Voices from the head
Chicago’s legendary cult hero, street musician Wesley Willis, returns to Chico
More than ever, American music could use a dose of reality, even if it comes from the brain of a chronic schizophrenic.
When you consider that mainstream music is being held hostage by choreographed boy bands, breast-propelled thongstresses and money-flashing, bitch-slapping rap posses, it’s only natural that fringe artists emerge.
One of the nation’s best known “outsider artists” in music, Wesley Willis, is a singer/ songwriter who cannot help but be true to his muse. Currently a recording artist for San Francisco-based Alternative Tentacles, Willis discovered he suffered from chronic schizophrenia back in 1989—the day he began hearing voices in his head after witnessing his mother nearly executed at gunpoint by a friend robbing them for crack money.
Willis grew up on the South Side of Chicago in some of the country’s most war-torn projects, “the victim of lifelong episodes of violence, both random and domestic,” as reported in a Chicago Tribune feature.
He first gained notoriety as a street artist, peddling his detailed, felt-tipped-pen drawings of cityscapes for a living—in addition to a meager monthly government disability-assistance check. At 6’5” and 320-pounds, Willis cut an imposing figure, though he was known in the urban communities he frequented as a gentle soul—often beaming a familiar smile when not absorbed in his drawings.
A frequent visitor to Genesis Art Warehouse in Wicker Park, Willis was given his own art show by friend and musician Dale Meiners. The show was a success and Meiners, who became Willis’ roommate, was soon fostering his friend’s newfound interest in music.
Willis started cranking out a massive number of his own songs (since the ‘90s he has recorded over 30 albums and 1000 songs) originally circulated via cassette among artist circles nationwide—though most of the songs sound almost identical musically. He became a regular on the Chicago rock scene, where he hand-sold his abrasive, ranting recordings—songs both funny and oddly touching in their honest depiction of street life through the eyes of a “crazy person.” A cult music legend was born.
Willis’ songs are known for their lyrical oddity rather than musical content—blunt ruminations on schizophrenia and poverty are mixed in with bizarre humor and odes to his favorite bands. They all begin with the same preset rhythm (the insanely repetitive country rock 8) on a Technics keyboard, though Willis employs minor shifts in tempo and melody for different tunes. His bellowing vocal style is probably most kindly described as not-for-the-easily annoyed (he’s tone deaf). A representative sample of the spoken lyrics: “My mind plays tricks on me every time I say something, It brings evil voices out of my head and talks to me vulgar"—then he wails the off-key chorus, “chronic schizophrenia,” four times.
Live, he reads the song lyrics from one of his many spiral notebooks—songs about anything from getting kicked out of churches and stores to seeing someone killed—ending each by chanting his trademark slogan, “Rock over London, rock on Chicago,” then some random advertising slogan like “Pontiac: You build excitement!” or “Choosy mothers choose Jiff.”
After a well-attended show in Chico several years ago, Willis returns on Jan. 17 for a solo show in support of his latest release, Rush Hour, featuring more of the same inspired lunacy. While his performances have elicited controversy from critics condemning the glorification of a mental disorder, Willis dismisses their claims, saying he sings to help silence the voices in his head and because he loves it.
“I’m a solo keyboard, and I’m a good rock singer. Praise the Lord when I rock ‘n’ roll just like a magic kiss. I get down like a magic kiss. Each time when I run my mouth and never shut up, that’s the way it is and the way it’s got to be,” Willis says.
Or, as he writes of the new album: “This record rocks. This record whips a horse’s ass. The songs are about real life. Thanks.”
Eat your heart out, Britney.