Wesley Willis's Joy Rides
December 4, 2009 1:17 AM   Subscribe

Wesley Willis's Joy Rides, one week only at Pitchfork TV. Dual-wielding a Technics KN and a microphone, breaking Chicago down to a vector space of magic marker; homeless busker, Napster celebrity, punk headliner and hellraiser: take your pick. The late Wesley Willis as remembered in Joy Rides.
posted by kid ichorous (33 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
These are really amazing drawings. Screw the outsider tag, the perspective is fantastic on the street views. I was in art education full time for 5 years and I don't think I ever saw anyone who had that certainty of line and the confidence in rendering. Just because he didn't go to art school, or was schizophrenic or was black or was poor or whatever label you want to point his way his line simultaneously describes so lucidly tone and form. And that's hard, really hard - something that, beyond a certain point, probably can't be taught.

Every work of art is an uncommitted crime and his album title announced that Rock music keeps Wesley Willis out of state prison. Maybe he didn't know the Adorno quote, but the impulse is the same. He is only an outsider in relation to market forces, not to the creative process.

posted by multivalent at 2:03 AM on December 4, 2009 [7 favorites]

Valent, I have to plead ignorance on this one. Outsider music is a label thrown at stuff like early Beck. I wasn't aware of the connotations within visual art.
posted by kid ichorous at 2:08 AM on December 4, 2009

I'm sorry if I sounded angry, I just see a lot of artists within visual art who adopt a faux naivety to give them grit and their work a credibility - the truth often seems to be that they are posturing rather than making things in an engaged manner. This guy, on the other hand, had to deal with a lot of circumstances outside his control and made good, relevant and interesting art.

Thanks for the post.
posted by multivalent at 2:18 AM on December 4, 2009

That's okay, I can remove the tag if it ends up causing too much confusion.
posted by kid ichorous at 2:35 AM on December 4, 2009

thank you thank you thank you for this post


posted by auralcoral at 3:13 AM on December 4, 2009 [4 favorites]

All I'm getting -- at what seems to be the right link -- is what I assume to be TUNNELVISION, which in turn is a girl shouting rhythmically over a tambourine in a basement choked with hipsters, and is not nearly as awesome as Wesley Willis.
posted by Shepherd at 3:27 AM on December 4, 2009

I got head butted by Wesley Willis back in the day.

Good times.
posted by Dagobert at 3:37 AM on December 4, 2009 [5 favorites]

Thank you so much for this post. I love Wesley Willis. I loved watching the documentary "The Daddy of Rock and Roll", but it was very limited in scope, only showing and discussing a tiny period of his life. It also seemed very low budget, and not well put together. It made me a bit sad to thinking that there wouldn't be a better documentary about his life until I saw this post, and watched that great little film. That was beautiful, and got me close to tears a few times. What a wonderful man.
posted by DanielDManiel at 4:07 AM on December 4, 2009

Wow, thanks! Those drawings are spectacular. I had no idea he was producing such work.
posted by zzazazz at 4:38 AM on December 4, 2009

Yeah, I've known about his music for years, but I had no idea about these awesome architectural drawings. They are really fantastic.
posted by mullacc at 4:48 AM on December 4, 2009

You know who else was excellent at drawing architecture?

What really appeals to me about his art is the contrast of the precise lines and detail of the cars and buildings with the careless sky. The buses in particular are incredible, then when you remember that bus rides were a frequent subject in his songs it makes you realize that he had a peculiar relationship with them.

Then there's the loopy, childlike clouds and quick fill-in of the area around them. It's interesting that it's always partially cloudy in his world.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:52 AM on December 4, 2009


posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:10 AM on December 4, 2009

I was headbutted too
posted by MNDZ at 5:15 AM on December 4, 2009

Woohoo i get to share my willis story.

Saw willis in 2001 at emos. I went with an ex-girlfriend and we went early to meet him. He talked to her and gave her his customary headbutts, and then when i went to meet him, he shook my hand but neglected to let go and was talking to someone else. So for about three minutes (or shorter, or longer, it felt like an eternity) i was just sitting there holding wesley willis's hand. Finally I felt awkward enough to let go, so i did.

it was pretty cool. he was a character to say the least.
posted by djduckie at 5:33 AM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thank you for this post, this brings tears to my eyes. His music and drawings were a huge component of my youth, and it is wonderful to know more about this mysterious man I've always loved.
posted by localhuman at 5:34 AM on December 4, 2009

... I just see a lot of artists within visual art who adopt a faux naivety to give them grit and their work a credibility - the truth often seems to be that they are posturing rather than making things in an engaged manner.

please do NOT remove the 'outsider' tag! the things that jag you (faux naivety, posturing) are antithetical to wesley's music and his art. and most probably, his life. which is exactly what makes him fit into the 'outsider' category. the only thing i can think of that might disqualify that label is the fact that he was, within limits, a 'successful' artist & musician. other than that, i can't think of anything that would disqualify his work from (proudly) bearing that label.
posted by msconduct at 5:57 AM on December 4, 2009

this wiki article has a pretty good explanation of outsider art, including
... the English term "outsider art" is often applied more broadly, to include certain self-taught or Naïve art makers who were never institutionalized. Typically, those labeled as outsider artists have little or no contact with the mainstream art world or art institutions. In many cases, their work is discovered only after their deaths. Often, outsider art illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds.
i don't see anything there to contradict using the label.
posted by msconduct at 6:01 AM on December 4, 2009

I've gotten headbutted a few times by Wesley at shows, but once I was walking downtown with my boss and we passed him on the street. I said hello and he leaned in and head butted me. I went to introduce my boss, who took a few steps away for fear of being assaulted. He put up his hands as if he was ready to take on Wesley if he tried to headbutt him. Ahhh....good times.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 6:42 AM on December 4, 2009

I hear he whupped Batman's ass.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:03 AM on December 4, 2009

I'd never seen his art before, it is very impressive.

If you ever find yourself in Baltimore with a few hours to spare I highly recommend visiting the American Visionary Art Museum. It is packed to the brim with mind-boggling and esoteric "outsider" art.
posted by cloeburner at 8:18 AM on December 4, 2009

This is excellent. Thank you for posting it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:20 AM on December 4, 2009

I saw Wesley Willis at a show in Sacramento and got a headbutt or two. He would also instruct you to say "RAWR" as you did it. When my turn came up in line he asked me how old I was. "I'm 17," I said. "No, you 25," he corrected. "Thanks, but really, I'm only 17." "No, you 25." And that's how our conversation went for maybe a few more minutes.

I had him sign my box of Wheaties (WHEATIES! BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS) and still have it 8 years later at age 25.
posted by Zaximus at 8:37 AM on December 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Wesley used to be at the Empty Bottle and Delilah's in Chicago regularly. I too was head-butted numerous times while being told to, "Say Rock. Say Roll." He was a very disconcerting guy. Friendly and repetitive to the extreme. If you got caught in a cycle of repetition with him it was very hard to get away. It was amusing to watch people who had no idea about him get caught in conversations with him that went in circles and ended in headbutting.
posted by Babblesort at 8:59 AM on December 4, 2009

Rock over London!
Rock on, Chicago!
posted by Capt Jingo at 9:11 AM on December 4, 2009

Man, I like that guy.

It's interesting to me how many people here are talking about him in the present tense. He's such an unusual person - the fact that he ever lived is the notable part. Death is a sidenote.
posted by roll truck roll at 9:23 AM on December 4, 2009

I talked to him for 15 or 20 minutes late one night in Wicker Park. He never headbutted me once.
posted by DaddyNewt at 9:58 AM on December 4, 2009

When I lived in Wicker Park circa 1993, he was a fixture at the local art store, set up there with his big poster board drawing. I had a sticker he sold me that was on my refrigerator. I hope it's still there--it's certainly true that the landlord was hands-off enough to have left it there. In fact, I knew him as an artist long before I became familiar with his music. (And at first I had misgivings about the hipsters who "discovered" him and showcased his music... I really did think it was exploitive. But in retrospect, he loved it so much, it's hard to see it that way now.)

He is the only person I ever allowed to headbutt me.

(Is that where the spot came from on his forehead? So much headbutting?)
posted by RedEmma at 10:36 AM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

One of my exes was friends with Wesley, and Wes would occasionally come visit us in San Diego. At the time, he was still mostly doing his art and would carry his drawings around in a giant trash bag, resting the weight of them on his foot and doing a sort of teetering/limping walk.

Anyway, they suggested one day that he sit down by the beach and do drawings of the pier and stuff to sell to tourists. Except Wes only sort of went along with the idea; he parked himself near the beach and proceeded to draw the Dan Ryan Expressway from memory.

During another visit, a friend asked him to draw her apartment. I watched him bust it out effortlessly with a Bic pen. It was totally amazing until she asked him to include her cat. Fun fact: Wesley Willis could not draw cats.

He was an awesome and loving (but tormented) guy. I still miss him.
posted by stefanie at 10:55 AM on December 4, 2009 [4 favorites]

Wow, I wasn't aware of the art. I'm really impressed. It seems incongruous.

I saw him and met him at The Ridglea in Fort Worth, TX a not too long before he died. He apparently took a liking to my friend, because he headbutted him for a long time. Maybe two dozen times, and hard. He had a large callous on his forehead from headbutting people and that only contributed to the progressively meaty crunch, so, being jostled around by drunk high-schoolers in the smoke machine haze it was hard to tell if he was just smashing my friend's skull or being his brand of friendly. His handlers didn't seem concerned, though, but I don't think they could have stopped him if they were. He was very large and could have mowed through the throngs of skinny hipsters like a Japanese monster.

He seemed distrustful of me, but I shook his hand anyway. He didn't headbutt me, but he did hold my hand for a long time (not hand-crushing, but hard and firm. I couldn't have gotten away.) and stared through his eyebrows straight through the back of my skull. I don't know for how long... I'd guess a minute or two, but finally one of his handlers said something to him and he forgot about me. If he said anything to either of us through all of this, I either didn't hear it or didn't recognize it as speech.

The show itself was... an experience rather than a concert. The sound was horrible at that place and he was semi-coherent anyway. Except for the better known ones, like "I Whopped Batman's Ass," "Suck A Hairy Cheetah's Dick," and "Rock N' Roll McDonalds," which prompted singalongs as people realized what song it was, no one had any idea what he was saying. It was loud, though. I can say that. In retrospect I wish I'd gotten a tee shirt.
posted by cmoj at 10:56 AM on December 4, 2009

I enjoyed this immensely, and it brought back some great memories.
The contrast between the imposing figure he cut and his remarkably friendly and charismatic personality still amazes me to this day.
"I'll sell you a CD for ten bucks, or I'll sell you two for twenty bucks!" were the first words he said to me. He made it sound like it was the deal of the century. We bought CDs, and he happily autographed them with little drawings. Then we did the call and response "Rock" and "Roll" thing, and exchanged an almost uncomfortably long series of headbutts. It was a great show.
A few years later he came back, this time he was playing locally and we assembled once again to go see him. More CDs and more autographs and headbutts. I don't know precisely when it happened, but my friends and I realized eventually that there had been a shift in how we felt about Wesley. Sure, we still laughed at his lyrics, but at some point he had gone from "novelty act" to an artist that we had to see whenever he was doing a show within a reasonable distance. The shows were always great, with a lot of singing along from the audience and great banter from Wesley.
posted by ktrey at 11:17 AM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

His tribute to the late Eazy-E is fantastic.

♪ You are an educated rapper
You can really rap your ass off
You can really knock it out
You are the greatest one of all
Eazy-E ♪

We want Eazy? See Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans for another Eazy-E reference.
posted by porn in the woods at 12:22 PM on December 4, 2009

I really respected his people. They were very very very very vehemently against buying him a beer. But the night was not a torture hell ride.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:02 PM on December 4, 2009

Wesley Willis' music does have the effect of getting your attention while you think you're laughing at him and then getting stuck in your head for like 9 years straight. And he's undoubtedly an amazing (and under appreciated, still) visual artist - some of the shots where it switches from his drawing to photography really make the point that he was not fooling around when it came to his art. You'd have to go stand on a bridge over the Dan Ryan to really be able to map those properly.
But it's complicated. The movie never really deals with the fact that they've got a camera trained on him throughout. I know there are people who really were looking out for him and had his best interests at heart (especially the friends interviewed in the film, and it would seem the filmmakers), but certainly it wasn't all love for the man. Maybe he was laughing all the way to the bank (not that he went to the bank) but things like Howard Stern, art dealers, road managers, etc. just creep me out. I just want to protect him from all that nastiness for some reason. Not to mention 5-0. Cops in Chicago do not take kindly to giant schizophrenic African-Americans. Rock music keeps Wesley Willis out of state prison is undoubtedly true. We just do not know how to treat one another.
I mean, he actually was a crazy black man - something about the way that he was able to parlay that stereotype into an audience has always made me feel weird. How did they get through 77 minutes without mentioning Magikist!? Maybe magical is a better way to put it.
Thanks for the reminder to always be sure to write "Wesley" above every "Willis Tower" sign.
posted by mike_bling at 11:41 PM on December 4, 2009

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