Wesley Willis is a little . . . out there. But so was Brian Wilson, and if Willis songs like "I Whupped Batman's Ass," "Cut the Mullet" or "Fuck With Me and Find Out" aren't quite "Good Vibrations," well, he probably doesn't care. Rock & roll makes him happy, he has said, and for about 10 years now, this famously schizophrenic (yes, diagnosed and everything) survivor of the mean streets of Chicago has pushed rock & roll closer to the breaking point than ever.
This is the blueprint for a Wesley Willis song: a droning, push-button keyboard drumbeat; a catchy title (see above); a booming lyrical fusillade (something along the lines of "Batman thought he was bad/He was a fucking asshole in the first place"); and then the obligatory outro with a commercial reference, i.e., "Rock over London, rock over Chicago/Wheaties, Breakfast of Champions."
They're all basically like that—the same formula repeated again and again. For about 100 albums. And they say rock is dead.
"Some people argue that the songs sound the same, or that they are the same," says Uli Elser, the general manager of Willis' newest label, Alternative Tentacles. "But no one else is doing it. And maybe in a year or two, no one will like it. But he always likes to buy the latest keyboards with new effects, so maybe if he utilizes different buttons, he'll retain his following."
We talk to Elser because Willis doesn't do too many phone interviews anymore. Between bad voices-in-his-head days and worse reporters out for cheap thrills, they don't work out well, we're told. So we talk to Elser. And he talks to Willis all the time.
"Some people have called him extremely demanding. He's always calling up, asking how his record is selling and when is he gonna get some money. He talks to me about his tours and when he's gonna tour next, even though that's not my job," Elser says. "A lot of times, he calls for no reason, just to see what's going on."
Elser says Willis is a very nice guy ("You should hang out with him when he comes to town"). He says Willis' schizophrenia is controllable with medication and a strict diet. He says a lot of people have tried to take advantage of Willis, which he calls "Wesploitation." He says he's happy to take the not-inconsiderable extra time necessary to keep Willis solvent and safe. And he calls Willis a genius—and means it.
"I've only heard about 10 of his CDs so far, but some of them have this really weird background loop going through songs. Others have this reverb-country-feel thing," Elser says. "This one song, 'Suck an Iberian's Dick,' has this loop going 'dick dick dick'—it's really bizarre but really cool. It's almost trance-like. I think if he got together with a popular techno-DJ person, he'd be huge."
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So "I Whupped Batman's Ass (The Moby Remix)"? Why not? There's a certain warped attraction to Willis' resolutely, um, focused oeuvre. He can really turn a phrase, for one thing, and his songs are challenging in the most primal sense of the word. But his music has never really received its critical due. A personality like Willis' tends to eclipse everything else (even the full band that once backed Willis, the Wesley Willis Fiasco), and he is probably better known for his schizophrenia than his songs—which, says Elser, is missing the point. If there's room in rock & roll for Ted Nugent, there's definitely room for Wesley Willis.
But then there's the freak-show thing. Elser says Willis' music is therapy: writing lyrics, playing songs, even just cranking some of his favorite hip-hop or metal CDs at top volume to drown out the voices in his head. It shows how art can heal, Elser says, and his label is proud to release Willis' material. They're not ripping him off by releasing his records—they're helping him out.
"Some people think he's retarded and just babbling away, and we're putting it out and people are laughing at him and not his music," says Elser. "Wesley is sick—it's not funny. He's not employable, but he has this skill—this talent—and he can make a living off it, and it's awesome. If we stopped, that'd be reverse discrimination, and that's more fucked-up than anything. I hope he enjoys every day—I don't know what it's like living his life."
Wesley Willis performs with Rob Crow and the Country Teasers at Koo's Art Cafe, 1505 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 648-0937; www.koos.org. Wed., 7:30 p.m. $5. All ages.