When the celestial choirs prepare to greet Wesley Willis at the gates of heaven, St. Peter himself will hand out lyric sheets for “I Whupped Batman’s Ass” to all the angels.
Batman got on my nerves.
He was runnin’ me amok.
He really cued me callin’ me a bum.
I whupped! Batman’s ass!
(Repeat several times)
Batman thought he was bad.
He was a fucking asshole in the first place.
He got knocked to the floor.
I whupped! Batman’s ass!
Batman beat the
hell out of me,
and knocked me
to the floor.
I got back up and
knocked him to the floor.
He was bein’ such a jackoaf.
I whupped! Batman’s ass!
Rock over London.
Rock on Chicago.
Wheaties: Represent champions.
And there you have it: Wesley Willis’ genius moment, his grand artistic statement, his calling card and, sadly, his epithet. The forty-year-old Chicagoan and cult “outsider” artist died August 21, most probably from heart failure. He’d battled countless health problems over the years, including a recent diagnosis of chronic myelogenous leukemia. But he was still shockingly prolific: He painted intricate portraits of Chicago street scenes, which he often sold while he was homeless. He wrote more than 3,500 songs and put out more than fifty albums, including several for Alternative Tentacles. And he toured widely with his band, the Wesley Willis Fiasco, greeting fans and strangers alike with his trademark (friendly) head-butts.
Shortly after Willis’ death, AT boss Jello Biafra released a media statement. “As I got to know Wes, what really struck me was his sheer willpower,” Biafra recalled. “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.”
It’s the mental illness — the voices (Willis called them “demons”) that plagued him for much of his life — that both defined Wesley Willis and cemented his appeal for “outsider” music fans; a strange, but not malicious, state of affairs. You almost feel mean-spirited or guilty for laughing at his songs.
For one thing, they’re absolutely hilarious, despite the fact that all 3,500 sound almost exactly the same: a tinny keyboard/bass/drumbeat melody that only changes speed and pitch from track to track. Only the lyrics differed: Wesley would spit out his stumbling, spoken-word verses as if he were wandering down the street with a cheese steak in one hand and a flamethrower in the other. For the chorus, he’d often just shout the name of the song over and over, whether it was “Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonalds,” “My Mother Smokes Crack Rocks,” “The Chicken Cow,” or “Rock Saddam Hussein’s Ass.”
Finally, every tune ended with “Rock over London, rock on Chicago,” followed by some sort of advertising slogan: “Pontiac: We build excitement,” or perhaps “Diet Pepsi: Uh-huh.” A sign of brainwashing or a sly capitalist critique? Let the intellectuals decide. We’ll just throw on “Kris Kringle Was a Car Thief” again.
It’s a guilty pleasure, and a simplistic, crass, gather-’round-with-your-dorm-buddies one at that. (Which may explain why the phrase jackoaf — not jackoff — has been integral to Down in Front’s vocabulary since freshman year.) But there’s an enthusiasm, a childlike wonder and, most important, a complete lack of irony to Willis’ voice that endears him to folks who look past the vulgarity.
“It’s the guilelessness,” explains Irwin Chusid, longtime radio personality and author of Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, which features a chapter on Willis. “There’s an innocence there. There’s a lack of self-awareness, and a lack of inhibition. That’s what Wesley had in abundance. It’s what makes outsider artists outsider.”
Outsider music is a hazy, know-it-when-you-see-it affair, but it basically comes down to honesty: Artists who plow forward with complete sincerity and confidence even though the results might be — and often are — spectacularly awful. That’s what makes the Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World, a disastrous ’60s girl group train wreck, the Holy Grail for outsider freaks. But the other side of the coin is what Chusid defines in his book as the “Mental-Illness-Can-Be-Fun school of songcraft,” a subgenre epitomized by Willis and cult indie icon Daniel Johnston. The art that emerges from such tortured minds is often fascinating, even if, as in Willis’ case, it was entirely whimsical.
“You know this is a man who did not have control over his mind and over his body and over his behavior,” Chusid says. “And yet, when he was onstage, he was in his element. He was in control.”
At best, this is highly uncomfortable territory: Should we really be laughing at a morbidly obese, schizophrenic black guy who’s raving about whipping a cheetah’s ass? Does outsider music’s so-bad-it’s-good concept get nasty when the artists literally can’t help themselves?
It’s a question Chusid is clearly used to. “Some people get it and some people don’t,” he admits. “These people are entertainers. Wesley was an entertainer. He wanted to entertain. They could’ve locked him up and put him on, you know, thirty pills a day in a room with padded walls. But instead, he was out living the life of a rock star. He was making money selling records. He was entertaining people. And people were enjoying it. Why would anyone want to take that away from him by saying, ‘We should ignore him. We shouldn’t pay attention to him because he’s mentally ill’? I think the fact that he was out there livin’ the life. … That’s a triumph for Wesley. He wasn’t hurting anybody.”
As painful as Willis’ life was, he’s left behind a loyal, devout fan base that laughs with him, not at him. It’s a strange set of circumstances, but the world’s a strange, cruel place. And like Chusid said, Willis never hurt anyone. Except Batman.