My Life is a Rock Joyride: “The Daddy of Rock ‘n’ Roll” profiles Chicago’s gentle giant Wesley Willis

By on June 5, 2019

In Wesley Willis: The Daddy of Rock ‘n’ Roll (2003), completed just a few months before his death, we witness the daily routines of an unkempt, mentally unstable gentle giant who gained a huge cult following in the 1990s as an outsider musician/artist.

Watch this fascinating hour-long cinéma vérité NSFW (for language) documentary — directed by Daniel Bitton, who mostly shot footage of Willis in and around his native Chicago — on Night Flight Plus.

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We see Willis — a diagnosed chronic paranoid schizophrenic who stood six-foot six-inches tall and weighed well over three hundred pounds — riding public transportation, visiting a local Kinko’s and record stores, and occasionally sitting with some of his friends for interviews, including recording engineer Steve Albini.

We also see Willis playing with his band, the Wesley Willis Fiasco, singing over the top of simple notes played, one finger at a time, on Technics KN electronic keyboard.

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Willis’s lyrics were filled with obscene and profane imagery, particularly sodomy, bestiality and/or scatological references.

Willis sang about his various obsessions, which included celebrities, fast food outlets and comic book violence (he doesn’t appear to be a fan of either Superman or Batman).

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He also dropped in popular TV ad slogans to signify his song has come to an end (“Allstate, you’re in good hands” comes at the end of “I’m the Daddy of Rock ‘n’ Roll”).

Here’s an excerpt from the song in the film’s title:

“I’m the godfather of being a rock musician, I’m the godfather of singing,
I’m the godfather of taking everyone on a music joyride,
I love the rocket travel, I’m the daddy of rock and roll”

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In 1989, when Wesley Willis (b. 1963 in Chicago, IL) was twenty-five years old, he began hearing voices, which he called his “demons.”

During a tw0-month institutionalization, he told doctors and visitors that the demons had names like “Heartbreaker,” “Nervewrecker,” and “Meansucker.”

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He called his psychotic episodes “hellrides,” but he declared that rock ‘n’ roll was his “joyride music.”

There’s a sense of darkness here too, with Willis admitting, at one point, “I’m already doomed. I can’t find a girlfriend, I can’t do a goddamned thing.”

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Willis was a self-taught visual artist long before he made music, using pen with different colors of ink to produce hundreds of singular drawings, most of them of Chicago street scenes and CTA buses.

His eidetic (photographic) memory was so accurate that days later he could draw locations he’d seen briefly from bus windows.

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Willis often sold these ink pen drawings of Chicago streetscapes to people on the street, and his works of “outsider art” often appeared on the covers of his independently self-produced and self-distributed albums.

He became such a regionally well-known local personality that “ABC News” produced a profile on him.

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Read more about Wesley Willis below.

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Writing about Willis in his excellent book Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music (published in 2000 by A Cappella Books), music historian Irwin Chusid describes Willis as “a six-foot four-inch [he was actually 6′ 6″], 320-pound schizophrenic teddy bear.”

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“This musical Gargantua drools, spits indoors, and doesn’t care much about hygiene. He gobbles heavy medication to control self-destructive impulses. He occasionally throws up onstage during club dates. These qualities do not make Wes an outsider. In fact, he shares this behaviors with many notable Grammy winners.”

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Chusid writes that “if you’ve heard one Wesley Willis song, you’ve heard six thousand,” and claims that Willis has penned 35,000 songs, all sounding remarkably alike, hinting at a repetitive strain injury.

“The general Willis compositional formula is a kicking dance-velocity synth beat over which he sings a chorus — generally consisting of the song title — in an off-key, adenoidal whine, followed by one or two verses delivered in a husky, commanding declamation. Beyond this simple pattern, there is rarely variation. The pre-programmed, Devo-lite electrobeat mosey along for three minutes, even is Wes’s vocals end one-third into the tune. There are no ballads. Some songs are uptempo. Some are slightly more uptempo. others are — umptemo again. A typical Willis album sounds like one extended megamix with four-second, indexed pauses every few minutes.”

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Willis joined musicians from Chicago’s alt-rock scene to form the hard rock band the Wesley Willis Fiasco, which developed a cult following and he soon caught the ear of American Recordings, which at the time was being distributed by Warner Music Group.

In early ’94, Willis recorded with Monster Voodoo Machine, a Canadian industrial-metal band, appearing on their debut album Suffersystem (it won a Juno award).

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The following year Willis was signed to American, and he went on to record two albums for them while also producing dozens on albums independently, which he sold himself at his shows and also sold to small record stores.

Jello Biafra
picked the best of his songs for release on his Alternative Tentacles label.

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Willis toured around the country frequently, often greeting fans with a loving head-butt, which left him with a permanent bruise in the center of his forehead, which he often referred to as his “third eye.”

He was profiled on MTV and even appeared on “The Howard Stern Show” (on September 26, 1996), where he performed nearly-identical songs about the show and about “Baba Booey” (Stern’s nickname for the executive producer of his radio show, Gary Dell’Abate).

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Willis died on August 21, 2003, due to complications from chronic myelogeneous leukemia in Skokie, Illinois. He was forty years old.

Watch Wesley Willis: The Daddy of Rock ‘n’ Roll on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.