The following was written June 1, 2020 and originally posted to mental health-related internal chat rooms where I worked at the time
Yesterday was the last day of Mental Health Awareness Month.
Yesterday would also have been Wesley Willis’s 57th birthday.
If you’re from the Alternative Nation Generation, you may remember Wesley Willis as something of a curiosity, maybe a bit of a joke and a distastefully exploitative one at that, the sort of thing that would never pass in today’s social climate and should probably be left where we left it. A mentally ill street musician from Chicago (to most, with the word “musician” enclosed in irony-quotes) whom seemingly somebody allowed to start releasing albums and playing clubs for amusements’ sake, sparking a weird 1990s fad with a rather long tail on it.
The truth has a lot more to it though, and today I want to talk about what that story obscures and misses that Wesley Willis fans and friends-of-friends like myself knew. I want to shine a light on the man Wesley Willis was. The man who faced adversity after adversity and never lost the beautiful soul that inspired friends, brought joy to mass numbers of music nerds, and ultimately made it possible for Wesley Willis to make way for himself to live authentically in a world all but designed specifically against him. Whose sincerity and enthusiasm made him an effortlessly savvy self-promoter and brought him opportunities and agency denied to so many others like him. Who worked hard at doing what he both loved and needed and radiated love as he did it. It would be to no one’s surprise his time on Earth was short, but he made the absolute most of it.
Two documentary films have been made about Mr. Willis, and of the two, one still has a bit of that snicker-at-the-freak smell on it. The one I’d like to invite people to check out if they can find it, Wesley Willis’s Joyrides, focuses on his life story and personal accounts from his closest friends and also gives space to his no less substantial visual arts career. While many have found Wesley Willis’s compositional methods primitive and maddeningly repetitive, there is much depth to be found for those willing to grant time and attention to his oeuvre. In this moment I would particularly like to highlight those songs in which Wesley Willis dealt frankly with his experiences with mental illness: “Chronic Schizophrenia” and “Outburst” from “Greatest Hits Vol. 1” are easy to find but there are many more.
On June 1 2020, I can say that not only is the world a bit cooler place for having had Wesley Willis in it, but fortunate and downright lucky that Wesley Willis never met the fate of George Floyd or so many other black men and neurodivergent black men throughout our country’s history.
RIP Wesley Willis, you are still loved like a milkshake.