Band/Artist Profile

Rock Over Wesley Willis, Rock On Chicago

I write songs because I like to write songs. It’s my life. I had to do what I had to do.

Wesley Willis, in an interview with Nardwaur the Human Serviette

Wesley Willis was a Chicago native diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1989. Despite this diagnosis (in fact often empowered by it), Willis devoted his life to his music and his drawings, some of which became his album covers. Over the course of his career, he performed as the lead of his punk rock band, The Wesley Willis Fiasco, many solo acts, and even collaborations with more well-known artists such as Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, who signed him to his label “Alternative Tentacles”.

Marker drawing of Chicago featuring multiple skyscrapers and a government building.
Drawing of Chicago by Wesley Willis, Photo courtesy of Daniel X. O’Neil, under Creative Commons

Songs for the Strange

Much of his music, especially his solo work, has a very distinctive song structure and sound. His Technics KN keyboard tended to be the only instrument used during his performances, where he used various presets altered in some way for each song. One preset in particular, featured on “Rock N Roll McDonalds,” was used for over 40% of songs on his 3 “Greatest Hits” albums.

There are also several recurring themes in Willis’s lyrics based on his own experiences with schizophrenia, both imagined and physical. Several songs call out fast food companies for selling fattening food. Others recount his outbursts on the Chicago bus lines or in church. Still others are entirely devoted to praising artists and people he loves (platonically and romantically). A concerning number of his songs tell of people being arrested for murder and other felonies.

I believe that all of Willis’s songs reflect some fear of his. He may worry about his own weight. He may worry about being sent to jail because of his outbursts. He may fear losing the love of people he adores. Additionally, many of his songs are highly explicit and violent, likely stemming from his paranoia such as “I Wupped Batman’s Ass” or “Suck a Caribou’s Ass”.

Nearly every song ends with the phrase, “Rock over London / Rock on Chicago,” and the slogan of companies such as Folgers, Wheaties, and Mitsubishi.

A Man Beloved

Wesley Willis was well known in Chicago during the 1990s among his fans for his honest, heartfelt songwriting, even if the music can be repetitive. He famously greeted and left people with a headbutt, leaving a permanent bruise on his forehead.

Star representing the musician Wesley Willis on the outside mural of the Minneapolis nightclub First Avenue.
Star of Wesley Willis on the outside mural of the Minneapolis nightclub First Avenue. Photo courtesy of Christopher Bahn, under Creative Commons

In fact, his entire body was distinctive to people who saw him. Not only was he 6’6″, towering over most people, but he had multiple scars over his face from an attack by a stranger and that bruise on his forehead. This attack was only one of many traumas he experienced during his lifetime, the most notable of which is probably his aunt robbing him of $600 with a gun to his head.

Regardless, he was compassionate to his fans and the people he sings about. His music was incredibly original if nothing else, and most people who went to his shows seemed to be enjoying his music for what it was, not as “so bad it’s good” music.

If you want to explore Wesley Willis’s music, I suggest listening to his “Greatest Hits Volume 1” album and watching his interview with Nardwaur below.

Video interview between Wesley Willis and Nardwaur the Human Serviette on YouTube.

By Cashew

Hi y'all, I'm Cashew and I'm a freshman majoring in Biology. I listen to a good bit of electro-pop, hip-hop and psych rock, but of course, I like to mix in other genres as well. I mostly write album and artist reviews, though I hop into discourse every so often.