Happy birthday, Wesley Willis
Rock legend Wesley Willis would have turned 50 today. Chicago’s six-foot-five paranoid schizophrenic street musician and outsider artist, who was discovered and signed by Jello Biafra’s indie label Alternative Tentacles (Dead Kennedys) in the early ’90s, should always be remembered for his expressionist punk rage and handsome landscape drawings, not the naysaying critics dismissing his livelihood as an exploitative novelty. Wesley was a guiding light for an entire generation, trying to understand how to best stick it to The Man.
“Rock N’ Roll McDonald’s,” which received tons of college radio air play and was used in the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Super Size Me,” was probably his most famous song. Though it’s difficult to say which song was his best. Tracks such as “Suck a Snow Leopard’s Dick,” “Alanis Morissette” and “Taste a Doberman’s Ass” barely scratch the surface’s ass of what was a prolific, hilarious and absolutely killer catalog of Casio keyboard poetry.
Like any tormented artist who experiences the weight of genius as it crashes down on one’s shoulders, Willis led a haunted life. His demon-possessed mental “hell rides” were experienced without provocation. Either on a tour bus or in the streets, they could happen anywhere, and at any time. “My demon thinks I’m a jerk, a bum and an A-S-S-H-O-L-E,” he told Howard Stern in a 1996 interview. Albeit agonizing to even think about, that demon was also the impetus for his art. The music “made me feel great in the head,” he told MTV News’s Tabitha Soren in 1996. “It’s more about the music and the money.”
Wesley, who died in August 2003 from heart failure at the age of 40, would exhilarate some of the most passionate and loyal crowds I’ve ever seen at rock venues. (I saw Willis perform in 2001 and 2003, two months before he passed away.) After his shows, he would often greet fans with multiple head bumps, which resulted in a permanent purple blister in the center of his forehead. If anything, that callus proved his commitment to his music. Or maybe it was his love for fame. Or that he was possibly just a crazy fuck.
Wesley may very well have been exploited. There were always rumors of his road manager mistreating him like The Elephant Man — not doling out his meds at the right time or properly watching his diet. (At 325 pounds, he had a severe weight problem, which was often associated with health issues and his contracting leukemia.) I don’t know how much of the behind-the-music hearsay is true or not, but I would like to imagine that he lived a better life as a successful schizophrenic rather than a homeless one. And, again, damn could he fire up a crowd.
Here’s Wesley on January 12, 2002, performing the final two tracks of his setlist at the Graceland in Seattle — a harrowing version of his classic “Cut the Mullet” followed by “Suck a Mastiff’s Dick” and a rip-roaring ovation. Continue to rest in peace, Wesley. You’re my sweetheart to the max, and I love you like crispy critters.