Wesley Willis, a 6-foot-4, 320-pound former homeless man who channeled his schizophrenia into an unlikely career as a rock music cult hero, died Thursday. He was 40.
He had undergone emergency surgery in June for internal bleeding and had remained in a Chicago hospice since. At the end of last year, doctors had told him he had chronic myelogenous leukemia, but the cause of death had not been determined as of Friday, according to a spokeswoman for his record company.
Willis had attracted admirers in the punk world because of the cathartic effect his unfettered emotional outbursts shared with punk’s raw energy. Most recently, he recorded for Alternative Tentacles Records, a Bay Area label started by Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra. Other fans included Black Flag’s Henry Rollins, the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Willis’ lyrics were unpredictable and unstructured, except that songs usually ended with a catch phrase from an advertising slogan: “Wheaties -- Breakfast of Champions,” “Folgers, it’s good to the last drop.”
In a characteristically rambling interview with The Times in 1996, the same year he made an appearance on MTV, Willis said, “The demon got me on a treacherous hell ride I don’t want to be on. I’m keeping busy, I’m just doing well. I’m not gonna be warded off the joy music bus. I want to go on the trail ride instead of the hell ride.... The demon make my life terrible. He shoot the whole rock set down.”
Willis grew up in Chicago’s projects as one of 10 children of parents who had a violent relationship and separated when he was young. He spent time in several foster homes and was essentially raised by two older brothers, who went with him from home to home.
In the late ‘80s, Willis said, he started hearing voices and was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Despite his illness, Willis made a rap tape accompanying himself on a cheap electronic keyboard. He soon became a cause celebre in punk-rock and alternative-music circles.
Through the ‘90s, he released a series of 50 albums, mostly cheaply assembled and self-financed. Backed for a time in the mid-'90s by a thrashing punk band called the Wesley Willis Fiasco, he gave performances consisting of a series of rants common to sufferers of schizophrenia.
His “songs” were often simply the names of performers he admired, from Elvis Presley to rapper Eazy-E, or self-explanatory statements such as, “I’m Sorry That I Got Fat” and “STP Conked Out My Engine.” In addition to expressing his admiration for a given performer, his lyrics would often turn into apparently random screeds at the world.
Willis typically carried with him a portable stereo with headphones and constantly listened to rock and heavy metal music, which he described as “harmony joy music.” He said it quieted the “schizophrenia demons” in his head. He also carried anti-anxiety medication and sometimes interrupted performances when it was time for a dose.
Willis’ fame produced a split between those who considered him an eccentric genius and those who saw a mentally ill individual being exploited for commercial gain.
In 1995, when he performed at the annual multi-act KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas concert in Los Angeles, many in the audience laughed at him or booed. Yet in clubs where audiences came specifically to see Willis, they treated him protectively.
He is survived by several siblings. A Washington Post story indicated that his mother was confined to a nursing home.