Willis in October 2000
|Birth name||Wesley Lawrence Willis|
|Born||May 31, 1963|
|Died||August 21, 2003
|Genres||Outsider music, electronic, punk rock, alternative|
|Years active||1976–2003 (as artist)
1989–2003 (as musician)
|Labels||Alternative Tentacles, American Recordings|
|Associated acts||Wesley Willis Fiasco
Monster Voodoo Machine
|Website||Wesley Willis on Alternative Tentacles|
Wesley Willis (May 31, 1963 – August 21, 2003) was an American singer-songwriter and visual artist from Chicago. Diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia in 1989, Willis began a career as an underground singer-songwriter in the outsider music tradition, with songs featuring his bizarre, humorous and often obscene lyrics sung over the auto accompaniment feature on his Technics KN electronic keyboard.
Willis gained an enormous cult following in the 1990s, mainly upon the release of Greatest Hits in 1995 on the Alternative Tentacles label. The album was released at the urging of punk rock pioneer Jello Biafra who compiled its tracklist. In addition to a large body of solo musical work, Willis fronted his own punk rock band, the Wesley Willis Fiasco. He was also a visual artist long before his forays into music, producing hundreds of intricate, unusual, colored ink-pen drawings, most of them of Chicago streetscapes and CTA buses.
Early life and career
Willis was born in Chicago, Illinois on May 31, 1963. In 1989, Willis began hearing what he called "demons" and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He was institutionalized for two months after his diagnosis. He often mentioned that his demons were named "Heartbreaker", "Nervewrecker", and "Meansucker". He called his psychotic episodes "hell rides", and alternatively, he declared rock and roll to be "the joy ride music".
Willis sold ink pen drawings of the Chicago cityscape on the street. In The Daddy of Rock 'N' Roll, Steve Albini tells an anecdote about how Willis was in one train station drawing a detailed picture of a different train station from memory. These works of outsider art appear on the covers of his albums. Willis joined musicians from the city's alternative rock scene to form the hard rock band The Wesley Willis Fiasco. Willis created a fervor in the Chicago music scene and soon caught the attention of American Recordings, an independent label distributed by The Warner Group.
In early 1994, Willis recorded with the Canadian industrial-metal band Monster Voodoo Machine and appeared on their Juno Award winning debut album Suffersystem (RCA Records). In 1995, Willis was signed as a solo musician to American Recordings and went on to record two albums while producing dozens of other albums independently, becoming a minor novelty rock sensation. He toured frequently, was profiled on MTV and was a guest on The Howard Stern Show on February 26, 1996 where he played nearly identical songs about Baba Booey and Howard Stern.
Rock critic and Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff wrote that Willis's "[P]eriodic appearances for crowds of jeering white fratboys evoke an uncomfortable combination of minstrel act and traveling freak show." Conversely, guitarist Scott Anthony, who toured with Willis in 1998, said "It's not frat boys coming to his shows and making fun of him; it's punk rock kids who appreciate that he sings stuff people are thinking."
"Hellride" is the term used by Willis to describe his encounters with "demons", which occurred mainly on the CTA bus lines in Chicago. Willis, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, often claimed that demons were trying to ruin his "Harmony Joy Music" or "Joy Rides". Willis also used the term to describe general harassment: In one of his songs he says, "He gave me a yelldown warhellride." When asked about the demons or Hellrides, Willis would often comment that he was trying to "stay the hell out of prison" by "not hitting people in the street with bricks." In several songs, both terms are used openly. One of Willis's songs is entitled "I Deserve a Warhellride".
Song style and structure
The Wesley Willis Fiasco songs were essentially punk rock songs with Willis howling his obscene, absurd rants as lyrics. Some called it exploitation; others dubbed it "savant-garde." The Wesley Willis Fiasco recorded at least three cover songs: Thin Lizzy's "Jailbreak", Pure Prairie League's "Amie", and Duran Duran's "Girls on Film", the last of which was recorded for a 1997 Duran Duran tribute album. Another song by the Wesley Willis Fiasco, "The Bar Is Closed", recreates a section of Rush's "Tom Sawyer"; the song "Casper the Homosexual Friendly Ghost" does the same with Van Halen's "Jamie's Cryin'".
After the Fiasco broke up, Willis's popularity increased markedly. As a solo artist, Willis created more than 50 albums, each with over 20 tracks, full of bizarre, tense, and often obscene rants about crime, fast food, cultural trends, bus routes, violent confrontations with superheroes, commands for his "demons" to engage in bestiality (in The Daddy of Rock 'n' Roll, Willis explained that these songs [e.g., "Drink a Camel's Cum, Suck a Cheetah's Dick"] would "gross out" the demons enough to leave him alone), and praise for his favorite actors, friends (both platonic and romantic), politicians, and hip-hop and rock artists. Songs about rock artists were usually confined to describing a show performed by the band that Willis had attended or opened for, recycling key phrases such as "The crowd roared like a lion," "A lot of people met the band," or "The band got down like a Magikist". Many songs end with the phrase "Rock over London, rock on, Chicago," followed by a product slogan, such as "Polaroid. See what develops."
Willis's keyboard of choice was the Technics KN series. Willis would obsessively trade in one KN model for the newest ones on the market during the time when he was making the most money (after his break-up with The Wesley Willis Fiasco). The KN1200 was the keyboard he was currently using, according to a Howard Stern interview in February 26, 1996.
- In 1995, Heavy Vegetable released album Frisbe, with a dedication track titled "Song For Wesley".
- In 1998, Kenickie released a cover of Save Your Kisses for Me, inserting a Wesley Willis reference - "rock over London, rock on Chicago" - into the song's middle eight.
- In 2003, Filmmaker Daniel Bitton released a film about Wesley Willis called The Daddy of Rock 'N' Roll.
- The 2004 documentary Super Size Me features Wesley Willis's song Rock N Roll McDonald's, which is named after a famous Chicago restaurant of the fast-food chain featured in the film.
- In 2008, the documentary film Wesley Willis's Joy Rides made its public debut at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The film comprises footage of Willis collected by the filmmakers over a period of five years, interviews of family and friends after Willis's death, and animations created from his artwork.
- In Gabriel Rheaume's novel The Shores We Walk there are multiple references to Wesley Willis as well as a tribute song entitled "Wes is a Hero".
- Music software Winamp took their slogan "It really whips the llamas ass!" from Willis's song "Whip The Llama's Ass".
- During his lifetime, he frequently drew and either gave his drawings away to friends or sold them for small amounts (typically $10 or $20) in Chicago parks. However, after his death, Willis began to receive recognition in the art community for his large body of visual art. In 2008 his artwork was exhibited at the Mohamed Khalil Museum of Egypt, and he was the subject of a special exhibit entitled Drawn By Wesley Willis at Dominican University.
- A song of Willis's about Star Wars was later included as an example of remix culture material in the documentary film The People vs. George Lucas.
- 1993 Radiohead
- 1994 Double Door
- 1994 Machine Gun Kelly
- 1994 Mr. Magoo Goes to Jail
- 1994 Prisonshake
- 1994 Rev Norb
- 1994 Rev Norb #2
- 1995 Atomic Records
- 1995 Delilah's
- 1995 Drag Disharmony Hellride
- 1995 Fireman Rick
- 1995 Greatest Hits
- 1995 Jason Rau
- 1995 Rock Power
- 1995 Tammy Smith
- 1995 Dr. Wax
- 1995 Wesley Willis (Fuse Records)
- 1995 Daren Hacker (Wesley Willis Records)
- 1995 Wesley Willis (Alternative Tentacles)
- 1996 Spookydisharmoniousconflicthellride (with the Wesley Willis Fiasco) (Urban Legends Records)
- 1996 Mr. Magoo Goes to Jail Vol. 1
- 1996 Mr. Magoo Goes to Jail Vol. 2
- 1996 Mr. Magoo Goes to Jail Vol. 3
- 1996 New York New York
- 1996 Fabian Road Warrior (American Recordings)
- 1996 Feel the Power (American Recordings)
- 1996 Rock 'n' Roll Will Never Die (Oglio Records)
- 1996 Black Light Diner
- 1997 Metal Clink Punishment Jail
- 1998 Rock 'N' Roll Jackflash
- 1998 SMD Promotions
- 1999 Dead End Street
- 1999 Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (Alternative Tentacles)
- 1999 Silver Fish Sea World
- 2000 Guitar Rock of Ages
- 2000 Shake Your Piggy Bank (Coldfront Records)
- 2000 Joe Hunter (Wesley Willis Records)
- 2000 Joe Hunter #2
- 2000 Never Kill an Ape (Wesley Willis Records)
- 2000 Rush Hour (Alternative Tentacles)
- 2001 ASCAP
- 2001 Fool's Gold
- 2001 Torture Demon Hellride
- 2001 Full Heavy Metal Jacket
- 2001 Live EP (with the Wesley Willis Fiasco) (Cornerstone R.A.S.)
- 2001 North Carolina Highway Patrol (Wesley Willis Records)
- 2003 Greatest Hits Vol. 3 (Alternative Tentacles)
- "Wesley Willis's Joy Rides · Wesley Willis Bio". Wesleywillissjoyrides.com. Retrieved 2013-11-21.
- "Bands". Alternative Tentacles. Retrieved 2013-11-21.
- "Say Rah! Discussing the Daddy of Rock n’ Roll with the Directors of "Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides"". Y Marks the Spot. 2010-07-31. Retrieved 2013-11-21.
- [dead link]
- "Wesley Willis". Monzy.org. Retrieved 2013-11-21.
- "Various Artists: Vagabonds of the Midwestern World: Fighting Songs by Thin Lizzy - A - HBDirect Rock". Hbdirect.com. 2003-01-03. Retrieved 2013-11-21.
- "Super Size Me [Soundtrack]". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2010-06-17.
- DEMO.MP3 15592 bytes, 32 kbit/s, 22 kHz, recorded in "1997" "Exclusively for Nullsoft" by JJ McKay. Voice only, no music stinger.
- Kushner, David (January 13, 2004). "The World's Most Dangerous Geek". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on 2007-03-21. Retrieved 2010-07-03.
- Wolinsky, David (February 21, 2008). "It's drawn by Wesley Willis". The A.V. Club Chicago. Retrieved 12 March 2012.
- "Take A Harmony Joy Ride". Derekerdman.com. Retrieved 2013-11-21.
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Wesley Willis|
- Wesley Willis discography at MusicBrainz
- Wesley Willis Biography and MP3s at Alternative Tentacles
- monzy.org Wesley Willis Biography including Wesley Willis Song Generator
- Press release from Willis's good friend Jello Biafra in memory of Willis
- Art of Wesley Willis, drawings by Willis of scenes in Chicago, as well as a sampling of his music.
- Wesley Willis Art, drawings by Willis of scenes in Chicago
- Loved Like a Milkshake A Wesley Willis tribute album by a variety of artists
- Wesley Willis: Artist of the Streets (1988 video of Wesley Willis drawing and explaining his technique)
- Wesley Willis on Artist Direct
- Wesley Willis: Howard Stern Interview (listen online)