Wesley Willis

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Wesley Willis
Wesley Willis.jpg
Willis in October 2000
Background information
Birth name Wesley Lawrence Willis
Born (1963-05-31)May 31, 1963
Origin Chicago, Illinois
Died August 21, 2003(2003-08-21) (aged 40)
Skokie, Illinois
Genres Outsider music, punk rock, alternative
Instruments Vocals, keyboards
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 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.[1][2][3]

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.[2][3] In addition to a large body of solo musical work, Willis fronted his own punk rock band, the Wesley Willis Fiasco.[3] He was also a visual artist long before his forays into music, producing hundreds of intricate, unusual, colored ink-pen drawings,[3] most of them of Chicago streetscapes and CTA buses.[1]

During some of Wesley Willis' most creative years in the late 1980s well into the mid 1990s, Willis had found a home at Chicago Trax Recording at their Hasted Street facility. Daily, Willis would stop in to say hello, hang with his new friends - the Trax family which included, but limited to artists such as Ministry & Lard, owner Reid Hyams and his entire staff, many of Chicago's award winning and most talented artists, musicians, recording engineers and producers in the history of recorded music. Willis also wrote songs about many of the people he met at Chicago Trax and recorded them at Chicago Trax.

Life and career

Willis was born in Chicago, Illinois on May 31, 1963. According to the Los Angeles Times, "Willis grew up in Chicago's projects as one of 10 children of parents who had a violent relationship and separated when he was young. He spent time in several foster homes and was essentially raised by two older brothers, who went with him from home to home."[4]

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 punk 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 September 26, 1996 where he played nearly identical songs about Baba Booey and Howard Stern. On May 22, 2001,Willis released an album titled Full Heavy Metal Jacket. During his tours, Willis became "famous for greeting fans with a headbutt".[5] This left him with a distinctive permanent bruise on his forehead.[5]

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."[6] 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."

On August 21, 2003, Willis died due to complications from chronic myelogenous leukemia in Skokie, Illinois. He was 40 years old. A memorial service for him was held on August 27, in Chicago.[2]


"Hellride" is the term used by Willis to describe his encounters with "demons",[7] which occurred mainly on the CTA bus lines in Chicago.[citation needed] Willis, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, often claimed that demons were trying to ruin his "Harmony Joy Music" or "Joy Rides".[2][7] 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",[8] 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.[2] 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 on September 26, 1996.

Cultural impact

  • In 1995, the Californian rock band Heavy Vegetable released the album Frisbie, which contains a tribute track entitled "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.[9]
  • 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".[10][11]
  • 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.[12]
  • Singer Katy Perry mentioned Willis in the song, "Simple," which she wrote early in her career. The lyrics to the song begin, "You're such a poet. I wish I could be Wesley Willis."[13]
  • 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.
  • In 2013 a supporting character named Milan was introduced for the ongoing Wonder Woman. A blind demigod with the power of far-sight and half-brother to Wonder Woman, his physical appearance and mannerisms are based on Wesley Willis."[14]
  • In 2009, the nerdcore musician MC Lars released the album This Gigantic Robot Kills, named as a tribute to Willis.

Partial discography


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Wesley Willis's Joy Rides · Wesley Willis Bio". Wesleywillissjoyrides.com. Retrieved 2013-11-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 "Bands". Alternative Tentacles. Retrieved 2013-11-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 "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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Lewis, Randy (August 25, 2003). "Wesley Willis, 40; Schizophrenic Found 'Joy' as Rock Performer". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles. Retrieved July 6, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Wesley Willis, Schizophrenic Street Singer, Dies". MTV News.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. [1] Archived March 14, 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Wesley Willis". Monzy.org. Retrieved 2013-11-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Various Artists: Vagabonds of the Midwestern World: Fighting Songs by Thin Lizzy - A - HBDirect Rock". Hbdirect.com. 2003-01-03. Retrieved 2013-11-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Super Size Me [Soundtrack]". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2010-06-17.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. DEMO.MP3 15592 bytes, 32 kbit/s, 22 kHz, recorded in "1997" "Exclusively for Nullsoft" by JJ McKay. Voice only, no music stinger.
  11. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Wolinsky, David (February 21, 2008). "It's drawn by Wesley Willis". The A.V. Club Chicago. Retrieved 12 March 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "Katy Perry - Simple". Retrieved 24 August 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Wesley Willis Wonder Woman: Iconic Artist Appears In New DC Comic As Heroine's Half-Brother". Retrieved 2 November 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "Take A Harmony Joy Ride". Derekerdman.com. Retrieved 2013-11-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links