Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What choo talkin' bout, Willis?

If I haven't been posting much recently, it's in part thanks to Homeland, Gary Tank Commander, Jewish Mum of The Year, The Thick of It, Fresh Meat and Strictly Come Dancing. Apologies.

I've also veen listening to quite a lot of Wesley Willis. Who hell he, you ask? I first came across Wesley in a (great) bar, where I was accosted by an imposing African-American with an unkempt appearance and a pair of expensive headphones permanently affixed to his ears. I was instructed to say "Rah" and headbutt him. Being a timid, skinny white boy, I duly complied.  Wesley then went back to his highly-detailed drawing of the Chicago skyline, done in fine-tip ballpoint. He drew from memory, I learned later.  I also learned that the permanent bruising on his forehead was result of the constant headbutts. The other patrons of the bar put me straight about Wes: that he was a gentle giant, despite his threatening demeanour. That he could be seen out most nights, in various bars, drawing and listening to music. That he was a troubled schizophrenic. And that he had had the sort of abusive and dysfunctional childhood that would make Angela's Ashes seem like Breakfast At Tiffany's.

I also learned that as well as being an avid music consumer, Wesley was also a performer, and that his band The Wesley Willis Fiasco could be seen performing regularly around the city. Intrigued, I tracked down a couple of his (self-released) CDs. As the first track played, I immediately recognised the primal, rudimentary, riff-driven groove mined by the likes of Suicide, Gene Vincent and others. Then the second track kicked in, and it was eerily similar to the first. Then the third kicked in and...well, you get the picture. Most Wesley Willis songs follow a template.  They usually describe going to see a band, often one with strong college radio / rawk leanings (Urge Overkill, Stabbing Westward, Boss Hog), though Wesley does have diverse tastes, ranging from Lonnie Brooks to Eazy-E.   The gig usually takes place at a medium-sized venue such as the Metro/Double Door/Lounge Ax. The crowd roars like a lion. The band whips a caribou's/hyena's/camel's ass. The band's name is repeated a number of times over the chorus. Then Wesley signs off with "Rock Over London, Rock On Chicago" and an advertising slogan such as "Sprint- Be There Now" or "Raid- Kills Bugs Dead".  Not all songs follow this template (there are some darker ones seemingly influenced by the demons in his head that took him on "Spooky Disharmonious Hell Rides" rather than "Harmony Joy Rides") but almost all cleave to the same template musically, if not lyrically. The tempo may shift up or down a few notches, there may be an octave or key change, but the same chord progressions on the same Casio keyboard persist.

Wesley's self-released efforts soon drew the attention of slightly bigger players in the music industry, such as Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles, and Rick Rubin's American Recordings (and it's nice to think that some of the Johnny Cash money found its way to Wesley), and he began to attract a following of sorts in other parts of the USA, though he remains largely unknown outside the States. Whether this attention was wholly because of his music, and how much because of morbid, freak-show-esque curiosity is hard to say, but because the personality and music were so closely entwined, it would be difficult to separate the two anyway. I certainly don't get the impression that Wesley was exploited any more than other artists in the biz (i.e. he was exploited a lot, but little of this was as a result of his size, appearance or schizophrenia).  According to Wikipedia, Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff has written that Willis' "[P]eriodic appearances for crowds of jeering white fratboys evoke an uncomfortable combination of minstrel act and traveling freak show." Conversely, guitarist Scott Anthony, who actually toured with Willis in 1998, and therefore may be better placed to gauge the crowd's reaction, said "It's not frat boys coming to his shows and making fun of him; it's punk rock kids who appreciate that he sings stuff people are thinking."  So clearly, the jury's still out. None of which should prevent you from enjoying the man's inane but highly pleasurable output.

Wesley succumbed to leukemia in 2003, but he's not forgotten.  You can get a glimpse of his personality (and for once the overused adjective "larger-than-life" is apt) and hear a bit of his oeuvre below.

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