Wesley Willis and the Perils of Mental Illness Fandom

Part punk rock icon, part novelty act, and all paranoid schizophrenic, Wesley Willis died in 2003 at 40 years old, leaving a notably strange but not all together unparalleled legacy.

I met Wesley Willis once.  Living in New Orleans at the time, I was at the now sadly departed Mermaid Lounge.  A band was on the stage, though I can’t remember who, and the small club appeared barely half full.  My fogginess as to the band’s identity might have been due to Willis’ sudden appearance: at 6’5’’ and approximately 350 pounds, the man could certainly take over a room.  Talking rhythmically under his breath, he walked in and headed straight towards my position at the bar.  His wide eyes rapidly ran over my face, and he paused for just a fraction of a moment before turning to the guy standing next to me and delivering a swift and audible head butt.

In an exceptionally prolific career, Wesley Willis most notably released albums for Alternative Tentacles, with three greatest hits compilations compiled by Jello Biafra, and, in one of the strangest major label signings in recent history, for Rick Rubin’s American Records.  For every track on his major label debut, Willis used the exact same tinny keyboard accompaniment—literally the same tune over and over—and spouted nonsensical stories about then current musicians such as Alanis Morrisette, Porno for Pyros, and Silverchair, as well as offering topical fare such as “Rock Saddam Hussein’s Ass.”  Even for long time fans such as myself, the album was nearly unlistenable but apparently gained Willis a small fan base among frat boys.

The problem with trying to assess Wesley Willis as an artist is that popular music has never had an established equivalent to the visual art world’s established categorization of Outsider Art or Art Brut or one of many other interchangeable terms.  In marked contrast to the world of popular music, fine arts has enshrined the work of isolated, self taught, and apparently mentally ill artists such
Martìn Ramìrez and Henry Darger, the former of whose entire oeuvre was produced within the walls of a mental institution.

Martìn Ramìrez

In popular music, the closest equivalent to these two artists might be Daniel Johnston, a paranoid schizophrenic who, like Willis, has felt the embrace of a counterculture.  Personally, however, I’ve never really liked Johnston’s music.  Perhaps it’s the alignment of Johnston with indie rock and Willis with punk rock (an admittedly false dichotomy), but his music has never been my style.  In Willis’ work, there’s a skewed humor, a glorious madness, while Johnston’s more commonly resides in bleak singer-songwriter territory.  And when it finally comes down to it, there’s something more socially acceptable about Daniel Johnston, and for me, that makes the man harder to love.

This being said, I have caught brief glimpses into the particular draw Johnston holds over his fans, most recently in a 2009 appearance on Austin City Limits.  Midway through a set by the band, The Swell Season, Johnston emerged from backstage with his large belly protruding over sweat pants and a sheet of lyrics clutched in his shaking hand.  The Swell Season grinned at the carefully orchestrated surprise, and shortly after Johnston began to sing, out marched a children’s choir!  The sight of this man—like Willis, he wouldn’t have looked out of place at a homeless shelter—singing lyrics which stated plainly that “we’re living our lives in vain” in front of two rows of children, fresh faced and many smiling, who then proceeded to join in:

You got to really try

Try so hard to get by

And where am I going to?

There was a strange and beautiful dissonance to the scene, and at least for that one television moment I’d stumbled upon with my restless remote, I understood why, in the nineties, Sonic Youth was always telling me to listen to this guy.

Willis would never, I think, have been invited onto Austin City Limits.  He was too thoroughly disreputable, more like
Hasil Adkins in that way, except that instead of chickens or hot dogs, Willis returned again and again to imagined violence and rock and roll itself:

This is the song that I’m going to be singing to you
Number one, I’m gonna do this song again
This is the song that I’m going to be singing to you
Number two, I’m gonna do this song again all the way up your ass
This is the song that I’m going to be singing to you
And number three, I’m gonna fuck your ass up like in a car crash
This is the song that I’m going to be singing to you
And number four, I’m gonna fuck you up like a goddamn accident
And number five
Wesley Willis
Shoot the gun watch your wife motherfucker
Rockin’ ’til the break of dawn
All right let’s rock it to Russia

Beginning in teenage years predominantly spent in a record store, I loved the strange construction which was Wesley Willis.  Until I didn’t.

That night at the Mermaid Lounge, the head butt was simply part of Willis’ routine, which might have explained the dark circular spot always visible on his forehead, and after a few more of them, the slightly dazed but apparently unhurt recipient of the head butts chuckled before escaping to another part of the bar.  Nervous laughter grew all around Willis, and the volume of his self-conversation increased.  He wasn’t being called on to perform that night—the majority of people there likely had no idea who he was—but in a concrete way, he was exactly what a music fan could have anticipated from listening to his songs.  And that was the problem.

We’ve come to expect a certain on/off quality from our musicians.  Offstage, Iggy Pop is reportedly a genteel, lovely man.  For fan’s of nineties noise rock pioneers, Jesus Lizard, nothing could have been quite as shocking as coming across lead singer David Yow hanging around before a show.  This man—volatile and prone to nudity, simultaneously magnetic and utterly terrifying, and my personal vote for greatest front person of all time—could appear rather small and unassuming when not performing.  I once watched him smile and chat amiably when approached by fans, a normal human being after all.  This wasn’t, of course my experience of Wesley Willis.  When he arrived at the Mermaid Lounge, the lovable nonsense of his music was suddenly in the flesh, and the illness, the damage, simply didn’t seem so fun anymore.

So, as fans of Willis, perhaps we should just admit it: we were feeding his illness when we bought his records and attended his shows.  Willis’ music might have been funny, it might even have been relatable in its muddled depiction of our increasingly muddled world, but unquestionably, his schizophrenia was the show.  Despicable, right?  The complication, however, is that this is likely exactly what Willis wanted from us: he wanted our exploitation, and at least from the punk rock community, this might even have been a goodhearted exploitation, if that doesn’t over stretch the definition of the word.  After all, Wesley Willis went from being an itinerant Chicago street artist to being a full fledge rock and roll star.  Can you imagine that he would have wanted to change that?

The Elephant Man

I can’t help but be reminded a little of Joseph Merrick and how he’d been put on display for London and, through his photos, remains on display for us now.  On one hand there’s something unsavory in the fascination we show towards his pictures—simultaneously treating him as freak show and scientific specimen—but still we continue to stare.  Even after more than one hundred years, Merrick’s image remains indelible.  He is remembered, and one hundred years from now, Wesley Willis could only be so lucky.  Rock over London.  Rock on Chicago.

Johnny Damm is the founding editor of A Bad Penny Review.

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