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Wesley Willis Dies

Street musician was a favorite of indie rockers

August 22, 2003 12:00 AM ET

Wesley Willis, the energetic 6'5", 300-pound Chicago street musician who parlayed whimsical, spartan keyboard odes to his favorite products and indie rock musicians into a cult following, died on Thursday night at a hospice in Illinois; he was forty.

The garrulous rocker released more than fifty albums containing 1,000 songs over the past decade, almost all of them set to the same hop-along pre-set Casio beat and overlaid with his yelping, raspy vocals. According to a press release from Alternative Tentacles, Willis was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia in late 2002 and underwent emergency surgery on June 2nd to identify the source of internal bleeding; the exact cause of his death has not yet been determined.

Willis, who suffered from schizophrenia and was homeless for a time, was discovered singing on the streets of Chicago in the early Nineties. He could often be found outside venues and clubs standing behind his keyboard and hawking ballpoint pen drawings of the city's streets, skyline and buses. Instantly recognizable due to his size and a head of short, unkempt dreadlocks, Willis was known for greeting fans with a hearty headbutt, which left him with a permanent knot in the middle of his forehead. Rarely seen without his beloved Walkman hanging from a bag stuffed with CDs around his neck, Willis independently recorded and released dozens of tapes, many of which he sold while braving the cold outside the defunct Lounge Ax rock club.

His self-released 1995 album, Drag Disharmony Hell Ride, was packed with homages to local scenesters and his favorite bands ("Veruca Salt," "Stabbing Westward"), with Willis singing their praises in between yelps of commercial taglines ("Budweiser, the king of beers!"), his signature phrase, "Rock over London, rock on Chicago!" and lots of lyrics about whupping ass.

The ultimate outsider artist, Willis was embraced by such stars of the city's rock community as the Smashing Pumpkins, with the buzz landing him a 1996 contract with Rick Rubin's American Recordings label. Willis released his major label debut that year, Fabian Roadwarrior, hewing closely to his minimalist style of praising other bands ("Porno for Pyros," "Silverchair"), while injecting some light political commentary ("Rock Saddam Hussein's Ass") and paying tribute to the smooth-talking A&R guy who signed him to the label, ("Dino Paredes").

A second American album, Feel the Power, was released in late 1996 and produced by the renowned Dust Brothers (Beastie Boys), though it bore little of their influence and was packed with more tributes to his heroes ("Alice in Chains," "Ice Cube"), as well as a few songs that dealt with his code word for his schizophrenic episodes, which he called "hell rides." The attention resulted in a profile on MTV that year, though Willis was soon dropped due to poor sales. He was back in Chicago later that year working with his short lived band, the Wesley Willis Fiasco, and was again releasing his albums on indie labels.

"Wesley will go down as one of the most unique songwriters and entertainment personalities in history," former Dead Kennedy's frontman Jello Biafra said in a statement. "His music, lyrics, drawings, insight and the way he put them together are like no one else. There will never be another. As I got to know Wes, what really struck me was his sheer will power, 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."

A compilation album, Greatest Hits, Volume 3, is slated for release on Alternative Tentacles in October.

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