Wesley Willis and his harmony joy bus rides

In Dr. Gabor Maté’s bestselling book Living in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, he recounts the lives of the numerous drug addicted, mentally ill and homeless patients that he cares for as physician for the Downtown Eastside’s Portland Hotel Society. There’s a woman whose legs have denuded to the point where she has no skin over her shins, and a man who injects cocaine into a blackened toe until antibiotics can no longer assist him, forcing the amputation of his foot.

One of the central themes of Maté’s book is the escape from pain, whether physical or mental, that he believes fuels the majority of drug addictions. In perhaps the most mainstream example of outsider music, we see the same thing: a poor, black schizophrenic confronts his pain through music and drawing. This man is named Wesley Willis.

Willis was born into the turbulence of a nine-child household and the rocky relationship of his parents, who eventually split up. Poor and living in housing projects in Chicago, Willis began hearing voices in his head in the late 1980s, reportedly for the first time when his mother’s boyfriend threatened to shoot him and stole $100 dollars from him for drug money. In 1989, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Frequently experiencing what he called “Warhellrides” – the title he gave his schizophrenic bouts – he used music to mollify these episodes. Roaming the streets of Chicago and selling his signature ink pen sketches of the city, he decided, with the help of musicians he had befriended, that he wanted to become a “rock star.”

Music became Willis’s outlet to help control his illness. In his words, “Music helped me solve the problem. Music helped me change my life. And playing rock music, that’s the way to go. That’s the way to go on a harmony joy bus ride, rather than on a freakout hell bus ride.”

What brought the most attention to Willis’s musical career was the simplistic yet explosively unique style that featured nothing but a single, pre-programmed track on his Technics KN 2000 keyboard (country rock eight) and a surfeit of obscenity-laden lyrics. Many were drawn by the novelty of the imposing man’s inanity, (Willis was 6-6, 350 pounds and had a huge callous in the middle of his forehead from his signature greeting of “bumping” people with his head) yet he quickly gained a national following. His video for the song “Alanis Morissette” even appeared on MTV in the early 90’s.

The recipe for any Wesley Willis song is nearly identical: there are three verses of four lines, with a chorus after each verse that is simply Wesley yelling the song name four times. Finally, Willis will end the song with his trademark “Rock over London, rock on Chicago” and an advertising slogan like “Wheaties, the breakfast of champions”. Notable tracks include: “Rock Saddam Hussein’s Ass”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonalds”, “Cut the Mullet”, and “Suck a Cheetah’s Dick”.

In response to questions of his lyrical content, Willis stated that he “played music to be a good person. My music keeps me from doing bad things. It keeps me from hurting other people and going to prison. I play my music to keep my mind off my demons.”

Willis’ music is not unlike the behaviour of those confined in that inescapable radius in the Downtown Eastside. Like Willis, they depend on something to alleviate their pain, in turn, taking their own brief “harmony joy rides” with the aide of stimulants, opiates and alcohol.
Poetry of addicts that Maté recalls share qualities with Willis, including a poem by a man named Frank. “Hellbound Train” describes the attempt to find “relief from the pain” but the protagonist ends up with a “one-way ticket on a Hellbound train.”

While Willis’ music is positive, keeping him away from his “Warhellrides,” drug addicts do not reap similar benefits. Instead, their addictions pay passage for the “Hellbound Train” that Frank describes. Willis managed to self-medicate in a healthy, rather than self-destructive, way.

Wesley passed away in 2003 from a form of leukemia. Although the reception to his music is deservedly mixed, he left a musical legacy that was for no one but himself. During his lifetime he recorded over 50 albums, for no reason other than to be a rock star and get on the right bus ride. For that fact alone, his music stands out as the honest representation of who he was, something that few artists of today’s landscape can lay a truthful claim to.

 //Mac Fairbairn
Opinions Editor

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