Schizophrenic musical cult figure and street artist Wesley Willis, all 300-plus pounds of him, had a photographic memory and a penchant for immortalizing celebrities he admired in idiosyncratic song. He always greeted people with a signature head-butt (for fans, it was a badge of honor to receive one) and topped off each song with the words "Rock over London, rock on Chicago." Although the latter city was his home, he was fond of Denver and often visited here for a month at a time. Willis, one of those pure artists who created simply because he couldn't do otherwise, died last August of leukemia at the age of forty.
The idiot-savant tag has both positive and negative connotations, but if you ask Denverites Chris Bagley and Kim Shively, Willis documentarians who hope to release their film about him this summer, Wesley was not only a gifted Renaissance man, but a rare and inspirational, if misunderstood, human being.
"People will listen to his music on the moon someday," Bagley suggests, and it could turn out to be true. The sheer output of the man -- some sixty albums, many of them self-produced, and countless pen-and-felt-tip sketches of Chicago expressways so detailed they include license-plate numbers and billboard reproductions -- is mind-boggling. "He was unstoppable," Shively notes. "He was the hardest-working guy I've ever met; he thought of nothing but doing his art and music." Some would call him a prime example of the outsider artist, but Bagley prefers to label Willis "intuitive."
"He proved it's not always necessary to shove people with mental illnesses aside, that they can live in society and contribute," Bagley says. "I'm so glad he wasn't shelved."
The filmmakers, who became close to Willis over the years, have organized a show of his artwork, which opens tonight at Ironton Gallery; Ironton will host a gallery talk by the pair later in the month, with an added outsider-art presentation by local artist Bill Amundson. Proceeds from show sales will benefit a fund to provide a proper headstone and build a Chicago memorial for Willis -- a bust of the artist that people can head-butt. "There are lots of people who never had the chance to head-butt Wesley in person," Bagley notes.
Rock over London, rock on Chicago! Wesley Willis lives.