Wesley Willis

Wesley Willis

Willis in October 2000
Background information
Birth name Wesley Lawrence Willis
Born (1963-05-31)May 31, 1963
Origin Chicago, Illinois
Died August 21, 2003(2003-08-21) (aged 40)
Skokie, Illinois
Genres Outsider music, comedy music, punk rock
Instruments Vocals, keyboards
Years active 1976–2003 (as artist)
1989–2003 (as musician)
Labels Alternative Tentacles, American Recordings
Associated acts Wesley Willis Fiasco
Monster Voodoo Machine
Website Wesley Willis on Alternative Tentacles

Wesley Willis (May 31, 1963  August 21, 2003) was an American singer-songwriter and visual artist from Chicago. Diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1989, Willis began a career as an underground singer-songwriter in the outsider music tradition, with songs featuring his bizarre, humorous and often obscene lyrics sung over the auto accompaniment feature on his Technics KN keyboard.[1][2][3]

Willis gained an enormous cult following in the 1990s, mainly upon the release of Greatest Hits in 1995 on the Alternative Tentacles label. The album was released at the urging of punk rock pioneer Jello Biafra who compiled its track list.[2][3] In addition to a large body of solo musical work, Willis fronted his own punk rock band, the Wesley Willis Fiasco.[3] He was also a visual artist long before his forays into music, producing hundreds of intricate, unusual, colored ink-pen drawings,[3] most of them of Chicago streetscapes and CTA buses.[1]

During some of Wesley Willis' most creative years in the late 1980s well into the mid 1990s, Willis had found a home at Chicago Trax Recording at their Halsted Street facility. Daily, Willis would stop in to say hello, hang with his new friends, the Trax family, which included artists such as Ministry & Lard, owner Reid Hyams and his entire staff, and many of Chicago's most talented artists, musicians, recording engineers and producers. Willis wrote songs about many of the people he met at Chicago Trax and recorded them at Chicago Trax.

Life and career

Willis was born in Chicago, Illinois on May 31, 1963. According to the Los Angeles Times, "Willis grew up in Chicago's projects as one of 10 children of parents who had a violent relationship and separated when he was young. He spent time in several foster homes and was essentially raised by two older brothers, who went with him from home to home."[4]

In 1989, Willis began hearing what he called "demons" and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He was institutionalized for two months after his diagnosis. He often mentioned that his demons were named "Heartbreaker", "Nervewrecker", and "Meansucker". He called his psychotic episodes "hell rides", and alternatively, he declared rock and roll to be "the joy ride music".

Willis sold ink pen drawings of the Chicago cityscape on the street. In The Daddy of Rock 'N' Roll, Steve Albini tells an anecdote about how Willis was in one train station drawing a detailed picture of a different train station from memory. These works of outsider art appear on the covers of his albums. Willis joined musicians from the city's alternative rock scene to form the punk rock band The Wesley Willis Fiasco. Willis created a fervor in the Chicago music scene and soon caught the attention of American Recordings, an independent label distributed by The Warner Group.

In early 1994, Willis recorded with the Canadian industrial-metal band Monster Voodoo Machine and appeared on their Juno Award winning debut album Suffersystem (RCA Records). In 1995, Willis was signed as a solo musician to American Recordings and went on to record two albums while producing dozens of other albums independently, becoming a minor novelty rock sensation. He toured frequently, was profiled on MTV and was a guest on The Howard Stern Show on September 26, 1996 where he played nearly identical songs about Baba Booey and Howard Stern. On May 22, 2001,Willis released an album titled Full Heavy Metal Jacket. During his tours, Willis became "famous for greeting fans with a headbutt".[5] This left him with a distinctive permanent bruise on his forehead.[5]

Rock critic and Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff wrote that Willis's "[P]eriodic appearances for crowds of jeering white fratboys evoke an uncomfortable combination of minstrel act and traveling freak show."[6] Conversely, guitarist Scott Anthony, who toured with Willis in 1998, said "It's not frat boys coming to his shows and making fun of him; it's punk rock kids who appreciate that he sings stuff people are thinking."

On August 21, 2003, Willis died due to complications from chronic myelogenous leukemia in Skokie, Illinois. He was 40 years old. A memorial service for him was held on August 27, in Chicago.[2]


"Hellride" is the term used by Willis to describe his encounters with "demons",[7] which occurred mainly on the CTA bus lines in Chicago. Willis, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, often claimed that demons were trying to ruin his "Harmony Joy Music" or "Joy Rides".[2][7] Willis also used the term to describe general harassment: In one of his songs he says, "He gave me a yelldown warhellride." When asked about the demons or Hellrides, Willis would often comment that he was trying to "stay the hell out of prison" by "not hitting people in the street with bricks." In several songs, both terms are used openly. One of Willis's songs is entitled "I Deserve a Warhellride".

Song style and structure

The Wesley Willis Fiasco songs were essentially punk rock songs with Willis howling his obscene, absurd rants as lyrics. Some called it exploitation; others dubbed it "savant-garde." The Wesley Willis Fiasco recorded at least three cover songs: Thin Lizzy's "Jailbreak",[8] Pure Prairie League's "Amie", and Duran Duran's "Girls on Film", the last of which was recorded for a 1997 Duran Duran tribute album. Another song by the Wesley Willis Fiasco, "The Bar Is Closed", recreates a section of Rush's "Tom Sawyer"; the song "Casper the Homosexual Friendly Ghost" does the same with Van Halen's "Jamie's Cryin'".

After the Fiasco broke up, Willis's popularity increased markedly. As a solo artist, Willis created more than 50 albums, each with over 20 tracks, full of bizarre, tense, and often obscene rants about crime, fast food, cultural trends, bus routes, violent confrontations with superheroes, commands for his "demons" to engage in bestiality (in The Daddy of Rock 'n' Roll, Willis explained that these songs [e.g., "Drink a Camel's Cum, Suck a Cheetah's Dick"] would "gross out" the demons enough to leave him alone), and praise for his favorite actors, friends (both platonic and romantic), politicians, and hip hop and rock artists. Songs about rock artists were usually confined to describing a show performed by the band that Willis had attended or opened for, recycling key phrases such as "The crowd roared like a lion," "A lot of people met the band," or "The band got down like a Magikist". Many songs end with the phrase "Rock over London, rock on, Chicago," followed by a product slogan, such as "Wheaties. Breakfast of Champions."

Willis's keyboard of choice was the Technics KN series.[2] Willis would obsessively trade in one KN model for the newest ones on the market during the time when he was making the most money (after his break-up with The Wesley Willis Fiasco). The KN1200 was the keyboard he was currently using, according to a Howard Stern interview on September 26, 1996.

Cultural impact

Partial discography

This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.
  • 1994 Radiohead
  • 1994 Double Door
  • 1994 Machine Gun Kelly
  • 1994 Mr. Magoo Goes to Jail
  • 1994 Prisonshake
  • 1994 Rev Norb
  • 1994 Rev Norb #2
  • 1995 Atomic Records
  • 1995 Delilah's
  • 1995 Drag Disharmony Hellride
  • 1995 Fireman Rick
  • 1995 Greatest Hits
  • 1995 Jason Rau
  • 1995 Rock Power
  • 1995 Tammy Smith
  • 1995 Dr. Wax
  • 1995 Wesley Willis (Fuse Records)
  • 1995 Daren Hacker (Wesley Willis Records)
  • 1995 Wesley Willis (Alternative Tentacles)
  • 1996 Spookydisharmoniousconflicthellride (with the Wesley Willis Fiasco) (Urban Legends Records)
  • 1996 Mr. Magoo Goes to Jail Vol. 1
  • 1996 Mr. Magoo Goes to Jail Vol. 2
  • 1996 Mr. Magoo Goes to Jail Vol. 3
  • 1996 New York New York
  • 1996 Fabian Road Warrior (American Recordings)
  • 1996 Feel the Power (American Recordings)
  • 1996 Rock 'n' Roll Will Never Die (Oglio Records)
  • 1996 Black Light Diner
  • 1997 Metal Clink Punishment Jail
  • 1998 Rock 'N' Roll Jackflash
  • 1998 SMD Promotions
  • 1999 Dead End Street
  • 1999 Your Mom (Parents)
  • 1999 Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (Alternative Tentacles)
  • 1999 Silver Fish Sea World
  • 2000 Guitar Rock of Ages
  • 2000 Shake Your Piggy Bank (Coldfront Records)
  • 2000 Joe Hunter (Wesley Willis Records)
  • 2000 Joe Hunter #2
  • 2000 Never Kill an Ape (Wesley Willis Records)
  • 2000 Rush Hour (Alternative Tentacles)
  • 2001 ASCAP
  • 2001 Fool's Gold
  • 2001 Torture Demon Hellride
  • 2001 Full Heavy Metal Jacket
  • 2001 Live EP (with the Wesley Willis Fiasco) (Cornerstone R.A.S.)
  • 2001 North Carolina Highway Patrol (Wesley Willis Records)
  • 2003 Greatest Hits Vol. 3 (Alternative Tentacles)[15]


  1. 1 2 "Wesley Willis's Joy Rides · Wesley Willis Bio". Wesleywillissjoyrides.com. Retrieved 2013-11-21.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 "Bands". Alternative Tentacles. Retrieved 2013-11-21.
  3. 1 2 3 4 "Say Rah! Discussing the Daddy of Rock n' Roll with the Directors of "Wesley Willis's Joy Rides"". Y Marks the Spot. 2010-07-31. Retrieved 2013-11-21.
  4. Lewis, Randy (August 25, 2003). "Wesley Willis, 40; Schizophrenic Found 'Joy' as Rock Performer". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles. Retrieved July 6, 2015.
  5. 1 2 "Wesley Willis, Schizophrenic Street Singer, Dies". MTV News.
  6. Archived March 14, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  7. 1 2 "Wesley Willis". Monzy.org. Retrieved 2013-11-21.
  8. "Various Artists: Vagabonds of the Midwestern World: Fighting Songs by Thin Lizzy - A - HBDirect Rock". Hbdirect.com. 2003-01-03. Retrieved 2013-11-21.
  9. "Super Size Me [Soundtrack]". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2010-06-17.
  10. DEMO.MP3 15592 bytes, 32 kbit/s, 22 kHz, recorded in "1997" "Exclusively for Nullsoft" by JJ McKay. Voice only, no music stinger.
  11. Kushner, David (January 13, 2004). "The World's Most Dangerous Geek". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on 2007-03-21. Retrieved 2010-07-03.
  12. Wolinsky, David (February 21, 2008). "It's drawn by Wesley Willis". The A.V. Club Chicago. Retrieved 12 March 2012.
  13. "Katy Perry - Simple". Retrieved 24 August 2014.
  14. "Wesley Willis Wonder Woman: Iconic Artist Appears In New DC Comic As Heroine's Half-Brother". Retrieved 2 November 2014.
  15. "Take A Harmony Joy Ride". Derekerdman.com. Retrieved 2013-11-21.
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