Wesley Willis



Wesley Willis (May 31, 1963 – August 21, 2003) was a musician and artist from Chicago. A diagnosed schizophrenic, he gained a sizable cult following in the 1990s after releasing several hundred songs of unique but simple music, with emphasis on his humorous stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Most of his exposure came as an internet phenomenon during the early days of peer-to-peer file sharing (via Napster).

Willis and his siblings spent most of their childhoods in various foster homes after suffering physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his mother's second husband. Wesley was a large man, standing 6'6" (198 cm) and weighing 350 lb (160 kg).

In 1989, Willis began hearing what he called "demon voices" and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He often mentioned that his demons were named "Heartbreaker," "Nervetoucher," and "Meansucker". He called his psychotic episodes "hell rides". Alternatively, he declared rock and roll to be "the joy ride music" and Willis often indicated that listening to and performing music helped him battle the voices.

In the early 1990s, Willis became creatively active, selling detailed ink pen drawings of the Chicago cityscape on the street. These works of outsider art appear on the covers of his albums.

In 1992, Willis joined musicians from the city's alternative rock scene to form the hard rock band, The Wesley Willis Fiasco, which produced such future file sharing favorites as "Jesus is the Answer" and "Casper the Homosexual Friendly Ghost". Although few took him seriously, Willis created a buzz in the Chicago music scene and soon caught the attention of American Recordings, an independent label distributed by The Warner Group. Willis was inspired by meeting his idol, Sherman Hemsley who told Wesley, "Never give up on your dreams."

In early 1994, Wesley would record with the Canadian industrial-metal band MONSTER VOODOO MACHINE and would appear on their Juno Award winning debut album Suffersystem (RCA Records). In 1995 without his band, Willis was signed to American Recordings and went on to record two albums while producing dozens of other albums independently, becoming a minor novelty rock sensation. He toured frequently, was profiled on MTV and was a guest on The Howard Stern Show on September 26, 1996 where he played nearly-identical songs about Baba Booey and Stern.

Some questioned the aesthetic taste of Willis' audience. Rock critic Will Robinson Sheff wrote that Willis’ "periodic appearances for crowds of jeering white "fratboys" evoke an uncomfortable combination of minstrel act and traveling freakshow." Fans insisted the appeal was in his unique attitude and approach to music.

One of Willis' trademarks was headbutting with his fans. Typically when approached by a fan, Willis would gingerly hold his or her head between his hands and say, "Say rock!" The fan would respond as instructed and Willis would bump his head against his or hers. Then he would say, "Say roll!" and the fan would again respond as instructed and the two would again bump heads. Willis would repeat this over and over as long as the fan would tolerate it. Willis also used the headbutt as a form of greeting to his friends. The large callus in the center of his forehead resulted from this habit.

On August 21, 2003, at the age of 40, Willis died due to complications from chronic myelogenous leukemia. A memorial service for him was held on August 27th, in Chicago, Illinois.

At the time of his death, he had recorded over 1,000 songs but his total life savings were less than $300. Having sold out hundreds of venues across the country, the question still remains where all of Willis' money went. In a Howard Stern interview, it was mentioned that Willis would receive as much as a $10,000 advance for the production of an album, and that he would then earn a portion of the money received from album sales and live shows.

"Warhellride" is a term used by Willis to describe his encounters with "demons", which occurred mainly on the CTA bus lines in Chicago. Willis, diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia, often claimed that demons were trying to ruin his "Harmony Joy Music" or "Harmony Joy Rides". Willis also used the term to describe general harassment: In one of his songs he says, "He gave me a yelldown warhellride." When asked about the demons or Warhellrides, Willis would often comment that he was trying to "stay the hell out of prison" by "not hitting people in the street with bricks." In several songs, both terms are used openly. In fact, one of Willis's songs is entitled "I Deserve a Warhellride".

The Wesley Willis Fiasco songs were essentially punk rock songs with Willis howling his obscene, absurd rants as lyrics. The Wesley Willis Fiasco recorded at least three cover songs, Pure Prairie League's "Amie", Duran Duran's "Girls on Film", the latter of which was recorded for a 1997 Duran Duran tribute album and Thin Lizzy's "Jailbreak". It was after the Fiasco broke up that Willis would increase his popularity. Another song of the Wesley Willis Fiasco's, "The Bar is Closed", recreates a section of Rush's "Tom Sawyer" and "Casper the Homosexual Friendly Ghost" likewise Van Halen's "Jamie's Cryin'".

As a solo artist, Willis created more than 50 albums, each with over 20 tracks, full of bizarre, excited, and often obscene rants about crime, fast food, cultural trends, bus routes, violent confrontations with superheroes, commands for his "demons" to engage in bestiality, and praise for his favorite actors, friends (both platonic and romantic), politicians, and hip-hop and rock artists. Songs about rock artists were usually confined to describing a show performed by the band that Willis had attended or opened for, recycling key phrases such as "The crowd roared like a lion," "A lot of people met the band," "The band got down like the Magikist," and the opening couplet "This band played the [venue of appearance] / About [number] people were at the show," as well as uses of the phrases "rock show" and "jam session" in conjunction with "the (rock) show was..." or stating that the existence of one of these within the show "was awesome" or "whipped a(n) [random animal, generally a non-human mammal]'s ass" (ex. Suck a polar bear's funky ass).

Willis's songs have a very specific form and atmosphere that helped define the musician's highly-recognizable style. Wesley never actually played the notes on his keyboard; he simply used the one-note autochord feature, with preprogrammed rhythms and harmonies. Typically one chord is used for the verses, and a pattern for the choruses and "solo" sections. Though a variety of programs are used, only a handful comprise the vast majority of Willis's work, resulting in his albums' tendency to repeat the same program over many songs. Most of the variation in arrangements between songs involve changing the key and/or tempo of the autochord program and utilizing production effects on the background music, vocals (especially during the chorus), or both.

His lyrics also usually followed a set pattern, although it's difficult to classify his lyrics with any conventional rhyme scheme or meter. Lyrics generally began with a verse: a four-line spoken stanza (though the number of lines is changed occasionally), usually consisting of statements about the subject of the song. This was followed by the chorus, which was simply the subject of the song (typically the name) sung anywhere from three to six times (usually four) in a non-professional, "drunken anthem"-type style. Then, another verse and another chorus, followed by an instrumental bridge section, where Willis—who had taken to heart advice he had heard that the ideal song length for radio play is two minutes and 50 seconds—would push the "fill" button repeatedly on his keyboard, usually triggering accompanying sound effects; this part could last over a minute and a half. The song ended with another verse, a chorus, and the words "Rock over London! Rock on Chicago," a catchphrase from an hour-long WXRT radio show. It was often followed by a company or product's name and slogan. Each song would end with a different slogan, although some were used in several of Willis's songs. Occasionally, in songs about a product or service such as his venerable "Rock'n'Roll McDonalds," the commercial at the end would be for a competitor to the brand of the main song. If performed live, "Chicago" would be replaced with whatever city Willis was performing in.

Willis' keyboard of choice was a Technics KN1200, according to a Howard Stern interview.

In 2003, Filmmaker Daniel Bitton released a film about Wesley Willis called The Daddy of Rock 'N' Roll. The documentary followed Willis around as he talks to himself, writes a song, performs a concert, records a track, and visits his friends. Bitton also interviewed many people who commonly interacted with Willis. Willis and his band the Fiasco were also featured in the 1997 Chicago rock documentary Out of the Loop as well as in the German documentary "Golden Lemons"[1] by Jörg Siepermann about the US tour of the German punk band "Die Goldenen Zitronen" (The Golden Lemons) together with Wesley Willis.

Jonti Picking, creator of the Internet cartoon Weebl and Bob, is a big fan of Willis. He has made an animation featuring Willis' song "Merry Christmas", as well as a Weebl episode called "Poet", dedicated to the memory of Willis.

The slogan of the music software program Winamp, "Winamp, it really whips the Llama's ass", was inspired by Willis' song "Whip the Llama's Ass" from his album Guitar Rock of Ages.

Juno-Award winning Canadian heavy metal band Monster Voodoo Machine before performing their final show in 1996, broadcasted Wesley Willis' song "Monster Voodoo Machine" as an intro.

Willis' "Rock and Roll McDonald's" was featured in the documentary Super Size Me.

Willis' "Birdman Kicked my Ass" is the menu music on the DVD for the animated series, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law.

Many notable bands have recorded songs referencing or imitating Wesley Willis:

* A Minnesota band, Screaming Mechanical Brain (formerly Screaming Monkey Boner), recorded a song about Wesley Willis, which used many elements from Willis's style including off-tune singing and repeating lyrics continuously.
* The Look Down song Jeans And Jackets and Dresspants And Coats features a tribute to the classic Wesley Willis bass line.
* There is a Wesley Willis reference in the Ozma song "Flight of the Bootymaster".
* Willis shared a split 7" record with the band The Frogs; Willis' song was "The Frogs" and The Frogs' song was "Wesley Willis".
* Heavy Vegetable's 1995 album "Frisbie" included "Song for Wesley," whose lyrics praise Willis and imitate his characteristic song-ending style.
* Rocket From The Crypt named their album, "Scream Dracula, Scream" after a line in a Wesley Willis Song.
* The final track on the 1995 Anal Cunt demo Howard Wulkan is Bald is titled "Howard Wulkan (Wesley Willis version)". The song uses the exact same formula as Wesley Willis' songs.
* Chicago musician Sam Scumaci is a noted fan of Wesley Willis and says that Willis was an influence on his own song structures.
* In 1999, a college freshman by the name of Christian Baker founded WesleyWillis.com, which subsequently was awarded Stupidest Website of the Month by Maxim Magazine in mid 2000. Cult status of Wesley Willis was assured by the constant flow of traffic to the site, 95% being from user entry of the domain name. The website eventually had to be shut down amid threats of copyright infringement relating to the posting of lyrics.
* The hidden track on The W's album Fourth From The Last is a tribute to Five Iron Frenzy, written and performed in the style of Wesley Willis.
* Bay area "post-punk laptop rap" artist MC Lars has been giving props (respect) to friend Willis since his early recording, stating Willis as a major influence upon him. In the thanks list of 2003's Radio Pet Fencing CD (released before Willis passing), MC Lars writes "Wesley Willis (we'll work the demons, man)". In the song "My Rhymes Rhyme", the chorus contain the line "Shout outs to Wesley Willis, Atom G. and John Hall. Word to MC Paul Barman, hey return my call!". On the track "Yes I Am An Alien", Wesley Willis can be heard loud and clear at the end of the song saying "Lars Horris, I like your song, I'm gonna write a song about you. I'll probably write it on my next rock and roll record for it is called This Gigantic Robot Kills".
* The hip hop duo People Under the Stairs tribute Willis in their song "Outrun" with the lyrics "Rock over London, rock on Chicago. GE, we bring good things to life. Diet Pepsi, uh-huh."
* Jello Biafra and the Melvins frequently perform "Rock N Roll McDonalds" in concert.
* Experimental stoner-rappers Cambodian Cannibal Midgetsformed in tribute to Wesley, imitating his musical and lyrical style for their first album, Midwesternplayalisticprostateexamination, which includes the track "Big Buddy in the Sky," written and recorded just after Wesley's death.
* Willis introduces the band, Boris the Sprinkler (who's lead singer was Rev. Norb) at the beginning of their 1994 album, "8-Testicled Pogo Machine;" at the end of the album, he also says, "Thank you for listening, white-bread, chicken shit!"Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts.
Virtual Magic is a human knowledge database blog. Text Based On Information From Wikipedia, Under The GNU Free Documentation License. Copyright (c) 2007 Virtual Magic. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

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