Wesley Willis dead at 40 from Leukemia
August 22, 2003 11:26 AM   Subscribe

Wesley Willis: Rock and roll star, artist, poet, movie star and friend to all he met passed away last night from Leukemia at the age of 40. The six foot five, 320 pound Chicago area musician who cut his teeth on the streets selling city landscape drawings and playing music on his tiny Casio keyboard was infamous for his raw insightful songs and ability to draw his audiences into a schizophrenic's take on reality.
posted by car_bomb (34 comments total)
Rock on Chicago, Wheaties: Breakfast of Champions.

I'll always remember how you kicked Batman's ass.

And how fucking nasty you smelled when you sat next to me in a dirty bar you played at in Mobile, AL. I managed to avoid the patented headbutt though. Now I'll never get the chance.
posted by Stan Chin at 11:29 AM on August 22, 2003

Wesley gave me 12 headbutts for 'Raaa-ing' the loudest at the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle.

I'm comforted in knowing that Wesley is no longer hounded by his demons.

posted by car_bomb at 11:33 AM on August 22, 2003

He's gone to the great Blockbuster Video in the sky.
posted by shoepal at 11:34 AM on August 22, 2003

A seat is filling at the Rock And Roll McDonalds. Bon Voyage, Wesley.
posted by jonmc at 11:34 AM on August 22, 2003

[cuts mullet]
posted by WolfDaddy at 11:36 AM on August 22, 2003

First link is fuxored for me. Anyone find a cache?
posted by me3dia at 11:44 AM on August 22, 2003

[record exec slides fangs out of Willis' neck, looks for next victim]

I'm not saying he died as a direct cause of his brush with fame (because that's both improbably and improvable), but I AM saying that they lost a pefect client who wouldn't raise eyebrows that selling a lot of records still didn't produce royalties...

I always thought his whole rise to fame originated out of some spiteful bet a record exec made with a musician, trying to prove that the talent really is secondary to the marketing.

posted by Busithoth at 11:44 AM on August 22, 2003

Bah, that's ridiculous. He's not on Atlantic Records, he's on Alternative Tentacles, Jello Biafra's label. What limited fame he had is due to the cult following surrounding outsider music, like Daniel Johnston or the Kids of Widney High. Marketing and record label greed had nothing to do with it.
posted by waxpancake at 11:52 AM on August 22, 2003

he's gone to suck the big horse's ass in the sky.
posted by quonsar at 11:53 AM on August 22, 2003

Wesley Willis whupped rock n' roll's ass.
posted by pooligan at 11:53 AM on August 22, 2003

My head still hurts from that last head butt.

posted by Outlawyr at 11:56 AM on August 22, 2003

Empty-handed.com has the text of the announcement, for those who can't get through.
posted by me3dia at 11:56 AM on August 22, 2003

I can't believe this! Suck a cheetah's dick!
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:58 AM on August 22, 2003

posted by Captain_Tenille at 12:09 PM on August 22, 2003

I always felt for the man.. I remember 90% of the crowd at his shows thought they were at some freak show, mocked him, yelled at him, basically treated him like shit. It always hurt me to see that they didn't realize how truthful and sincere Wesley was. Rob Crow (Heavy Vegetable, Thingy, Pinback, etc) noticed this and wrote a song about it. Bummed I don't have the lyrics on me or can't find them, but they're something along the lines of:

Wesley, people can be so cruel
Don't let them put you down
Don't let them take advantage
You're in complete control.
posted by afx114 at 12:10 PM on August 22, 2003

I saw him once and he was oddly mezmerizing.
posted by eyeballkid at 12:13 PM on August 22, 2003

afx114, I couldn't have said it better myself. Wesley's performances for me, always felt like he was baring his true self to the audience and allowing us to see and hear the demons he struggled with day to day. As the son of a schizophrenic, I was always fascinated by what he saw and wondering how he interpreted the world around him. I will miss Wesley deeply.
posted by car_bomb at 12:17 PM on August 22, 2003

I'm sorry that I got fat (I will slim down) is the best song ever written. That's all I have to say about that.
posted by Samsonov14 at 12:20 PM on August 22, 2003

I remember 90% of the crowd at his shows thought they were at some freak show, mocked him, yelled at him, basically treated him like shit.

I never had the pleasure of seeing Wesley live, but I always dug his records. Sure, some people may have tried to exploit him, and plenty of folks probably were there to gawk at the freak and/or preserve their hip credentials.

But I like Wesley for the same reason I like Tiny Tim, he took the most unlikely to succeed act in the world and made it work. Plus he genuinely seemed to be having a blast singing and performing, which is more than I can say for a lotta musicians today. So, I'll miss him.
posted by jonmc at 12:23 PM on August 22, 2003

Rock over Heaven, Wesley.

Allstate. You're in Good Hands.™
posted by Down10 at 12:26 PM on August 22, 2003

Once upon a time, this man was in every restaurant I ate at. I would never know he was there until I would hear him yell out something like "MY ASS IS ITCHY, I NEED TO WASH MY ASS WITH A WASHCLOTH"

A friend of mine had an unreleased documentary about him, and his childhood was so cruel. I was impressed that he did as well as he did coming through all that.

There is peace in the grave.
posted by thirteen at 12:31 PM on August 22, 2003

Music didn't killl Wes - it saved him. The label was a convenient way for Wes to get out and do what he loved, which was to be a rock star.

He didn't care about money or royalties; he just wanted to make music and share it with everybody he could. He could listen to it and drown out the demons in his head, and he could meet thousands of people who would shake his hand and bonk his head instead of saying the nasty things the demons did. I think all the people at the shows - even the yahoos - made Wes feel proud and gave him the ammo to fight the denigration and insults he heard in his head every day.

Wesley was brilliant. He had a wicked sly sense of humor and the most pure heart of anybody I've ever known. If you weren't taking him seriously he had the ability to look right through you; but when he had his hand on the back of your head, pressing his forehead against yours, you felt like he was looking into your soul.
posted by stefanie at 12:36 PM on August 22, 2003

I saw him many a night in front of the Empty Bottle. What a weirdly fascinating character he was. He was a Chicago institution.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 12:36 PM on August 22, 2003

I took this picture of him at a concert here in Boston back in 2001.
I think that the words on his songbook sum it up best:

posted by jozxyqk at 12:41 PM on August 22, 2003

I went to a Wesly Willis show in Calgary, Alberta a few years ago, and was on the recieving end of about 35 headbuts in a row. I was terrified.

"Say raaaaa"

"Say rooo"
posted by Quartermass at 12:43 PM on August 22, 2003

Saw him at Bottom Of The Hill. Rock over London. Rock On Chicago. Diet Pepsi - Uh huh!
posted by greasepig at 12:43 PM on August 22, 2003

I was shocked to see this post about Wesley Willis' death yesterday. As I haven't been out and about as much as I was in my pre-chained-to-a-desk days, I am a little ashamed to admit that I had kind of forgotten about him. I think I still have a bruise on my forehead from my many encounters with Wesley over the years at the Empty Bottle and other venues around Chicago and Milwaukee. :) He was an original and he will be missed. Rock on Wesley!
posted by crystalblue at 12:58 PM on August 22, 2003

A touching letter from Jello Biafra regarding Wesley's passing can be found here.

posted by car_bomb at 1:41 PM on August 22, 2003

I also had the chance to see Wesley play in Lubbock, TX back in 2000. Great show even after waiting for two hours, because the Texas Highway Patrol had pulled them over for their license plate not being lit. The patrol unloaded and searched their overstuffed van, scaring Wesley and leaving the driver to reload it. After seeing some of Wesley's medication, the highway patrolman asked the driver, roughly "Why is he out touring in this condition?"

This picture, taken at the show, tells me why.

Glad to know his demons aren't bothering him any longer.
posted by the biscuit man at 3:11 PM on August 22, 2003

I got to see Wesley back in April, here in Houston. I'd gotten turned on to him a few years ago, and while his repertoire had cracked me up, it was something I'd sort of stored on the back burner, forgotten about, until occasionally a friend would bring it up and I'd remember "Yeah, that was hilarious."

When I found out he was going to be in concert, a friend of mine and I went to see him. He was sitting out before the show, selling merchandise and speaking to fans. It was the first time I'd seen him in person, and I didn't know what to think-- I finally realized that I had come to watch a schizophrenic, and I started feeling bad about the whole thing-- like I was taking part in some freak show, watching this man sell his dignity for a few bucks.

When the music started, though, that all changed.

Wesley was into it-- really into it. Even better, the crowd was, too. They weren't there to mock him or feel superior, they were there because they wanted to see him perform his music. He put on a great show-- full of energy, and the crowd absolutely loved it. Afterward, we spoke to him, shook hands, and I got to headbutt him-- an opportunity I'll never have again, and as absurd as it sounds to an outsider, I'm glad I didn't pass it up.

R.I.P. Wesley.
posted by nath at 4:11 PM on August 22, 2003 [1 favorite]

skallas: I've abstained from commenting on this, but your comment is just plain frustrating for me. It reminds me of the Timmy episode of South Park, where all the townspeople keep complaining about how Timmy is being exploited. I can't help but thing it was subconciously inspired by Wes.

Stan's comment seems somewhat apt at this moment:
"You see, we learned something today. Yeah, sure, we laughed at Timmy, but what's wrong with laughter? Just because we laugh at something doesn't mean we don't care about it. Timmy made us smile, and playing made Timmy smile, so where was the harm in that? The people that are wrong are the ones that think people like Timmy should be "protected" and kept out of the public's eye. The cool thing about Timmy being in a band was that he was in your face, and you had to deal with him, whether you laughed or cried, or felt nothing. That's why Timmy rules! "

To see how people reacted to it - and how heartfelt their feelings were - just check out the comments section on my site http://www.punknews.org/article.php?sid=6884
posted by aubin at 7:45 PM on August 22, 2003 [1 favorite]

I know it's easy to assume that he was exploited, but that's not the case. Check out his life story and you'll find people who helped him and encouraged him when he had nothing, and they did it because they cared. They cared about him when he got sick, and they care that they have lost an amazing, loving friend. To suggest that they were exploiting him by helping him to do something that brought him such pure joy is completely off the mark.

And aubin, you've hit the nail on the head. I'm gonna quote you (well, Stan, actually) on that.
posted by stefanie at 8:00 PM on August 22, 2003


My first brush with greatness -- a large, sweaty, scary man pulling me aside at The Double Door in Chicago, 1994, emphatically asking if I'd like to buy a rock-and-roll cd. It took me two years to realize I had had a brush with Wesley Willis. Fortunately, I was able to see him perform two times since.

I'll never fly "Norfwes" Airlines without thinking of Wesley. Best song written about a major carrier. Ever.
posted by herc at 10:55 PM on August 22, 2003

here's a song about a man,
he is a genius. he can baa like a lamb
he's got like, a magic gift

wesley people can be so cruel
don't let them get you down
don't let them push you around
you're in complete control

they think you're just goofy
but come on, get serious

wesley, wesley
wesley willis

he's got style, he's got a special gift
he can see right through all the musical bullshit.

wesley people can be so cruel
don't let them get you down
don't let them push you around
you're in complete control

wesley, wesley
wesley willis

-Rock over london, rock on chicago.
wesley willis; he is whooping on a mule's ass with a belt-

-Song for Wesley, Performed by Heavy Vegetable
posted by sunexplodes at 11:26 PM on August 22, 2003

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