Who was Wesley Willis?
Wesley Willis was an American rock singer-songwriter and an artist. Born in difficult circumstances and raised in foster homes, Wesley overcame penury, homelessness and mental illness to become one of the most loved rock icons of his times. Probably as an escape from his dismal family circumstances, Wesley started sketching Chicago street scenes. He loved to look at the city from public buses. His ink-pen sketches have scenes from his bus rides and the buses themselves. He called these rides “joyrides” which he took to stop hearing the demons shouting in his head. Willis suffered from schizophrenia all his life. His mental issues were reflected in the music he wrote once he decided to become a musician. Critics of his music have talked about his preprogrammed music on the keyboard and the repetitiveness of his songs. However, his fans found his songs passionate and honest. Whether it was his sheer size, his typical “headbutt” greeting or his profane lyrics, Wesley Willis always attracted a great deal of attention from fans and media alike and continues to do so years after his death.
Childhood & Early Life
Wesley Lawrence Willis was born on 31 May 1963, in Chicago, Illinois. His parents were Walter and Annie Ruth Willis. His parents’ marriage was a turbulent and violent one. There were ten kids in the family, and after their parents separated, they moved to foster homes.
Wesley grew up in several foster homes with his two elder brothers. The rest of the siblings were all in different homes and many of them didn’t get to know each other till they were adolescents.
In the 1970s and 1980s, many of Annie Ruth’s children, including Wesley, moved back with her and started living in project homes. They lived under great financial stress and struggled to feed themselves.
It was while living with his mother that Willis first started hearing voices. It was first triggered by his mother’s boyfriend pointing a gun at him and robbing him of $100. Willis was diagnosed in the late 1980s with paranoid schizophrenia and institutionalized for a while.
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Before he became a musician, Wesley Willis was an artist. As an escape from their dismal childhood, many of the Willis siblings had turned to art. He would sketch on the sidewalks on Chicago braving cold weather and winds and sell his sketches to passers-by.
He caught the attention of John Stulgate, a shop owner in Wicker Park, an area favored by artists. Stulgate invited him to his shop and started buying his paintings to help him out.
The shop below Stulgate’s was an art supply store called ‘Genesis’. Willis started frequenting this store. Though initially apprehensive, the store owner Richard Goldman saw how Willis charmed everyone with his warmth. He let him put up his paintings in the store and also put up a couch for him to nap on.
It was in the early 1990s that Willis decided to become a musician. He had made friends with a few musicians from the Chicago alternative rock scene. He learnt to sing and play the keyboard and arrived on the rock music scene starting as a street performer in Chicago.
Willis’ songs were irreverent; he wrote and sang of everything from traveling in public buses and losing weight to junk food and the voices in his head. There were also unusual concoctions like ‘chicken cow’.
He usually ended his songs with the words “Rock over London, rock on, Chicago”. His music became popular among the underground rock lovers and musicians such as Jello Biafra, White Zombie, Eddie Vedder, Mike D., and Henry Rollins.
In 1991, Willis formed the punk rock band ‘The Wesley Willis Fiasco’ with four thrash-punk-metal musicians. The band soon came to the notice of Rick Rubin, the head of ‘American Recordings’. He fell in love with their music and signed them up for a multi-record contract under the label.
Willis appeared on the debut album ‘Suffersystem’ of the Canadian band ‘Monster Voodoo Machine’ in 1994. The album went on the win a ‘Juno Music Award’. He had also sung about his fellow artists. He loved listening to club bands and had created tribute songs for Ted Nugent, Urge Overkill, Bon Jovi and others.
The Wesley Willis Fiasco broke up in 1996. Willis continued to release albums independently in the ensuing years. He was prolific and released more than 15 albums during the 1990s. Most of these were financed by himself. Many of these albums had his characteristic sketches on their covers.
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Willis’ die hard-fans like Jello Biafra and others compiled his songs from his self-released albums and released them under major labels. Some of the albums were ‘Wesley Willis Greatest Hits Vol 1 and 2’, ‘SpookydisharmoniousConflicthellride’, ‘Fabian Road Warrior’ and ‘Feel the Power’.
In 1998, Wesley Willis as an artist was the subject of the documentary ‘Wesley Willis: Artist of the Streets’ by Carl Hart.
The documentary ‘The Daddy of Rock ’n’ Roll,’ made in 2003, showcased Willis as a musician and his everyday life.
Willis’ artwork received critical acclaim after his death. In 2008, his work was exhibited at the Mohamed Khalil Museum in Egypt.
The physical traits of the character ‘Milan,’ who is a half-brother to ‘Wonder Woman’ in the DC comic series, are inspired by Willis.
Family & Personal Life
One of Willis’ unique tendencies was “headbutting.” This was how he would greet everyone. As a result, he had a permanent bump on his head.
Willis was constantly haunted by the voices in his head and for this reason, he always wore headphones and listened to rock and roll and heavy metal music.
He also suffered from anxiety and had to take medications regularly. At times, he had to stop playing during his performances and take his medicines.
Among Willis’ friends was Carla Winterbottom. She had offered him a home when Willis had moved out of his father’s flat. He stayed with her until 1998. Winterbottom was a mother figure to Willis, she made him meals and watched out for him.
Bands who had toured with Willis recall that going around with him was like taking care of a young child who had to be reminded to eat properly, maintain personal hygiene, and take medicines. His friends were all very protective of him.
Wesley Willis passed away on August 21, 2003, at the age of 40. He had been suffering from leukemia.