Sunday, November 01, 2009

Visit the Wesley Willis Tower!!

Wesley Willis was a rock 'n roller
He was diagnosed with chronic scizophrenia
He made music with his Casio keyboard, and whupped a llama's ass

Wesley Willis, Wesley Willis
Wesley Willis, Wesley Willis

Rock over London, Rock On Chicago
Touch and Go, serving up Steve Albini records since 1987

There are a whole lot of people who have no idea that in the '90s, the city of Chicago was home to one of the most unique individuals to have ever made alternative rock. Wesley Willis was a chronic schizophrenic street artist; with only magic markers and tag paper, Wesley would make the most intricate renderings of city skylines and urban landscapes. However, Wes had friends who inspired him to indulge his musical "gifts", and gave him access to recording equipment and pointed him in the direction of CD manufacturing. His solo material was simplistic, quirky music. Typically, his songs were merely him narrating in his spoken voice something he'd heard, a person he'd known, a significant event that had happened in his life, or a concert he'd been to. Although most people wouldn't consider his music great by any stretch, I find it fascinating (in small doses). Think about it; here's a guy who was dealt a really bad set of circumstances, and with the help of some friends, made a better life for himself. His music and concerts gave him the chance to travel the U.S., and make friends all over the place. He was even signed to Rick Rubin's American Recordings label for two albums, oddly enough. He had a good working relationship with Jello Biafra, who released many WW albums on his Alternative Tentacles label. Wesley Willis was a tireless self-promoter, and worked hard for all the acclaim that he had. Whenever he met his fans, he'd lightly head-butt you with a "rah!!" I met him three times, and was a recipient of his gracious head-butts. He was a hell of a guy.

For me, Wesley Willis's finest moment was when he was a part of the Wesley Willis Fiasco. Wesley's longtime partner in crime, Dale Meiners, got together some like-minded band members, and put together a hard punk group to supercharge Wesley Willis's lyrics. There was something phenomenal about a guy bellowing over hard punk. Their sole album, Spookydisharmoniousconflicthellride, is a great listen. Unfortunately, the band broke up due to the irregularities of Wesley's moods; like anyone with a mental disability, he had good days and bad days.

There are a whole lot of ways to approach the phenomenon of Wesley Willis's fame. Some cretins superficially laughed at Wesley's disability, as if a person with Down Syndrome were trying to sing Sinatra (the circus freak syndrome, if you will). Others were indignant at the perceived exploitation of someone with an obvious issue, and found the whole idea of his music repugnant. Myself? I really liked his music on its own terms, but more importantly, really rooted for him. I thought it was a great way for him to make himself more well-known, and a way for him to have a better life. I really liked his shamelessness, and his energy was tireless. Please make no mistake; no one was better at exploiting Wesley Willis than the man himself; apparently, he went to each and every record store in Chicago with his bag on his back to sell them his CDs, repeatedly. I still love the WWF stuff.

Unfortunately, Wesley Willis died in 2003 from leukemia. Although he's no longer with us, he should forever be remembered as one of Chicago's treasures. And I think it's a wonderful tribute to him to have renamed the Sears Tower here in Chicago to the Willis Tower in his honor. We really should always call it the Wesley Willis Tower, to drive that point home.

3 Comments:

Blogger Matt Kissane said...

Great piece of journalism, Tom. I've never heard of Wesley Willis, but I'll have to hang a picture of him from the little replica of the "Sears" Tower I have sitting on my window sill. Where can I get his music?

November 02, 2009 7:35 AM  
Blogger cbean45 said...

Hi DJMurphy.....I was fortunate to be Wesley's room mate and good friend,he was such a blast ! Thank you for writing a thoughtful, accurate and well written tribute to a great guy.

All the best, Carla Winterbottom
Chicago.

November 07, 2009 9:22 AM  
Blogger DJMurphy said...

Wow. Thank you,Carla. I really really liked Wesley Willis and his music, and what I wrote came from an honest place. I really would have loved for him to still be with us today making music. He was about as genuine as people ever come, from what I can tell.

November 07, 2009 8:55 PM  

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