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What You Talkin' 'Bout, Willis?

The scene is a self-service copy shop on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, the time is several years ago, and the protagonist is Wesley Willis, beloved local icon. Willis is built like Sasquatch (he's six feet, four inches tall and weighs more than 300 pounds), but his spirit is friendly and gentle -- which is why his sudden outburst near the photocopier is so shocking. Without warning he begins swearing about camel dicks and shouting, "He kicks his ass! He don't take no disrespect! He might smash his head in!"

Fortunately the explosion is short-lived. Upon recognizing a pair of fellow musicians in the establishment, Willis calms down long enough to explain that he was merely liberating the demon voices locked inside his brain. Then, perhaps at the behest of the more angelic visitors to his cranium, he greets his friends in his trademark manner -- by offering them a ceremonial head butt. Given Willis' size, this how-do-you-do can be painful at times, but it's meant affectionately, and that's how his acquaintances take it. They may be dazed, but they know that Willis is just fine.

Such real-life encounters with Willis are far more revealing than cold, clinical descriptions. In 1989 he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, an affliction generally characterized by delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech and behavior; to make his story sadder, his condition is said to have been induced by several episodes of psychological and physical abuse experienced at the harrowing public housing projects where he grew up. But in person Willis inspires awe, not pity. Seeing the man -- or listening to Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, his latest CD for Alternative Tentacles -- is believing.

Music wasn't Willis' first creative outlet. In the beginning he specialized in felt-tip marker sketches detailing city scenes that he sold to passersby on Chicago sidewalks. He was subsequently taken in by members of the Wicker Park art community, and an art show organized in his honor nearly sold out. But his friendship with Dale Meiners, an art store employee and pre-Smashing Pumpkins bandmate of Billy Corgan, pointed him in a musical direction. Soon he was composing songs that made him a local cause celebre -- and Willis knows why. "They like my music," he says in his cordial but extremely concise way. "They like the way I rock. They like the way I roll."

Willis' brand of outsider art is not without precedent: Daniel Johnston, an Austin, Texas, eccentric, shares many of his qualities, and the unassuming brilliance of Willis' ditty "Feel the Power of Rock & Roll" ("Rock the Casbah like a hurricane/Rock and roll is my music for a joy ride") parallels Jonathan Richman's "This Kind of Music" in a tortuous way. But the particulars of Willis' approach are wholly his own.

Nearly all of his songs rely on the same preprogrammed beat delivered by a cheap Technics keyboard, and although the tempos can vary, his sign-offs don't. At the end of every song, he pairs the phrase "Rock over London/Rock on, Chicago" with a random commercial motto ("Arby's! Different is good," "Allstate: You're in good hands," "Cadillac, Cadillac, Cadillac style!"). The reasons he does so are simple. "I dream about it in my head," Willis says. "And that's how I have to end it. I have to end it with a slogan because I need to be having my songs all with slogans. I like it that way."

Of the 2000 songs Willis has written, a hefty percentage are odes to bands, actors, or products that he esteems. On Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, for example, he declares his affection for Alternative Tentacles owner/ former Dead Kennedys leader Jello Biafra ("You can really sing your ass off to the max/You are a good person"). He loses the battle of vulgarity on "They Threw Me Out of Church," "Fuck You," and "Suck a Caribou's Ass," but on most other occasions, he comes across as both compassionate and courageous, and his words sometimes carry deeper meanings. "Outburst" and "Chronic Schizophrenia," from Greatest Hits [Vol. 1] (also on Alternative Tentacles), offer insight for those of us who consider ourselves sane, and "He's Doing Time in Jail" recounts the time Willis was assaulted by a fellow bus rider who mistook his undirected ravings as a personal attack. The scar on the right side of his face serves as a reminder of what can happen when the medication doesn't work.

Willis' work rises above novelty status infrequently: For most people it doesn't bear repeated listens. Still, there's something inexplicably charming about self-explanatory ditties like "Stop the Violence" and "Arnold Schwarzenegger," as well as "Oil Express," a glowing oil-change testimonial delivered by a man who doesn't drive.

Of course some observers fear that Willis is being exploited, and with good reason: American Recordings, a major label that released two of his CDs in 1996, reportedly paid him an advance of just $10,000. But appearances with Howard Stern and MTV's Tabitha Soren nearly three years ago represented the peak of his media play, and today the people with whom Willis works seem to be genuinely concerned about his well-being. Besides, folks like Willis are completely normal in their creative motives. He derives as much joy from drawing Chicago Transit Authority buses and singing about the world around him as Picasso and Mozart drew from their pursuits.

"I like louder audiences," he confirms. "Yeah. I like them all the time, because they always make me feel happy."

In the end, questions about exploitation are far less important than the boisterous way Willis sings, "You are a loving sweetheart/You are so sweet as Domino sugar/I love you like Tender Vittles/I love you like a milk shake" (from "Caryn Shaffer"). He has his priorities aligned like a Mercedes, even if he doesn't have all the answers. When he's asked if he has a message for the people of America, he announces, "Rock 'n' roll is the question.

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Thomas Peake

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