Wesley Willis RIP

Yesterday, I received this sad news in the mail:

08/22/03: Rock Star Wesley Willis Dead at 40

Dear Friends and fellow Wesleynauts,
We are deeply saddened to report that one of our artists, Wesley Willis passed away yesterday, Thursday, August 21st. Wesley will be greatly missed by all that had the privilege to know him, as well as the fans who have been fortunate enough to experience his genius. Wesley was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML) at the end of 2002, and had to undergo emergency surgery on June 2nd to identify the source of, and to suppress internal bleeding. It is not clear if this bleeding was related to his leukemia or not, and the exact cause of death is still unknown. Wesley had been recovering at a Hospice in Illinois, and since the surgery his health had deteriorated rapidly. His songs were simultaneously disturbing, hilarious, blunt, and intoxicating. Wesley’s sheer excitement and unaffected honesty about every cultural phenomenon, defined his music as truly individual, and truly punk rock.
Wesley released well over 50 albums – 3 of which are on Alternative Tentacles, and a 4th, entitled, Wesley Willis Greatest Hits Vol. 3 (CD) had already been
scheduled for release in October of this year.

Six years ago, I witnessed a concert by Willis in Ann Arbor, Michigan, knowing very little about the guy or his obvious mental illness. Here’s a email report of it I sent to a friend.

Fri Nov 21 14:17:18 1997

Wesley Willis ambled on stage with an arm full of notebooks. He warmed up the audience with, “My demon’s been talking shit. I hate that mutherfucker. This ain’t the good Willis tonight. It’s the bad one. My demon’s been talking shit and I’m going to kill that fucker.” He picked a green notebook, propped it up on his Casio, sat and that’s where he remained planted for the entire show. That was it, no band. Then he fired up the Casio and started his set, which included:

Taste the Camel’s shitty hole
Suck the pussy’s dick
Don’t Drink and Drive
Lick a racehorse’s booty hole
Kiss my Rotweiler’s ass
Eat Donkey Shit
Suck a crazy sheep dog’s dick
Shoot down my happy music
Michael Jackson sucks little boys’ dicks
Jordan Mike suck my dick
Sonic Reducer
Avoid the splattered brains
Beware of the turd burglar

In between songs he ranted more about his “mutherfuckin’ demon.” It quickly became apparent to all but the beer swilling frat boys in the back that Wesley was legitimately nuts. None of this commodified tortured posing a la Trent “I’m so tragic” Reznor. This was the real McCoy. During the entire concert he didn’t react once to the audience’s cheers and shouts except to occasionally roar “Shut the fuck up.”

Wesley looks like the sort of person you would avoid on the subway–huge frame, army fatigues, a stained shirt with a gold “W” painted on it, a beat up and heavily duct taped CDman slung around his neck, and a completely glazed expression on face. The most notable thing about this guy was the large grey bruise on his forehead, assumably from delivering one too many of his hallmark headbutts of appreciation.

The audience’s reaction was perhaps more interesting than the concert itself. At first they were enthusiastically cheering, but slowly the audience slid into stricken pallor punctuated with nervous tittering. The fact that for each song Wesley used the EXACT same melody (the one used in his single “Kurt Cobain”) lead me to believe that he was hell bent on taking the audience with him on his spiral descent to loonyville. Imagine being trapped in a room with a constant loop of “We Built This City” and you get the idea. I doubt that Wesley actually ever touched the keyboard once, instead he limited himself to three function keys. Most soon left, but a few stalwarts (like me) held forth to the bitter end. My overeducated overdeveloped critical sensibilities groped blindly for some satisfying hook to hang this ceaseless onslaught of a mad man’s ravings. Part of me though that this was a true voice from the margins, unschooled and raw. And part of me thought that the concert was some freak-show brought about by a cynically hip Svengali-like manager. Anyhow, Wesley Willis was, if not good, then certainly memorable.

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