May 31, 1963 – August 21, 2003. Image via Flickr
I was actually flipping through a copy of VICE when I heard the news on this very day in 2003. That Wesley Willis, the schizophrenic, casio-accompanied songwriter had died from "complications of chronic myelogenic leukemia."
I was 16 and at a punk teen center in the Seattle suburbs, the type of place where just about everyone stood there silently for a moment (which quickly resulted in a listening marathon). A 300-pound, 6'5" singer with a permanently bruised forehead had just brought so much joy into our cloud-covered, Pacific Northwestern lives.
The Wesley Willis Fiasco (his band), was something I first came to through the exhortations of my older brother, whom I credit for ruining my life as a young teen by encouraging an unhealthy obsession with music. "He's a giant schizophrenic guy from Chicago that wears sweatpants and head butts people as a greeting. My guitar teacher told me about him. Jello Biafra is his biggest fan. He put him on Alternative Tentacles."
GIF by the author, lifted from Darren Leis' Doc "The Wesley Willis Experience"
In addition to shouted instructions to lick a camel's balls, suck a dog's dick, or "Tell the barber/ that you're sick of looking like an asshole," I always felt there was something richer beneath the surface-level humor of his songs. Through uncompromising spirit, and an endless recycling of the same hokey casio dance beats and drum fills, something tugged me (and many of us) more deeply into the story of his music. Willis confronted his antagonists and his agitation (a veritable labyrinth of hysterical psycho babel), with these simple, straightforward messages.
I cracked up whenever I heard his music, but usually found myself meditating on Wesley's inner demons and enemies while I sang along to lines like "Put some tartar sauce on a horse's cock and suck it." But his massive catalog of music wasn't all anger and aggression.
Before BrooklynVegan's comment section became the defacto Yelp of snarky show reviews, Willis reported prolifically about the shows he'd attended in his tracks. Of Hootie and the Blowfish, Wesley told us, "This band played at the Metro. About 200 people were at the show. The rock show was awesome. It whooped a pony's ass." Of Lotion, he reported, "The band played it on. The band got down like a Magikist. The crowd roared like a lion. The rock show was whooping a horse's ass." And of his biggest fan, Jello Biafra, Wesley penned a loving ode: "You are a rock-and-roller. You used to be the lead singer of the Dead Kennedys. You sing for the band Lard. Keep on whooping it up."
Most people that don't know who he was have still heard Rock 'n' Roll McDonalds, a classic in Willis's good-faith tradition of brand recognition. Like a prophet of SEO-optimization, and a decade before musicians really tried capitalizing on SEO, Willis absurdly ended his tracks reciting the slogans of major companies. Oddly, I always found this to be the most unifying substance of his work. As we sung along to his spiteful, minimalist lyrics, Wesley's craft always brought us closer together with the least punk thing imaginable—corporate identity. He'd typically sign off, "Rock over London, Rock on Chicago," followed by unpaid advertisements such as:
- Sprint, be there now
- Walgreen's, it's the pharmacy America trusts
- Goose Island, It's Chicago's Crab Brewer
- Peavey, it's the musicians edge
- Rent-a-center, it's the one store that has it all
All fun aside, I'll never forget—and can recite from memory to this day—the soulful classic "Outburst," in which Wesley walks us through the center of a disturbing schizophrenic scenario: "My yelling got me put out of the art store/ The voices in my head cussed at me/ I was yelling like a wild animal/ I felt like a jackass screaming at the top of my lungs/ Outburst, outburst/ Outburst, outburst/ Outburst." Only a couple years after hearing it for the first time (and with the help of some gnarly street drugs), I'd come close to knowing more intimately what he meant when I was ejected from a pizza parlor mid-seizure and told to stop fucking around.
Wesley Willis' "The Dan Ryan Expressway, Past 43rd Toward Root St., 1989," Image via Flickr
The music of Wesley Willis is what most knew him for, but he was also a great illustrator. Carl Hart's 1988 documentary "Wesley Willis: Artist of the Streets," exhibited a younger, thinner Willis, drawing elaborate cityscapes with Bic pens and markers. "After I get the art done, I get my markers out and drape it in color." He would sell these large drawing for $10 a piece in the 80s. "Each time I do well on the side of the fiddle, I'm going to keep it up everyday. Just like Johnny Guitar Watson, but I'm gonna keep doin' a great old art. Keepin' up that good work."
I tried reaching out to get some words from Wesley's number one fan, Jello Biafra. But due to a European tour, he doesn't expect to get back for another week. But when he does, and if we get a chance to talk, I'll let you know. Until then, here's an excerpt from his statement regarding the loss, 10 years ago:
Wesley will go down as one of the most unique songwriters and entertainment personalities in history. His music, lyrics, drawings, insight, and the way he put them together are like no one else. Ever. There will never be another.
As I got to know Wesley, what really struck me was his sheer will power, his unrelenting drive to succeed and over come a horrifically poor background, child abuse, racism, chronic schizophrenia, and obesity, among other things. He was the most courageous person I have ever known. Yet through it all he had such a deep, all-encompassing love of life.
There are many down times when all I have to do is think of one of his songs, something he said or simply marvel at his Wesley-isms, and the clouds part and a smile comes to my face. I think he does that for a lot of people. He always will.
Rock over London. Rock on Chicago. Sail on, Wes. I love you.