These are some drawings by Wesley Willis. An extraordinary artist from Chicago, although a very sick and poor person. I first ecountered him when my friend Piotr Gruszczyński played me his music, which then felt like a funny joke to me. After watching “The Daddy of Rock’n’Roll”, a documentary about Willis, I see his stuff from a very different angle. Nevertheless it’s still a very funny listen.
There’s an ongoing exhibition of his works in Chicago right now. I wish I could be there and see it.
Watch a short clip of him being interviewed by Nardwuar (here) and have a quick look at this well-written bio: (source: artinbase.info)
“Wesley Willis (May 31, 1963 – August 21, 2003) was a 6-foot-6-inch tall, 350 lb. African-American musician from Chicago, Illinois and a diagnosed schizophrenic who gained a rather large underground following in the 1990s after releasing several hundred songs of bizarre and simplistic music which became internet phenomena during the early days of P2P file sharing.
Willis and his siblings spent most of their childhoods in various foster homes. In 1989, Willis began hearing “demon voices” and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He often mentioned that his demons were named “Heartbreaker,” “Nervewrecker,” and “Meansucker”. He called his psychotic episodes “hell rides”. Alternatively, rock-and-roll was “the joy ride music” and Willis often indicated that listening to and performing music helped him battle the voices.
In the early 1990s, Willis became creatively active, selling marker drawings of the Chicago cityscape on the street. Some of the drawings would later appear on the covers of his albums. In 1992, Willis joined musicians from the city’s alternative rock scene to form the hard rock band, The Wesley Willis Fiasco, which produced such future file sharing favorites as “Jesus is the Answer” and “Casper the Homosexual Friendly Ghost”. Although few took him seriously, Willis created a buzz in the Chicago music scene and soon caught the attention of American Recordings, a major record label.
Without his band, Willis was signed to the label in 1995 and went on to record two albums while producing dozens of other albums independently. He became a minor novelty rock sensation. He toured frequently, was profiled on MTV and was a guest on The Howard Stern Show on September 26, 1996 where he played nearly-identical songs about Baba Booey and Stern.
Some questioned the aesthetic taste of Willis’ audience. Rock critic Will Robinson Sheff wrote that Willis’ “periodic appearances for crowds of jeering white fratboys evoke an uncomfortable combination of minstrel act and traveling freakshow.” Others heralded Willis as a welcome punk respite from overproduced pop music and pretentious indie rock.
One of Willis’ trademarks was headbutting with his fans. Typically when approached by a fan, Willis would gingerly hold his or her head between his hands and say, “Say rock!” The fan would respond as instructed and he would bump his head against his or hers. Then he would say, “Say roll!” and the fan would again respond as instructed and the two would again bump heads. Willis would repeat this over and over as long as the fan would tolerate it. The large bruise in the center of his forehead resulted from this habit.
On August 21, 2003, at the age of forty, Willis died due to complications from chronic myelogenous leukemia. At the time of his death, he had recorded over 1,000 songs but his total life savings were less than $300.”
It is now 10 years since Wesley Willis has passed away.
Every Record I Own - Day 13: Akimbo Forging Steel and Laying Stone
Akimbo drummer Nat Damm took over the drum duties for Kill Rock Stars’ classic rock rave-ups Tight Bros From Way Back When for their second album Lend You A Hand. Tight Bros would break up shortly after, with singer Jared Warren resuming the bass duties he’d tackled in Karp and The Whip to start Big Business. Warren and his Business partner Coady Willis were later absorbed by Melvins for several album cycles. Akimbo was still a fledgling band during Damm’s tenure in Tight Bros, but began a steady recording and touring schedule after the release of Harshing Your Mellow. Despite a rotating cast of guitarists, Akimbo managed to keep busy with the release and support of follow-up albums Elephatine and City of Stars. At some point in those touring cycles, Akimbo found themselves with an off-day on tour and wound up using their connection with Jared Warren to hop on a show with Melvins. This was during the era of the Melvins / Jello Biafra collaborations, and consequently the show put Akimbo on Biafra’s radar. Their next album, Forging Steel and Laying Stone, was ultimately released by Biafra on his Alternative Tentacles record label. It was the largest label Akimbo had worked with yet, though it was a partnership that would’ve made more sense ten years prior when the label was still highly active and widely visible with a roster of bands like Neurosis, Zeni Geva, Dead and Gone, and Logical Nonsense. Regardless, all three of the albums Akimbo released through Alternative Tentacles are worth your time. Bought this LP at the first location of Capitol Hill’s Sonic Boom Records in Seattle.
Tragic Mulatto - Chartreuse Toulouse. Alternative Tentacles. 1990.
Be honest. Did you ever think rock and tubas would work well together? This band had them working together perfectly. Sadly this was their last album.
They were very different from other rock bands around at the time, and not many vocalists had such a good scream as Flatula.
The world needs more bands like this!
Every Record I Own - Day 12: Akimbo Harshing Your Mellow
We’re gonna spend a few days talking about Akimbo. For those unaware, Akimbo were a three-piece out of Seattle existing from 1998 - 2012. Over the course of a split 10″ w/ Teen Cthulu, a 7″, and seven LPs, the band morphed from a spazzy, bass-driven punk band to a cerebral sludge unit on labels like Seventh Rule, Alternative Tentacles, and Neurot. Harshing Your Mellow was their first album, originally released on the short-lived Seattle label Rock & Roleplay Records in 2002 and eventually reissued with new artwork and packaging on Alternative Tentacles in 2007. This is the original version. We’ll look at the trajectory of the band a bit more in the days to come, but for this album Akimbo’s sound was moving away from their punk origins to a heavier hardcore sound, but still retained a brainy edge to them with some skronky Nomeansno-esque bass lines. Even in 2017 it’s a pretty fresh-sounding record, though the band’s active touring period would start with subsequent albums, meaning at this point Akimbo were more of a local secret.
Time & Place: Dog Faced HermansBump And Swing & Hum Of Life
When we reflect on the major cultural developments of the ‘00s, the rise of the mp3 is an obvious frontrunner. The iPod changed the way we listen to music, and there are a handful of records that—for me personally—exemplify exactly how the portability and convenience of the mp3 directly altered my music tastes. I’d been exposed to Earth 2, I owned Caspar Brotzmann Massaker albums, I had seen Godspeed You! Black Emperor live, but it wasn’t until I got my first iPod at the end of 2003 and I found myself giving these records a more thorough listen in the right environment that I became a full-fledged fan of those bands. The first album that I rediscovered and learned to properly appreciate in the advent of the iPod age was Dog Faced Hermans’ live album Bump And Swing.
I originally purchased Bump And Swing almost ten years earlier. It was during a phase in my life when I would buy pretty much anything on Alternative Tentacles Records. My initial reaction to Dog Faced Hermans was mild disappointment. It wasn’t as heavy as Neurosis. It wasn’t as bass-driven as Nomeansno. It wasn’t as warped as Tumor Circus. There was trumpet and violin and a woman that was sorta singing but sorta just talking with a weird accent. It was interesting enough for me to hold onto the CD through the rest of high school and college, and I even wound up acquiring a free copy of their Those Deep Buds album. Aside from a few cursory listens every couple of years, the albums just sat on a shelf collecting dust. But when I started loading up my first iPod, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to give them another shot.
I was working at a call center for a Mercedes dealership in the suburbs of Seattle in the spring of ’04. It was a temp job and it was absolutely miserable. I’ve scrubbed a fair number of toilets in my time, but this was somehow worse than any of my janitorial positions. There were delusional coworkers, vindictive bosses, entitled customers, a cutthroat sales team, and a super invasive code-of-conduct policy. I got hired on as a temp because they didn’t want any new hires in the call center since the whole team was going to be laid-off in a few weeks and replaced with an automated system. I mentioned this to my coworkers on my first day, and it wound up that none of them had been informed that their jobs were on the chopping block. Oops.
It was so awful that during my lunch breaks I would try to get as far away as possible from the dealership, and so it happened that on one such break I was in a city park with my iPod when I decided to give Bump And Swing another chance. Back in the days of walkmans and discmans, I would’ve picked one or two albums to haul along with me to work. I would never have risked being stuck a full day with a CD or tape by an unfamiliar band. But with the iPod, I had my whole library, and seeing the list of artists at my disposal, it seemed like a good opportunity to try out something new. Sitting in that park without any distractions, flustered and stressed out from my job, the strange racket made by four Dutch punks finally struck a chord with me. Specifically, I remember “Love Is The Heart Of Everything” coming on and getting sucked into the swaths of feedback, the Eastern violin melody, the growling bass line, and the drum pattern that sounded impossible for one person to pull off. It was angry but it had poise. It sounded like a combination of free jazz, European folk music, anarcho-punk, and noise rock, and it all somehow worked together. I can understand how it was underwhelming background music in my teenage years, but given the proper focus at age 26, it was a perfect blend of chaos and sophistication.
A few months later, I ripped a copy of their Hum Of Life record off a woman that roadied for These Arms Are Snakes and finally got to hear the studio recordings of those songs. Not only would I rank Hum Of Life as one of my desert-island albums, I also consider Dog Faced Hermans as the band that marked a shift in my listening habits. With the advent of the iPod, there could be a soundtrack to any occasion, and with Dog Faced Hermans I learned that you could garner a new appreciation for a band by experiencing their music in a new environment.