Wesley Willis, musical cult sensation, heaves himself along the sidewalk. His massive stomach propels him forward like a wrecking ball. His legs, in gray sweat pants, are mighty pillars. His dreadlocks jut in every direction, up, out, down. He wears one black sock and one white sock.
He does not say hi.
"Say raaaahhw," he commands in his guttural voice, wrapping his meaty hand around the back of a young woman's neck and leaning in, so his forehead touches hers and they are eye-to-eye.
"Say raaaahhw!" he urges.
"Rahhh!" the woman says, getting into it. She doesn't know she's supposed to be saying "rock."
"Say roooh!" he commands, looking deep into her eyes.
"Roll!" she says, grasping the word this time.
He grins and begins the head butt, a soft pounding, forehead to forehead, bone to bone, one, two, three. Rock. And. Roll.
There! They've bonded. Introduction complete, he pulls away as impassively as if he's just shaken hands. He lurches toward the club, struggles up the steps, through the door and to the corner where he will sit for hours surrounded by fans, legs spread, drinking cranberry juice and spitting every so often, pushing his music--Fan: "Can I get a head butt?" Willis: "Yeah. You wanna buy a CD?"--and listing ever so slightly from side to side. Come midnight, Wesley Willis will be the main act of this small club.
A friend interrupts Wesley Willis mid-reverie in the corner. Wes, have you taken your medicine?
"I'm gonna take my med right now," Wesley Willis says, reaching into a pouch around his neck and pulling out a bottle of anti-anxiety pills he takes with two other medications for schizophrenia.
"It helps me with my mental problems," he says in his booming slur. " 'Cause I heard voices in my head. It shut down my peace-joy bus ride for good."
There's a dark, raised lump the size of a half-dollar in the middle of Willis's forehead. It's a massive callous from head-butting tens of people a day for years and years. Sometimes he does it to show affection, like a hug. Other times it helps lift his mood--knocking a brief reprieve, perhaps, into the mayhem of his mind. The demon is in there, calling him names. He wants it out.
This is the fantasy come true:
Wesley Willis, Chicago street sketch artist who hails from housing projects and foster homes, makes friends with a musician in the early '90s and decides he wants to be a rock star. He picks up singing and the keyboard. His music is . . . odd. Original. Pathetic. Funny. He sings about public transportation and fast food, about losing weight, the demons in his head and, inexplicably, something called a chicken cow.
The musician friend starts a live backup band for Willis's singing, and the music becomes an underground sensation in the Chicago arts scene, leading to tour dates around the country, a two-album solo deal with music monolith American Recordings and an MTV appearance in 1996. One 1995 indie label album sells 12,000 copies, according to Soundscan--Willis's peak, and impressive given his relatively limited exposure. (As mainstream pop albums go, 12,000 is far from a commercial success, but it's good for, say, a classical music album.)
And even as the band splits up, the major-label contract runs out and the buzz dies down, the prolific Willis self-releases more than 30 albums with his profits from tours and sales, each one graced by his colorful, primitive marker drawings of the Chicago cityscape. He keeps touring. He chugs on and on, a locomotive of musical inspiration.
How many albums does he plan to put out? In previous interviews, Willis, 37, has said "at least 100." Now, he says, "100,000."
"I want to be famous and rich," he says.
But you are already kind of famous, Wesley.
He revises: "I am famous and rich."
He says it just like that, as if becoming were an easy hop from wishing, as if his life were a series of improbable successes--miracles, even.
Which, despite the suffering, it is.
A Word From Our Sponsors This is the music, born of a rough childhood and more than a little eccentricity:
Childlike, repetitive lyrics, many recycled from song to song. Verses spoken in a deep, sonorous voice, complemented by off-key, wailed choruses. The same tune for every song. The same format for every song. The same preprogrammed keyboard music for every song.
The last time Wesley Willis played at the rock-and-roll venue Ottobar in Baltimore, a few years back, one customer complained: "I paid $7 and he played the same song 30 times!"
Clearly, the guy didn't get it.
Here are lyrics to one of Willis's more popular songs, "Cut the Mullet," about what's called "hockey hair," the reviled haircut that's short on the sides and long in the back:
Do something about your long, filthy hair/ It looks like a rat's nest/ Do something about your mullet/ Get out the hair clippers, jerk.
Cut the mullet (shouted, four times) . . .
The mullet is the reason why people hate you/ They are sick of looking at your nappy weed-sack/ Nobody wants to look at you with that mullet on your head/ Why don't you cut that mullet, you numbskull.
The song ends--as every Willis song ends--with the words "Rock over London, rock on Chicago." Then: "Insure One, it's the insurance superstore."
There must always be a commercial ditty at the end of a Wesley Willis song. Sometimes it is, "Pontiac, it's driving excitement." Or, "Folgers, it's good to the last drop." Or, "Wheaties, the breakfast of champions." In any case, there must be some ditty. This is very important.
"I don't want to mess up my songs," Willis says. "If I didn't end my songs with commercials, I wouldn't know what to say."
When they hear the ditty at the end of the song, people laugh. They love Wesley Willis. They think he's hilarious. There he is, this six-foot-plus, 300-pound-plus disheveled man, yelling into his microphone, occasionally plunking out a few notes slowly on the keyboard with his middle finger. The Ottobar is packed tight as a kielbasa with college kids. Four young guys gather around the stage to videotape Willis for a documentary. Some of these fans have been following Willis for years. He's the ultimate punk. He says what he wants. He's so . . . authentic!
The artist stops singing smack in the middle of a song--stops the music, stops everything.
"What is it, Wes?" shouts a kid from the crowd.
Willis booms into the mike, "I got a loogie in my mouth." He hocks and spits onto the stage.
The crowd goes wild.
A reporter asks fans throughout the evening: Are you laughing with him or at him?
"A little of both," one kid says.
Sometimes, they egg him on.
"Play 'Rock n' Roll McDonald's'!" they yell. But Willis won't play it. It's a beloved song ("A Big Mac has 26 grams of fat/ A Quarter Pounder has 28 grams of fat"), but it's old Wesley and he wants to play new Wesley.
The crowd begs.
"I'm not doing 'Rock n' Roll McDonald's'!" he screams. "I'm not doing 'Rock n' Roll McDonald's'! I hate to lose my temper. I don't want to go crazy and go on a [bleeping] hell ride."
He asks, Do they want him to hit himself?
He pops himself on the skull with the mike. Twice. It makes a jarring thump. Thump.
The audience grows quiet.
Meet the Willises
There were 10 Willis kids. Well, nine; the oldest had a different daddy. All but the youngest boy were raised in foster homes in groups of two or three, according to interviews with six of Wesley's siblings.
Tough lives. Wesley Willis's parents had a fitful and violent relationship, according to their mother, Annie Ruth Willis. (Their father apparently lives in Chicago but could not be reached for this story. Several of his children haven't seen him in years.) Wesley was raised with two older brothers in a handful of foster homes. One sister, Deanna Keyes, says she lived in five foster homes. Another, Tyreida Powell, says she lived in seven. Many of the siblings didn't meet one another till they reached late childhood or adolescence.
"We was all split up, north, south, east and west, and we didn't all know we existed," says Marcella Willis, 43, who was taken away from her parents as a baby and now works in a medical prison in Augusta, Ga., near where several family members now live. "I remember, I met my mother when I was about 5 or 6 and I met my father when I was 14. We didn't have each other as a family."
Four of the seven Willis sons, counting Wesley, are "slow," as family members term it. Another son seems to have disappeared--several siblings said they hadn't heard from him in about a decade.
The Willises married in 1953, according to Annie Ruth Willis, and separated in the late '60s. In the '70s and '80s, several children, including Wesley, moved back home to live with their mother in the projects. Money was tight and food was hard to come by between monthly checks from the state, says Michael Willis, 34, who works for a brick manufacturer in Augusta.
For years, Willis has told the same story about the day he started hearing voices. He says it happened while he lived in his mother's home in the '80s.
"My mama's friend, he took my money and threatened to kill me," he says. There was a gun involved, the way Wesley tells it, and $100 he'd been saving, and the man's drug habit. "I wanted to bust a brick upside my head and kill myself."
Annie Ruth Willis, speaking from her nursing home in Augusta, says she knows nothing about the incident. Whatever happened, and whether or not it exacerbated Willis's mental problems, there's no doubt the voices rule him now. He creates music to escape them, or in the case of certain vulgar songs, to berate them.
And, in poignantly self-aware lyrics, Willis chronicles the effect of these voices on his life. In "Chronic Schizophrenia," he sings: "My mind plays tricks on me every time I say something/ It brings voices out of my head and talks to me vulgar." In "Outburst," Willis recounts getting kicked out of an art store for "yelling like a wild animal . . . I freaked out a lot of customers."
The voices. Willis talks about one in particular, a cruel demon called "Nervewrecker." "It thinks I'm a bum, a jerk," Willis says over and over from his perch at the Ottobar. "Sometimes I cuss it out . . . It even just called me a jerk just now. Am I a jerk?"
"Am I a jerk?" Then, with characteristic abruptness, he turns his attention back to sales. "Anybody want these CDs? Get em! Get 'em--they're going to be gone!"
Willis's creativity started with drawing. Many of the Willis children found succor in art of some kind--writing, sketching, listening to music; Wesley liked to draw urban landscapes and sell them. Some passers-by thought he was homeless. He'd sit on the sidewalk and sketch with his markers, even in cold weather, prompting one shop owner in artsy Wicker Park to invite Willis in on a cold November day in 1989. The shop owner, John Stulgate, began buying Willis's pictures for the purpose of giving him money.
"I thought I was feeding him," Stulgate says.
Around that time, Willis also began frequenting the store below Stulgate's, an art supply shop called Genesis. Carla Winterbottom, who worked at Genesis, recalls the first time she saw Willis.
"He walked in the door and I thought some big drunk guy had come in," she says. "He just had this big smile on his face at nothing, and I thought, 'Oh boy.' "
She wasn't the only one who was apprehensive. The store's owner, Richard Goldman, thought this bedraggled man would be a business liability--until he saw how his employees responded to him. They seemed charmed by Willis, glad to have him there. And customers, too, grew fond of him. Willis became a fixture, drawing, displaying his drawings on the store walls. Goldman put a couch up front for Willis to nap on.
Willis already had an interest in music, having become fond of wearing a Walkman he fed with rock and metal tapes, says Michael Willis. And as he made friends with musicians, he became interested in making his own music. One friend helped him make a rap tape. Another, guitarist Dale Meiners, let Willis move in with him for a short time in 1990 or '91, and it was around this time that Willis became interested in playing the keyboard.
"He saw how Dale was having such a good time as a rock star," says Winterbottom. "So Wesley decided, 'I wanna be a rock star.' And we were sitting around the apartment one night and he started writing songs, and they were just hysterical." After that, Winterbottom says, it was as if Willis had no self-doubts about this new career path. He made up his mind to be a rock star, and a rock star he would be. Just like that.
A short time later, Meiners put together a backup hard-core punk band called the Wesley Willis Fiasco, which lasted until late 1996 before breaking up from the stress of the road life, Meiners says.
Winterbottom became close to Willis, eventually offering him a place to live when he was between apartments in late '92 or early '93. (He'd moved out of his mother's apartment, then lived with his father, before bunking for a short time with Meiners.) The temporary situation at Winterbottom's became several months, then years. Willis wound up living with her until 1998, until Winterbottom decided to get married. (He now lives in a group home for the mentally disabled.)
Winterbottom was part friend and part mother to Willis. She cooked for him, got him onto healthy food. She watched out for him, tried to make sure he didn't blow all his money on a new keyboard every few months. The music had taken over his life, and it seemed that nearly all his profits went back into his obsessive drive to create.
"He was a spender," says Winterbottom. "But he was always spending toward building his career . . . At one point we must've had 10,000 CDs in the apartment and then he was making a new one and I said, 'Wesley, don't you think you should sell the old ones first?' "
But Willis was trustworthy, took his medication, paid his bills. When the demons got really bad, he would admit himself to a hospital. Winterbottom respected his work ethic-- single-minded. His handwriting--obsessively neat. His warmth--when they took a plane ride together, Willis seemed to meet everyone on the plane. What else? She loved the UFOs he occasionally added to his otherwise normal drawings of Chicago. And his memory! He could sit and draw landscapes from memory, then name the addresses of the buildings in the picture.
He seemed to charm everyone into buying his $10 CDs--strangers at bus stops and subway stations, the doctors at hospitals where he admitted himself. And he brought out Winterbottom's goofy side. Sometimes they'd play word games, calling to each other back and forth across the apartment.
"He has just a certain way of looking at things," says Winterbottom. "He gets right to the truth of emotion and human interaction. He's very wise in a real intrinsic way about human nature and he picks up on a lot even if he doesn't let you know. I heard a guy say about him once that, 'Oh, there's the guy who pretends he's stupid.' "
No, things weren't always easy. Sometimes, late at night, she'd awaken to hear him suffering.
"4 a.m., I'd hear him, like, crying," she says. "It was pure torment, what he'd be going through. He'd be twitching and just totally bombarded with these voices."
Still Packing 'Em In
"They like my music because I rock," Willis says of his audiences. And critics? "I tell them to go jump in a lake."
It isn't so easy, though. Critics have called Wesley Willis a novelty act, his performances "freak shows." In concert, when he lurches and rumbles and wails, explodes in anger and confusion, Willis does seem an unwitting figure of pity. There's no question some people come to Willis wailings to gawk and giggle, a fact that infuriated his friend John Stulgate when he dropped Willis off for a show three years back in Indianapolis, where Stulgate now lives.
"It [ticked] me off that he was being condescended to," Stulgate says.
Stulgate doesn't listen to Willis's music. He finds it loud, abrasive, repetitive--everything he can't stand. And he's quick to admit that he thought Willis's musical career would be a "flash in the pan."
The wonder to Stulgate is not Willis's music, but Willis's success despite everything: despite his schizophrenia, his childhood, his modest circumstances. The wonder is Willis's insatiable drive--his willingness to spend weeks on the road promoting his music, even though it's difficult for him. The bands that travel with Willis on tours--he's usually the top act in the small to midsize venues--must assume a caretaking role. They drive because Willis can't. They forward telephone messages to him, remind him to bathe. He is a hulking, vulnerable man.
More than anything, Willis's music seems a Rorschach test for audiences. For some, it provides a peek behind the tissue-thin curtains of normalcy and sanity, into a peculiar mind. For others, it offers comic relief, but that's not a bad thing; Willis's friends say he's well aware his lyrics are humorous. And for those in the crowd who regard Willis less generously, well . . .
"Wesley--all he wants to do is get out there and do his art and be successful," Winterbottom says. "And that's exactly what he's doing. The interesting thing is that by doing it, he's exposing the truth about the people in the audience."
Like Crispy Critters
This is how the prolific Wesley Willis creates his music.
"I'll write a song for you," he says out of nowhere to the woman who has been standing at his side.
How will it go?
"You're my sweetheart to the max," he says, borrowing lines he has used in other songs. "I love you like Crispy Critters."
It's so noisy here in Ottobar, he leans in and speaks close to her ear. And sometimes he puts his hand out vaguely, the way a baby chick stretches blindly upward for food. He likes to hold the woman's hand while they're talking, a brief squeeze, as if he is blind and needs assurance she is there.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8133.)