The Late Movies: Rock On, Wesley Willis

Image credit: 

"I make music, I sing my ass off." With these words, Wesley Willis opens a short documentary shown below. Willis was a bizarre musician -- a chronic schizophrenic, his music was crude and thus considered "punk," but in a way no one had heard before. Willis's songs generally consisted of spoken-word poetry over a keyboard's built-in "demo" track, with (generally off-key) choruses sung every now and then.

Because Willis was mentally ill, it was hard to be sure how to take him or his music -- was it okay to find it funny? (In other words, could you enjoy his sense of humor and his music without feeling sorry for him?) I always thought so -- when I met him in the late 90's (I ran sound for one of his shows in Tallahassee, Florida -- and yes, he head-butted me) I got the very clear sense that what he was doing was not ironic. He was completely singing his heart out and expressing himself, and the audience I saw laughed with him, not at him. Willis died in 2003 at just 40 years of age. Below I've collected samples of his work.

Wesley Willis Documentary

Watch Willis write a song about Taco John's. "It's a whole lot of Mexican," then record one of his many "rock on" songs in the studio, get a haircut, entertain some kids at a motel, then be introduced by Jello Biafra at a concert. Warning: a bit of crude language shown onscreen but not spoken.

"Rock and Roll McDonald's," Live 2002

Willis's biggest hit. Amazing. Listen to the audience going nuts and singing along. Sample lyrics: "McDonald's will make you fat. ... They serve hamburgers. ... They'll kill your ass. ROCK AND ROLL MCDONALD'S...."

"I Wupped Batman's Ass"

Fan video. Warning: some crude language pertaining to Batman's overly high opinion of himself.

"I Whipped Spiderman's Ass"

Audio only.

"Cut the Mullet"

"Get out the hair-clippers, jerk. ... Get the rat's nest off your head. ... Tell the barber that you're sick of looking like an asshole." Fan video with various mullet pics.

Live at the Double Door, Chicago

An interview and live performance.

Wesley Willis Interview

Willis visits a high school journalism class in Bloomington, Illinois and the students interview him. Audio only, with still shots in the video.

"Wesley Willis's Joy Rides" Documentary Trailer 1 & 2

"I made about 45 albums in five years, and I'm fixing to make about 100 more."

More on Wesley Willis

Check out Willis's artist page at his record label Alternative Tentacles, Wikipedia (note the "partial discography" -- it's huge), and A Tribute to Willis by various artists. Also, a full-length documentary, Wesley Willis's Joy Rides, has just been released on DVD (trailers above).

More from mental_floss...

December 9, 2009 - 5:00pm
webby
submit to reddit