Today, Willis is 64 and lives in subsidized housing in suburban Maryland — his dreams of becoming a rock star over. He hasn't seen the film yet, Robinson says.

"He advertises every time I see him that he's retired from the music business, he doesn't want to perform," Robinson says. "Some day I will probably show it to him at his house. … He doesn't go out much anymore."

"Amateur on Plastic" with director Mark Robinson will screen as part of the James River Film Festival at 4 p.m. on Sunday, March 17, at the Byrd Theatre. Admission is $5.

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