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The Most Dangerous Woman in America

August 16, 1987|JOSEPH P. KAHN | Joseph P. Kahn is a senior writer for INC. magazine

Q. : According to the Soviet government, songwriter-artist Allee Willis may actually be (a) a black male songwriter from Detroit; (b) America's High Priest of Nuclear Art; (c) Pee-wee Herman's favorite movie date; (d) a clear and present danger to world peace; (e) all of the above.

A. : (e), as in All-ee.

ALLEE WILLIS is looking for a knife. She is also looking a little dangerous, holding a baseball bat in one hand and a yellow zippered bag marked "Auto Cash" in the other. Sunglasses screen her eyes. Willis' hair, a dirty-blond tangle of conflicting intentions, hangs loosely to one shoulder and, high above the other, stops abruptly at mid-skull, as if whacked off by a passing bus. The other noontime shoppers at Burbank's Valley Thrift Store pay her little mind.

"Oh my God, I don't believe this!" she exults. "Bakelite. Danny, look at this!"

Her friend Danny Ferrington peers over Willis' shoulder and sticks a hand in the utensil drawer.

"Check this out," Ferrington says, pulling out a child's spoon. "I've never seen one this size."

"Oooh," squeals Willis; "A complete set!" She latches onto the missing blade and pairs it with the fork and spoon. "This is fabulous," she says. "I mean, this just makes my day."

Willis takes off down the aisle, eyeing the array of used teapots and toaster ovens like a seasoned Egyptologist examining the contents of King Tut's tomb. Most items she dismisses as ersatz, overpriced or plain worthless. There is one last treasure, however: a tattered album of family photos from the early 1950s. Out of focus and fading, they stick to the pages like old, brittle dreams.

Allee Willis is in heaven.

"I look at this stuff and I'm there, you know?" she says. "This is what I want to do with my art. This is what my life is all about."

The art of figuring out what Allee Willis' art--indeed, her life--is about has taken on new dimensions in the last year. Before, Willis had earned modest fame as an archivist of "Atomic '50s" memorabilia and as the author of about 450 recorded pop-music songs; her home and its furnishings had appeared in periodicals such as Art & Auction and Metropolitan Home; her art was getting noticed, and her house parties were justifiably famous for the sheer magnitude of their flamboyance. Willis, 37, was a semi-hot commodity.

Then, last summer, the Soviet newspaper Pravda printed an article that denounced Willis as "a nuclear gravedigger," accusing her of brainwashing the youth of America into thinking of nuclear conflict as survivable, if not inevitable. Reuters picked up the Pravda article and hot-wired it to newspapers around the world. A day later Willis was the center of what she hyperbolically labeled "a world crisis."

The evidence Pravda presented seemed, on the one hand, flimsy and, on the other, rather fabricated. Willis is the co-author, with Dan Sembello, of the 1984 hit "Neutron Dance," which heated up the sound track for "Beverly Hills Cop," the biggest comedy success in Hollywood history. The song, however, did not exactly recommend preventive air strikes on the Politburo: In reality, its message went no further than an upbeat rallying cry urging listeners to dance on in the face of Angst and disaster, two afflictions common to teen-agers and starving artists, but hardly the stuff of SALT III talks.

Furthermore, Pravda got the lyrics wrong. "A powerful nuclear explosion is approaching," Pravda quoted from the song, inventing words new to Allee Willis. And yet, even if the substance was garbled, Pravda's premise may embody a certain exquisite truth. Allee Willis as one of the most dangerous people in America? The same Allee Willis known to hang out with dangerous subversives like Pee-wee Herman and Bette Midler? This had to be some sort of kooky Cold War joke. A joke, that is, until one stops to consider the context of the charge. If American pop culture can be viewed as a force for geopolitical change, and if what rocks the Establishment can roll across borders, then Willis poses as great a threat to the cultural order as any artist working outside conventional channels.

"Her gift as an artist," says film director Rusty Lemorande, "is Allee's ability to make the technological revolution seem innocent again. She's one of the few contemporary artists I have seen who functions like a psychoanalyst, helping the rest of us make sense of the world. There is no question in my mind that she's destined to be of lasting importance."

"It's never 'business as usual' with Allee," says performer-film maker Toni Basil, a multimedia guerrilla herself and a close Willis friend. "Her business is the unusual. She's always done a lot of individual things real well, but now they're really coming together for her."

Things haven't always come together for Willis. Consider the chronology surrounding the hit song "Neutron Dance."

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