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Mind over Matter: Schizophrenic musician Wesley Willis.


The peculiar appeal of Joan of Arc, John Nash, and Wesley Willis

By Patrick Sullivan

In a storefront on Kentucky Street, a tearful Joan of Arc was preparing herself to burn at the stake. A few blocks away, a 320-pound schizophrenic African-American man named Wesley Willis was preparing to mount the stage at the Phoenix Theatre to sing very strange songs full of very strange obscenities to a crowd of suburban white kids with very nice teeth.

Anyone doubting that Petaluma can get really weird should have been wandering the city's streets on the evening of Jan. 18.

Joan was in town courtesy of the Friday Night Film Series, which was screening The Passion of Joan of Arc, director Carl Theodor Dreyer's stunningly beautiful silent classic about France's most famous heroine, a young woman haunted by strange visions and voices.

Wesley Willis was there courtesy of a bunch of underground music fans eager to pay $8 a head to hear this Chicago musician (diagnosed with schizophrenia back in 1989) sing songs like "Fuck with Me and Find Out" and "Santa Claus Was a Car Thief."

Was it a night of martyrs in a town without pity? Or a reassuring sign that the mentally ill can have a go at the music biz, just like anyone else?

A critic of the Wesley Willis phenomenon could easily work up an ugly indictment of his audiences. The argument might go like this: Here is a morbidly obese and mentally ill black man who attracts a following by performing ludicrously repetitive songs full of verbal aggression and profanity. This is the contemporary music underground's equivalent of an early 20th-century minstrel show--or the chicken-biting geek at an old-school carnival.

In other words--the argument might go--the kids think Willis is pretty damn funny because he's weird, deranged, and pitiable. And maybe also because he's black.

And there's no question that some in the Phoenix crowd were there to gawk and provoke and enjoy themselves at Willis' expense. Howls of laughter greeted the musician's frequent outbursts of profanity. And when Willis wasn't entertaining enough, the remedy was close at hand: "I want to suck your cock, Wesley!" one guy in the audience shrieked over and over. "I want to lick your ass!" Eventually, the screamer got the rise he wanted out of his target: "Shut the fuck up!" Willis screamed back.

But anyone watching the musician selling his CDs (he's recorded twenty or so) before the show couldn't help but notice that most fans going up to his table were courteous, even deferential. They weren't there to mess with him; they wanted to take his picture and get his autograph.

Willis seemed to be having a good time. He laughed and joked with the crowd before the show, and he certainly enjoyed the roar of approval that greeted his appearance on the stage. Once upon a time, Willis (who hears voices in his head that take him, in his own words, on "torture hell rides") was homeless. Now he makes a living touring and recording albums for punk icon Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label.

Let's turn to Hollywood for a minute. In A Beautiful Mind, a new flick based on the real experiences of schizophrenic genius John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician (played by Russell Crowe) is depicted as willing himself out of the grip of his illness by recognizing his delusions and fighting their power. Part of his cure lay in rejoining society and interacting with other people--just as Willis interacts with his fans.

And Willis' fans get something more out of the deal than a few laughs. In fact, Wesley Willis could be seen as a contemporary example of a very old phenomenon: the tortured visionary.

Maybe that sounds like a stretch. But in a musical era dominated by Britney Spears and her ilk, a musician reporting back from the uncharted territory of profound mental illness has to be appreciated for offering something outside the pop music pale--even if his pipes are a little rusty.

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From the January 24-30, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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