The Cult of Wesley

Wesley Willis

Wesley Willis died last month, and his passing brings mixed feelings. Not many people know Willis’ name, but he earned a cult following for his naïve, deranged songs that vividly and repetitively captured his state of mind. Sample titles: “I’m Sorry That I Got Fat,” “Cut the Mullet,” “The Vultures Ate My Dead Ass Up,” “I Broke Out Your Windshield,” “Fuck You,” and “Harmony Joy Bus Ride.”

Willis, a paranoid schizophrenic, died at age 40 of leukemia that was diagnosed last year. As my wife properly noted, the dual affliction was a cruel cosmic joke.

That he’s no longer suffering is a good thing. But there’s a part of me that feels a little sick that Willis was mistreated by his “fans” — the people who bought his music (me included) and paid to see him — and exploited. He was, I fear, a circus-sideshow attraction.

Willis was startlingly prolific and generally used only his voice and keyboard on record and live. The songs, to the untrained ear, are nearly identical: They have the same structures, they use the variations on the same backing track, they express a lyrical single-mindedness (to be gentle about it), and they all end with the Wesley signature: “Rock over London, rock on Chicago,” followed by a product slogan (“Diet Pepsi — Uh huh!”). Willis’ malapropisms — such as the use of “suddenly” to describe things that aren’t sudden at all — add an off-kilter charm to his songs.

(If you haven’t heard Willis’ music, sample some of it here. And be sure to check out the Wesley Willis song-generator at the bottom of this page. My wife used it to create this classic Wesley song:

“Bad Dog Ginger”

by Wesley Willis

You can really get in the groove.
You can really jam harder like a magicist.
I like you a lot in the long run.
You can really rock it out.

BAD DOG GINGER!!!
BAD DOG GINGER!!!
BAD DOG GINGER!!!
BAD DOG GINGER!!!

You are the best in the long run.
You really whoop a snow leopard’s ass.
You really whoop a snow leopard’s ass.
Bad Dog Ginger is very special to me.

BAD DOG GINGER!!!
BAD DOG GINGER!!!
BAD DOG GINGER!!!
BAD DOG GINGER!!!

I like Bad Dog Ginger a lot.
You really whoop a llama’s ass.
About 33,700 people like Bad Dog Ginger.
Bad Dog Ginger is excellent.

Rock over London,
Rock on Chicago.

Mitsubishi — the word is getting around.
[And, indeed, we like Ginger a lot ... in the long run. Right now is another matter entirely.])

Willis was championed by Jello Biafra (about whom, naturally, Wesley wrote a song) and became something of a celebrity in the indie-rock community. What troubles me is that most if not all of Willis’ status was the result of him being, essentially, a punchline — producing the same song over and over and over and over and head-butting people.

There’s an element of this you’ve-got-to-see-this lure to the over-the-top keyboard metal of Andrew W.K., but with a key difference: Andrew W.K. is (I hope) in on the joke, while Willis was likely oblivious to the real reason people showed up to see him and bought his many albums.

There might be people in the world who think of Willis as an outsider artist, a talent whose rawness masks something profound underneath. But nearly everybody who came to Willis did so for amusement. There are worse epitaphs for an artist than “He Made People Laugh,” but I’m guessing giggles weren’t what Willis wanted from an audience.

My hope is that Wesley got whatever joy his life provided from making and performing music, and that he didn’t see or care that people were laughing at him. Biafra suggests that Willis was so involved in recording his every thought and experience in song that the rest of world didn’t much matter to him. I certainly hope so, because I don’t think we treated him well.

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