gromko igraet muziku
Dateline October 27, 1999
love you like a taxi driver
Wesley Willis died due to complications from leukemia on August 21, 2003. The following was an article I wrote back in 1999, when I'd first heard of the man, and I'm keeping it up here with present tense included as a memorial to him and his music. He will be missed.
Flashback: A year or so ago, a friend of mine turned me on to the sound stylings of James Kolchaka, comic artist and idiosyncratic musician. Hockey Monkey was brilliant -- a song about some kids down at the pond playing hockey with a monkey. The rest of Kolchaka's album, Monkey Vs. Robot, explored similar simian/technology themes when it wasn't being outrageously precocious with regards to sex. I'd heard Kolchaka described as "a cross between They Might Be Giants and the kid in your neighborhood who learned about sex before everybody else" and it's a rather accurate assessment. His Bad Astronaut song has the only crewmember conscious aboard a marooned ship running around peeking up the ladies' shirts and sticking things in the Captain's rear. A more adolescent fantasy has yet to be committed to CD.
Kolchaka is more than content to make music for the sake of making music, and his short compositions show this. No worries about getting too deep or philosophical when your longest song isn't even 3 minutes long. You can sing about whatever you like, and while you'll be idiosyncratic as all get-out, you'll still have the utter satisfaction of getting the tunes out of your head and onto recordable media.
Now consider Wesley Willis, who takes this concept of making music for the hell of it and turns it on its ear. Or, rather, he whups its ass.
Wesley Willis is a large, 6-foot 300-pound man who, a few years ago, roamed the streets of Chicago giving headbutts to complete strangers and singing his own kind of music. He was then discovered, given a record contract, and has since given the music world over 20 albums and 400 songs (a conservative web site estimate). Wesley is more of a spoken-word artist, or perhaps what you'd call "hollered-word". He's had records produced by the Dust Brothers, hobknobbed with celebrities, and given generous airtime on MTV.
He is also, quite literally, insane.
Diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, Willis' best work is borne of this affliction. His songs all follow the same rigid lyrical structure and deal with themes ranging from talking about the famous people he's met to encounters with the police to the hollering of random obscenities to stories of "hellrides" on public transportation where he hollers random obscenities at the bus driver and gets in trouble. Yes, Wesley Willis is one of the hostile bus crazies, but he's a bus crazy with a record contract.
So think of one of the local crazies in your neighborhood -- the angry bus guy, the lady who sits on the bench outside the grocery store, the suntan man, the phone lady -- think of them making hostile advances at passersby but with a bass and guitar backing them up, and you've basically got Wesley Willis. His songs would be equally the same screamed from a front stoop as performed in a coffeehouse. In fact, it's quite intriguing to imagine Wesley giving impromptu performances of his works at random places on the street, which is how he was discovered in the first place. Only instead of all the other crazies in the world, Wesley was taken in a musical context.
At first, Willis' songs are incredibly hysterical in their sheer and utter badness. His instrumental backings rarely vary, and his rigid lyrical style makes everything almost sound the same. He does not attempt to sing, instead, he delivers each verse in a more or less straightforward tone. At the chorus, though, he hollers the same line (usually the song's title) over and over, his voice reaching a fever pitch and breaking at the high parts. It is so amazingly amateurish, especially with the subject matter of the all-obscenity songs he loves so well, that you can't help but laugh uproariously at it all.
Flashback: I first discovered Willis' work while browsing an MP3 archive with Napster. The computer's name was "WesleyWillis", which I assumed to be the name of the server's maintainer. This guy, though, saw fit to include about a zillion MP3s he apparently had done, with names ranging from Alanis Morrisette to Suck A Cheetah's Dick to Suck A Pitbull's Dick to Suck A Camel's Dick... oh, the endless permutations of "Suck a  Dick" on the list. The more I browsed the collection, the more I was convinced this was some 16-year-old suburban Insane Clown Posse / Limp Bizkit fan who had a microphone and wanted to record some of his own freestyle obscenity concoctions to make all his buddies snigger and laugh. On a whim I looked Wesley Willis up in Altavista, and realized this was no fluke. This guy was real.
My first real taste of this unique experience was a ditty called I Whupped Batman's Ass. I was completely unprepared for the music ahead. Willis relates a story about his getting into a fight with Batman. That's it. He also calls Batman a "jack-off" and "a fucking asshole" a few times along the way. The song is delivered with such simple sincerity (the verses, at least) that you come to think that perhaps Wesley does believe, at some point, that he did get into a fight with Batman. Or maybe it was someone he thought was Batman. Maybe the "schizophrenic demons" in his head told him it was Batman. At any rate, the more I listened to the songs and perused online lyric repositories, the more I realized this was no mere nutty novelty act. This truly was a glimpse into the head of an insane man, and it was fascinating.
There are several kinds of Willis songs. The most common (and comedic) kind are his obscenity-laden rants. It's this that probably gained him notoriety around the suits at MTV. Wesley's favorite kind of obscenity involves animal genitalia, and he uses it gleefully and, at the same time, in a hostile fashion that resembles nothing more than pure musical regression. It's the kind of stuff young pottymouthed kids would either curse to their friends in the schoolyard ("suck a panda bear's sweaty nutsack!") or improvise when left alone to their own devices. I would know, since I speak from experience.
Flashback: My younger brothers and I are overjoyed at our parents' leaving the house and letting us run around alone, unsupervised, for a while. I'm about 10 years old in this case, and we celebrate the lack of parental supervision by running around the house, screaming obscenities at the top of our lungs. We work up a song comprised entirely of all the bad words we know, and we sing it over and over and over again until we get tired and decide to raid the freezer for some ice cream. We have way too much fun with this.
There is some kind of perverse, adolescent appeal to listening to Wesley curse up a storm. The listener regresses along with Willis, who admittedly doesn't have that far to go to reach these childish turns of logic. And you laugh, in spite of the fact that it's all very purile and Wesley is mentally unbalanced and the music kinda sucks. It's very hard to listen to a peppy rhythm and happy background music while Wesley croons "Suck a cheetah's dick!" over and over and not laugh. At that point it's not entirely certain if Wesley even realizes what the schizophrenic demons are saying. He delivers each obscene line in the same lucid, straightforward tone of voice he uses when he gets political and talks about police officers who were sent to prison after the murder of a homeless man outside a crackhouse. It's the same voice he uses when he sings the praises of John Wesley Harding or Alanis Morrisette. It's the same voice he uses when he worries about getting too fat and apologizes, promising never to get fat again. The only thing different is the background music, the subject matter, and the fact that sometimes he gets excited and speaks in that frenzied clip you'd come to expect from the bus crazy who continually tries to lecture on about aliens stealing your soul through your asshole. This makes for some fascinating listening.
Wesley closes each and every song with the lines "Rock over London, rock on Chicago" and then a different commercial slogan. It's this ritualistic coda that really knocks me for a loop. This pop culture non sequitur, thrown in compulsively at the end of every song, is inexplicably cool. I continually wonder what Mentos, Budweiser, Walgreens and their contemporaries think of being linked to such music. Either way, I know I've got a new favorite random phrase.
Sadly enough, with all this insane notoriety, Wesley's 15 minutes of fame seems to have come and gone. I'm not sure if he's still out touring with his band, The Wesley Willis Fiasco, or if he's taking it easy for a while. All the web material I found on him was dated 1995 and 1996, and even by then the backlash had begun. Some folks criticized Willis for being overrated and overexposed - honestly, I don't remember a single bit of him on MTV in 1996, and I watched the channel quite a bit back then. Of course, I was high back then.
Is Wesley Willis a genius? Is he just oblivious to what he's done? Does he have a sense of humor or are all of his songs meant seriously? I have no clue, man. Quit asking me. I don't even know what he's doing right now. At any rate, no matter what he's up to -- and I hope he's doing OK -- a small yet bemused cadre of online fans are helping to keep his music, erm, alive.
Wesley Willis Links