Wesley Willis, the ’90s wonder of rock fanaticism and comic book envy with a simplistic approach to guitar playing and lyrics, died last Thursday from complications of chronic myelogenous leukemia. Willis never rose above his underground cult status, but thanks to some high profile fans (Jello Biafra, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam) and a much publicized record deal with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, the one-time homeless man and certifiable schizophrenic had a whole legion of indie followers humming the words to “Rock N’ Roll McDonald’s” and “I Wupped Batman’s Ass.”
In early June, Willis was rushed to the hospital with internal bleeding. News slowly hit the Internet. The little blurbs that appeared on music websites could have easily registered as non-stories, but a quiet yet loyal fan base passionately responded on message boards, like the one on Punknews.org, and with get-well cards to the hospital. The online sentiments were mixed in with the perplexed rants of non-Willis fans, lost in their attempts to understand how others could care so much for an artist whose “every song sounds the same.”
While a novelty act to most, Willis’ two-minute rants were perfectly suited for the Napster era, providing the quick mindless bursts of riotous joy that fit right into any playlist. Standing six-feet five-inches tall and weighing over 300 pounds, Willis never played the part of rock ‘n roll god, but always served as a reminder of the joys of pure personal rock expression.
Often labeled as an “Outsider Artist,” the debate has raged for years about whether Willis’ fans laughed with or at him, but the singer’s beloved habit of distributing handshakes and headbutts to anybody who was willing showed that Wesley had a real affection for the people who liked his music.
Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label will release Willis’ “Greatest Hits Vol.3” on October 7th.
“Rock over London, Rock on Chicago.”