My first encounter with Chicago based cult American singer-songwriter and ink-pen artist Wesley Willis came during high school in the form of the song I Whupped Batman’s Ass. Like any innocent bystander who happened to cross paths with Willis and/or his work, I was immediately hooked. Who was this guy who seemed to rant maniacally over a Casio keyboard? Was it an elaborate comical prank or the fanatical ravings of a madman? Diving into the internet to find out whatever I could on the man, I learned he was morbidly obese, often homeless when he wasn’t doing jail time and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia who constantly struggled with psychotic episodes including hearing voices, many of which he himself referred to as ‘demons’ and ‘hell rides’. A frequent guest on The Howard Stern Show the Chicago based resident, while a difficult and arguably madcap character, became something of a cause celebre among college students who were at once enamored with the singular personality when they weren’t laughing hysterically at the insanity fueled lyrics and delivery. He was truly one of a kind, which brings us to the 2008 documentary entitled Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides. Made over the course of five years before his untimely death in 2003 from chronic myelogenous leukemia at the age of 40, Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides provides an up, close and personal look at the life, art and music of one of my all-time favorite cult personalities.
Initially planned by filmmakers Chris Bagley and Kim Shively as a self-portrait encompassing a day in the life of Wesley Willis, whether it involved picking up art supplies for more colored ink-pen drawings of the Chicago cityscape drawn from memory or selling more of his CDs on street corners, the project took a turn when Willis tragically passed mid-filming and the film was redesigned as a tribute. From the beginning before the film begins we’re notified of Willis’ untimely death and that everything presented is past tense, casting a poignant pall over the proceedings even as we’re inclined to emit chuckles of appreciation if not shock and awe. While all the horror stories of Willis’ psychotic episodes and outbursts are as plain as day in this documentary, for the first time I felt like I met the man himself and got to know more beyond the comic madness infused lyrics and singing. For one thing, contrary to popular opinion that he was some lunatic who just happened to catch on by ranting into a Casio Keyboard, the man was quite artistically talented with detailed ink-pen drawings which are, according to other artists familiar with them, better rendered than most classically trained painters. He’s so good you almost wonder why Willis didn’t pursue a career in architecture but I digress. Some have understandably labeled Willis’ musical act as exploitative for more or less recording many of his insane rants and selling them for profit, but Willis himself is so matter of fact about his problems that you can’t help but respect his honesty even in light of songs where he quite literally tells the voices in his head to engage in profane acts of bestiality. Hearing recollections from past band members of his former punk rock act The Wesley Willis Fiasco as well as testimonies from longtime friends and former roommates, you get the impression Wesley was both a joy to have around but occasionally was a holy terror. Some moments in Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides are genuinely hard to watch, such as an aside where we learn how Willis got the scar on his face from a stabbing wound and a particularly cringeworthy outburst in an internet café where he hits himself in the head and explains his struggles with demons to an unnerved bystander.
Yes I can still listen to Wesley Willis songs from his solo career with his trusty Casio Keyboard by his side, and some of his more maniacal rants are the stuff of comic genius. And yet after having seen Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides, I no longer see him as the outrageous lunatic you couldn’t wait to hear what crazy thing he’d say or do next. Rather when you get a picture of his troubled upbringing described in detail here for the very first time, including Willis’ own confessions to the camera about what his life was like, you can’t help but feel empathy for the lovable madman. Prior to seeing this, most of his songs and public appearances invite you to laugh at him but now post-Joy Rides I’m inclined to laugh with him as I now have a better grasping of the places his insane rants come from. You also emerge with a greater understanding of why those who knew him loved everything about him and why he’ll be missed forever. In a way you could arguably draw a comparison to Florence Foster Jenkins in that while you couldn’t take the music all that seriously you can’t help but admire the drive and ambition of the performer behind it. Wesley Willis may have been crazy as a loon and his musical act arguably caters to circus sideshow gawkers, but to his credit he did it all himself and put himself out there into the world with a still truly unique personality never seen onstage before or since. Now it’s time for Rock N Roll McDonald’s!
- Andrew Kotwicki