Modern music has certainly had its fair share of cult figures with serious psychological issues. You’ve got your Daniel Johnstons, your Syd Barretts, your Roky Ericksons. Even Kanye West sometimes seems like he’s only one megalomaniacal publicity stunt away from jabbering lunacy. You don’t have to be crazy to be a rock star, but it helps.
But of all of music’s loose screws, the loosest and screwiest ever to reach a wider audience was probably Wesley Willis. A Chicago artist and street musician who suffered from schizophrenia, Willis became something of a local folk hero in the early ’90s and, very briefly, a national phenomenon, thanks to an appearance on The Howard Stern Show and a record deal with American Recordings, home to Danzig, Tom Petty and Johnny fucking Cash. He also released records on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label, as well as something like 50 albums recorded and released on his own and sold mostly at his shows. He died of leukemia in 2003.
Willis’ songs are nearly all about two-and-a-half minutes long and nearly all feature more or less the same instrumental track, played on a Technics KN series keyboard, using the keyboard’s built-in drum and rhythm tracks. Over this, Willis would sing-speak various rants about modern life (“Cut the Mullet” is a fan favorite), bestiality-themed strings of insults (“Suck a Camel’s Pooty Hole,” “Suck a Cheetah’s Dick,” “Suck a Caribou’s Ass”…you get the idea), cartoon boasts (“I Whipped Spiderman’s Ass,” on which he catches Spidey cheating with his girlfriend and “beat him to a pulp with a rubber hose”), and oddly sweet tributes to various celebrities (“Britney Spears,” “Kurt Cobain,” “Oprah Winfrey,” etc.). He also, for some reason, liked ending his songs with random ad slogans; “Kurt Cobain,” for example, wraps up with “Timex—takes a licking and keeps on ticking!”
And that, honestly, pretty much sums up Willis’ music. It’s tempting to dismiss it all as childish, and to be fair, most of it is. But Willis’ music, which he called “Harmony Joy Music,” was also a kind of therapy for his schizophrenia. Writing and performing his songs was Willis’ way of taking a “Joy Ride” and avoiding what he called the “Hellrides,” schizophrenic episodes in which the voices in his head (which he identified as demons, complete with distinct personalities and names like “Meansucker” and “Nervewrecker”) would take over and cause him to lash out and behave in unpredictable ways. Occasionally he would describe these episodes in sad/funny songs like “My Keyboard Got Damaged,” in which he talks about getting thrown off a plane en route to a gig because he yelled “Fuck you!” at his “mean schizophrenic demon” just before takeoff.
Willis also briefly fronted a punk rock band called the Wesley Willis Fiasco, whose big claim to fame was a cover of Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film.” It’s not Willis’ finest hour, really, but it’s interesting to hear what he sounded like fronting an actual band. He’s not really any more crazy sounding than, say, Biafra on a bad day.
Ultimately, what Willis’ fans—and he still has a lot of them—seem to connect with most isn’t just the puerile novelty value of his music (though there’s plenty of that to go around), but the earnest sincerity with which he delivers it. This is a guy who wrote and sang music like his life depended on it—because, well, it kinda did.
We’ll leave you with a live performance of “Cut the Mullet.” Words to live by, no? We miss you, Wesley!
- Wesley Willis bio on Alternative Tentacles
- Wesley Willis on MySpace (fan-maintained page)
- Wesley Willis art (various Willis paintings and drawings, many for sale)
- Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides (Willis documentary home page)