Wesley's Big Ride

April 19, 1996 -- Just out this week is the debut album by the Wesley Willis Fiasco, called "Spooky Disharmonious Conflict Hell-Ride." Willis is a most unusual, 6-foot-5-inch street musician and artist from Chicago, who introduces himself to fans with a head-bump instead of a handshake.

Willis has also been diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia, a mental disorder accompanied by delusions and hallucinations. Rock and roll history has had its share of mentally troubled creators, for instance Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, Rocky Erickson, Wildman Fisher, and most recently, Daniel Johnston.

Time will tell where Willis ends up in the pantheon. He'd put out 15 self-produced albums before signing a deal with Rick Rubin's American Recordings label at the South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas last month. While some critics wonder if Willis is being exploited as a novelty act, I caught up with him in Austin, and found that for Willis, music is a vital form of therapy.

TABITHA SOREN: Tell me what happened today. I heard that you signed a record contract.

WESLEY WILLIS: I signed a record contract at least 20 minutes ago.

SOREN: What was that like? How did that make you feel?

WILLIS: I made me feel great in the head.

SOREN: Did it make you feel rich?

WILLIS: I'm going to be rich. I'm going to be the richest black man for the rest of my life until the day that I die off this Earth.

SOREN: But it's more about the music than the money, right?

WILLIS: It's more about the music and the money.

SOREN: What's in here?

WILLIS: What's in my bag is my portable CD player. I use the CD player to go on bus rides of joy, but then I go on bus rides to hell.

SOREN: I see...

WILLIS: But the demon in my head talks to me with profanity. I do not want to hear. The demon thinks I'm a bum, a jerk, and an a-hole.

SOREN: So whatever you're playing knocks all that out of your head?

WILLIS: Whenever that CD player that I play puts music on.... it keeps me on the joy ride. It keeps out the hell-bus.

SOREN: When you were outside, how did you feel about all those strangers coming up to you and talking to you?

WILLIS: I loved them, and I loved them like super-chicken.

SOREN: Isn't that annoying, having people come up to you that you don't even know?

WILLIS: I just want to meet them. As long as they are nice I can meet them.

BRENDAN MURPHY, The Wesley Willis Fiasco: He's got his music, his medication, and when we get to a club people are paying attention to him, and bumping heads and buying CD's off of him. Then he's very happy.

DALE MEINERS, The Wesley Willis Fiasco: People, like, kind of point him out as being schizophrenic, and a hard guy to deal with. He's not. Wesley's really cool. You know, I've dealt with guys who are addicted to heroin, and stuff like that. That is a real bad time, you know? Did you ever see

the Chuck Berry video? These guys... There's some very strange rock stars out there. Wesley in comparison is very cool.

SOREN: What do you get out of being an artist?

WILLIS: I just get... I get myself on the right track and get on the rock n' roll superhighway joy ride.

SOREN: I cuts down on the voices, the demons?

WILLIS: It keeps the demons out of my head sometimes, and sometimes the demons try to shoot my jam session down.

SOREN: How do you overcome that?

WILLIS: I take my medicine all the time, every day, and that's what stops them dead. 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.