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Wesley Willis

Once Wesley Willis was simply a member of Chicago's legions of homeless, albeit a rather unique and imposing one -- a six-and-a-half foot, 350-pound black man with a brow-to-chin knife scar and severe paranoid schizophrenia who rode the bus a lot and earned a little money selling his colorful line drawings of the city. In the early '90s Willis began writing songs and before long, pre-Smashing Pumpkins Billy Corgan collaborator Dale Meiners took him in, helped him exhibit his art, and introduced him to such local indie rock luminaries as Corgan, Urge Overkill's Nash Kato and Steve Albini. Soon Meiners and Willis were playing music together in the aptly titled heavy metal group The Wesley Willis Fiasco.

Naturally the media loved the novelty aspect of Willis's music and background and soon he found himself profiled everywhere from MTV to Entertainment Weekly. None of it really fazed him. All the man seems to be interested in is making music -- and tons of it, more than 20 albums and 400 songs in less than a decade. It's easy for Willis to achieve this volume of output because the songs are pretty much the same song, with the same melodies, rhythms, and chords (for the most part produced on Willis's Technics KN-2000. Even the lyrics tend to repeat themselves -- "rock over London, rock over Chicago" is a recurring Willis motif.

But it's the lyrical content that grabs people. Always delivered in his trademark shout-sing, Willis's words are marked by their raw, primitive honesty, their often violently nonsensical imagery, and Willis's occasional need to curse the demons in his head mid-song. One of his favorite approaches to songwriting is the tribute, in which he offers biographical data and testimony to the various feats and virtues of his subjects, usually musicians. In fact, his first label-backed album, Rock 'N' Roll Will Never Die (1996), featuring songs about "Hootie & the Blowfish," "Kurt Cobain," "Jello Biafra," "Spin Doctors," "Fugazi," "Jefferson Airplane," and "Wesley Willis Fiasco," among others, consisted only of these pieces. But in his own blunt and na?ve way, Willis also delves into more serious subjects. As he himself puts it, "I just love to play rock and roll, I love to write songs all the time about what's up on these streets, I write songs about people getting killed, I write songs about people getting beaten up, I write songs about people getting taken to jail by the police, I also write songs about love and happiness."

Whether you love Wesley Willis or despise him, it's hard not to admire him. He's an amazing survivor who loves where he is and what he's doing, and has made the most of it.

Alternative Tentacles has collected the best songs from Willis's numerous albums into two greatest hits collections. The second one, released in 1999, features "The Vultures Ate My Dead Ass Up."

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