If you bought art supplies, made copies, or went to rock shows in Chicago at any time in the last decade you probably met Wesley Willis–and if you did, you didn’t forget him. He was six-foot-five, over 300 pounds, with a long scar on his cheek. He addressed friends and strangers and sometimes himself in a powerful, rumbling voice. Maybe he took notice of you and insisted on one of his almost catlike head butts–that’s how he got that distinctive mark on his forehead, like a bruise-toned third eye. Maybe he just asked you to say rraaah–rock, that is. Unnerving, those sincere requests for fleeting intimacy, but how could you say no? He wasn’t asking for anything it would hurt to give. Unless he also wanted your last $20 for two of his Rock and Roll CDs.
Willis died on Thursday, August 21, at the age of 40. He’d battled chronic myelogenous leukemia since late last year, and after he had surgery in June to determine the source of some internal bleeding, his condition worsened. He entered the Palliative CareCenter & Hospice of the North Shore in Skokie not long after the operation.
Willis was one of ten children; according to family members interviewed for a Washington Post profile three years ago, four of the seven boys were “slow.” Many of the siblings never met until they were adolescents, as they were raised largely in foster homes. Willis did live with his mother, Annie Ruth Willis, for a while in the 80s, and according to interviews that’s when the demons in his head made their presence known. He heard voices. They called him a bum and a jerk and cursed at him. They urged him to destroy his cherished possessions, to lash out at others, to hurt himself. They led to the altercation on a bus that gave him the scar on his cheek (and which seems to be the root of his fascination with buses and his categorization of experiences as either “joyrides” or “hellrides”). He was diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1989.
Willis had always had a knack for art and an interest in music, though he didn’t start writing songs until 1992. After that he made up for lost time, producing about 50 albums’ worth of strikingly straightforward songs–sometimes on outlandish themes (“The Chicken Cow”), sometimes disarmingly simple paeans to people or bands he liked (“Nirvana”). Almost all of them ended with a commercial slogan, as if he were making radio complete with ads. Some sounded less like non sequiturs than others–“Arnold Schwarzenegger,” for instance, ends with the line “Wheaties, Breakfast of Champions.”
Mostly he accompanied himself on cheap preset synthesizers, but for a few years he had a full band, the Wesley Willis Fiasco, assembled by recording engineer Dale Meiners, who helped Willis record his songs and navigate the health care bureaucracy. “People, like, kind of point him out as being schizophrenic, and a hard guy to deal with,” Meiners told MTV’s Tabitha Soren in 1996. “He’s not. Wesley’s really cool. You know, I’ve dealt with guys who are addicted to heroin, and stuff like that. That is a real bad time, you know? Did you ever see the Chuck Berry video?…There’s some very strange rock stars out there. Wesley in comparison is very cool.”
Willis’s artwork also had its fans–including John Stulgate, a former Chicago shop owner who now lives in Tucson. Stulgate started buying drawings from Willis to help him out; he now owns some 300 of them and had named Willis in his will. Some of his collection can be seen at www.geocities.com/SoHo/Museum/9048. Many of the drawings look like they were seen through a fish-eye lens, pen and ink lines in vivid primary colors wrapping buildings and streets and trains and buses around blue skies patched with clouds of negative space.
Willis released albums on “real” labels (most recently California’s Alternative Tentacles imprint) as well as on his own and toured the U.S. and Europe several times. He produced constantly, compulsively, and generously: as long as he was sending something out into the world, it seemed, it was harder for the demons to get in. As Jim DeRogatis noted in the Sun-Times obit, “some critics” were wary of the potential for exploitation in the marketing of his work. DeRogatis was one of those critics, and at times so was I–especially before I acquired the taste for his music, which even his biggest fans acknowledge to be an acquired taste. I was concerned about the hard, dark nosedive he might take if the applause ever stopped, when the fickle parasite known as the scene moved on to the next newer, weirder phenomenon. But though the crowds thinned a bit, Willis was never truly abandoned. I’m very glad to have been wrong about that.
At Willis’s funeral, on the evening of Wednesday, August 27, the John A. Rago Sons funeral home on Western Avenue looked like the Fireside Bowl with gentler lighting. The crowd was standing-room-only, packed, from the little staging area at one end all the way back to the doors. His father, Walter, and three of his brothers were in attendance; Michael Willis looked enough like Wesley to make me do a double take. But Wesley was laid out in an open pearly gray casket at the front of the room, wearing a blue suit, his headphones and CD Walkman in there with him. He looked waxy and unreal and surprisingly small and thin. Copies of his lyrics, written in his precise, blocky hand with the commercial catchphrases separated neatly at the bottom, lined the walls. In nearly every nook was a photo collage or a collection of clippings or a drawing either by Willis or of him. A boom box played his songs quietly near the front. Friends added CDs and guitar picks and notes to the effects already in the coffin, which included a large photo of Willis looking giddily happy, a toy bus, and an award certificate for service to the world of rock ‘n’ roll.
Hospice chaplain Corlette Pierson was the emcee, leading the diverse group in a nondenominational prayer and introducing speakers like filmmaker Chris Bagley, who’s working on a documentary called “Wesley Willis’ Joyrides.” Bagley, who lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming, with his girlfriend and filmmaking partner, Kim Shively, says “all the other stuff–the schizophrenia, obesity, whatever–was secondary to the fact that we just loved his music.” He wanted to meet Willis, and finally when the couple were in Denver while he was on tour, he did. “I got my first head butt,” he says. “It was a spiritual experience, and has always stuck with me. You’d get to the point where his eyes would cross together and just become like one big eye, like someone peering into your soul. He said, ‘Look at me. Look at me like a ghost.'” Willis spent four months last year in their guest house, which he called the Rock and Roll Ranch. Bagley and Shively were working on their house, and he “would come in and play the keyboard….The sound of that keyboard with the nail gun was the sound track of our lives for a little while.”
At the funeral, Bagley was weeping too much to speak comfortably, but had brought a video presentation. There were scenes of the big man drawing cityscapes from the John Hancock observatory and eliciting growls from bemused tourist boys. There was a signature scene of him forehead-to-forehead with a young woman, just nearly brushing noses with her in a sort of Eskimo air kiss.
Tamara Smith met Willis about 12 years ago: “These friends of mine, Dale [Meiners] and Keith [Lyons], were banging on my door at 2 AM, saying, ‘We’re going to kidnap you!’ They took me to his place and they were banging on the door yelling, ‘Wesley! Wesley!’ He came to the door, bleary-eyed, wearing briefs and nothing else. He was really happy to see friends, and a new friend, and he showed me his music collection–there were a lot of heavy metal CDs–and he played me a song on his keyboard.”
She says that throughout their friendship, she often intervened in Willis’s treatment (or lack thereof), mostly trying to help him find a good assisted-living program (unlike one that was unwilling to alter its curfew rules to accommodate Willis’s career) and good talking therapy. “Before the HIPAA law went into effect, of course, if he seemed to be overmedicated, I would call his doctors and say that I was concerned,” she says. She would visit him whenever he checked himself into the hospital, and stepped in toward the end when she found out that some paperwork wasn’t being properly filed. She also tried to get Willis to eat better and cooked him low-fat meals. “There were so many times in his life when a little bit of intervention could have made such a difference,” she says. “Wesley succeeded in spite of the system failing him.”
Smith told the gathering she doesn’t want his story turned into “some Horatio Alger myth.” Later she explains: “One thing that always troubled me about some of his audiences was that occasionally I got the impression they sometimes used him to not question their own prejudices about racism or mental illness–you know, ‘I can’t be a racist, Wesley Willis is my friend.’ And I would hate to see, say, someone on the right use Wesley’s story to say, ‘Our social services are fine.’ Because for one person like Wesley, who really was exceptional in so many ways, there are thousands, maybe millions out there who aren’t rock stars, who aren’t recognized artists, who aren’t memorialized like Wesley’s being. Even others with a lot of talent, and how much of that is getting lost? Wesley was charming and he could draw people who could help him, and he did. There were so many people who helped him, and not just individuals but groups, like Sullivan House.”
The Sullivan House Child Welfare Agency runs an alternative high school that serves 16- to 21-year-old dropouts from traditional schools. Teacher and artist Terry Russo, who met Willis there when he was a tall, skinny, vulnerable 16-year-old, observed at the funeral that “he was sometimes protected by other youths from some of the other students–a lot of juvenile delinquents.” She reminisced about running into him over a decade later at Genesis, an art-supply store Willis frequented; he remembered her immediately and they rekindled their friendship.
The only member of Willis’s family to speak at the funeral was Jerry Willis, who confessed to having drifted apart from his brother over the years. Reunited with Wesley as he lay ill by a former roommate of Wesley’s, Carla Winterbottom, who called every relative she had a phone number for, he made a moving plea to the gathering to make contact with lost loved ones before it’s too late.
The headlining eulogist was Alternative Tentacles owner and ex-Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra, who’d been sitting quietly on a couch near the front. He was the only speaker who seemed to love the stage like Willis had. He talked animatedly of his friendship with Willis, which had begun as fan admiration and solidified when Biafra compiled the first of a series of “Greatest Hits” collections for Alternative Tentacles in 1995. (The third volume is due out October 6.) Some of the stories sounded like he’d told them many times before; some of them didn’t. He remembered kidding Willis about his song “Oil Express,” about the efficiency and friendliness of the oil-change chain: “But you don’t drive!” Biafra protested. Willis grinned. “I made that up!”
Biafra also reminisced about Willis’s appearance on the Howard Stern show, when Willis refused to leave the studio until Stern bought one of his bus drawings–for $100. Biafra said that he was thrilled that Willis had written some of his “person” songs about him–four, in fact–and said, “Some people win Grammys; I don’t care, I won a Wesley!” He did a quick rendition of his answer song “Wesley Willis,” an homage that included lines about their visit to San Quentin (“You didn’t want to go in because there were murderers in there / But you sold drawings to the guards”) and the meeting of the minds with Biafra’s cat Mothra (“She liked you a lot like Science Diet”). Biafra said that Willis had told him he was only afraid to die because he wouldn’t be able to see any more live bands. Then he asked the whole crowd to say rraaah.
On the podium by the guest book was a notebook designated for names and addresses of people who have stories, photos, artwork, lyrics, writings–anything Willis-related to share. Smith says it was an old notebook of Willis’s that he’d never filled. “A whole group of us were working together on ideas, including maybe a foundation,” she says, “and one outgrowth of this foundation might be a book, maybe modeled on that big Taschen Henry Darger book, with all the reminiscences and illustrations. Except that it’s easier and the amount of stories might be overwhelming, because Darger had so few friends, but Wesley had so many.”
Those with something to share can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.