If you were a 90’s kid or were perusing the dark side of music in the early 2000’s, you might find the name Wesley Willis familiar. But I find myself looking back on the late artist and street performer with much respect, even if people discounted him as a sideshow. Wesley Willis was schizophrenic and never hid it at all.
Willis was born to a family of ten children in a household that was tumultuous and violent. His parents divorced early in his life and he was often shuffled around to foster homes while his two brothers attempted to look after him. In the late 80’s, while living at his mother’s home for a moment, his mother’s boyfriend held a gun to his head and robbed him of his savings of $100. Around that time, Willis began hearing voices in his head and was soon diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.
Willis, in addition to his music, was also a highly skilled artist. He had the uncanny ability to draw any place he had been too from his memory even while in a different location. He usually did these drawings in pen and sold them to people on the street for ten to twenty bucks a piece. In 1988, he was the subject of a Chicago public access documentary. It was not until well after his death that the hundreds of his drawings were collected and he was recognized for his large body of art.
He became known in life for his music. Now, I will be the first to mention that Wesley Willis is not for everyone. But Wesley Willis actually spoke about his mental health in his music, unashamedly, even as I am sure some record executives may have been laughing.
Willis often said he was visited by Demons, and that they would give him a “Warhellride”, essentially giving him a panic attack. While most people focused on his bizarre and crude subject matter, with his most well known songs being Birdman Kicked My Ass and Cut the Mullet. Many of his songs used automated keyboard accompaniment and had similar song structures. But in another documentary, The Daddy of Rock and Roll, he explains that he would sing crudely to “gross out” his demons so they would leave him alone. He was also part of a punk outfit called the Wesley Willis Fiasco.
Essentially, this man used his music to cope with his condition. Many audiences might have been laughing at him and it is almost certain that record labels and radio shows exploited him as a novelty act, but this man did not hide who he was. He would even greet fans at his shows with a head butt. Hence the bruise he often had in the center of his forehead. Willis passed away in 2003.
I hope many musicians can not feel shackled by who they are. Willis certainly did not. It shows anyone can succeed in a world of neuroharmony.