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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

THE MANY MOODS OF WESLEY WILLIS

Time and technolgy have conspired to keep me from updating this space much lately. But I have come across an old article I wrote for a defunct Salt Lake City music magazine. I hope you enjoy it.

(First published in Grid Magazine, late 1996)

When I meet Wesley Willis, he is having one of what he calls his “torture hell rides.” Stuttering, twitching, and sometimes punching himself in the face, Willis is hardly a picture of composure. He speaks of his “demon” that calls him a “stupid jerk” and keeps Willis from going on his “joy ride.” The scene is, at first, more than a little disturbing. Long before I arrive at American Recordings offices to interview Willis, I know that this will not be like any other assignment I’ve had.

The “torture hell rides” are not part of some shtick. Willis was brought up in the violent projects of Chicago’s South Side. After being held at gunpoint by a friend of his mother, Willis developed paranoid schizophrenia. That’s when the demons came. “My demon is the one who spoils my joy rides on busses,” says Willis. “From 1990 to 1996, I have had a total of over 18,000 hell city bus rides with demon torment.”

Willis is obsessed with the Chicago bus system. Good and bad emotions are described as they relate to Chicagoland’s public transit. The “hell ride” takes place on city bus (mostly figuratively, sometimes literally) and often involves involuntary swearing and violent outbursts. The “joy ride,” on the other hand, represents Willis’ best mood and, in an ideal world, takes place on the PACE bus. That’s the line that runs into Chicago’s affluent northern suburbs.

To keep the demons away, Willis began composing songs, lots of them. Over 30 albums and thousands of songs during the last six years. Some deal with his demons while others tell simple crime and punishment stories. The vast majority concern rock concerts he has attended. Almost all of them are identical in structure, with the Country 8 rhythm played on a Technics keyboard while Willis shouts/sings his lyrics. Just so you get the idea, here are the lyrics to “Hootie and the Blowfish”:

This band played at the Metro. About 200 people were at the show. The rock show was awesome. It’ whupped the police’s ass.

Hootie and the Blowfish
Hootie and the Blowfish
Hootie and the Blowfish
Hootie and the Blowfish

The band played it on. The band got down as they stormed the stage. The crowd roared like a lion. The jam session whupped the police’s ass.

Hootie and the Blowfish
Hootie and the Blowfish
Hootie and the Blowfish
Hootie and the Blowfish

(two minute synth-chord solo)

The rock show as over at last. A lot of people met the band. The rock show was awesome like Check Express. It was a great rock show at last!

Hootie and the Blowfish
Hootie and the Blowfish
Hootie and the Blowfish
Hootie and the Blowfish

Rock over London, Rock on Chicago. Budweiser are proud to be your bud.

And that’s about it. Willis’ songs are instantly recognizable. Sure, the ad slogan at the end may change, but if you hear a song title shouted four times over a synthesized rhythm, you’re listening to Wesley Willis.

Willis started performing his songs on the streets and selling his intricate pen and marker drawings. Eventually, he started putting out CDs on his own and through indie labels like Alternative Tentacles and Oglio. And now the Warner-backed American Recordings is distributing his music. Apart from earning him some money, Willis’s music has succeeded in subduing the voices in his head. Since he began recording, the number of times he has been hospitalized has dropped dramatically.

Apart from the music therapy, the hell rides are kept to a minimum with the assistance of medication. But Willis is out of medication when I meet him. Seeing I’m in over my head, American Recordings exec Dino Paredes comes into the conference room where Willis and I are sitting. Paredes signed Willis to American earlier this year and the two seem to have a special friendship. Willis speaks to Paredes like a young child would to a father, rifling off a series of questions on subjects ranging from music sales to wind-chill factors at Lake Tahoe.

Paredes’ presence has a calming effect on Willis, but it is still almost impossible to keep Willis on a single topic. After a few minutes, I realize that my prepared questions will be pretty much useless. Willis is much more interested in making another extremely detailed picture of the Chicago skyline. After being convinced by Paredes to put down his markers for a moment, Willis begins telling me about some of his high profile admirers.

Willis: A lot of people like my artwork. A lot of people love the way I do my art.

Paredes: Like who?

Willis: But my demon in my head thinks I’m not anything.

Paredes: But who likes you, Wesley.

Willis: Rick Rubin likes me.

Paredes: Who else likes you?

Willis: Dino likes me.

Paredes: What bands like you?

Willis: Slayer likes me, Mike D likes me, Cracker likes me.

As it turns out, a lot of Bands like Willis. Rumor has it that Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl has the lyrics to Willis’ song “Dave Grohl” framed in his office. Jello Biafra, Gavin Rossdale of Bush, and Kato Kaelin (who, technically, is not a band) also count themselves as friends of Willis.

As soon as I learn this, Willis goes back to his drawing. He repeats something about needing to keep his butt busy so the demon won’t take him on a hell ride. He begins speaking in more detail about his demon.

“My demon cusses at me with profanity. My demon says mean and vulgar words at me. My demon makes me beat myself upside my head. My demon makes me bust portable CD players. My demon also makes me cuss at city bus drivers. And when I cuss at city bus drivers all of the time, some of the bus drivers get so sick of my bad mouth that they call the police. And then the police come and get me off the bus. They don’t take me to jail. They know that I am a rock star. But my demon thinks I’m a damn fool…”

Then he repeats the whole story all over again. Willis is a perfectionist. If he mispronounces a word or puts the emphasis on the wrong part of a sentence, he tells me to rewind my tape and starts again from the top.

Willis is also a warehouse of information. When asked about when he played in Salt Lake City, he immediately recites the club name and day of the week that he played. Even though he has put out dozens of albums with as many as 24 songs per, he refers to each of his songs by the album it’s on and the track number, even if he hasn’t recorded it yet. During the course of the interview, he recites the titles for his next three albums and begins listing tracks for some of them.

For a while, Willis performed both as a solo artist, and with a band called The Wesley Willis Fiasco. The Fiasco provided punk backing for Willis’ songs but was a short lived arrangement.

“The Fiasco band broke up because they couldn’t handle my demon hell rides much longer. I made their asses break up,” says Willis. “They they thought I wasn’t going to play a rock and roll show in Toledo, Ohio, I hit my bass player Dave Nooks in the face, and that’s what shut the rock show in Toledo at the Underground down. Then suddenly, my whole band got into a fight. Suddenly, I sat in the chair right in the venue the Underground cracking my ass up.”

Willis begins laughing and Paredes says, “That was a bad hell ride.” Willis continues, “It was a really bad hell ride when the Fiasco band broke up. They broke up in Toledo, Ohio after I shut the rock show down. When Dave Nooks called me up on the state go sing with the band, I was so damn tormented. Suddenly I took my fist and punched him. Suddenly, Dave Nooks picked up a beer bottle and threw it at me. The beer bottle didn’t hit me, the beer bottle broke on the venue floor.”

As Willis’ mood improves, he tells me that some of his songs contain a lot of “evil profanity” because that’s his way of shouting back at his demon. He also tells me of the man who attacked him on bus and left a serious scar on his face. The story of the incident is detailed in the Wesley Willis song, “Now He’s In Jail.”

Later that night, Willis performs in the gallery of the La Luz De Jesus bookstore in Hollywood. He takes the stage early and I miss the opening number. By the time I arrive, Willis is in the middle of a full blown joy ride. No stuttering, no punching, no references to demons. Willis is, however, working the crowd. He makes repeated references to Bob Dole’s defeat in the recent election and suggests that the penalty for losing an election should be, well, something pretty bad. Something so bad that grid wouldn’t publish it even if I included it. Suffice it to say, if Willis’ plan were put into action, people would really think twice before running for office. And bull terriers would become an endangered species.

But the crowd is loving it. Willis invites many from the audience to come up on stage and exchange head butts (his usual form of greeting) with him while shouting “rau.” The head butts are all good and fine, but I get dizzy after about six. Some in the crowd are hardcore Wesley Willis fans and continually shout out the names of their favorite Willis songs. “Play, ‘Don’t Curse in God’s House’” shouts someone behind me. Willis begins playing lounge-sounding intros to his songs.

Then it happens, Wesley actually sings a note. His vocals are usually spoken or shouted, but for two words, Willis actually sings. It happens during his song , “The Posies” and it never happens again after that. Anyone who has heard a Wesley Willis song will think this impossible, but he actually has a good singing voice. Who knew?

After Willis plays several encores, he butts heads with veryone in the audience who will oblige. He also tries (almost always successfully) to sell copies of his CDs to anyone he talks to. Even when rapper and American labelmate Chino XL comes up to say “hi,” the first words out of Willis’ mouth are, “Do you want to buy come of my CDs?”

Chino winds up buying Dr. Wax and Mr. Magoo Goes to Jail, although he realizes the inequity. “Hey, you got all of my stuff for free!” But that’s how things go with Wesley Willis. Everyone pays. From rock stars, to music company execs, to dashing young music writers, they’re all the same to Willis.

I leave the show and head home to puzzle over some personal issues. Why do I like this guy so much? What does an emaciated pasty kid from the suburbs of Rochester, NY have in common with a giant schizophrenic man raised in the projects of Chicago? Later that night, it hits me, it’s the music. Willis literally lives to listen to music, perform music, and write music. Music saved his life. Anyone who has ever been a teenager can understand that

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