Wesley Willis would have been 50 years old today. His legacy will last several of our lifetimes but still, I really would have wanted him to know how often I think about him. Although it’s not as if I sit around saying to myself, “Man, Wes, I wish you were here with me…” the number of times per day that I say, hear, or see something that reminds me of Wesley, or perhaps is a part of me because of Wesley, runs into the dozens.
With close friends I have been known to sign-off on emails with a classic Wesleyism: “Rock over London, rock on [your name here]!”
His music is programmed into my online radio station in the office, so it’s almost certain on any given day of the week to hear a track from the Wesley Willis Fiasco’s debut (and only) album Spookydisharmoniousconflicthellride (1996), which is still one of my favorite records ever made by a Chicago-based band.* On the other hand, you really only need to own one Wesley solo CD, since they’re identical. His Greatest Hits will suffice, trust me.
I’ve met some remarkable people in my life but few captivated my attention like Wesley. He made me rethink everything. Art, music, life…he affected me in ways I’ll never understand, but I can try. I think that’s what Wes was trying to do–understand what happened to him.
Musically, it’s convenient to file Wesley in the Captain Beefheart section of my acquired tastes; there is a time and a place for him. Artistically, Wes was a genius savant with a Bic pen and a photographic memory which often failed him when he needed it most.
For a couple of years, Wes and I were friends and I use the term “friends” loosely. Our association began sometime in 1994-1995, and was sustained through a mutual friendship with Dale Meiners, owner of Ghetto Love Recording and guitarist for the Wesley Willis Fiasco. One night I saw the Wesley Willis Fiasco at Empty Bottle.
As a budding ‘zine contributor, I was inspired to write about the band, but specifically, Wesley. The first article, a ragged interview with the band, was published in Tail Spins, a small but upstart ‘zine based in Evanston, IL. The second article, transcribed below, was published in Subnation Magazine sometime in 1995-96 (prior to the release of the Fiasco’s debut album).
Following these articles, Wes and I spent more time together, particularly during the period between October 1996 and January 1997, when Whitey was recording with Dale. At that stage of the game, I was pulling back from the “journalism” to focus on music. Writing about music had caused me nothing but notoriety and heartache in the previous three years.
The article, which was significantly edited and re-tooled from what I submitted, remains reasonably representative of the times. And it really did happen that way—there were witnesses. I was a part of the Wesley World for a brief window of time. Some of those memories are almost too precious to describe. I met so many wonderful people, some of whom may be reading this.
Shitty December Sunday morning, 1996. I’d been crashing on the floor in the live room at Ghetto Love for two days. Dale woke up around 9:00 a.m. and said “Let’s go meet Fred (Mangan) and Wesley at [hipster greasy spoon diner] for breakfast.”
We head over, meet Fred and Wes, get a table, order our food, and everything is cool. The food starts coming. Wesley ordered pancakes and he’s excited when he sees the syrup arrive. I was not really paying attention; I was devouring my omelet or whatever.
A couple of minutes go by and Wes calls out very politely, “Miss, could I please have some more butter.” The waitress came back with another chunk of butter on a small plate. Again, I’m not even paying attention to anything except my food. Then Fred asked me a series of questions, and Fred’s questions were/are always baited to bring out the darkest of my black sunshine.
So we’re going back and forth, I think we were talking about the Jesus Lizard’s major label deal going south, when I look over and notice that Wes had about a cigarette pack’s worth of butter stacked up on a plate off to the side of his pancakes, which he’s halfway through already, dipping each bite in a puddle of syrup.
For a brief moment, I thought, “OK wow, Wes actually has like, some etiquette,” since the last time we ate together at Las Americanas taqueria, things did not go well. Another ten minutes goes by and everybody is finished with their meals – except Wes. He still had that gold bar of butter, which he began digging into with a spoon and eating like ice cream.
This was at a time when everybody was concerned about Wesley’s weight. He was really fat and not getting any exercise.
Let me say this about Dale Meiners and Fred Mangan–they were solid, upstanding individuals who genuinely cared for Wes. Carla Winterbottom was probably Wesley’s truest guardian angel. Those folks were looking out for him.
Back at the table scene, Wes grabbed the sugar dispenser and gave it a shake over his butter pie. I shot a look to Dale and said, “What the fuck is he doing?”
“That’s his thing,” Dale said. And then Wes proceeded to finish off the butter, eating with a fork.
After breakfast, we went to Fred’s house. Fred’s showing us his artwork and Wesley says, “I gotta take a shit. The butter is cutting through me like a hot knife!” I remember thinking, “Oh yeah I’m going to write that one down, baby! Wesley Gold!”
Fred says, “You know what to do, Wes.”
Ten minutes later, Wes emerged from the bathroom, dripping wet, naked except for his black Rockports, and said, “I need a towel.” Fred grabbed him a clean towel and Wesley came back with his duds on, like nothing had happened. Later, I asked Dale, “What was the bathroom thing all about?”
Once Dale explained the basics of living with a schizophrenic, I found that Wesley’s daily behaviors and rituals weren’t that far out of line from my own. Nobody wants to walk around with a dirty ass.
I saw some of Wesley’s dark side, too. Occasionally, he’d meltdown and I’d get the fuck out of there, since I didn’t know how to deal with him and it sure seemed like my presence wasn’t helping, right?
Sometimes Dale would say, man, people just don’t understand that for the majority of Wesley’s life, he was abused and told he’s total shit. Now all these people are paying attention to him and it’s seriously freaking him out. God help you when Wesley started hearing the voices. Nothing you can do but get out of the way.
I was and always will be kind of a sheltered suburban dummy, so nothing that ever happened with Wesley really sank in until much later in life. Experience after experience, I have developed a sort of Teflon in terms of absorbing a situation. You know how you have semi-tragic losses in your life? It can happen in any number of ways. Burglary, fire, carelessness. At some point in time, everybody gets jacked. I’ve been jacked a bunch of times, but none stick with me like this one.
The last time I saw Wesley was March 1999 outside of The Big Horse Saloon in Wicker Park. It had probably been a few months since our paths had crossed. After exchanging pleasantries, Wesley tried to sell me one of his drawings for $20. I reminded him that I had bought several of his classic depictions of the Chicago skyline the last time we met—which was true. “Buy another one,” he said. And so I did. The drawing was eventually rolled up in a cardboard tube along with the others, and stored my bedroom closet.
In June, I finally moved to San Francisco. Upon unpacking, I discovered the Wesley drawings were missing. Even though I specifically intended to put those cardboard tubes in the cargo bay of the U-Haul truck, a week later: no drawings. Or did I? I remember taking them downstairs and outside but I can’t say for sure exactly where or if actually I put them…in the truck…and I knew that my brother and moving helper wouldn’t take them…
Despite numerous search and rescue efforts, they were never recovered – but that’s another, unrelated story. Wesley’s been dead for almost nine years now and there really isn’t much left to say. I miss him. The world was a slightly more interesting place with him in it. But in this digital age, nobody really goes away forever anymore. I have access to pretty much all the Wesley Willis my life requires. But even though he’s still here in spirit (and mp3), I can’t help but wish I could look across the room and see a little part of him, hanging on my wall. Or better yet, giving me a headbutt and saying, “Rah!”
The following article was originally published by Subnation Magazine, date unknown circa 1995-96, and reprinted exactly from photocopy (see below).
THE NIGHTMARE VISION OF WICKER PARK ARTIST AND ROCK N ROLL STAR WESLEY WILLIS
BY CHRISTIAN ADAMS
Wesley Willis showed up at my door one chilly afternoon, toting a bag full of poster-sized drawings and a wooden folding chair, surprising the hell out of me and my roommates. I had spoken to Willis over the phone several times since meeting him at Empty Bottle a month earlier and he knew that I wanted to write about him. He’d asked me if I was going to write about his keyboard, his Technics KN-2000. I said, “Of course, I am, Wes.” We were supposed to meet one Friday afternoon at Empty Bottle but he didn’t show up. But there he finally was, at my door, folding chair in hand.
The phone tag between Willis and I had become legendary around the apartment; messages like “Wesley called and played me a song on his rock n’ roll keyboard” were a dime a dozen for a while. And our conversations always played out as if we were talking for the first time. I swear to this day, during any conversation he and I have, he asks my name at least twice. But Willis loves to talk on the phone with people, almost as much as he loves hanging out in clubs, selling his drawings and singing his “motherfucking ass off” in “hot ass rock and roll band.”
Selling his drawings and two full-length CDs of his rock and roll keyboard music is what Willis is most known for. He is also the lead singer in a rock and roll band called the Fiasco. When I first saw the Fiasco, Willis lumbered up on stage in front of a jam-packed Empty Bottle, and I saw God; he “rocked the house like a motherfucker” as Willis himself often says. Some friends of Willis feel that a good portion of his audiences are just there to see the big black crazy dude freaking out, and some of the kids that pack his shows and sing along to his songs can’t even fathom the shit this man has gone through. “I have to wonder sometimes if people are laughing at Wesley or with him,” says Dale Meiners, longtime Willis pal and band mate. “Are they there for the music or the spectacle?” It’s a valid question to raise, I mean, I have to at least chuckle when he punctuates the end of each song with a commercial (short phrases such as “Diet Pepsi, you got the right one, baby, uh-huh,” or “Maxwell House, good to the last drop” because it is pretty funny.
But upon learning more about Willis’ background, any notions of humor would be obscene. Wesley Willis was born on May 31, 1963 at Michael Reese Hospital on the south side of Chicago to Anne and Walter Willis. That makes him a Gemini. The Willis family rode the welfare system and were frequently moved and/ or separated due to his father’s abusiveness. Wesley has nine siblings, most of whom he has not seen or heard from at all since he was sent off to live with an uncle who has subsequently been arrested for the sexual abuse of a minor. During the mid-80s, Wesley moved back with his mother and new boyfriend. Willis is clinically schizophrenic, but he found solace in drawing. During his daily trips to Genesis Art Warehouse in Wicker Park, Willis made fast friends with area folk and made pretty quick cash, too, selling his free-hand drawings of CTA buses and Chicago skylines for $20 a pop.
His mother’s boyfriend, another “abusive bastard—the worst” according to Willis’ current roommate, Carla Winterbottom, used to torment Wesley and his younger brother Ricky with severe beatings and intimidation, and by forcing them to watch Annie Willis give him head. On October 15, 1989, the boyfriend hels a gun to Willis’ head and demanded the 600 bucks Willis had been saving to get his own pad. From that day on, “mean voices” have plagued Wesley Willis, and while some of his medication keeps them quiet, other times Willis will suddenly “curse [them] out…the mean, vulgar voices.” He can’t control it.
In 1991, Willis was cursing the voices while riding a bus. A bystander, thinking Willis was yelling at him, cut a nice-inch swath across the right side of Willis’ face with a box cutter. The attacker is the subject of “Doing Time in Jail,” an irresistible stomp-rock “hot ass heavy metal song” performed by Willis with his band. The Fiasco, consisting of guitarist/friend Dale Meiners and members of local rock group, Water, is one of Willis’ two musical projects—the other being the solo keyboard gig—that I hoped to find out more about in our meeting together.
“Do you have any cranberry juice?” Willis asked after I offered him a drink.
“No,” I replied.
“How ’bout a pop.”
“Sure. RC okay?”
“Yow,” he said as he began to pull out the drawings he had wrapped up in clear plastic. Willis didn’t seem too interested in answering questions. He was somewhat anxious and distant. And when I asked how he got involved in music he would say, “Do you have a copy of my CD? Let me see it.” He was referring to his two releases, Mr. Magoo Goes To Jail and Radiohead, available only from the man himself. I felt like such an asshole explaining that I had lent it to a friend. Then something broke up the whole conversation. Willis asked for a towel. I rummaged through my room and then handed him a brownish towel. Immediately he leaned forward and spit a big glob of saliva into the terrycloth. Well, what the fuck do you do at this point?
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Music is probably the only medium through which to hear Willis speak, whether he’s fronting the Fiasco or singing over the auto beat and Casio-like chord changes of his KN-2000. He spews one violently disturbing yet hilarious story after another. Songs vary in content but never in style. Take “Jessie White” for instance, Willis’ ode to the semi-prominent tumbling troupe leader. The chorus to a Wesley Willis rock and roll song is almost always the same; a slightly off-key rendering of the song’s title, in this case, “Jess-seee White! Jess-seee Wh-i-te!” (Kiss does that, too. Every chorus either is the title or has the title in it. Check it out.)
Willis literally screams over the silly, doo-doot-doo-doo bass/keyboard line. During the verses, Willis’ deep and resonant voice plows through the room like Jesse Jackson behind the wheel of a tank as it bellows personal stories with the syntax and diction of a newspaper. Even over the phone, songs like “Shogun Assassin” are so vivid that they defy description, I mean, I’ll be holding the receiver about arm’s length from my ear, and his voice is still so fucking loud that I can make out every word. Up-close and in person, it’s way, way, way—Whoo-hoo-wee!–way out there.
And with the Fiasco, a strange new life appears in Willis as the band rips through prog-rock riffs and nifty interludes and he rocks out with reckless abandon and shameless bravado. Fiasco songs often feature brief snippets of other songs, such as the hook from “Tom Sawyer” in the middle of Willis’ “I Can’t Drive.” It’s a heavy metal Willis when he’s with the Fiasco, and to see him standing on stage—sweating like crazy, screaming in to the mic—is really, to see God.
What’s most remarkable about Willis is his ability to convey pain, hurt and anger, without being threatening or sounding like a half-baked John Lydon. One can sense his rage when he describes the scene of “Doing Time in Jail,” but at the same time, one feels like an innocent bystander at a four-car pile-up.
And rock and roll aside, Willis is also a bona fide visual artist. His art is 3′ by 4′ freehand, Bic pen (read: Bic fucking pen), true to scale drawings of Chicago skylines with angles so pure and detail so true that Mies Van Her Rohe would fawn. He is, in layman’s terms, an idiot savant, except his specialty isn’t numbers or counting cards—it’s drawing. Not only is the raw quality of his work simply amazing considering work has been scooped up by a few Wicker Park collectors (going rate from Willis: 20-35 bucks). I have actually reserved a particularly colorful skyline for myself.
Dale Meiners met Willis at Genesis Art Warehouse (Meiners’ girlfriend managed the place for a while), and the two struck up a friendship that would eventually pair them as housemates for a spell. “I had a studio and he would hang out [while] I played with a bunch of bands,” said Meiners. “He wanted to check it out, so we decided to run with it. He just decided to sing his ass off.” Willis’ baptism into the rock and roll was thus begun. At its very beginnings, before Water solidified the line-up, the Fiasco was meant to be just for kicks, basically because Willis seemed to enjoy it, and the band went through a number of informal line-up changes.
But Meiners wanted to make very clear that “[The Fiasco] didn’t just jump on the Wesley bandwagon to make a buck.” Meiners and the other members of the Fiasco were responsible for moving Wesley out of the last project he lived in with his father. “What [the Fiasco] is afraid of, is that some major label is going to sign Wesley and say, ‘Well, screw those guys’ and replace us with studio musicians.”
Last summer, a demo tape was being circulated among the hands of rock industry movers and shakers, most notably Jello Biafra and Beastie Boy, Mike Diamond. Almost every major label had at least one copy floating around its A&R department. Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkleman said, “It seemed like for a while there, no matter who you asked, they had a copy of the tape.” Seemingly overnight, Willis became the subject of the strangest music industry buzz this side of Veruca Salt.
Now here is where it gets tricky: the Fiasco promo kit says that several “major labels are seeking out the ever-elusive Fiasco…but as of yet, no dotted lines have been signed.” The thing is, Willis has signed at least one record deal—and as many as four, depending upon whom you ask—and Meiners said, “Nobody really knows what he’s doing…because he’s schizophrenic and on SSI, he can’t really sign anything.” Meiners said the Fiasco is currently unsigned but actively pursuing a deal.
All the attention Willis is receiving these days, however, goes beyond curiosity seekers, record companies, and art collectors. Wesley Willis is also the subject of a video documentary by Jeff Kilpatrick called Wesley Willis as Himself. [There are other documentaries about Wes, but this is the original.]
The documentary was featured at the Underground Film Fest. It tells the story of Willis’ journey from hard times in the projects to his current artistic and personal success. A lot of people refused to go on record when I asked them about Willis. One potential quotable said he felt discussing Willis or his dilemma would only hurt Willis himself. The few that did agree to talk did so with what seemed to be genuine concern for Willis’ well-being. Idful Music producer/engineer Brad Wood said, “I don’t think it’s out of control, but I am concerned about him.” Mike Diamond called Wood to specifically inquire about Willis. “[Mike D.] is about as cool a motherfucker as there is on the planet, so I mean, that’s why he asked so many questions,” said Wood. “I don’t think anybody wants to see Wesley get exploited.” Willis had been sitting in my living room for an hour sipping his soda pop and spitting into the brown towel, talking to me intermittently. I pulled my seat closer to him and he began punctuating the end of each sentence by reaching over and gently shaking my hand. “Do you like rock and roll music?” he asked.
“Of course I do, Wes.”
“Do you think I’m an asshole?”
“No Wes,” I answered, “you’re not an asshole.”
“The mean voices curse me with vulgar language and say my rock and roll is shit.”
“Fuck the voices, Wes.”
“Yow,” Wesley replied. “Fuck them.” After promising to write a song about my band, Wesley said he had to go, “Cuz I’m a busy man.” And with that, he collected his drawings and discs, folded up his chair and lumbered out the door before I could really get a chance to thank him for stopping by.
* * *