This month has proven to be a particularly great one for me as a Wesley Willis fan. Not only was I offered an original piece of art by the late, great artist/musician, but I was also mailed a copy of an amazing documentary about Willis for review.
I first discovered Wesley‘s work when I was in high school and I was immediately drawn to it (pun intended). Clearly the man had some obvious points of comic appeal, such as extreme moments of profanity and graphic references to bestiality, but there was definitely something deeper to him, even if it wasn’t always easy to determine exactly what it was. The documentary Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides has successfully managed to capture and express those difficult to verbalize qualities, which made Wesley such a remarkable and inspiring individual. One quote from the film, which most aptly sums up this phenomenon, was made by Willis‘ friend/art patron, John Stulgate, who said, “You could see people’s hearts through their interactions with Wesley Willis.”
Although I had been a long time fan, I didn’t get a chance to see Wesley live until 2002. The show took place in Seattle at The Graceland (now, El Corazon) and Grand Buffet was opening. I’ll never forget walking from the bar through the doorway into the venue. I saw Wesley immediately; he was staring frighteningly out of the corner of his eye and in my direction from behind the merch table. Due to his immense size and weight, Wesley could be a daunting figure and his breaths were loud and heavy like a tranqued hippo. I, eventually, made my way over to the table to say hello. I had brought a sniper deployment manual and a 25¢ hardcover book about rottweilers for him to sign, in lieu of my Book of Mormon and 100 Deadliest Karate Moves books, which I had temporarily left in California. He signed the sniper book but, once he got the rottweiler book in his hands, he was mesmerized. “Can I keep this book“, he asked. “Sure“. After that, it was like I wasn’t even there, so I slipped away as he focused intently on pictures of similar looking dogs. When the show ended, Wesley headed back behind the table to flip his wares. I bought a live EP and asked him if he liked the book. “I got that right back here!” he said. Then he added, “I wrote a song called ‘Suck a Rottweiler’s Ass‘. I’m gonna write a song called ‘Suck a Rottweilers Dick‘!” So I told him, “You need to write a song called ‘Suck the Stripes off a Zebra’s Dick‘.”
“Is that a song called ‘Suck a Zebra’s Dick’?”
“Suck the stripes off a zebra’s dick“, I clarified.
“Yeeah… Which words- whatcha say?”
“Suck the stripes off a zebra’s dick.”
“Suck the stripes off a zebra’s dick. I’ll write that- I’ll write that for you right now.”
As he signed the CD booklet, he began spitting out some partially nonsensical verses, until he was distracted by the rest of the crowd. Then I bumped his forehead and, with his giant paw on the back of my skull, I repeated after him as he directed. “Saw ‘RAWK!‘…..Say ‘ROWL‘!” etc.
Wesley was massive and he performed his entire set sitting down. The table next to him was littered with over a dozen empty cups that he had drained of beer before leaving the stage. My girlfriend, at the time, was concerned about the health of the schizophrenic rock star, but I assured her that he was fine and of better health than he appeared. By the following year, she already had left me; moving from our duplex and into the van of a schizophrenic man who had been secretly stalking our home (seriously). Lost in this wingnut felon’s fucked up delusions and influence, she was misguided regarding just about every decision and intuition that she would have from then on. Unfortunately, out of everything, the one thing that she would be correct about was Wesley‘s well-being. Willis died of chronic myelogenous leukemia on August 21st, 2003 and it was the only time that I had ever felt a legitimate sadness and emptiness by the death of a public figure.
4 months prior to his death, a documentary about Wesley titled, The Daddy Of Rock ‘n’ Roll was released. One thing that the film showcased was Wesley‘s constant search for additions to his animal book collection; something that I was unaware of when I gave him rottweiler book. As a fan of his work, I enjoyed seeing random footage of the artist in his day to day life but, as a fan of documentaries and film in general, Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides is much more well rounded. While it’s predecessor works well for those that were already familiar with the artist’s work, Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides is the type of documentary that is powerful and well-constructed enough for anyone. Filmmakers Chris Bagley and Kim Shively, created a documentary that sheds light on every aspect of Willis‘ life that I ever wanted to know about. His troubled upbringing and home-life are more heavily addressed; Wesley has multiple siblings, which appear in the film along with his father. I was also introduced to the amazing, yet unorthodox, techniques used to produce his drawings (see: 52 seconds into trailer #2). I can stare at the piece that I have in my home, endlessly boggled by it’s simplicity and depth, not unlike the man who created it. Knowing that he often ignored the use of rulers and other tools to replicate some of the perfect lines of his cityscapes, makes it even more impressive. His friends, colleagues, hustling, creative processes and more are all addressed thoroughly. Most of all, Wesley Willis’s Joyrides shines the spotlight on the intangible aspects of Willis, his life, and what made them so compelling.
You may remember that, back in 2008, our writer, Memes viewed a screening of WWJR at the Noise Pop festival in San Francisco. [His detailed review of the showing, which featured a Q&A by Jello Biafra, can be read by clicking HERE]. This post is slightly more focused on the DVD release, but my deductions are in full agreement of what Memes has already stated; this film is a “success“. The only major difference is that I can now add “it’s worth owning.” Along with the art and photo galleries, the 50 minutes of additional footage only add to the value of this documentary. Fans of Scream Club and/or Old Time Relijun may be excited to discover members of each group appearing in the extra scenes. When I first met Cindy Wonderful (Scream Club) and OTR drummer, Germain Baca, they were both members of a Denver-based, all-female group known as Rainbow Sugar. Not until a few years later, when Cindy gave me a split 7″ feat. Rainbow Sugar and Willis, did I realize that they had worked together. While Baca does make a quick appearance or two in the actual film, the deleted scenes offer even more footage of that time period and even contain video of Rainbow Sugar collaborating with Willis on a song about Mr. T. While there are plenty of both tragic and humorous moments throughout, there are also moments of great inspiration. While too many documentaries have been created under the misguided belief that a subject alone can adequately carry an entire film, this one comes across as well researched and never feels exploitative. Wesley Willis’s Joyrides is composed with great care, with an equal respect for it’s subject and honesty. It’s definitely a recommended rental for anyone, however, if you are already a fan of Willis, you might as well just save the loot and put it towards buying the DVD. If you’re anything like me, you’ll love it like a milkshake.