Heartbreaker, Nervewrecker, Meansucker—Which of You Stole Wesley Willis’ Money?

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.


Anonymous said...

He may have given it all away or gambled it all away on the boat in Michigan City. It can't have been millions// and where oh where is his "social worker"?
I had a client in South Bend voc rehab program that would play bingo with her monthly check and then couldn't pay her rent. I got her a guardian ASAP so I didn't have to mess with the short funds......Sigh, (not much difference between geeks and freaks or who pays attention to them)...Dee Ann

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Don't know if I could put Wes in the same position as Dee Ann's client, but that's because I knew the guy. Before he was involved in the music, its as Mike said, he would sit at corner intersections and capture each angle, sitting for hours. I doubt he got paid much for what he did once he was the "opening act." Frankly, I doubt he knew where Michigan City is. Social worker? To paraphrase CHINATOWN, "Its Chicago, Jake."

Anonymous said...

It's true Wayne, I'm always look'in at the good (and logical) and I have lived in Chicago. --People have a tough exterior, but will help you out there. I took in a waitress who was living in her car. --, meddled enough to get her big brother to take her and her kids in away from the husband who was beating her.
I guess I was hoping he had someone looking after him --everybody needs a angel. Sigh,
(trying to be realistic) Dee Ann

Anonymous said...

i know he had a manager, who drove his bus. i'm sure he had to of handled some of the money from shows and tours. when i saw them they were selling t shirts every time too.