My kid-sister-in-law Colleen used to greet Wesley Willis on her way to and from class in Chicago. Wesley was a homeless, 300-pound schizophrenic who then made a few bucks selling ballpoint pen drawings and a CD he’d cut of homemade songs sung (badly— tone-deaf Wesley was a living refutation of the myth that black people are naturally musical) in front of a Casio keyboard that always played the same tune. Colleen usually shared her change, bought a CDs and received her blessing: knocking foreheads together and Wesley’s assurance that “you are my friend in Jesus’ name”. Starting in the 1970s, and then with a vengence in the 1980's, there was a devil's bargain between liberal pity for the institutionalized and conservative disdain for the poor : schizophrenics and severe manic depressives were turned out of the State Hospitals by the thousands and given pittances for rent and medications-- of course, they didn't take their medicine without supervision and wound up living on the street or being exploited in the new, private sector "group homes". Wesley was just one more broken loser, a failed capitalist in self congratulatory America. Great job, Brownie.
Then the beautiful people discovered Wesley. Chicago punks started using him as an opening act, then nationally known “alternative” artists, who shall remain nameless because I don’t feel like getting into a pissing match with Jello Biafra fans, started hailing Wesley Willis as a primitive genius, a celebrity of outsider art, started getting him gigs, recording contracts, having him over until they got tired of him. And I have no problem with that, if it got him out of the cold once in a while, if he had friends who checked on him once in a while.
But as entertainment, I never quite thought the joke was funny. I thought Will Robinson Sheff hit the nail on the head when he said "periodic appearances for crowds of jeering white "fratboys" evoke an uncomfortable combination of minstrel act and traveling freakshow. “It’s funny” my less fastidious friends tell me, “it’s not exploitive, it’s funny the way he screams ‘Suck a Swiss hound’s diiiiick...’ “. It’s still a freak show, I answer, and I have mixed feelings about the morality of freak shows. But then it’s all about the freak show these days, isn’t it? And nothing is immoral in America if it can be marketed somehow.
But Wesley died of leukemia at the age of 40, and no one seems to know where Wesley’s money went from the sold-out shows and the novelty act CD sales and his appearance fees for being laughed at on the Howard Stern show. If stealing a dead crazy man's money is a prerequisite for hipness, then turn my heart to stone. In a more honest age, we called them “geeks” and they bit the heads off live chickens and we paid them in drugs or bottles of hootch, and paraded them for the marks as “The Wild Man of Borneo” or some such-- but we knew it was grotesque and we didn’t kid ourselves that we were being chic. Yeah, rock on, Chicago.