Wesley Willis

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Early Life & Career

Willis was born in Chicago, Illinois on May 31, 1963. There are many many different bios, reviews and even a documentary titled "The Daddy of Rock and Roll" made about Wesley Willis; the title of the film borrowed from a song in which Wesley self proclaims himself as 'The Daddy of Rock and Roll' and a newer documentary that was recently released titled "Weley Willis Joyrides."

Though he is not a household name, he is definitely an esoteric, cult legend of his own, with lots of ways - each one difficult - to approach explaining just who Wesley was, what he meant to music, what his music was and what he meant to his fans, and who he was as a man and what his shortened life was.

Wesley came from a very abusive childhood, as his father was both emotionally and physically abusive, and his step-father was even worse after his father left them, who was also sexually abusive to the younger children and his mother.

Wesley Willis became a homeless street musician and fine artist/painter diagnosed with Chronic Schizophrenia who began writing and recording music on the streets of his hometown, Chicago, in the late 80s, using only his voice and his Technics and Casio keyboards... he would loop what were often 3 chord melodies, sometimes based on presets, and alter the pitch, beat and rhythm and make key changes at seemingly random points, and add his own notes, etc. and would usually follow the formula verse chorus verse chorus bridge verse chorus, ending every song with "Rock over London, rock on Chicago..." and a tag line/slogan for a well known product or service, such as "Wheaties, the breakfast of champions," or “Pontiac… we build excitement.” He often altered his voice very slightly with reverb, chorus, and other basic effects in certain songs. He also included background sound clip - in some cases they matched the lyrics, such as an ambulance or police siren, others were completely errant. In many cases, each song sounded like a slight deviation of the last with different words, and the sometimes bizarre, sometimes trivial everyday topics of the songs ranged from music, people he knew, celebrities (some of which he had met), life in the city of Chicago, public transportation, his interactions, and his "outbursts" and “demons” (those which he each had names for that spoke to him) and had a wide range of wild explanations for and the “hellrides” that they would take him on, a term he coined, along with joyride, which was the opposite, and even songs about his traumatic childhood, such as "My Mother Smokes Crack Rocks." Wes also had a fascination with animals, and wrote bizarre rants about them, such as "Whip the Horses Ass," "Ply the Mule with a Belt," and so forth. He would go to the library to research different animals for those particularly for these songs. He would also purchase books on animals at the zoo. His songs have been criticized for being repetitive, simple rants, and too much like one another, however many fans will argue that his music ran much deeper than what a surface listen would impress on most, especially when it came to emotive songs, as bizarre as they may come off to the average listener, such as “Chronic Schitzophrenia,” “Running My Inkpen,” and many others, not to mention the fact that Wesley used his music as a form of self-medication. He has been quoted many times explaining that playing rock and roll kept his 'demons' at bay. In fact, like it or not, he may be the most prolific songwriter of our time, having released well near 100 albums and thousands of songs from the early 1990s to 2003 when he passed from leukemia.

As an artist he is acclaimed for having a photographic memory and excellent sense of perspective extraordinary and incredible eye for detail, and has many pieces in galleries and a permanant installation in Chicago's famous "Rock n' Roll McDonalds," that which he also wrote a song about. He also drew the covers/inserts for almost every album he released, and contributed to local zines. Although his artwork has still not received its just dues, despite the fact that his paintings now go for upwards to 4 figures. Wes is praised for having an incredible sense of perspective, as well as a photographic memory. His brother, Ricky Willis, is also a fine artist and carries on the tradition of Wes's mastery of dimension.

In the early 90s after being discovered by local promoters he gained an underground popularity and began to play at local punk venues, as the punk scene embraced him to the point of becoming a local legend. His fans have been criticized for exploiting him based on his assumed appeal often argued to be based in novelty, gimmicky humor, especially since he had a mental illness, and also the controversial argument that he was misunderstood except by his “true” fans, who were also exploiting him by intellectualizing a facet of his disease. Whether it was his mental ailment that in part inspired his art or not, Wesley’s music was not simply a novelty or something only a few privileged individuals could understand. It was indeed often humorous, which was a harmless quality, intentional or not, but Wesley was, again, certainly beyond a novelty or some disabled man who was patronized by fans for a kick... As before-mentioned, Wesley used his music as a form of self-medication. Almost all of us draw upon our “demons” or pain of some kind in the art world to inspire us, and there was a rock and roll spirit that could not be ignored both in Wes and the songs he wrote, and he took his music seriously but also light-hearted at times. Several independent demo tapes of his music surfaced by 1990.

Mental Diagnosis

As stated above, Wes was diagnosed with Paranoid Chronic Schizophrenia, which caused him to sometimes lash out at his friends, speak to himself, and other common symptoms of the disease. He called these episodes “Outbursts,” or “Hellrides” (again, a term in which he coined along with “joyride”) which he wrote a song of the same name about (Outburst – he wrote many songs with the words hellride and joyride within the title), and claimed he had 3 demons which he named "Heartbreaker", "Nervewrecker", and "Meansucker" These demons, to him, were responsible for the voices in his head. When on his medicine, as most people with more severe mental illnesses, Wesley was much better, but when he was homeless it was difficult to keep appointments, and even afterwards he would sometimes not take his medicine, a common trait among schizophrenics, for a variety of reasons.

Local Fame

Wes was taken in by friends and recorded for the first time besides on cassette tape in friend Dale Meiner's studio who he would later play with in the Wesley Willis Fiasco. Wesley sold his albums independent of any record labels to small record shops like Dr. Wax across the city, as well as at his shows. He continued to paint, draw and ink at Genesis, sometimes for free by the people that got to know him and his genius. This was like a second home to him, where he worked on both his album jackets as well as ink paintings. Kinkos was also another spot where he spent part of his days, making his own jackets for his albums. He often bartered beautiful paintings that had obviously taken hours upon hours of work for simple things like an orange juice or bus fare, and was insistent about the trade. At other times, he would sell his work for as little as $20 dollars. He was a master of pen and ink, perspective, details, and photographic memory.

Wesley was a tall black man who stood 6’5” and weighed 300 to 350 pounds – obesity being another issue he struggled with (on some albums you can notice a difference in voice due to weight variation), and described by some as a gentle giant or bear, before his leukemia became worse (which he was diagnosed with in 2002). He had a unique and endearing way of greeting people, which was (generally) a light head bump. For those meeting him for the first time, he would often tell them “say rah,” followed by “now say rou,” (rock, roll) and then lightly place his hand on the back of their head and then say “now bump ma head,” after which he would bump heads. Wesley did this so often throughout his entire life; he had a permanent mark in the middle of his forehead. To bump heads with Wes was intimate and special.

Wes still was very nomadic, and it was not uncommon for him to miss shows, and be seen walking the streets. He is quoted as loving the city he lived in.

The Wesley Willis Fiasco

In the middle of his career, Wes enjoyed two larger rounds of fame, the first beginning in 1992 when close friend Dale Meiners (whom helped Wesley produce his albums and recorded his albums in his home studio) and Wesley and Dale decided to form The Wesley Willis Fiasco, a full rock band based on existing but mostly newly written songs by Wes, tailored for the band. Dale (who had previously played in Billy Corgan’s band that preceded The Smashing Pumpkins, The Marked) played guitar and bass, Pat Barnard played lead guitar, Dave Nooks played bass, and former Jesus Lizard drummer Brendan Murphy became drummer.

The Wesley Willis Fiasco (named by early second guitarist Michael Cates) successfully toured with many bands, most notably Sublime, Lordz of Brooklyn, The Frogs, and Rocket from the Crypt. They released only one full studio album, in 1996, "Spookydisharmoniousconflicthellride"(a reference to Willis's description of his schizophrenic episodes), which is found on the Urban Legend label, and in part engineered by Steve Albini. Many bootlegs are also available, most notably their live album, simply titled “The Wesley Willis Fiasco Live” They also released a rare split with Sublime, and a 7” split with the Frogs.

Wesley was able to express himself in an entire different musical way with the Wesley Music Fiasco, in the studio and on stage to the punk rock music of the Fiasco. His passion embodied itself in his aggressive vocals and what was a violent attack on the microphone that could only be described as pure unbridled rock and roll. Unfortunately in 1996 in Ohio, and despite the fact that Dale was very close to Wesley and therefore used to his sometimes erratic behavior, Wesley decided mutually with Dale to cease the project, as Wes, who was very aware of his outbursts, no longer wanted to cause the band any harm, as he stated himself, “The demons in [my] head [have] worsened, causing [me] to constantly yell at the band unintentionally.” It also caused scheduling conflicts with his increased solo keyboard gigs, as he was now about to enjoy a second round of fame that foreshadowed the above.

American Records

In 1995 he impressively caught the attention of several well-known indie-rock musicians, such as Pearl jam and the Smashing Pumpkins, & was profiled on MTV, giving him national notoriety, which all in part lead him to a major label contract with American Records in 1996. He also had a spot on the Howard Stern show after signing with American.

American Records was also charged with taking advantage of/exploiting Wesley’s disability and his music as a gimmick.

Unfortunately, Wesley’s music didn’t translate as well to a national crowd as it did here in Chicago, resulting in low record sales. He released several records under American, toured, but each album did worse than the last.

Later Career

Even after the Fiasco and the end of his national notoriety and contract ended with American Records, and still again after his diagnosis of leukemia in 2002, Wesley continued to cut albums and play local shows into the year of his death, until his health disabled him from doing so.

Disease & Death

Willis was diagnosed with leukemia in 2002 and was recovering from surgery when he died at the age of 40 on August 21, 2003. He is deeply missed by the many friends and the family he did have.

Conclusion / Contributions

Wesley was a natural genius, and objectively one of the most prolific musicians of our time. He made a very unique contribution to the landscape of Chicago underground music and gallery scene and brief national fame that he enjoyed under American Records and with The Wesley Willis Fiasco.

As mentioned before Wesley Willis was diagnosed with leukemia in 2002. Despite this Wes continued to play well into 2003, until leukemia finally disabled him from performing anymore, and he passed away on August 21, 2003.

Wesley will forever be known by friends, family and fans as The Daddy of Rock & Roll, but most importantly, a very special and loving person.

External Links / Media / Achievements