I just found out that Wesley Willis passed away a few days ago. If you’re not familiar with Wesley, he’s difficult to explain. Jello Biafra gave me some of his tapes maybe ten years ago. His music was, well, not for everyone, but it was high on my list of peculiar favorites (along with Harvey Sid Fisher and those song poems that have become more popular recently) for many years.
But the caliber of his strange music aside Willis was a man who, despite tremendous personal obstacles, managed to craft a successful life for himself through perseverance and sheer bullish will. He toured frenetically. He recorded at least 50 albums, most of them self-produced, and hustled them constantly. Childlike and unaware of certain social conventions, he seemed undaunted by the long odds between himself and fame. Longtime friend Tamara Smith recalls going to restaurants with Willis and watching him yell across the room to strangers, “Hey, I’m Wesley Willis. I’m a rock star!”
So he was, in his own peculiar milieu.
Willis was as prolific as he was repetitive. His songs were usually variations on a few melodic formulas, set to rudimentary, programmed keyboard riffs. Songs like “Chronic Schizophrenia” and “I’m Sorry That I Got Fat” were steeped in pathos. But many others were imaginative and funny, including “I Whipped Batman’s [Butt]” and “Cut the Mullet.” Willis surprised people by being more attentive, more intelligent, more plugged into his surroundings than they expected him to be. Friend and former roommate Carla Winterbottom says the last song she remembers him singing was a little ditty he made up about Qusay Hussein.
Each of Willis’s songs ended with him shouting, “Rock over London, rock on Chicago,” and then intoning some commercial slogan, like “Folger’s, it’s good to the last drop.” His honesty and pop cultural references found resonance within the punk music scene. In an industry filled with studied eccentrics, Wesley Willis was the real thing.
One of 10 children, most of whom were sent off to different foster homes, Willis later lived with his mother in the projects. He traced the onset of his schizophrenia to an incident in which he said his mother’s boyfriend threatened him and stole his money. Throughout his life, he was tormented by demons that called him a bum and a jerk and worse.
Along with his outbursts and delusions, he had a charm and a simplicity. For such a big man, he could be surprisingly vulnerable, and this elicited the protective instincts of many people.
I saw him live in San Francisco in maybe 1995 or so, again thanks to Biafra. Met him afterwards, but declined to be head-butted.
Rock over London. Rock on Chicago.