Wesley Willis, one of the most unusual characters in music, died Thursday evening, most likely from heart failure. He was 40.
The schizophrenic singer from the streets of Chicago had been recovering at an Illinois hospice after undergoing emergency surgery on June 2 to suppress and identify the source of internal bleeding, according to his record label, Alternative Tentacles, which noted that Willis died peacefully.
Willis, famous for greeting fans with a head butt, was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia at the end of 2002 and his health had been deteriorating rapidly.
“[Wesley's] music, lyrics, drawings, insight and the way he put them together are like no one else. Ever,” Alternative Tentacles founder/ex-Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra said in a statement. “As I got to know Wes, what really struck me was his sheer will power, his unrelenting drive to succeed and overcome his horrifically poor background [of] child abuse, racism, chronic schizophrenia and obesity, among other things. He was the most courageous person I have ever known.”
Willis, with his distinctive frame and forever-bruised forehead, was well-known on the streets of Chicago in the early 1990s for his off-key commentaries put to the tune of rudimentary Casio keyboard melodies.
His simple songs covered a variety of topics over the years, but he was notorious for his homages to other musicians, including tracks titled “Hootie and the Blowfish,” “Nirvana” and “Morbid Angel” — all featured on 1996′s Rock ‘N’ Roll Will Never Die. “Is there any band he saw that escaped being in their own song about how much he loved their show?” Biafra said.
By the mid ’90s, Willis’ popularity had soared and he had signed with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, which released Fabian Road Warrior and Feel the Power, both in 1996.
Hours after Willis signed with the label, he did his first and last interview with MTV News, telling reporter Tabitha Soren he struggled with a demon in his head (see “Wesley’s Big Ride” ). “It talks to me with profanity I do not want to hear,” he said. “The demon thinks I’m a bum, a jerk and an a-hole.”
Willis had a minor hit with his song “Alanis Morissette,” but was dropped from American the following year. Still, he continued recording and touring, doing occasional albums and shows with his punk band, the Wesley Willis Fiasco.
In 1997, the band covered “Girls on Film” for The Duran Duran Tribute Album, which also included the Deftones, Jimmy Eat World and Less Than Jake (see “Goldfinger, Less Than Jake, Wesley Willis Revisit Duran Duran” ).
Altogether, the singer recorded more than 50 albums, according to Alternative Tentacles, which released three of them and already had plans for a fourth, Wesley Willis Greatest Hits Vol. 3, due in October. Some of his classics include “I Whupped Batman’s Ass,” “Rock N’ Roll McDonald’s” and “I’m Sorry That I Got Fat.”
Biafra said there will likely be a memorial concert or gathering in Chicago to pay tribute to Willis.
“Wes was deeply religious,” Biafra said. “He was afraid that if he died he would no longer get to go see bands play. If there is a hereafter I hope he’s right up front with Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, his beloved Otis Redding and his dear friend Bradley [Nowell] from Sublime ‘storming the stage’ as the crowd ‘roars like a sea monster.’ All opening for Wesley, of course.
“It will be hard now that he’s gone, but I’m not going to let myself stop enjoying the funny stuff, or the look on people’s faces when they first hear ‘Rock N’ Roll McDonalds,’ or the memories of the good times and Wesley’s many adventures,” Biafra continued. “He wouldn’t want it any other way.”