Mr. ‘Cut the Mullet’ Cuts Out Early
A Fan Mourns the Untimely Passing of Offbeat Rocker Wesley Willis
“Everybody say rock. Everybody say roll. Everybody say rock. Everybody say
roll. Everybody say rock. Everybody say roll.”
-- Wesley Willis, opening a concert
A guy who speaks lines like these scarcely seems worthy of memorializing. But Wesley Willis, who passed away last Thursday after a long-fought bout with chronic myelogenous leukemia, wouldn’t seem like much to a passerby. In some ways, deceitful appearances were part of his art.
(On that note: It’s almost fitting that I learned about Willis’s death through some of the most adventitious of means: a friend from back home simply sent me an IM saying he heard that someone else heard that the man was dead. A quick Google search confirmed the story.)
Willis was an overweight schizophrenic giant with an exceptionally rough and poor childhood that led him to fluctuate between homelessness and poverty throughout his life. He had no traditional musical skill whatsoever, and yet his offbeat raps and rock verses accompanied by his keyboard recorded background beat kept attracting crowds long enough to rule out a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon.
The Tech has covered him twice, and only once because I begged to do so. The concert at T.T. the Bear’s took place less than a month after both September 11th, 2001, and a good friend of mine went into a coma. After hearing him play, interact with the fans, and smile when he knew he had worked the crowd, I honestly felt a lot better about a lot of things.
I had hoped to score a post-concert interview because he took the time to speak for hours after the concert. After I identified myself as press (and going through the ritual headbutt greeting he had made) and rattled off one stupid question, he turned the tables and began to ask me about Boston. This also made me feel better, even though the interview was a bust.
The easiest thing Wesley could do was make you laugh. The sheer unexpectedness of the form combined with juvenile grammar and phrasing was a potent combination. If not, then there was plan B: Wesley’s amazing ability to combine curses, animals, body parts, and sauces all together in one line for an insult fest. My favorite is the song “I Can’t Drive,” which is actually just a song about him having sex with a hot girl.
Yes, a lot of the fan base was gimmick and spectacle. The nonsense of many of the song’s lyrics and rhythms won over quite a few looking for someone to laugh at. More often than not at his concerts, you would find drunken college kids trying to scream out mimics of Wesley’s lyrics and speech in hopes to get a physical or verbal reaction from him. At a concert I went to, a group of Harvard students had brought with them a mini-tape recorder and quickly jammed the microphone into his face once the concert was over and barraged him with questions for a two-year-old, hoping to elicit retarded responses.
But there was more, much more, to Wesley and his music. At points you could even see a message. The song “Make Sure I’m Out Screwing Up” talks about how various people and forces in society work to see that he stays poor and homeless. He threw out corporate sponsorships at the end of his songs to make them recognizably inane and ubiquitous. The song “Northwest Airlines” has a plug for Continental Airlines at the end of the song. Wesley could be a really bad anime series; sometimes you’re not quite sure just what he’s trying to say, but you know it’s supposed to be profound.
But beyond that, a lot of Wesley’s music tells the story of his life. There are constant references to the demons in his head, his weight problem, and his poverty. And yet he has persevered through the exceptionally poor hand life had dealt him and tried to solve the problems on his own. Willis was fond of saying that his drawings and music helped him to get rid of those demons. His art also helped him stay financially afloat, and while he never won the battle with obesity, his song “I’m Sorry That I Got Fat (I Will Slim Down)” shows that he was trying. Aside from the gems of wit and wisdom scattered about his lyrics and speeches, Willis stood as an emblem of hope and determination.
Wesley’s life ambition was to be a rock star. Perhaps it is fitting that he died young as so many musicians before him. Rock over London. Rock on, Wesley Willis.