Stephen O’Malley


Posted: Aug 23, 2003


Local 'outsider' rocker Wesley Willis dies

August 23, 2003


Wesley Willis, a longtime fixture on the Chicago rock scene and a celebrated favorite of such superstars as Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, producer Rick Rubin and punk legend Jello Biafra, died Thursday after a battle with chronic myelogenous leukemia.

Mr. Willis had undergone surgery for the disease late last year and was recovering in a hospice. The specific cause of death has not been determined, nor was his exact age known. His label, Alternative Tentacles, said he was 40.

Standing 6-foot-6 and weighing in at about 350 pounds before his debilitating illness, Mr. Willis was often seen haunting local rock clubs and walking the streets of Wicker Park talking loudly to himself, as well as hanging out with his favorite bands and enthusiastically head-butting fellow musicians and music lovers.

He was diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1989, and at times he was homeless and lived on the streets. But he was an industrious artist who peddled intricate, highly detailed drawings of Chicago street scenes done in colored felt-tip marker, and he released more than 50 albums, many of which were independently produced.

Three of his recordings appeared on Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label (a fourth is due in October), and two were released by Rubin's American Recordings, which made him a label mate of Johnny Cash and the Black Crowes. These reached an international audience and combined with the praise of rock superstars to make him an underground celebrity.

"Wesley will go down as one of the most unique songwriters and entertainment personalities in history," Biafra said Friday. "What really struck me was his sheer willpower, his unrelenting drive to succeed and overcome his horrifically poor background, child abuse, racism, chronic schizophrenia and obesity among other things. He was the most courageous person I have ever known."

Mr. Willis said he often heard voices that urged him to "do bad things," and his music and visual art helped him to "quiet the demons in my head." As a result, he became one of the most visible examples of what has been called "outsider art"--visual art or music made by untrained artists, many of whom suffer from mental illnesses.

Though he sometimes recorded with an improvisational noise-rock band called the Wesley Willis Fiasco, led by his friend Dale Meiners, most of his albums were taped on a primitive recorder and featured him rapping over the canned instrumental sounds preprogrammed into a cheap Technics keyboard. These songs usually found Mr. Willis paying homage to a rock band that he had just seen perform, and they invariably ended with the tuneless, shouted declaration, "Rock Over London! Rock on Chicago!"

While many championed Mr. Willis as a distinctive and authentic artist, some critics saw an element of exploitation in the marketing of his work, and some curious concertgoers at his shows would shout insults or attempt to goad him into acting out violently against himself or others.

Funeral arrangements are being planned for Wednesday. Before Mr. Willis' death, a party had been scheduled from 2 to 4 p.m. today to celebrate the closing of an exhibit of his art at the outsider art gallery Intuit, 756 N. Milwaukee. Curators said the event will now serve as an impromptu wake. Call (312) 243-9088 for more information.


Wesley Willis Home Page
The Art Of Wesley Willis