Wesley Willis, street musician from Chicago and a chronic schizophrenic, became a cult hero in 1995 when Rick Rubin signed him to his label and rock stars like Billy Corgan, Jello Biafra, and the Beastie Boys began championing his homemade CDs in the press. But his prolific output and an ensuing glut of Wesley Willis product (sometimes three records in one year) have prevented him from having much mass impact. That and the fact that he's tone deaf and repeats the same preprogrammed keyboard patterns in his numerous songs.
He's undeniably funny, honest, and sometimes touching too, but many PC writers feel that his career is an exploitative one-joke at best. Bah! Put him up against any respected rock star with a slightly loony bent and you'll find why Willis has 'em all beat, by any measure:
1. Rock's Most Coherent Schizophrenic:
Del Shannon: Only people calling his house would know he was a closet schizophrenic, with his answering machine directing to leave messages for either Del or Charles, the guy with the handgun permit.
Syd Barrett: Roger Waters believes his old bandmate was an undiagnosed schizophrenic. Syd's legendary status was assured with one album (Piper at the Gates of Dawn) and an extended period of inactivity that began by miming to a record without moving his lips, playing only the C chord in concert, and conducting interviews through catatonic stares.
David Bowie: Of course, rock's Great Pretender was a faux schizophrenic, the result of doing months of interviews as Ziggy Stardust but cashing checks made out to David Bowie. He was no more schizophrenic than any other stockbroker who paints his face half red and half silver.
Roky Erikson: Attempting to get out of a 1969 conviction for the possession of one joint, Roky pleaded insanity and got all the free electroshock therapy he wanted for the next three years. In 1982, he signed an affidavit stating that a Martian had taken residency in his body.
Daniel Johnston: He tried to strengthen his dual position by recording "I Met with Roky Erikson." With all these personalities breathing the same Texas air, the best thing his summit with the 13th Floor Elevator operator revealed was that Roky's mother made them all chicken.
The Winner: Wesley Willis: Anyone can sound like a man torn into mad little pieces, but only Willis actually explained his two-in-one condition in a forthright manner on "Chronic Schizophrenic": "My mind plays tricks on me every time I say something/It brings evil forces out of my head and talks to me vulgar, and suddenly I start raving." Which he does, yelping the title like he's at the wrong end of a cattle prod before switching back into his sensible shill voice: "Rock over London/Rock on Chicago. Pontiac: We build excitement." Also, he is perhaps the only rock icon to argue with his demons during interviews.
2. Rock's Fiercest Competitor:
Michael Jackson: Unable to tolerate anyone holding claim to his King of Pop title, he buys up the Beatles's copyrights and cheapens their catalog into sneaker and cookie jingles, marries Elvis's daughter and tries to get her to ditch her maiden name, and records duets with people he felt threatened by (Paul McCartney, Run-D.M.C., and Mick Jagger). He failed to record duets with Madonna, Terence Trent D'Arby, or Prince, who refused to face off against Jacko in the "Bad" video because he thought that the song stank and that Michael was a wimp. Michael retaliates by naming his first-born Prince, something akin to Churchill naming his first spawn Adolf.
Oasis: Unable to control their lashing tongues, the Gallagher brothers wish AIDS upon their nearest competitor, Blur.
Diana Ross and the Supremes: When they would have to open for Martha and the Vandellas on the Motortown revues, they'd find out what their rivals were wearing that night and wear the same outfit first.
The Winner: Wesley Willis: His way of eliminating the competition is killing them with compliments, then devaluing that same praise by sucking up to someone else. On "Alanis Morissette," he calls the Canadian "a rocking maniac," "a singing hyena," and "a rock star in Jesus's name" but later disses her on "Porno for Pyros" ("The rock jam session whipped Alanis's ass"). For "Elvis Presley," Willis says, "He can really rock the house," the same compliments he reserves for Urge Overkill, Skrew, Rick Sims, and some unnamed band at the China Club. As for his own nearest rival, Wesley sends up Daniel Johnston (who believes he will become Casper the Friendly Ghost after he dies) by recording "Casper the Friendly Homosexual Ghost."
3. Rock's Greatest Song Stockpiler:
Brian Wilson: To appease his psychiatrist's edict that he must write at least one song a day, the Beach Boy offers him one of countless thousands of unrecorded songs taking up residence in his head -- songs written years before the ridiculous "Brian Is Back" hype campaign.
Prince: The Purple One records more than the average person has bowel movements. In fact, bowel movements would've been preferable to the fecal matter he pulled out of storage to get out of his slave deal with Warner Bros.
The Winner: Wesley Willis: He has allegedly written more than 700 songs, but judging by their cultural references ("Kurt Cobain," "Easy E," "Saddam Hussein," and "Pepsi-Uh huh!"), most of these songs were written in the early '90s.
4. Rock's Greatest Weight Problem:
Brian Wilson: He continued to eat like a beluga whale even after he opened his own health-food store.
Daniel Johnston: He acknowledges he has an eating problem with "McDonald's on the Brain."
The Winner: Wesley Willis: His preoccupation with food checkers even love songs like "Tammy Smith" ("You are my lovely lady/I love you like a milkshake"). The 350-pounder praises McDonald's for playing good music in "Rock and Roll McDonald's" and blames his visits to the golden arches, Burger King, Wendy's, and White Castle from 1987 to 1991 for his excess girth in verse two. He angrily notes that McDonald's hamburgers are the worst, with the Big Mac containing 26 grams of fat and the Quarter Pounder 28 grams of fat. His strict new diet is hinted at in the song's sign-off plug for "Wheaties, Breakfast of Champions."
5. Rock's Biggest Proponent of the Profane and the Divine:
Jerry Lee Lewis: Although he never addressed it in a song, the Killer knew he was playing the devil's music and continued to rock to give his cousin, the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart, more fodder for his long-winded sermons.
Prince: The contradictory nature of praising the Almighty while recording sinful material like "Jack U Off," "Erotic City," "Horny Toad," "Head," the incestuous "Sister," "Sexy Motherfucker," and "Irresistible Bitch" is addressed on "Temptation," in which Prince, as the voice of God, tells his bad self that "love is more important than sex" before killing him off.
The Winner: Wesley Willis: Wesley has no problem mixing religion with profanity in "Jesus Is the Answer": "Number one: I'm gonna do this song again/Number two: I'm gonna do this song again all the way up your ass/ Number three: I'm gonna fuck your ass up like in a car crash/Number four: I'm gonna fuck you up like a goddamn accident/And number five: Jesus Is the Answer!"