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Wesley Willis RIP

Fox may be fair and balanced, all right, but they don't make it a priority to report the passing of underground celebrities like Wesley Willis. And during a week without e-mail, one is pretty much cut off from the network of journos and music freaks who'd feel obligated to pass along bad news. Thus I received late the news that Willis had died on Thursday, August 21. The following day, Steven Rullman from Closer magazine and e-mailed this personal report:

"Sitting on my desk is a returned package that I had sent to the hospital where Wesley was recuperating. In the package was a cheerful get-well note thanking him for his incredible, first ever South Florida show at Respectable Street [May 17, 2001], some stickers, and some CDs that I thought he might enjoy -- something to make him laugh... or at least smile. I feel very fortunate to have crossed paths with the man and had hoped to again soon. I remember just how excited he got when he heard a train coming past the club! He broke off mid-conversation and darted through the front doors like an NFL running back! I will continue to wear the shirt he gave me with great pride. Wesley was a neat, neat man... and that's a huge understatement!"

No doubt the 300-pound Wesley welcomed Rullman with one of his trademark head-butts. At New Times, where music fans knew Willis was ill, the news of his passing still came as a shock. When he visited Fort Lauderdale in March of 2002, he seemed his same old self -- his one-chord Casio craziness and unstoppable enthusiasm intact. But by the end of that year, he'd been diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia. Remarkably, he continued touring and even performed in Miami this past April. But earlier this summer, Willis had to undergo emergency surgery to stop internal bleeding. He lived in a Chicago-area hospice until his death.

A three-disc set titled Wesley Willis Greatest Hits Vol. 3 will be out next month, adding to the pile of more than 50 albums and thousands of paintings and drawings Willis produced during his 40 years. One of his biggest friends and fans, Jello Biafra, wrote:

"Wesley will go down as one of the most unique songwriters and entertainment personalities in history. His music, lyrics, drawings, insight, and the way he put them together are like no one else. Ever. There will never be another. As I got to know Wes, 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.

"Yet through it all he had such a deep, all-encompassing love of life. Little things, big things. He loved bus rides. He loved watching trains. He loved writing songs about how much he loved his friends. He loved traveling to new towns so he could head-butt new friends. Is there any band he saw that escaped being in their own song about how much he loved their show? He was so warm, so sweet, so giving. He could be a handful when he came to visit; but as soon as he left, we'd miss him immediately.

"Wes was deeply religious. He was afraid that if he died he would no longer get to go see bands play. If there is a hereafter, I hope Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Otis Redding, and his dear friend Bradley from Sublime 'storm the stage' as the crowd 'roars like a sea monster.' There are many down times when all I have to do is think of one of Wes's songs, something he said, or simply marvel at his Wesley-isms, and the clouds part and a smile comes to my face. I think he does that for a lot of people. He always will."

Bandwidth often borrowed a common Wesleyism to sign off many e-mail messages. It takes on a different tone now. Yet it is our sincere desire that everyone reading think about Wesley for a moment and say with me, "Rock over London; rock on, Chicago."

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