It was brought to my attention recently that we just passed the sixth anniversary of the passing of Wesley Willis. I remember reading about it the day after. My first thought after the initial grief was “there will never be another Wesley Willis.” My second thought after a little bit of reflection was “perhaps that’s a good thing.” As much as Wesley came across as larger than life, he was deeply troubled by demons that he was never able to fully exorcise.
In case you’re not familiar with the man, Wesley (for whatever reason, referring to him by his last name feels wrong) stood nearly six and a half feet tall and weighed over 300 pounds. He was also afflicted with chronic schizophrenia. He made his living on the streets of Chicago by selling drawings until he bought a Technics keyboard and began “writing” songs. When all was said and done, Wesley had recorded nearly fifty albums – the vast majority of which he did the artwork for. However, only the most obsessed collector needs to hear anything else besides the first two Greatest Hits albums. (Alternative Tentacles released a third volume that sadly, turned out to be an unfortunate let down.)
Critical opinion on Wesley will forever be divided. The man’s legacy left him both loved and reviled for the exact same reasons. Some relished the catch phrases and descriptions of live gigs, while others bemoaned the sheer repetitiveness and accused some musical cohorts of exploitation. But to say that all his songs sound the same is partially to miss the point. The formula was the reason his fans loved his music so much. It’s like eating your favorite food – you more or less know what you’re going to get and you still enjoy it every time. Yet, I’ll admit, it’s an acquired taste.
Look at it from the perspective of his fellow band members. How difficult do you think it would be to go out on tour and keep an eye on Wesley? No, The Wesley Willis Fiasco was not exploitative. But American Recordings certainly was. Amazingly, Wesley got to release an album on a major label. Even more amazingly, smelling potential profit, the label advanced a mere $10,000 for the album. To me, there’s no contest as to who is guilty of exploitation here.
Although Wesley lived a life plagued by mental illness, he wasn’t dumb. Stories abound about how he was able to recall singular events in his mind and make inkpen drawings of them with surprising accuracy – even down to things like license plate numbers on cars and buses. This is from the same guy who never bothered to memorize his song lyrics and would sit (or stand) on stage with a notebook for live sets.
Wesley Willis succumbed to leukemia on August 21, 2003, but rock & roll will never die.
Honorable mention/second favorite Wesley song: "Vampire Bat".