Wesley Willis’ life was not an easy one.
The African-American street musician overcame an abusive childhood, problems with obesity and schizophrenia to become one of the most famous musicians of the independent music scene.
Willis died on Thursday, Aug. 21 from reasons still unclear, though the artist’s death is believed to be directly related to his battle with leukemia.
During his lifetime, the musician put out more than 50 albums and made more than 1,000 songs.
To listen to a Wesley Willis album is to recreate his artistic genius.
Some people might hear a record and find it absurd, but most can listen with the appreciation that Willis, who was homeless at times, emerged from the streets of Chicago to share his music across the country. It was his lyrics and his funky electronic beats that always left fans asking for more.
Willis’ music came from his insight of the world he saw around him. His songs include “Cut the Mullet,” “Get on the City Bus,” and “Jesus is the Answer,” to name only a few.
The lyrics are simple and sometimes profane, but they are always clever. One of the many things that set Willis apart from other musicians was his ability to create music that was unlike anything else.
Willis came through Tampa many times while he was alive. I have seen him live twice, and each time I was greeted by a head-butt and invited into Willis world of rock ‘n’ roll genius.
He sat on the stage behind his keyboard and sang songs about getting his ass kicked by Birdman and his disdain for Osama Bin Laden. His fans included all types of people, from hardcore punks and metal heads to hip-hoppers in their fresh Nikes.
The crowd listened to his music and he would make them laugh with his accounts of Superman and The Chicken Cow.
I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who had experienced Wesley Willis music and didn’t find it entertaining.
I had wanted to make this column humorous in order to reflect the life and the insights of the artist, but it’s difficult for me to make light of the death of one of my favorite musicians. It’s also upsetting that I’ll never see Wesley Willis in concert again.
The fact that Willis could leave his fans laughing with such simple tunes is possibly why he became famous in his own right. His death came suddenly, and most of his fans had no idea that he had any kind of illness.
It’s sad that the world has lost such a gifted artist. If you’ve never heard of Willis, pick up an album.
He wants you to “cut your dirty rat’s nest off your head; remember that McDonald’s will make you fat; recall that drunk driving can get you thrown in the metal clink.”
Take his insights to heart.
Wesley Willis, may you rest in peace. Rock over London; rock on Chicago.
Whitney Meers is scene’s assistant music editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org