Wesley Willis was born in Chicago in 1963. At the age of six the Social Services received reports of abusive behaviour towards the children in the Willis household and Wesley was separated from his siblings, six brothers and three sisters. Some of the children went into care and others, like Wesley, went to live with family.
He went to live with an uncle in Phoenix, Illinois and lived there for almost ten years, until
his uncle was arrested and charged with the sexual abuse of a child from the neighbourhood.
It was now 1978 and the fifteen year old Wesley returned to Chicago and was placed into foster care. He remained in care until he was eighteen, at which point he was no longer the responsibility of the state. With nowhere else to go Wesley moved in with his mother as his father, who was responsible for the majority of the violence towards his children, had moved out some years before. Unfortunately his mother had a new boyfriend who was more sadistic than his own father and nursed a particular resentment towards Wesley and his brothers and sisters. Wesley and his brother Ricky, the only other of his siblings still living with his mother, had to endure violence towards themselves and their mother from her boyfriend all the time they lived there.
Understandably Wesley spent as much time out of the house as possible and began to draw scenes from around the city. An untrained artist, Wesley had a natural instinct for perspective and specialised in street scenes featuring city buses. He was fascinated by the buses and they informed his work throughout his life.
Over a period of ten years Wesley became a reasonably accomplished artist and began to sell his drawings, hoping to save up enough money to move him and his mother away.
By 1989 he had saved up six hundred dollars but unfortunately his mother’s boyfriend found out about the money and took it from Wesley at gunpoint.
This night, the fifteenth of October 1989, was the first time that Wesley heard voices in his head.
Having nowhere else to go Wesley moved in with his father and spent the days riding city buses, drawing pictures to sell and enduring the voices of three ‘demons’ that spoke to him almost constantly.
Wesley named the demons ‘Heartbreaker’, ‘Nervewrecker’ and ‘Meansucker’and called the psychotic episodes when they visited ‘Hellrides’.
He was institutionalised for two months and was diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia.
In 1991,while buying art supplies, Wesley became friendly with Dale Meiners, an artist and musician from the local punk scene.
Meiners was fascinated by this figure, a 300 pound man with a permanent bruise on his forehead caused by the gentle headbutts he would greet people with.
With Meiner’s help Wesley moved into his own apartment but would spend a lot of his time at Meiner’s own apartment talking, drawing and listening to music.
A short time after this Wesley was attacked on a bus by a man armed with a boxcutter who severely injured him and left him with scars to his face.
Wesley wrote his first song about the incident.
Backed by Meiners and other Chicago musicians a new band, ‘The Wesley Willis Fiasco’ was born. The Fiasco began to play the various clubs of Chicago and surrounding towns and recorded an album ‘Spookydisharmoniousconflicthellride’ (1992)
Wesley also began to play solo shows where he would accompany himself on a Casio keyboard. His solo material followed a very basic pattern whereby Wesley would play a repetitive tune on the keyboard and sing about a person or incident with the chorus being the title of the song repeated four times. He would use only fourteen keys on the keyboard to compose his tunes. Wesley also developed his unique sign off for songs where he would say ‘Rock Over London, Rock On Chicago...’ and add a corporate slogan from a major international company or a business local to the Chicago area.
This could see Wesley mentioning Timex (‘Takes A Licking And Keeps On Ticking’)
Mitsubishi (‘The Word Is Getting Around’) or Taco Johns, a Chicago based Mexican food chain (‘It’s A Whole Lot Of Mexican’)
Wesley loved his new musical career and described the songs as ‘Joyrides’ that helped to drive his demons away. He found that songs about bestiality in particular scared away the demons and they became a key element in his repertoire.
Wesley also enjoyed writing songs about celebrities and the episodes on buses and in church where his demons would torment him and get him in trouble with bus drivers and preachers.
The pressure of the schedule of playing with the Fiasco and his own solo shows began to tell on Wesley. He began to find himself unintentionally shouting at his bandmates which caused stresses to show within the band. In 1996 the Fiasco broke up and Wesley focused on his solo career.
Wesley went on to record over fifty albums, each with over twenty tracks on them.
Wesley Willis died, aged 40, in 2003 from complications arising from treatment he was receiving for leukemia.
The emergence of the internet made Wesley a cult sensation and he had the opportunity to travel around the world performing, eventually signing up with Jello Biafra’s ‘Alternative Tentacles’ label and becoming friends with the Dead Kennedy’s frontman.
Many people were conflicted by the sight of a man with obvious mental problems performing on stage with an excited crowd whooping at him. There was a concern that Wesley was being exploited for the entertainment of crowds of mocking kids.
While this certainly did happen there were also a large number of people who loved Wesley for fully embracing the true punk ethos of a musically untrained performer getting on stage and singing about whatever he liked.
More importantly, Wesley loved to perform and his time as a singer and artist was undoubtedly the happiest of his life.
It seems more than reasonable that if someone is forced to endure the ‘Hellrides’ that plagued Wesley he should be allowed to delight in the ‘Joyrides’ that made his life somewhat tolerable...