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Wesley Willis: Unlikely alt-rock hero

Exploring the career of a real do-it-yourself musician

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”I’m going to rock the jam session just like Mudbone. I’m gonna do it well like engine, engine number nine, like the train going down the line.” Thus boasts Wesley Willis, former street artist, diagnosed schizophrenic, and indie rock’s current toast of the town.

In 1992, while peddling his pen-and-marker drawings in the Windy City, the Chicago native was befriended by Dale Meiners, a local musician who became Willis’ patron, band mate, and label mate at Urban Legends records, which just released the Wesley Willis Fiasco’s thrashy debut, Spookydisharmoniousconflicthellride.

Willis — who stands at 6’5” and tips the scales at 320 pounds — began hanging out at Meiner’s home studio and one day asked to sing with his then band, the Temple of Dale. The resulting tape, 5 Explicit Songs, became an underground sensation, with Pearl Jam, Henry Rollins, and Jello Biafra among its fans. Since then, the 32-year-old Willis — who counts Ted Nugent and Bruce Springsteen among his inspirations — has released ”at least 15” solo albums on his own. His work generated enough buzz to land him on MTV’s 120 Minutes, SQUiRT-TV, and Week in Rock and a well-attended performance at this year’s South by Southwest music conference.

Willis’ solo work consists of spare, stream-of-consciousness ditties, on which he pokes a keyboard in accompaniment to his musings on artists near and dear (”Nirvana,” ”Liz Phair,” ”Fugazi”) and the demons that torment him on what he terms his ”hell bus rides” (he claims to have experienced 12,576 of these odysseys). That oeuvre recently earned him a solo contract with American Recordings.

As a genuine outsider, Willis may qualify as the ultimate punk. That and his do-it-yourself status surely contribute to his popularity among the indie/alt set. Just as assuredly, he provides the car-crash spectacle that is manna to the smirking, irony-addicted hipsters who comprise that community.

”Wesley grew up in the housing projects, starving to death. He’s really focused on making money,” observes Meiners, who alleges that any exploitation by the industry is symbiotic. ”The doors are wide open for him to be exploited, and he’s willing to do it, and that will make him money.”

Meiners, who touts Willis as ”a really brilliant artist,” maintains the Fiasco’s debut will outlast Willis’ flavor-of-the-week cachet: ”Look at Ziggy Stardust. That was really strange for its time, but 10 years later, that was an important record.” As for Willis’ take on his success, he says, ”This is the kind of jam session that cannot be shut down by a demon talking to me in profanity. But thank God, when I’m doing my job, that keeps me busy. I’m going to whup that racehorse’s ass and lead myself to superstardom.”

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