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Mediocre Sickness 

Wednesday, Dec 4 1996
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"Wesley Willis Art Joyride"
ArtRock
Friday, Nov. 22

Yes, there was "art," and there was "music" -- punctuation essential -- and plenty of jaded smirking. But all of that was predestined. How unfortunate that, as a reaction to so many depraved pop-culture installations, piety is predictable. Not because ethics are ailing, sympathy is emitting its death rattle, or even because taste is up on the slab, embalmed, and ready for coffin-fitting. No -- the only pity in piety is that it feeds those who still believe in the merit of shock value their meat and potatoes. The minute you're outraged, or even merely annoyed, by some snotty, vulgar display, you're an asshole, a spoilsport. Such purveyors of shock value are reminiscent of brats poking a sewer treat, or even poking you, with a stick. Well, at this late point in the 20th century, I don't know about you, but I feel like I've been poked about 10,000 times, and I can finally start saying ow. Of course, doing so still gives the persistent varmints their opening. "Ha-ha! He said, 'Ow!' "

If you know anything about Wesley Willis, whether or not you're a "fan" (many things in this account will require placement in quotation marks), you know that he's mentally ill. Genuinely. Really. No irony here, no pomo hilarity, no kitschy appreciation, no shtick. He's sick, an oversize, sometimes belligerent head case who up until recently spent his time noisily hawking his drawings on the streets of Chicago. To be entertained by Willis is to mock the village idiot. This is nothing new in the world. There's always been a village idiot to mock, and a general citizenry to delight in mocking him. Given any degree of anthropological detachment, we can't slag people for doing this. They always have.

What we can call Willis' audience on, however, is the fact that they don't think they're participating in this illustrious tradition. By that standard, they are their own suckers. ArtRock is a gallery devoted to hippie/Deadhead/Summer of Love art, and hence of immediate and intense interest to well-heeled boomers. A definite white-wine-and-ponytail environment, where dropping a couple of thou for a wide-eyed and tie-dyed Steve Miller Band poster puts aging consumers back in touch with their (largely imagined) countercultural dalliances of yesteryear. Willis' appearance was a special event put on by the gallery, Juxtapoz mag, and Willis' label, American. I was almost glad to see Willis' naive felt-tip-and-butcher-paper urban landscapes tacked up on the wall opposite the acid flashbacks. They offered plenty of schizophrenic repetition -- intricate boxes upon boxes of cityscape, tight zigzags of Sharpie pen strokes -- so much, in fact, that two of the pictures, featuring buses coming through an intersection, seemed identical save their hues. My companion wondered aloud whether someone had penciled in the shapes for Willis, essentially providing him with coloring books. Could be. I've certainly seen better schizophrenic art. An acquaintance used to work with the mentally ill, and one of her patients blessed her with a portrait. The fanning rows of thumbs alone on that wonderfully inhuman likeness made the work of cubists look like suburban refrigerator art -- and never mind the eyes. (Words fail.) If we're going to disregard sympathy for the insane, as Willis' sponsors would require of us, his art, if not his sickness, was looking pretty mediocre.

But there was some sympathy for Willis himself. A big man, he wandered the party, bragging to none and to all about his upcoming performance on the keyboard in the middle of the room. Willis is at times hard to understand; I heard him say something about sucking a horse's pee hole, by way of expressing the intensity with which he was about to rock. The horde of vaguely unpleasant hipsters all sniggered when Willis made his outrageous outbursts. (The sideburns, the chic retro clothes on these people -- somewhere in the cosmos there must be a tireless deity of cool wielding an oily cookie cutter.) The giggling and encouragement that the audience provided for Willis seemed to be the purpose of the event. I did overhear a couple of people say, "This is so bad," but I couldn't tell whether their smiles indicated embarrassment or approval. Everyone seemed to feel like they were in on some kind of joke, but there was none.

Willis performed his "songs" -- "Drink My Doberman's Piss," "Chino XL," "Slayer Can Rock, Slayer Can Roll," "Alanis Morissette," et cetera -- by triggering preprogrammed drum beats and electronic instrumentation on his keyboard, pressing single keys to change chords. Willis doesn't have a four-octave range -- four notes is closer -- or a pleasing vocal timbre. Surprise, surprise. Song titles, repeated over and over, served as choruses, verses, bridges, and refrains. When Willis added anything, it was usually one of his catch phrases ("Rock me to Russia"), some meager description of interspecies fellatio, or an admonition not to get one's ass thrown in jail. In short, schizophrenia was at work, providing non sequitur and repeat. Willis would always close songs the same way: by saying "Rock over London, rock over San Francisco" and pressing a button to summon a schmaltzy coda. Willis would often make false starts and ask the audience whether they liked his lyrics. They provided him with encouragement. If there was one saving grace to this whole aberrant boutique, it was that people wanted Willis to do well, whatever their motives. And as for Willis, I was fond of the way he asked people to bump his head, so he could "act like a goddamn fool." Willis liked people. This is perhaps only further indication of his condition.

Is it better that Willis is put on display in this way than set loose to wander the streets and eat out of dumpsters? Yes, if only for his stomach and not for his dignity. Then again, dignity never amounted to much among the sick. The freak shows of the 19th century marked a vast improvement in the condition of the deformed. They ate, they breathed, they weren't drowned at birth. Their handlers took pretty good care of them some of the time -- especially compared to the freak-fearing general populace. The same argument is used in defense of Willis' "rock star" career -- but whatever betterment freak shows offered freaks didn't make them any more tasteful. The paying audience may provide the sick with a better standard of living, but their attendance doesn't highlight their humanity. "I am very protective of Wesley," says Willis' PR person, even as she brags of putting him on Howard Stern's radio show. Of course she is. Willis, and his schizophrenia, are his draw and her meal ticket. I'm glad Willis has achieved his delusion of stardom, with the help of those only too glad to exploit -- but that doesn't make me feel any better about the human race, the stick-poking, cookie-cutter lot of them.

About The Author

Michael Batty

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