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IN THE TRADITION of rock icons like Roky Erickson and Daniel Johnston, Chicago's Wesley Willis could become the next superstar of psychologically-alternative modern rock. The 6-foot-5-inch musician and street artist has been championed by Eddie Vedder, the Beastie Boys, and ex-Dead Kennedys leader Jello Biafra, the latter of whom released a compilation of Willis's songs, Greatest Hits, on his Alternative Tentacles label last summer.
Willis comes to town Friday as a special guest of San Diego's Rocket From the Crypt, whose new album title Scream, Dracula, Scream (Interscope) stems from one of the 300-plus songs Willis has written or recorded on nearly a dozen self-produced CDs. The earliest of these 25-song keyboard and voice collections are out of print, but Willis makes up for that by releasing a new CD nearly every other month.
To call Willis's tunes "formulaic" is an understatement. The musical arrangements are minor variations on the sample tune pre-programmed into his one-touch symphonic keyboard, and Willis's lyrical schemes are an extreme refinement of the classic verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge pop-song structure. Verses are staccato sentence bursts like a first grader's oral report ("This band played at the Metro/About 800 people were at the show/The rock & roll was a burn out"), and choruses consist entirely of Willis repeating the song title four times over.
Willis's trademark send-off is a complimentary commercial plug for any one of 50 corporations or Chicagoland shops, with no endorsement kickback. (For some reason, a whole song about "Northwest Airlines" ends with a tag for American Airlines, but Northwest gets its props at the end of "Battlestar Galactica," a nationalist nightmare fantasy about blowing Baghdad off the map.)
In a voice somewhere between KRS-One and Paul Robeson, Willis rattles off raps from three basic categories, the most popular being tributes to bands in the form of succinct reviews of their gigs at numerous Chicago clubs. Whatever you think of Willis's talent, you can't knock his taste: Boss Hog, The Flaming Lips, Swervedriver, Texas Tornados, Shonen Knife, Pantera, Blues Traveler, Superchunk, KMFDM, and all three members of Material Issue and our own Run Westy Run and Hammerhead are just some of the musicians who've been toasted.
Willis's cult is sure to grow if he keeps writing tributes to national bands, but he's also penned dozens of sincere songs to friends and helpers, as well as the women in his life. Amy Gorman, for instance, was likely deeply touched by the song for her, but may have been a little peeved when she heard virtually identical odes like "Tammy Smith," "Caryn Shaffer," and "Sandra Leonard." A third category in Willis's oeuvre involves songs about convicts, but unlike the old folk tradition of defending the accused, Willis delights in seeing perpetrators of black-on-black crime get put away, reciting the "guilty" verdicts with glee.
A fourth, smaller genre of Willis songs deals with his chronic schizophrenia. Greatest Hits features numerous songs on the subject, including Willis's thank-you to his doctor, Aftab Noorani ("You gave me a shot of Politicin/You are calming me down"). On "Outburst," Willis switches to a slow country blues form and apologetically explains his lack of control over the voices in his head. "He is a certified schizophrenic," says Brett Kloepfer of Chicago's Fuse Records, which also released a 24-song CD of Willis's material this summer. "He really does have mean, evil voices 'whupping on his ass,' as he would say. But he doesn't want to let it get him down. Considering the mental state he's in, I think his stuff is on the border of genius. He's just dealing with a lot of other problems."
"If you're in Chicago for any period of time," he says, "you're bound to run into Willis, mostly around Wicker Park or the northside rock clubs and art shows. He's like a superstar down here. Everyone knows him, so he just goes wherever he feels. No one ever charges him a cover; he just walks backstage and meets all the bands. The guys on Q-101 [local alt-rock radio giant] talk about him all the time, and this is a station that only plays about 12 different songs a day in the first place."
Greatest Hits includes three outstanding tracks with Willis's band Fiasco, who kick their lead man out of his keyboard-happy habits and guide him into more free-associative pieces, such as "Jesus is the Answer," and the nationwide free-form radio hit "I'm Sorry That I Got Fat." The rest of Greatest Hits is a smooth, slightly advanced overview of Willis's work; Biafra's preference for more universal subject matter (Elvis, Eazy-E, McDonald's) overlooks the sense of community and urban vitality of Willis's indie work. His music is a contagious reminder about the power of a good rock show, and the positive effects of a few good friends.
The nagging question, of course, is why the white rock underworld flocks to the side of an off-balance black rock & roll manchild, and virtually ignores a thousand hip-hop rebels? There are a number of answers. But the fact is that the musical joy Willis offers is legit. The tension between his songs' fundamental predictability and their random chord changes and sound effects is quite mesmerizing. And the way he swerves between rock & roll myth and cold-blooded reality is more gripping than the work of any dozen comercially successful artists working in any genre.