Born on May 31, 1963; died on August 21, 2003, in Chicago, IL; son of Annie Ruth Willis; diagnosed with schizophrenia, 1991; lived with friends for several years until moving to a center for the mentally disturbed. Addresses: Record company---Alternative Tentacles, 1501 Powell St., Ste. F, Emeryville, CA 94608, e-mail: email@example.com.
In a music industry dominated by slick packaging, hyper-produced recordings and corporate image makers, the raw sound and authentic eccentricity of street musician/singer-songwriter Wesley Willis spawned a cult following that extended well beyond the streets of Chicago. A diagnosed schizophrenic who weighed in at well over 300 pounds, he engaged listeners with his electronic keyboard and off-key commentaries on pop culture. It often wasn't clear whether fans were laughing at him or with him, but they were clearly laughing. While his life ended early, his more than 50 recordings left a fan base that included the likes of Jello Biafra and the Smashing Pumpkins.
Willis was born on May 31, 1963, one of ten children, to Annie Ruth Willis, who reportedly had a tense and violent relationship with her estranged husband. The couple separated later in the decade and Willis and his siblings spent much of their childhood in foster homes. Willis and several other siblings later rejoined their mother in the housing projects where she lived in the 1970s and 1980s, and for some it was the first time they had ever met. The family was extremely poor, and depended on money from the state.
In the late 1980s, young Willis reportedly began hearing voices. According to him, the voices came after his mother's boyfriend stole $100 dollars from Willis's own savings in order to buy drugs, and then threatened to shoot him. In 1989 Willis was diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia. In response to the violent voices in his head, he turned to music. He was known to listen to rock and metal songs on his Walkman as he roamed the streets of Chicago selling his sketches of the city, and his unkempt appearance led many to believe that he was homeless. On the street he befriended musicians, and decided he would like to become a rock star. One friend helped him record a rap tape, and Willis took an interest in the keyboard while living with guitarist Dale Meiners. He was soon writing his own songs and playing them on the street with his Technics KN 2000 keyboard; all of his songs reportedly used the same pre-set rhythm setting (country rock 8).
Music, he said, was a way of helping him keep out "the demons" who "sometimes try to shoot my jam session down." He explained in his one and only interview with MTV News, "Music helped me solve the problem. Music helped me change my life. And playing rock music, that's the way to go. That's the way to go on a harmony joy bus ride, rather than on a freakout hell bus ride."
Inspired by what he considered to be hilarious lyrics, Meiners gathered together a group of hardcore punk musicians to form a backup band called the Wesley Willis Fiasco. The group, which consolidated after several lineup changes, backed Willis with rock, metal, funk and hardcore. He soon began to gather a group of loyal fans, whom he greeted with his usual "head butt," leaving a trademark callus on his forehead. He found a special interest in his music among indie rockers, and was not shy about peddling his recordings to them or to perfect strangers on the street.
The topics driving Willis's lyrics were often quite mundane, ranging from a critique of fast food establishments ("Rock n' Roll McDonald's") to his own weight problem ("I'm Sorry That I Got Fat"), to unsolicited haircare advice ("Cut the Mullet"). Sometimes he would wrangle with superheroes in songs like "I Whipped Spiderman's Ass" and "I Whupped Batman's Ass." Nothing but praise was reserved for the other artists whose concerts he attended, as revealed by his homages to Hootie & the Blowfish, Alanis Morissette, and Jello Biafra. Predictably, Willis would end each song with the phrase "Rock over London. Rock on Chicago," followed by a jingle from some commercial.
"His music is ... odd. Original. Pathetic. Funny," wrote a reporter for the Washington Post. "Childlike, repetitive lyrics, many recycled from song to song. Verses spoken in a deep, sonorous voice, complemented by off-key, wailed choruses. The same tune for every song. The same format for every song. The same pre-programmed keyboard music for every song."
In 1995 Willis self-produced the album Drag Disharmony Hell Ride, and by that time he had caught the attention of established musicians, including members of bands like the Foo Fighters, Beastie Boys, and Smashing Pumpkins. With more than a dozen self-produced albums to his name already, Willis's commercial breakthrough came in 1996, at the South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, where he was signed by the American Recordings label, run by Rick Rubin. That year the albums Fabian Road Warrior and Feel the Power were released, but ended up being failures in the marketplace, and Willis was dropped from the label.
Nonetheless, Willis continued to make albums independently. That same year his band, the Wesley Willis Fiasco, released a debut album entitled Spooky Disharmonious Conflict Hell-Ride. While some saw Willis as a flash in the pan, his "number one fan," former Dead Kennedy's frontman Jello Biafra, continued to take interest in him, and had four albums released on his Alternative Tentacles label.
In 2001 the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) reportedly took issue with the Wesley Willis Fiasco Live EP album cover due to its use of a logo not unlike the WWF's. The federation requested that all copies be removed from the market.
While some observers criticized the Wesley Willis phenomenon as an exploitation of the mentally ill, others defended the artist's authenticity and the fact that he was committed to his music. "I got these people who have something against my music and my art. But I'm proud of myself," he told the student newspaper Diamondback. "I try to get my music to pick me up but I hate for my music to get shot down. I hate to be called a jerk, a bum. ... I'm just enjoying myself."
After many years living with friends who supported him in his musical endeavors, Willis went to live in a home for the mentally disturbed. In late 2002 he was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML). In June of the following year he experienced internal bleeding and was admitted for emergency surgery. He died on August 21, 2003, while recovering at an Illinois hospice. He died with $291 in savings, and roughly 50 albums to his credit. In his honor, the Californian community radio station KFJC held a non-stop 24-hour tribute program "to pay some more respect and to have a harmony joyride." A memorial benefit show was held by fans as far away as the United Kingdom to pay for his funeral and burial costs.
"His songs were simultaneously disturbing, hilarious, blunt, and intoxicating," read a statement on the Alternative Tentacles website, after his death. "Wesley's sheer excitement and unaffected honesty about every cultural phenomenon, defined his music as truly individual, and truly punk rock."
by Brett Allan King
Wesley Willis's Career
Began playing music on streets of Chicago, early 1990s; later backed by the band Wesley Willis Fiasco; self-produced more than a dozen albums; gained attention with Drag Disharmony Hell Ride, 1995; released albums Fabian Road Warrior and Feel the Power on American Records, 1996; continued to produce more than 50 albums until his death in 2003.
- Selected discography
- Greatest Hits, Volume 1 Alternative Tentacles, 1995.
- Fabian Road Warrior American Records, 1996.
- Feel the Power American Records, 1996.
- Greatest Hits, Volume 2 Alternative Tentacles, 1999.
- Rush Hour Alternative Tentacles, 2000.
- Apocalypse Always Alternative Tentacles, 2002.
- Greatest Hits, Volume 3 Alternative Tentacles, 2003.
- Diamondback, Spring 1996.
- Rolling Stone, August 22, 2003.
- Washington Post, November 25, 2000; August 26, 2003.
- Wrestling Digest, October 2001.
- MTV.com, http://www.mtv.com (August 22, 2003).
- VH1.com, http://www.vh1.com (April 19, 1996).
- "Wesley Willis," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 2, 2004).
- "Wesley Willis," Alternative Tentacles Records, http://www.alternativetentacles.com (August 2, 2004).