Wesley Willis – Joyrides documentary trailer and much much more

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December 8th marked the release of Wesley Willis – Joyrides, a documentary about one of the most singular musical personalities of the last 20 years. You can see the trailer for the doc below, and click on the link to buy the DVD a little below that if you’re so inclined. To coincide I’ve asked Philaflava poster and big Willis fan Chaz Kangas to prepare a little written tribute to the man, along with a short playlist to jam while you’re reading. Enjoy.




Wesley Willis was a 6’5 300+ pound schizophrenic from Chicago. That seems to be the only thing everyone can agree on when discussing the man. An outsider artist if there ever was one, Wesley defied conventions by not even acknowledging them. One of the most prolific of his time, he released roughly 40 albums in just over a decade. Some he recorded alone, occasionally referring to himself as “Wesley Willis and the Dragnews,” others were collaborations with an actual band dubbed the Wesley Willis Fiasco. He has recorded albums for just about every important indie label of the 90s, and even in death simultaneously draws appreciation and puzzlement.


On the surface, most Wesley’s songs follow roughly the same structure. He hits the intro-demo button on his Casio keyboard, speaks four sentences about the subject of the song, sings the name of the subject for the chorus, speaks four more sentences, sings the name-based chorus, hits random keys to change how the demo sounds for about eight measures, speaks four more sentences, sings the chorus, says “Rock Over London, Rock on Chicago,” screams a corporate slogan, and finally hits the “end-demo” button. As such, after a cursory listen some find his work incredibly gimmicky and repetitive. Even amongst his fans there are some who can only appreciate a small handful of his songs and even those only as novelties (Wesley being an artist who cared about putting a smile on his listeners faces first and foremost didn’t seem to mind this section of his audience.) However there are rewarding subtleties to be found his massive catalog beyond the bounds of that simple formula.

For example, an attentive listener will find that Wesley’s songs fall into about five different categories. These are 1. Reviews of bands he has seen 2. Profane bestiality songs meant to insult the listener, often by instructing them to perform sexual acts on an animal with some sort of condiment 3. Tributes to people that were nice to him 4. Songs on how he feels about playing rock and roll or being tormented by his demons. 5. Completely absurd, possibly fictional stories. Furthermore, some songs evolved as Wesley would tend to record three or four versions of the same track when he thought of something else to add or wanted to continue or update a previous tale.


I find the best way to appreciate the man’s music is to put in context with the man’s drawings. Wesley would often ride Chicago buses until he had the look of the city memorized, then create and sell drawings of the places he’s seen. Along with the well known landmarks like Sears Tower or Wrigley Field, his art would also lovingly feature more ‘mundane’ parts of the city landscape – buses, street corners, buildings, lakes, all reproduced from memory with rich accurate detail. Such attention to detail is replicated in his lyrics, particularly when giving his expositions on a subject. Couple that with the man’s charisma and undeniable sincerity and I believe you have something more than mere novelty. After all, how many other people in your life can make an entertaining three minutes out of the details of a really good plane ride or a tribute to their doctor?


As with any outsider art, there are those that feel Wesley was exploited. While there is undoubtedly the contingent that laughs at Wesley more than with him, I feel most of his fan base is made up of people who enjoy the music for the same reasons Wesley enjoyed making it – because it makes for a ‘harmony joyride.’ I consider myself one of the latter and was lucky enough to take a joyride with the man myself. It was New Years Eve 2001, I was a high school sophomore in my “I have to meet all my favorite musicians” phase. I called the venue where he was playing, Bon Appetite in Dinkytown, Minnesota, and asked if Wesley was going to be doing a signing before the show. The guy who answered told me Wesley “had been sitting at a table since we opened, drawing pictures of buses. People have been meeting him all day.” With that info my friend and I rushed to the club. There sat a mountain of a man, insulting his demons while wearing headphones that were blasting music so loudly we could hear it across the room. We approached unsure of what to expect, and were greeted with a remarkably cognoscente twenty minute conversation. Dumbfounded, we told him how much we were looking forward to the show that night and were each rewarded with his trademark headbutt before letting him get back to his drawing. It was already great moment for me and the night only got better from there.

Opening with “Osama Bin Laden” (a song I’ve yet to find a recorded copy of), Wesley got down like a magic kiss. About 500 people were at the show. The crowd roared like a lion. The jam session was awesome. It whooped a zebra’s ass with a belt. He closed with “Cut the Mullet,” and the crowd screamed for more. He seemed hesitant but then, ever the showman, he complied. I was in the front row and for whatever reason he called me up on stage. Grabbing me by the back of my head, he asked me to say “rock.” I said “rock.” He asked me to say roll.” I said “roll.” And then he headbutted me 40 consecutive times (I counted), using the last one to hold my forehead against his. The entire club grew silent – this many headbutts followed by this ending position have not been seen before. After about a minute of silence, Wesley said “look into my eyes.” I looked. Then, while still pressing my head directed against his, he screamed at the top of his lungs. I didn’t know what else to do, so I began screaming too. The whole venue followed suit. At last he let go and a huge smile surfaced on his face, and he wished me “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”


Sadly, I never got a chance to re-live the experience. In 2003, Wesley died from complications with leukemia. At the time of his death he had one of the largest cult audiences worldwide, a following that still continues to grow.

There was a period when along with distributing albums pressed by the man himself, many record labels wanted one of Wesley’s albums in their catalog as a badge of honor. Unfortunately, at this point most of these labels have folded. Only a small fraction of his work is currently in print, specifically the three Greatest Hits compilations released by Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label. Hopefully the release of the critically acclaimed documentary Joyrides will once again spark interest in preserving and reissuing his music.

Rock over London,
Rock on Chicago,

Wesley Willis, Uh-Huh!


Chaz Kangas is not guy the pictured in the photo with Wesley above, but you can check out more of his writing and music on his blog popularopinions.wordpress.com and his myspace.

Wesley’s art was taken from http://www.wesleywillisart.com/, thanks to them.

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