I Listen to Wesley Willis (with Fresh Ears)

Who was Wesley Willis? Was he a novelty act? Was he an underground punk genius? Maybe Wesley Willis was just an artist with schizophrenia who just decided to make music on a whim. Maybe Wesley Willis was all of these things, or maybe he was none of these things. These are the queries I make as I listen to Wesley Willis with fresh ears.

A few biographical facts about the late Wesley Willis. Willis was a visual artist and diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1989. A friend of Jello Biafra, Wills decided to make a go at it as an underground punk artist in 1989. Willis’s lyrics were often absurd and obscene, but at the same time childlike. A fun fact about Willis: he had a permanent bruise on his forehead. This “perma-bruise” was formed because Willis liked to greet people, not by shaking hands, but rather by literally butting heads (I’ve talked to people who were head-butted by Willis, and it reportedly hurt). Despite this unusual quirk, Willis was known as a gentle giant and one of the nicest people one could ever meet.

The art of Wesley Willis
A drawing by Willis.

Wesley Willis’ song structure

Before we examine the songs of Willis, it’s important to note his songs almost always followed certain parameters. The accompaniment was minimal, usually consisting of a Casio keyboard programmed to play the same notes over and over. The verses of his songs were usually spoken with Willis singing the chorus. Willis always ended his songs the same way. Firstly, Willis would say “Rock over London, Rock on Chicago.” Secondly, he would say a brand name, and then that brand’s motto.

Because of the almost mass-produced nature of Willis’ songs, one might be tempted to just label Willis as formulaic. But I encourage you – listen to Wesley Willis despite, and even because of his structure. There’s more to Willis than meets the eye.

Listen to Wesley Willis

Rock and Roll McDonald’s

Rock and Roll McDonald’s starts as a song about people flocking to a fast-food chain, just to listen to the rocking tunes on the overhead speaker. However, the second verse takes a turn, as Willis states “McDonald’s will make you fat.” In the third verse, Willis continues this thought by comparing the fat in a Quarter Pounder vs that of a Whopper. The brand mentioned in the last line throws us off. We expect either Willis to mention McDonald’s or one of its competitors. Instead, Willis states “Wheaties, The Breakfast of Champions.”

At first listen, Rock and Roll McDonald’s sounds like a gibbered mess, but the lyrics make every bit of sense. In Rock And Roll McDonalds, Willis essentially says, “Yeah, McDonald’s is fun, but geez, don’t eat that crap too much.” Even the brand line makes sense in this light – Willis shows it might just be better to stay home and eat a bowl of Wheaties.

Rock And Roll McDonalds goes from a simple song of a beloved American institution to a commentary on health and fast food.

Suck a Caribou’s Ass

Suck a Caribou’s ass is mostly a string of creative profanities. Every line in the song tells the protagonist’s audience to suck some part of an animal’s anatomy. Oh, and Willis sounds increasingly mad as the song progresses.

Willis sounds especially mad in the last line of the third verse when he yells “Suck a Werewolf’s ass, fucking jerk!” One can just imagine the mangling one might get if one tried what Willis suggests – this brings us to the point of the song. If one tried to suck any of these creature’s body parts, well, it would not end well. The animal would bite, maim, and/or trample to death the idiot who tried this.

Suck a Caribou’s Ass goes beyond your simple “suck my dick” type of insult. No, instead, suck the dick of something that will kill you. That’s how angry Willis is in the song.

Cut the Mullet

Cut the Mullet shows the punk side of Willis. The entire song tells someone to, well, cut their mullet. With descriptive lines such as “Get that rat’s nest off your head” and “Tell the barber you’re sick of looking like an asshole” we get a descriptive picture of what Willis thought of mullets.

Can we blame Willis? In the late 90s, a mullet often symbolized someone who was indeed an asshole. The stereotypical mullet-wearing person in this time frame was uneducated and ignorant. People with mullets were classified as backward, and uncaring. While the stereotype may or may not have been true, the symbol of the mullet is what’s important in Cut the Mullet.

Cut the Mullet tells the audience to cut ignorant and uncaring behavior, and stop acting like a jerk…you jerk!

The Chicken Cow

The Chicken Cow is a mythical beast that has, according to the song, killed as many as 100,000 people. This mythical beast has powers such as the ability to “stab you in the ass” and fly in the subfreezing weather. The Chicken Cow is a surreal song and a surreal concept. Worth noting, the chicken cow also attacked the protagonist’s brother.

The Chicken Cow’s deeper meaning may or may not exist. Maybe The Chicken Cow is just a silly song, or maybe it’s a metaphor for a societal problem such as homelessness or addiction. Maybe this mythical beast is a metaphor for the couch potato generation. The brand line is “Blockbuster video – wow, what a difference,” so that might be a clue right there.

Take the Chicken Cow as a novelty song if you like, but I think there’s something under the surface.

Outburst

Outburst tells the story of a schizophrenic attack in the middle of an art gallery. According to the song, Willis screams “suck my dick” and other profanities at the voices he heard in his head.

The third verse gives us the saddest lyric ever written by Willis: “I was warned that if I have another psychotic outburst, I would be barred out of Genesis for life/A chronic schizophrenia attack happens every time I speak my word/Then I start screaming.” With this verse, we see the internal working of Willis, and how his schizophrenia affected him.

Outburst shows us a day in the life of Willis, and how his schizophrenia affected his daily life.

I Whipped Batman’s Ass

I Whipped Batman’s Ass goes about how you think it might go. A fictional Willis gets in a fight with Batman, and Willis wins. There’s not much more to say about the song. Still, while the song might not be very deep, I Whipped Batman’s Ass makes the listener experience a lot of emotion. You want to cheer along. Heck, I find myself chanting along with Willis during the chorus. It’s rather satisfying to scream “I Whipped Batman’s Ass.” You should try it!

The brand line is the same “Wheaties, breakfast of champions” as we hear in Rock and Roll McDonald’s. Maybe Willis is telling us if we lay off the quarter pounders, we’ll be able to fight Batman! Or maybe I Whipped Batman’s Ass is just a fun song.

You Should Listen to Wesley Willis!

Willis was a treasure that was taken too soon. That’s my objective opinion. Ok, ok, this article is nowhere near as objective as I’ve been about other artists. Whatever. You should still listen to Wesley Willis. Yes, Willis’ songs are laced with profanities that most of us would never be able to dream up. The content, however, is so rich – it’s worth getting a little offended. Besides, if you’re truly offended, listen to his song “Jesus Christ,” and you’ll see that Willis, while troubled, was trying to find the light.

Do most of Willis’ songs sound the same, despite his immense catalog of music? Yes. However, Andy Warhol proved that mass-produced art is still art. Willis made the same song dozens of times, sure, but Warhol painted the same picture of Elvis 22 times and we didn’t care. We should look at Willis as an artist, and not just as a novelty act – especially considering the depth of his songs. Cut the Mullet, Rock and Roll McDonalds, and dozens of other songs show Willis’ artistic talents.

The final reason you should listen to Wesley Willis – his insight on schizophrenia. The songs Outburst, Suck a Caribou’s Ass, and Chronic Schizophrenia shows us how an individual with schizophrenia processes the world. That’s a rare dose of first-hand knowledge.

Wesley Willis died in 2003, due to complications from leukemia. Rest In Peace, Wesley Willis. We miss you.

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