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BLAG. Vol. 5

Last March, a friend and editor I worked under, Stephen Gossett, asked me for some thoughts on Chicago outsider legend Wesley Willis, which eventually became this piece for The Thrillist.

Knowing he probably wanted a few sentences concisely commenting on a fan’s conflict, I banged out a short lil’ obituary with instructions to cherry-pick whatever. Obviously, he couldn’t run the entire thing, so here’s the piece in full.

The novelty is the hook. It starts off with 16-year old me, driving around Raleigh in a beat-up ‘87 Buick, laughing at every word of “I Whupped Batman’s Ass.” An outsider artist named Wesley Willis profanely bellowing over (what seemed like) preprogrammed electronic keyboard beats? Sign me up! It was audacious, weird, and funny. It made sense to a kid who discovered irony last week.

Then you get to “Chronic Schizophrenia.” Audacious became vulnerable. Weird got lonely. And it wasn’t funny anymore. Every Wesley Willis fan had to navigate that complicated quandary: Am I laughing with this goofy, outrageous showman — or at a tortured, diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic? A creative talent? Or a minstrel show?

Those were the issues I struggled with, years later, as I contemplated putting Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 onto rotation when I was Music Director at WKNC 88.1FM. I did, and it was a hit. I wasn’t particularly comfortable with it.

Then I saw Wesley Willis live — a sold out show at King’s Barcade in 2001 that I attended with hesitation: I hadn’t listened to his last, like, 10 albums. The show would be full of those frat boys who called into WKNC, requesting “Play that retarded dude again!” I was exhausted from a day spent packing — I was moving to Willis’ stomping grounds of Chicago the next week.

From the moment Willis took the stage, he commandeered an impossibly rowdy crowd. That crowd shouted every chorus, responded to every call, and roared back with absolute devotion. After the set, hundreds of fans lingered, just to shake his hand or hug him. I got a head-butt.

Make what you will of how his art was digested. Wesley Willis was a man who heard voices, voices that crowded his own vision, suppressing it until he needed to shout. Against reasonable likelihood, Willis got an audience. Then a following. He died an artist who was heard.

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Vincent Chung is a designer and writer living in Raleigh, North Carolina.

 


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