My Taste in Terrible Music #5: Wesley Willis

Wesley Willis was a Chicago man who, aged 26, had a psychotic episode and developed paranoid schizophrenia. To help combat his demons, he would play his keyboards and sing songs he had written. (I am not using the term “demons” figuratively; one of the symptoms of Willis’ schizophrenia was that he spoke of his recurring torment at the hands of three demons, named Heartwrecker, Nervewrecker, and Meansucker.) Of the hundreds of songs he wrote, several recurring themes can be identified.

Celebrities he admires, bands he had seen, encounters with superheroes, and, most notably, obscene songs of graphic bestiality (these obscenities were particularly effective at driving away his demons).

Any readers who listened to more than a few of those may have noticed a few common elements: the song structure is essentially identical in every single one:

4 lines verse

Chorus Title of the song x4

4 lines verse

Chorus Title of the song x4

Rock over London,
Rock on Chicago
[advertising slogan]

You may also notice the recurring music – Willis would use the pre-existing songs on his keyboards transposed into different keys; this can be heard by comparing Rock n Roll McDonalds, Retard Bus, or Alanis Morrissette, which features the same music in a minor key.

As with the Shaggs, I love these songs because of their simplicity. There is a naïve honesty to Rock n Roll McDonalds. This may go some of the way to explaining his popularity in Chicago’s punk scene. Additionally, his style must be some kind of ultimate expression of the punk ethic – you don’t get much more DIY than Wesley Willis. Some say that his popularity was mocking, or ironic; ignorant punks and frat boys exploiting and sneering at a mentally ill man. I find this hard to believe – I genuinely find something entertaining and enjoyable in Willis’s work.

Willis also recorded and toured for a while with a band, The Wesley Willis Fiasco. The music was more complex and varied than in his solo work, but retained his signature honest lyrical style, as in the song I’m Sorry That I Got Fat.

The Wesley Willis Fiasco also did notable covers of Girls on Film and Jailbreak.

Though he self-released most of his work, Willis’s popularity eventually led him to be signed to the Alternative Tentacles label, one of America’s largest indie labels, owned by former Dead Kennedy’s frontman Jello Biafra. (Artist profile here.) A documentary about Willis, The Daddy of Rock and Roll, was made in 2000. The filmmakers followed Willis around as he writes and records his songs, met friends, plays a show, and visits his old high school. The film shows two sides of the exploitation-versus-genuine argument. Willis clearly had a strong network of friends and supporters, but there are also uncomfortable moments that highlight his mental health issues. Willis was also an artist, producing hundreds of drawings every year, mostly of the streets, buildings and vehicles of Chicago.

Wesley Willis died in 2003, and a touching obituary from Jello Biafra highlights the unique nature of his character, proving to me that at least some of his popularity and love was genuine.

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