THE JOY RIDES OF WESLEY WILLIS

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Feb 18 2010, 1:43pm

Wesley Willis's lyrics weren't cryptic. He didn't beat around the bush. Consider the first verse to his song "My Mother Smokes Crack Rocks":

My mother is a dope fiend/
My mother smokes paraphernalia as I speak.
My mother buys cocaine from a dope man/
She loves to smoke that crack pipe.

Wesley, who was born in Chicago in 1963 to a family of ten kids, was sent to a foster home early on because his alcoholic mom kept making her kids sell their food stamps to buy her booze. One of her boyfriends, Roger Lee Carpenter, used to beat her up, and occasionally he made the kids watch while they had sex. In 1989 he threatened Wesley with a gun and stole his savings. This incident is believed to have brought on Wesley's paranoid schizophrenia.

Through an artist friend in the early 90s Wesley got into music. Not long after he decided to become a rock star, he was signed first by Jello Biafra and then by Rick Rubin. He also went on Howard Stern, was profiled by MTV, and drew praise from the likes of Dave Grohl, Mike D, and Henry Rollins, who saw him as the embodiment of punk authenticity.

Most of his solo songs were variations on a theme, all anchored around cheap but infectious Casio demo tunes. He wrote about personal experiences ("My Mother Smokes Crack Rocks"), superheroes ("I Whupped Batman's Ass"), bestiality ("Suck a Polar Bear's Dick"), and his friends. Most of the songs are funny and happy, although a handful of downbeat, melancholic ones like "Chronic Schizophrenia" and "Outburst" are sadder than that video of the beard guy getting tazed.

At the start of Wesley's career, filmmaker Chris Bagley met him and decided to make a documentary. Along with co-director Kim Shively, he spent the next few years amassing around 100 hours of footage. When Wesley died due to complications from leukemia in 2003, Bagley and Shively had to forge a new perspective, and the resulting film, Wesley Willis's Joy Rides, which has just come out on DVD, is an affectionate tribute. We get to hang out with Wesley as he writes songs, plays gigs, lives his life, and discusses the demons in his head. When he was in good form, his joy was contagious. When he wasn't (generally because he wasn't taking enough meds), he would lash out, smash things, and break up his band, which lead to his prolific solo career.

I called up co-director Chris Bagley in Wyoming.

Vice: Hi. What are you up to?
Chris: Later today I'm going to a meeting because apparently there's some hazardous waste that's been poured onto the soil a few blocks away from my house. So I'm a little concerned for the area.

Does a lot of hazardous waste get dumped in Wyoming?
No, they're just discovering it.

Well good luck. So your documentary's finally on the shelves. What's the reception been like?
It's going good, we hoped that it would find an audience, and it has. It's hard for a little documentary like this to get good word of mouth going, but it's happening.

When did you first meet Wesley?
It was around 1997. It's a strange story. I was in Denver visiting some friends and we were talking about people we would like to meet and I said Wesley Willis. And weirdly that same evening we found out that not only was he was in town, but he was available to hang out. It was very serendipitous. But meeting him was terrifying. We went to pick him up, it was nighttime, and he came out of the shadows hitting himself in the head and saying, "Fuck this shit, fuck, fuck!"

As soon as he gets in the car with us he asked, "Do you like my music?" And we passed the test. He was OK with us because we were OK with him. And we had a good time, he gave me my first headbutt--and for me, when I got my first headbutt, it was my rite-of-passage moment. And it was also when I first got the sense that there was something more with him. Because when Wesley would give you a headbutt he would say, "Look at me, look at me like a ghost." And when you're looking at him that close, face to face, the eyes would cross, and all of a sudden his two eyes would become one eye. It was pretty far out. A lot of people would write off an interaction like that as crazy, but I knew there was something more to him than that. And that's what kind of motivated me to make a film about him. He was truly unique.

Was there a specific angle you wanted for the film?
I guess the only angle I had was that I really wanted it to be Wesley in his own words, as much as possible. I showed him as much as I could too because I wanted him to have as much influence on it as he was comfortable with. I asked him what we should call it and he said "Joy Ride," which we got a lot of heat for, but I couldn't change it because it came from Wesley, and I liked it, I didn't want to change it.

How did the film change in light of his death? Obviously it changed into a very different film than the one you started making.
There was a time after he died when we were so wiped out we didn't think we'd be able to finish it. When we started we didn't know he'd get leukemia and die, and our hope was that when the DVD was done, Wesley would come around the film festivals with us and it would be a whole new audience for him, and that was exciting. We knew how much fun he would have. A lot of people saw Wesley as a novelty, but if they got to hang out with him like we did, they wouldn't have written him off because they would have seen the humanity. So I guess the point is we realized that what we had became a lot more special after he died, and we realized we had to finish it, even if it took five years to do. Which it did. We didn't wanna rush it.

Watch the trailer here.

ALEX GODFREY

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