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The Late Movies: Rock On, Wesley Willis

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"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).

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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