Wesley Willis’s Joyrides: Songs about Bestiality & Real Life

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Either you know who Wesley Willis was, or you don’t. Maybe one of your friends told you about him, describing him as a “street-musician,” “schizophrenic,” or perhaps they even attempted to convey some sort of sample lyric from one of his songs. But you can’t know who Welsey Willis is until you have heard one of his songs and, after that, the name tends to stick.

I first heard about Wesley through my friend Aaron. He told me a story about some friends of his who had given Wesley a ride from a music festival in Minnesota back to his home town of Chicago. What I gathered from his story was that Wesley Willis was a 300+ lb. schizophrenic homeless man from Chicago who writes songs with amusing titles and lyrics (i.e. – “Suck A Cheetah’s Dick”).  I was intrigued, but the force of Willis’ impact did not reach full until I was actually played a few songs. “Chronic Schizophrenia”, “Rock & Roll McDonalds”, and “Outburst” all sounded the same, covered similar themes, and typified Willis’ stream-of-consciousness-rambling-verse followed by chanting-repetitive-chorus  followed back into, stream-of-consciousness-rambling-verse style. I was immediately smitten.  As were a number of us.

Sure, the irony might be lost on the numbest American drones, but those assholes don’t read MosterFresh.com (unless they’re visiting to read about Sarah Larson, George Clooney’s latest girl-toy). But the irony that has become a religion for my generation, as well as next week’s, is embodied in Willis’ music.

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In the new documentary Wesley Willis’s Joyrides, filmmakers,  Chris Bagley and Kim Shively, don’t try too hard to decipher the roots of Willis’ complicated personality. Although several interviewees speculate on sources of Willis’ mental illness(es) and unique character, the subject of the film is much more about who Willis was rather than why he may have been that way. Through interviews with friends and family, as well as video footage of the artist himself, his story is told almost as if he were still around (Willis died of leukemia in 2003 at the age of 40). Wesley’s death is barely mentioned until the last minutes of the film, in part because the bulk of the video content was filmed prior to his death.

The film’s success as a documentary is owed to its presentation. Rather than unfolding through a chronological line of events, the film moves organically through the many facets of the musician’s intense personality. The film begins with a portrait of Wesley as a visual artist, sketching cityscapes of the Chicago buildings and highways he grew up around. Willis’ ignorance of conventions (When asked by a fellow drafting student why he always draws with a blue Bic pen, Willis responds, “Because they’re blueprints.”) was far overshadowed by his artistic grasp of visual planes and acute memory for details. Wesley would draw intricate Chicago skylines, often from memory, of the buildings and views he grew up seeing around him. Wesley made many friends (and a modest living) selling drawings to tourists, passers-by, and anyone who could get past his intimidating appearance to appreciate his unique perspective.

The film then shifts toward Wesley’s musical career. Friend and band mate Dale Meiners describes the rise and fall of The Wesley Willis Fiasco, the latter of which can be largely contributed to Willis’ schizophrenia. The group enjoyed moderate success with Willis at the helm, at least enough to tour regularly and receive a guest spot on MTV. But as the “demons in his head” worsened, Wesley became violent and even more unpredictable, eventually leading to the band’s demise.

Willis’popularity ensured him a busy solo career, and Wesley continued to travel, perform, and head-butt his fans, despite his growing mental health problems. Wesley was eventually prescribed medication, which calms his schizophrenic outbursts enough for others to feel safe around him. But a busy touring schedule and inability/refusal to renew his prescriptions often left Wesley in a volatile state. The strain this puts on his relationships is apparent; Wesley’s friends love him and realized how important making and performing music is to his mental balance, but a lingering threat of violence and unpredictable fear always surrounded the troubled artist.

As the film delves deeper into his mental health conflicts, the mood takes a decidedly somber turn. Skeletons from Willis’ closet are revealed- abusive and neglectful parents, poverty, being assaulted with a box-cutter on a public bus, and being robbed for his artistic earnings by his stepfather at a young age. One scene shows Willis battling with the demons in his head while a frightened Kinko’s customer observes. The artist punches his head repeatedly, nearly busting his headphones, as he innocently explains to his workstation neighbor that the demons aren’t allowing him to listen to his music.

But while his “demons” constantly cast an ominous shadow over Wesley, the purity and innocence of his character outshine the darkness. As Jello Biafra (friend and Alternative Tentacle Records owner) explained in a Q&A after the screening, for all of Willis’ fears, Wesley genuinely “loved life.” When Wesley boarded a plane, for example, he would provoke only terrified looks and nervous requests for a new seat. But by the end of the flight, Willis would have converted all of the uneasiness of those around him into joy. He seemed to have a way of convincing others of his merit despite his disheveled appearance, most likely assisted by his own ignorance of both.

Here is a challenge to any and all MonsterFresh readers (or, at least those already familiar with Willis and his work):
Describe Wesley Willis to someone close to you but who may be unfamiliar with his catalog. Then go see the film. If you can comfortably use that same description before and after seeing the film, then I guess you…..”win“?  Perhaps we can even send you a button or something? I’ll see if I can get some for our readers (admission to the screening included a Wesley Willis button). No promises, though.

The point is, the name “Wesley Willis” has a lot of buzzwords associated with it. Many of them are negative. The words “Schizophrenic,” “Homeless,” “Unpredictable,” “Over 300 pounds” are not exactly flattering descriptions that anyone would want applied to them. And while the film never tries to deny any of the associations people have with the name (except for “Homeless,” which Willis was often falsely assumed to be, given his poor hygiene), the strength and integrity of Wesley’s character cuts through any of the adjectives that are often used to pigeon-hole him. It is this juxtaposition that makes Willis so available to the audience, which is precisely what makes the film such a success.

Plus, “Cut The Mullet” is a kick-ass song.

-Memes

  • a. nonny mouse

    Nice piece on a true urban folk artist (altho’ I imagine you and he would reject the label). Thanks for spreading the word. So many of these unique folk artists are never appreciated.