Awesome Men Throughout History: Wesley Willis
This week, we’re going to talk about Wesley Willis. Strap in.
Wesley Willis, who died in 2003, was a paranoid schizophrenic musician and artist with a heavily callused forehead from headbutting fans and well-wishers. I’m not even kidding. Look at his picture, for God’s sakes.
As a musician, Willis was quite prolific, releasing tons of albums as a solo musician and occasionally performing live. His live show was described by Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff as “an uncomfortable combination of minstrel act and traveling freak show,” which is a valid point. Some people do think that Willis’ cult popularity was a form of exploitation, similar to how people paid to laugh at freaks in British sanitariums back in the Victorian era.
Not me, though. I love Wesley Willis’ music despite, and often because of, its limitations. He composed on a series of Technics KN keyboards, often using the same music track for multiple songs.
Also, his lyrics were hilarious and obscene and I don’t take them as the random squawks of a crazy person. I think Willis knew what he was doing, and I think he knew he was being funny. Which he was. I dare you to listen to “I Whipped Spiderman’s Ass” and not laugh.
Or “Cut the Mullet,” for that matter.
Wesley was also quick to explain why his lyrics were so gross and depraved – the idea behind a lot of his songs was to scare his demons away. He also wrote songs about his friends, concerts he attended, fast food, Chicago bus routes, and cultural trends. Altogether, his albums are almost like journals.
Fellow musician (and Awesome Man Throughout History) Jello Biafra was a big fan of Wesley’s, and a friend of his as well, and greatly admired Wesley’s “sheer will power, his unrelenting drive to succeed and over come his horrifically poor background, child abuse, racism, chronic schizophrenia and obesity,” and went on to say that he “had such a deep, all-encompassing love of life. Little things, big things. He loved bus rides. He loved watching trains. He loved writing songs about how much he loved his friends.” I don’t think a mere novelty act would have inspired that kind of emotional outpouring from someone as generally glib as Biafra.
Plus, I think those qualities of Wesley’s were communicated through his music. In a just and honest world, he’d be alive and playing the Super Bowl Halftime Show instead of the parade of B-grade Vegas floor shows we’ve seen for the past ten years.
Or maybe he’d be in jail. Who really knows.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.