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Wesley Willis RIP

Wednesday, 27th August, 2003

He wasn't a very well known contributor to the global melee of music, but those who knew him loved him with a passion. Wesley Willis is possibly the first loss to the musical world since Frank Zappa to remove something truly unique from our future experience. It's going to be a far less colourful world without him.

Wesley is what is known as an Outsider. He made music that most would cringe at or throw away, but that was heartfelt and honest, which is more than can be said for 99% of the corporate cookie cutter crap that ClearChannel pumps out like silage. He reportedly wrote 35,000 mostly identical songs in his life, released many cassettes and a few greatest hits packages on Alternative Tentacles, a site that has currently been entirely replaced by a couple of pages about Wesley. If such action by AT head honcho Jello Biafra isn't a heartfelt tribute, I don't know what is.

If you've never had the privilege of hearing the six foot five bundle of schizophrenic joy that was Wesley Willis and his Technics keyboard, search out his song 'Rock 'n' Roll McDonalds', and you'll understand where he came from. It's on his 'Greatest Hits' album on Alternative Tentacles, and also on the quite stunning Outsider compilation, 'Songs in the Key of Z' which everyone should hear once.

'Songs in the Key of Z' was a companion CD to the book of the same name by Irwin Chusid that deals with a wide range of Outsider talent. It's a fascinating read that covers everyone from names many have heard like Syd Barrett or Joe Meek to the really obscure like Jandek or Shooby Taylor, the Human Horn. It looks at their lives, their works, and their contribution to our musical heritage. It's well worth the price of admission. Find it. It should be at Amazon.

While I'd heard the album a few years ago, my local library has only just got hold of the book for me. I devoured it in two days, and went searching for more Outsider music on the web. I'll cover more in the next few days but the best site about Jandek is a good starting point:

A Guide to Jandek is amazingly comprehensive for an artist about whom very little is known. Jandek is possibly the only musician whose sound cannot be connected to anyone else. You can trace the family tree back from Septic Death to The Ink Spots and back however many hundred years from Steve Vai to Hildegard von Bingen but Jandek won't appear anywhere on there. The entire span of musical history sits on that tree except for Jandek who inhabits his lonely tree next door.

There's no rhyme or even sense to his lyrics, there's no melody, harmony or musical structure to his guitar playing. Most of his albums are solo efforts with the last three being entirely a capella. Yet somehow there is a haunting, timeless quality to his work that draws you in. It makes no sense to say it, but a Jandek piece refuses to sit happily in the background but is impossible to focus on.

What's even stranger is that he has never performed live, never given an interview and he issues his own albums on his own label without any fanfare. Naturally sales are almost zero but something in Jandek drives him on and there are now 34 albums to his name, all currently available on CD at bargain prices from the man himself, or at least his record label. I will definitely be buying these very soon indeed.

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