by Trevor Prosser
If you happened to be walking past the Calgary Multicultural Centre on the evening of Sunday, March 4, you might have heard some very strange sounds emanating into the night.
What you heard could have been one of the opening acts that night, ranging from the Motherfuckers loud punk, to the soft, and thankfully so, Country Teasers. But by far the strangest sound of the night was met by the loudest applause.
If youve never heard of Wesley Willis, you might be like a few of the uninformed youth lounging in the back at the show, commenting on how "messed up" he is. But take a closer look, and youll find something quite amazing.
Willis is a big man, at 65" and estimated at 300 lbs. Now living in a group home, he began his musical career living on the streets of Chicago. He suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, but "suffers" is perhaps too harsh a term. Willis may not exactly be a regular rags-to-riches story, but he is definitely successful. He has released more than 20 albums, and recorded over 400 songs. Sound like a lot? Willis doesnt think so - hes been quoted as saying hed like to record 100,000 albums.
Whats his inspiration? His "schizophrenia demons" are voices in his head, and he often refers to them in his songs. He also sings about his disease, the stigmas attached to being a schizophrenic, homeless, and overweight. He sings about his favorite bands, and gains a measure of revenge by singing about people who have wronged him.
But when Wesley Willis sings, you can tell hes not exactly one of the Three Tenors. He sits behind his keyboard, with a microphone placed in front of him, and a song list on a music stand obscuring his face to most of the audience. He raps and sings, and plays a few notes on his keyboard, while an offstage technician mixes the audio. His songs are loud, and follow a set pattern, with the same three notes repeated over and over. And every song he performed at this show was followed by "Rock over London, rock on Calgary, Alberta."
I actually got a chance to meet Willis, and get his autograph. But when I handed over a print of a pen drawing Willis himself had done, he stared at it for at least a minute, saying nothing, as if he had never seen his own work before. He touched it several times, seeming to try to recall the reality behind the drawing, then signed it and continued selling CDs to the eager crowd. But sadly, I wasnt lucky enough to receive a headbutt from Willis - his preferred way of greeting people. He will gently put his massive hand behind a persons head, and begin banging his head against theirs. "Say rawk," he tells them. "Rock," they repeat. "Say rawl," he growls. "Roll," they say. Then the smile spreads across Willis face, and he moves on to meet the next adoring fan.