I am not surprised by many things in this life, especially in the music world. In a marketplace that’s full of one-hit wonders, hitmakers, and game changers; it’s easy to miss out on the obscure. So, if you told me that you had no idea who Wesley Willis was, I wouldn’t be very shocked. Wesley Willis was definitely obscure, or an “outsider” artist if you will. But, for a brief time; he was as he described himself, “The Daddy of Rock N’ Roll”.
The first time I heard Wesley Willis was at Chris Simpson’s house, at about 10:30 on a Saturday morning. While I could go on and on about Simpson’s band Mineral, it’s better to just note that it was his house where I discovered Willis. Slurpee in one hand, a Camel Light in the other; I noticed three or four records next to the turntable in his living room. I remember two vividly, one being Elliott Smith’s self-titled second album and the other had a cover that looked like a nine-year-old had drawn. That album was Wesley Willis “Greatest Hits Vol. One.”
The first song, “Rock N’ Roll McDonald’s” had me erupting in a massive fit of laughter. I remember Dr. Pepper Slurpee spewing from my nose all over the place. This is not because Willis is a terrible musician, but more due to the fact that the lyrics state that “people come here to get down to the rock music”. As far as the music goes, it’s different, and definitely outsider art. When I flipped over the record sleeve to reveal Willis’ bio I distinctly remember a description of a six foot five inch schizophrenic, which explained what I was hearing.
I had the honor to see Wesley Willis four times over the span of about five years years. Once with the Wesley Willis Fiasco, his punk rock band and three times as just a solo artist. When you hear his music, it’s hard to believe that he put on a great live performance; though the highlight of his shows was the man himself. He sold his own merch with headphones on, he’d pose for pictures and sell his art, and he’d happily sign anything you’d ask him to.
My favorite two Wesley Willis shows were the first and the last. The first time I saw him was during a SXSW appearance in 1996. Back then, his art wasn’t more than about fifty bucks; which stings in the compared price I just paid for one of his Chicago murals. I treasure that show, because he was larger than life to me. He was the least likely of artists to play SXSW, and he was way nicer than anyone I had met during that week of shows. As he sold his wares, I approached him and asked to buy a CD. “Ten each or two for fifteen,” he said. I pointed out the disc I wanted, and exclaimed admiration for his music. He leaned in, placed his large right hand around the back of my neck; and headbutted me. I was a little freaked out, but soon found out that it was an act of friendly kindness on his part.
The last time I saw him live, I took a friend; who knew the myth but who never saw the man live before. Blues musician Scott H. Biram and I went to Austin’s now departed Electric Lounge, and saw Willis put on one of the best performances I ever saw him play. Because he had a back catalog of over fifty albums, containing punk rock and keyboard based songs, we saw a nice collection of his best keyboard based work. The best part of the evening was when I told Scott to walk up to Wesley and say the word rock. Because he’d never seen Willis live, the headbutt that followed seemed to really shock him, and it was hilarious to witness.
Life is meant to be lived, and Wesley Willis lived it to the fullest. In his short lifetime, he wrote songs about bands and people he admired, he created murals of Chicago from memory while selling them at top dollar; and he made a small fortune. He even recorded two records for major label American Recordings, and never stopped his “rock over London, rock on Chicago” and the end of every song. Though he literally fought his inner demons, and sang vulgarity to make them stop; his imprint on the music world was immense. When he passed away in 2003 at the age of forty, I think almost everyone I knew hit me up to share the news of his death. He’s easily someone that everyone should hear once, if not two, three, or even five hundred times; and is definitely a shining beacon in the history of music. If you’re having a rough day, listening to Willis’ music will definitely turn it around. And, in the end, the fact that it does, would make Willis the happiest “rock star” on the planet.