The Wesley Willis Fiasco

Hawking his drawings and CDs to anyone within shouting range, Wesley Willis has never been shy when it comes to self-promotion. But a lot of people think there are bigger bucks to be made with Willis. The self-styled singer-songwriter has always been bad; now he’s nationwide. Two high-priced LA publicists are competing to see who can do a better job hyping his story, all the while insisting that they’d never exploit Willis, a diagnosed schizophrenic.

Willis’s band, the Fiasco, recently released its debut album, SpookyDisharmoniousConflictHellride, on its own Urban Legends label. To promote it the group hired the Mitch Schneider Organization, a public relations firm whose clients include the Black Crowes and Alanis Morrisette. Fiasco guitarist Dale Meiners says that Schneider usually charges upward of $3,000 a month, but he really likes the Fiasco, so the band is only paying $2,000.

Schneider’s press release begins by asking, “Is this Wesley Willis God or Satan? Is this madness or is it truth or is it both?” His approach to selling Fiasco albums has been to put Wesley and one of the band members on the phone to tell their story to just about any journalist willing to listen. “One of the tricks of the business is to present people as who they are,” Schneider says. “If you can present somebody who does have some, you know, liabilities–as other people would see it–and you can present them with dignity and grace, then you’re fine.”

Heidi Robinson, head of publicity at American Recordings, doesn’t appreciate this tactic. Willis is signed to American as a solo artist, and the label plans to release two new albums in the coming months. Robinson correctly points out that Willis is an awful phone interview–he tends to answer every question with a “Fuck, yes” or “Fuck, no”–and she insists that journalists meet him in person and “really get to know him.” She adds that, unlike Schneider, she “never put out a press release that said Wesley had any sort of mental problems. I put together a lot of reviews and feature interviews, letting other people talk about [the schizophrenia].”

The guys in the Fiasco say American shouldn’t claim to be taking the high road. According to Meiners, the label paid Willis a ridiculously low $5,000 for each album. (Robinson says she’s unaware of the specifics of the deal.) The only thing Schneider, Robinson, and the Fiasco agree on is that journalists who focus on the “Willis is crazy” angle are taking “the cheap and easy way out.”

They’re right. The celebration of the madman as speaker of the truth was an old story when Dostoyevsky told it in The Idiot and Faulkner wrote it up as The Sound and the Fury. The canonization of rockers like Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson, David Fair, and Daniel Johnston is firmly in this tradition, and it’s a load of romantic rubbish. Meiners and other Willis boosters say they’re helping Willis improve his lot in life and exorcise his demons. But I’m a journalist and critic, not a social worker, and my main concern is the music.

Compiled from Wesley’s DIY recordings and just released on Oglio, Rock ‘n’ Roll Will Never Die is the second widely distributed Willis solo album. Musically, the 24 songs are all in the familiar mold of Willis appropriating one of the cheesy preprogrammed tunes in his electronic keyboard. Lyrically, every song follows the same pattern: In the verses Willis raps about seeing [insert artist’s name here] at [name Chicago venue here] last night, and notes that [he/she/it] is a “rock-a-roll star” whose jams “whupped the camel’s ass.” The choruses consist of Willis singing the artist’s name four times in a row in a key known only to dogs. It all leads to the inevitable ending of Willis exclaiming, “Rock over London! Rock on Chicago! [Insert commercial/pop-culture slogan here]!”

The repetition is enough to drive anyone crazy.

At least SpookyDisharmoniousConflictHellride is more diverse. The band is a competent but uninspired hard-rock group with alternative leanings. Think generic Jane’s Addiction. Inspired by the raunchier sounds (or goaded by his band mates?), Willis spouts obscenities like a person with Tourette’s syndrome and indulges in Beavis and Butt-head-style sexism and homophobia on tunes like “Pop That Pussy” and “Casper the Homosexual Friendly Ghost.” Tellingly, Willis sounds more genuine and enthusiastic on these songs than on “Get On the Bus” or “He’s Doing Time in Jail,” which are rote accounts of his mental problems and the confrontation on a city bus that left him bloodied and scarred.

It’s impossible for me to imagine anyone listening to either of these albums for pleasure–or listening without the knowledge that Willis is a schizophrenic. Their protestations to the contrary, that knowledge is exactly what the flacks are selling. Should you buy it? Well, as Willis himself might put it, rock over London, rock on Chicago, don’t believe the hype.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Karen Mason.