Of all the high-profile rock deaths we endured in 2003 -- Johnny Cash, Warren Zevon, Elliott Smith, Liz Phair's credibility, Third Eye Blind's career -- only one ghost still truly resonates here in the East Bay: Wesley Willis.
Yes, that guy, the three-hundred-pound-plus schizophrenic Chicagoan, street-scene painter, and cult icon who pounded out what fans estimate as sixty to seventy hours' worth of music in a mere decade. Like your first kiss, your first concert, your first Frappuccino, you will remember every detail of your first encounter with a Wesley Willis song: most often a tinny Casio keyboard beat overlaid with our hero's hilariously profane ramblings about his weight, his friends, his fistfights with famous personages (Batman, Spiderman, Mighty Thor).
He also dabbled in cultural critique, as on "Cut the Mullet":
Get the rat's nest off your head
Get that crazy-ass mother off your skull
Take your ass to the barbershop
Tell the barber that you're sick of looking
like an asshole
Perhaps you didn't realize it, but you've secretly thirsted for a nü-metal cover of this song. Thankfully, a 26-year-old Fremont resident who goes by the name of Hiji has masterminded Loved Like a Milkshake: A Wesley Willis Tribute Album, an online-only affair currently available for download at WesleyTribute.org. After Willis' death in August from leukemia complications, Hiji crafted a Craigslist posting suggesting some sort of cover-tune tribute deal. The frenzied response led to Milkshake, a nineteen-track affair that begins, triumphantly, with Scottish punk-metal band Haggis Rising's take on "Blood, Guts and Firetrucks."
It's a profoundly weird little album.
"I didn't want participants to come in and say, 'Oh yeah, I got my Casio keyboard, I'm gonna hit demo, and try and make myself sound like Wesley,'" Hiji says. "I wanted them to take the lyrics and kind of draw their own meaning from it, as they would any other band. Give it their own spin."
Thus, you get SF band the Shut-Ins doing a backwoods-folk "Rock 'n' Roll McDonald's." Reno's Twice attempts a death-metal "I Whupped Mighty Thor's Ass." And several acts go the electro-experimental route, including Hiji himself: His six-year-old solo project M-Halo tackles the profound protest song "Fuck You."
The album peaks, however, with a pair of bizarre tracks. Willis had a habit of writing songs based on bands he loved or shows he'd seen -- "Liz Phair," "Stabbing Westward," "Alanis Morissette." He also wrote "Eat at Joe's" for the so-named eclectic Reno folk band, and now, Milkshake proudly offers "Eat at Joe's" as covered by ... Eat at Joe's. Very meta.
But best of all is "Suck a Cheetah's Dick." Normally the bratty pop-punk laid down by Chico's uncuT would be repellent, but somehow it meshes perfectly with one of Willis' more evocative sentiments:
Suck a llama's shitty asshole!
Suck a panda bear's spermy nutsack!
Suck a sloth bear's bootyhole!
Suck a greyhound's musty ass, mothafucka!
Rumors abounded for awhile that Hiji hoped to convince Alternative Tentacles -- which put out several Willis albums and is run by devout fan and friend Jello Biafra -- to officially release and distribute Milkshake, but Hiji doubts it'll happen. Besides, he doesn't want to be perceived as cashing in on Wesley's death. He's just thrilled the album got made at all; he's a huge fan.
"I think a lot of people agree with me in saying that on depressing sad days, you can come home and put on Wesley Willis and get cheered up right away," he says. "There's something very unique to that."
Yes, but how long can that cheer sustain? KFJC, the small radio station booming out of Foothill College in Los Altos Hills (89.7 FM or KFJC.org), sought to find out. In late December it launched a 24-hour Wesley-a-Thon that combined prime cuts from the musician's 3,500-deep songbook with interviews and other wistful remembrances.
People, 24 hours is a long damn time.
KFJC's Dominic Trix, the project's mastermind and primary participant -- he figures he DJ'd 16 out of those 24 hours -- admits he had to be talked into it, initially by a friend at Alternative Tentacles: "He was sayin', 'You know, Wesley has a lot of material out. You should do a 24-hour special.' And I was like, 'Uhhhhh ... 24 hours of Wesley. That's a lot. '"
Correct. At first the Wesley-a-Thon delivered a perverse thrill, particularly on such rarities as his truly fearsome cover of Duran Duran's "Girls on Film." But though Willis displayed more musical nuance than folks usually give him credit for -- including a long stint with his touring band, the Fiasco -- after two hours the unaccustomed layman was probably ready to suck a sloth bear's bootyhole.
"When I first started out -- I started about five in the morning -- around six or seven, I thought, 'Oh my God, how am I gonna be able to last until nine, ten o'clock tonight?'" Dominic recalls. "But I don't know. Something just kinda passed, and I was like, 'Oh yeah, just need to keep going.' And then I just couldn't stop. Once I got my bearings, it was great. It was just totally insane. So much music. When we came down to the last hour, it was a race against time."
But the Wesley-a-Thon's greatest moments were the interviews with old bandmates and friends, Biafra included. Willis' troubled history of obesity and mental illness -- he'd sometimes get in shouting matches with his "demons" in mid-conversation with a fan -- make him a touchy subject for sensitive folks fearing that Wesley was being exploited as a cheap-thrills frat-house joke. But interviewee after interviewee waxed rhapsodically about WW's enthusiasm and astonishing triumph over the kind of adversity that'd lay waste to your average ultra-whiny indie rocker.
That's why the East Bay loves Wesley so. "He's a sign that anybody can get out there and do anything if they really wanna do it," Dominic explains. "Even if the chips are down, no matter how down they are, if you really put your heart to it, you can really do something. With music, he's also a sign that a lot of people out there, if they really wanna make music, they can really do it."
Survivor, populist, llama's ass-whipper. A Bay Area deity if there ever was one.
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