Y Spy: Josh Olsen – Quick Walks Outside the Lines

If there’s one word that kept coming up in my interview with newly published author and fellow La Crosse expatriate Josh Olsen, it was nontraditional.  In describing himself, his writing career, his road to becoming a teacher, and his family life, Olsen often defaulted to using this term.  The shoe seems to fit; most of the roads he described in his life were painted as accidental journeys, not so much paved by choice but by unexpected opportunity.  It was through these slips of fortune ‒ finding himself a father at age 19, taking an inconsistent educational path through graduate school, developing a writing style he expected no one to see, and being offered various teaching positions in which he could teach that growingly public craft ‒ from which Olsen was able to gain the chance to enact a more conscious change, recently publishing Six Months, his own book of one page stories, over a decade after he began writing.

Even his choice of writing these one page stories doesn’t come off as conventional.  “Initially, I definitely did consider what I did poetry.  That’s what I called it; that’s what I submitted it as.  It’s probably because I wasn’t really familiar with other possibilities outside the genre.  I knew that what I was writing wasn’t traditional short story or a novel, but at the time I wasn’t familiar with the smaller subgenres like flash fiction.  I always had that short narrative style, but once I started gathering it into a collection, thinking what it would look like on the printed page, I intended to contain each piece in one page or less.”

Despite literature traditionally being a more time-consuming investment, Olsen enjoys this short, easy, and concise style of writing.  “60 minutes, 90 minutes, there are a lot of good things you can do in that amount of time: listen to a fantastic album, watch your favorite movie.  I like that condensed space and time.  I think that a lot of people are moving in that direction of condensed style, saying as much as you can in as few words as possible.”

At first he wrote solely for himself.  “It was definitely used as an emotional release, helping me cope with various things I was going through at the time.  I didn’t begin with any expectations of anybody reading my stuff.”  It wasn’t until he attended creative writing classes at Viterbo College in La Crosse that he decided to grow his writing beyond journal-keeping.  “I was exposed to the idea of other people seeing my stuff.  I’ve gotta workshop it, I’ve gotta tweak it, make it presentable.”

One thing that came up in our conversation was the idea of a journaler’s conflict, of writing solely for one’s self in a medium built for communication.  No matter how secret a piece is kept, writing is designed to be read, either by being found by others or read and remembered by the author in the future.  The question always arises: who is a writer, even a solipsist one, really writing for?

“I think there’s definitely a conflict.  I would be hard pressed to think of a time when I’ve written something and not thought afterwards about whether it was something I could use, revise, build upon, extract to another piece.  It’s still for myself to this day, but there’s still that thought in the back of my head.”

Though he submitted a few pieces to college publications at Viterbo and later at Mankato University in Minnesota where he undertook graduate work, Olsen didn’t submit work for publication until he was out of school.  By then he had decided to not only write but teach about writing.  For seven years he has led the life of a nomadic instructor, working primarily at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and at Wayne State University in Detroit as well as picking up college level writing courses around the area, sometimes hitting multiple schools in one day.

Teaching wasn’t something he planned to do.  “I knew that I wanted to work on my writing and improve it.  I knew that I eventually wanted to publish, but I had no intention to teach.  An opportunity came up to intern in a screenwriting class.  I enjoyed the time I had there with the professor I was working with.  I had the opportunity to teach my own section of Composition.  Definitely a rough start, but it was the one job that I enjoyed, more so than my experiences waiting tables or working at gas stations or factories.  I came to it rather late, at least with my intentions.”

Olsen noted that a lot of writing instructors are past life writers themselves, something which he is determined to avoid becoming.  “It was a goal of my own, seeing so many former writers become teachers and then forget about the writing.  For me, part of being a writing teacher is to teach what I’m actually doing.”

What he ended up doing was releasing Six Months in 2011, finishing off a year and a half long process of creation.  The stories within this book were taken from a five year period in Olsen’s writing, roughly spanning the years 2005 to 2010.  After writing for 10 years and attempting to develop various projects to fruition, he received a book offer from Brian Fugett, publisher of the online-print publication Zygote in My Coffee, a frequent supporter of Olsen’s work.

That support was vital for Six Months.  “At least for that first book, I wanted somebody else to put their name and trust behind it, that traditional model where somebody embraced what I have written.  Since then I’ve definitely put my feet to the pavement as far as promoting it.  It’s definitely another part time job, more time consuming than I’d assumed initially.”

Going the traditional publishing route, however, isn’t something that Olsen sees as necessary to his work.  “I’ve definitely had my hangups about, in certain forms, how the ideas of self-publication and self-promotion are accepted.  You expect a band to put out their own demo; if you sell albums out of the trunk of your car, it lends credibility in the music work.  You expect an independent filmmaker to fund, direct, produce, and put out their own movie. But for some reason there’s a stigma of why a writer can or can’t do that.  It just seems kind of unfortunate to me that there is that idea of ‘vanity publishing’ is lesser than getting somebody else to publish your work.  You need somebody else to lift you up, and I have my own hangups on that which I’m trying to move away from.”

The stories in Six Months tend to be intense recollections of Olsen’s past and analysis of how those moments affect the person he is today.  “The theme wasn’t intentional as the individual pieces were being written, and I don’t think that that idea really came to me until I moved to Michigan, until I was living 10 hours away from La Crosse, which was for the most part my hometown.  It wasn’t until I left when that theme came through in my writing, and I really didn’t notice it until I started putting the book together.”

The story’s main piece, a tale of periodic homecoming featuring La Crosse as its center, is a perfect example of this battle between past and future.  “[It’s about] going back and forth every six months, taking that trip from Michigan to La Crosse every Christmas and summer break and having that distance, that sense of clarity in seeing things I hadn’t seeing before, being more of an outside presence within my family, within my circle of friends, people I worked with.  There’s that conflict of nostalgia and clarity when that homesickness, when that nostalgia wears off.  It’s nice for a couple days, but you can only go downtown so much.”

As well as analyzing his past surroundings Olsen gets quite blunt in his opinions of his family, freely disclosing his parents’ shortcomings with varying levels of amusement and bitterness.  Yet according to him these stories aren’t displays of bridge burning.

“Once I grew accustomed to writing with the intention of publication and getting things out for other people to read, I made a point to not censor myself.  I don’t write with the thought of somebody possibly reading it and being offended or passing judgment on me.  I’d have to say that despite the other people, family members, and friends that come up in these stories, I don’t think that I’m casting any negative light on them.  I think that myself, as the speaker, the narrator of the story, is the punchline.  For my friends and family members who have read the book, that’s what they take away from it as well.”

Even more important within the overall theme of Six Months, however, are Olsen’s relationships with his own children, now 13 and 7 years old.  Having started his path toward professional writing at around the same time as the birth of his first child, Olsen’s works often draw stark, occasionally fearful comparisons between the bizarre events of his own childhood and the strangeness which surrounds the new members of his family ‒ again, a nontraditional setup ‒ today.

Olsen himself credited fatherhood as the primary fuel which operates his writing.  “As my children grow up, as they experience things that I may have experienced at their age, I may not have thought about the things I experienced as much if it were not for the fact that I have two children.  I’m very conscious about what they experience now, and I draw that comparison or parallel to what I experienced.”

The sum total lesson that Josh Olsen took away from the long process involved in making his quick book which incorporates all these parallels, fears, and misadventures, is that though its results may be gratifying, creativity doesn’t just manifest by itself.

“It takes a lot more time and work than I ever could have imagined.  I know that I had the ideas that many prospective writers have, that all they need to do is put together a manuscript, send it out and get published.  Maybe that does happen for a lucky few.  I’ve never done things the traditional or easy way, in my education, my work, or my family, so I think it’s only natural that I took that roundabout path to publication.”

“Being able to read the book with some distance and time between me and it, it’s interesting for me to look at it as an artifact of my thought process, the things I was observing and doing at that time, and to compare and contrast with what I’m doing and working on today.”

That today includes plans to put together a second book, another collection of stories featuring some which will break from the one page format and run longer.  Describing the forming whole as both more autobiographical and more fictional, Olsen hopes to finish and release the book in a year or so.

Six Months is available for purchase at zygoteinmycoffee.com.

Freezepop: After Keytarmageddon

Freezepop: Liz Enthusiasm, Bananas Foster, Sean Drinkwater, and Christmas Disco Marie Sagan

Freezepop was created with the purpose of being a side project.  At the time of its inception, its three members – vocalist Liz Enthusiasm and producers/instrumentalists The Duke of Pannekoeken and “The Other” Sean Drinkwater – were wrapped up in other, more pressing engagements.  The original mission statement of the band was to play a few parties and have a few laughs.

Yet for the better part of a decade, the Freezepop trio’s hyper-whimsical brand of electro-pop endured.  The band’s appearances on rhythm videogames like Amplitude, Guitar Hero, and Rock Band – owing largely to the Duke’s day job at game developer Harmonix – gave it a much higher profile that certainly helped turn it into the main attraction.  But Freezepop wouldn’t have lasted this long if that’s all it had going for it.

The past few years have proven this point.  One of the greatest turning points in Freezepop’s history came with the departure of the Duke a few years ago.  With the loss of this core member, the entire band’s future was called into question, yet the band weathered the change, regrouped, and is now in the process of releasing a new album, titled Imaginary Friends.

“I wouldn’t have wished it this way,” Sean Drinkwater said, “though it’s turned out great.”

Liz Enthusiasm explained the circumstances.  “[The Duke’s] job is insanely demanding.  He hasn’t had time to tour with us in a couple of years, so he just needed to bow out of the day to day process.  He’s still pretty involved with the band in terms of back catalogue and is still on board doing remixes and surprise guest appearances.”

Still, it wasn’t as though the Duke’s bandmates didn’t see this coming.  “Six months leading up to [his departure],” Drinkwater said, “we were trying to make a record.  Our label Ryko, which had licensed [Freezepop’s third album] Future Future Future Perfect, wanted to hear our new music and offer us a more straight-up record deal.  Even at that time, the Duke didn’t really have time to do any of that, so we were forced to write all the songs at that time.  Liz and I came up with 20 songs over the course of a couple months and sent everything to Ryko, and they loved it, so we thought it would work.  The idea was to use six or seven of ours, and he’d come in with four or five to round it out, and we’d have an album.  But it didn’t work out that way.”

Drinkwater went on to describe the impact of the Duke’s departure.  “To lose your primary songwriter, your producer, your sonic architect – there were some questions as to what the hell we were going to do.  Luckily I happen to have those skills, so it wasn’t like we were totally left out in the dark, but the transition was a lot slower than I had thought.”

Part of the rebuilding process was seeking out the Duke’s replacement, yet Enthusiasm and Drinkwater went further and expanded the band’s roster to four.  Keytarist and electropercussionist, codenamed Robert John “Bananas” Foster, was an old hand on the job, having spent years filling in for the Duke when needed.  His promotion to official member was largely a formality.  Less inevitable was the recruiting of Freezepop’s new synth player and supporting vocalist, codenamed Christmas Disco Marie Sagan.

“Once the Duke told us he was going to go, we asked Bananas within a few days so we’d have that anchored,” Drinkwater said.  “We’ve been touring for 2½ to 3 years without [the Duke] at this point, and [Bananas] had been touring with us that whole time, and he was probably going to join the band anyway.  There was definitely talk of it being a four-piece with Bananas and the Duke.”

“As for Christmas,” Enthusiasm continued, “she was a friend of ours.  We knew that we wanted another person, and we knew that we wanted a girl, somebody who could do backing vocals, and she was on our shortlist.  We found out that she was classically trained on piano.  It just seemed to fall into place.

“We were kind of amazed because she had never been in a band at all.  She made her debut on stage in front of several hundred people.  It must have been really nerve-wracking, but she handled it pretty well.  She learned her parts so quickly, so it’s really been as seamless as one could hope for.”

Freezepop 2010

Following the reassembly came the practice.  “It was months and months of rehearsing,” Drinkwater said.  “It takes a while to get a real dynamic formed with people, to make sure that it’s the right thing, getting everyone comfortable and figuring out people’s roles.  Then we had to go back and revise the record a little bit here and there.  That’s kind of been the transition.”

“We did a mini-tour this April, going out with the new lineup to get things up and running,” Enthusiasm said.  “There are a lot of technical considerations now: we’ve brought in video, new person, new gear, different arrangements of the songs.  We did that week and a half in April to get going, and it went really well.”

On that tour – which included one reportedly bizarre night featuring the band performing at a bowling alley – Freezepop toured with its optimum setup, as described by Drinkwater:  “Christmas is playing video and doing vocoder and synth stuff.  Bananas is playing an actual v-drum kit where he sits down to play, and keytar as well.  I’m doing pretty much the same stuff; I play guitar on a few songs, but mostly play keyboard.  So there are certain songs where there are three keyboard players.  It’s nice because we can use fewer preprogrammed things, which we’ve always wanted to do.  Musicially, it’s a little bit more live, and the record reflects that a little bit.”

However, he admitted that Freezepop’s current west coast tour will be much lighter in terms of equipment.  “The problem is that we can’t quite bring the whole rig when we tour certain places.  We’re not gonna be able to bring the video screens, and we’re not gonna do the drum set, because we’re gonna fly out there and have to strip the gear down.”

“Now it’s getting a little more tricky because we do have a new person and different gear,” Enthusiasm noted.  “We used to be a lot more portable.  If we got an offer to do a single show, we would be able to do it.  We used to be able to fit in a car and go places, to be able to fly in and out of shows.  Now, maybe the four of us could fit in a minivan.  We’re going to figure out how much we can pare it down without going back to the old ultraportable setup.”

Still, there are advantages.  “Touring is definitely way more fun for me now,” Enthusiasm said.  “I like not being the only girl anymore.  It’s interesting stepping back and seeing the band through the eyes of somebody who’s involved with it for the first time.  [Christmas] gets so excited about everything.  She started out as a fan of our band, so now whenever we play super old school songs she gets very excited about it.  It’s not like we’re jaded, but we’ve played “Science Genius Girl” three million times.”

“There are only so many hands that [Bananas] and I, or the Duke and I, have had on our own,” Drinkwater added.  “It’s been nice to have a little more musical flexibility.  We actually have played a couple of songs just straight-up live without using sequencers, which we’ve done pretty uncommonly in the past.  It probably seems more complicated, but if we didn’t think it was worth it we wouldn’t have done it.  I feel pretty confident that this is the right thing to do.  In terms of the record it’s definitely the right way to go.”

That record, Imaginary Friends, is set for release in November.  When asked to describe its sound, both Enthusiasm and Drinkwater emphasized its advancement of the established formula yet also noted a completely different approach to the hows and whys of its making.

“[The Duke’s] compositional style is certainly characteristic of the band,” Drinkwater said, “and you don’t want to go too far and alienate everybody.  We were certainly making a Freezepop album; we were not making a new project.  That’s the reason we didn’t change the name.  It’s not like we were fighting our own instincts, but there is sort of a template.  We stretched it a little bit, but I don’t think our fans are going to be scratching their heads over it.”

“For a long time I thought it was like the second record, Fancy Ultra-Fresh, which is a little lighter than the third record.  But at the end of it that wasn’t as true as we originally thought.  It certainly has some hallmark Freezepop stuff on it; it’s not like we reinvented the wheel too much.  It’s a little more discoey in places, maybe.

“I think there was an effort to simplify it a little bit, to strip it down somewhat.  Rather than a lot of intricate, frenetic programming, there is a lot more playing, which is one thing we set out to do so it would work better live.  Some of the old Freezepop music, as much as I love the records, there are times when you start to play a song and it’s really tough to play and have it maintain any rhythmic balance.  For example: maybe “I Am Not Your Gameboy.”  It’s become a cornerstone because of the video game references and because it’s very synthy.  People really like that song, and they request it all the time.  It just never works live.

“With this, we tried to make it a little more direct.  That’s possibly the result of having played these songs before we recorded them, which we’ve never done before.  Normal bands write their songs and go on the road before they record; we’ve always had our albums manufactured before we went into rehearsal to take it apart.  This time we got to tour and figure out what was working and what wasn’t before we recorded.”

Though the new members make appearances on the album, the songwriting process was run entirely by Enthusiasm and Drinkwater, the latter having detailed each person’s role.  “Christmas sings on it a lot, which is kind of neat.  They sound great together.  [Bananas] sings on it a bit.  I sing on it a teeny bit – I’m probably less vocally present than I’ve ever been – but I just wanted it to be [Liz] on this one.  We all play on it a little bit, but mostly it’s Liz and me.  We needed that; we didn’t want to rely on anybody too much.  Hopefully the next one will be completely different, and we’ll do it in a much more collaborative way, but it wasn’t really time.”

This slow move toward a more band-like songwriting process doesn’t so much imply a disdain of democracy as much it shows the way the band has traditionally worked best.  “The Duke was the primary songwriter in the band,” Drinkwater began.  “My contributions to Freezepop had been sprinkled around here and there.  I don’t appear on the second album much at all, which is odd because it’s probably my favorite one.  The collaborations between the three of us had been few and far between.  It’s usually been one of us producing music, but the three of us collaborating is pretty rare.

“There was a time right after the first album where we tried to do it a bunch, and it didn’t go that well.  It was one of those things where if it’s not broken, don’t fix it, so I backed off and let him do his thing on the second record.  On the third record, he wanted to do some songs that I had, so I sent in a few things and we decided what fit well and recorded them.  We’re both credited on a couple of songs, but we didn’t sit down together and write.  We’re both production minded in that sense.”

Yet following the end of that routine, Drinkwater has stepped out from the Duke’s shadow and cast off his old role as “The Other,” helping to ready Freezepop for a new, unwandered phase in its existence.

“Not by choice,” he was quick to add.   “If he called tomorrow and said he’d like to be back in the band, I think it would happen.  I have enjoyed how it has been up until now, and when he left it was a bummer, but this is pretty satisfying now that I’ve done it.  I might have a slightly harder time giving it up.”

* * *

So with the ending of this transitional phase, will Freezepop’s next work come out sooner than the last?  Drinkwater made no promises.

“After every album, we’ve always said that the next one will be out sooner, but that never happens.  I would love to do a Freezepop record next summer, if we all got to go into a farm somewhere for a month and made a record really fast.  Even if it was a weird one in the catalogue, just to do it.  Will that happen?  Not very likely.

“We’re not insane perfectionists, but in terms of this it took longer because we were trying to make sure that it was pretty right.  We didn’t want to release three good songs and a bunch of garbage.  It had to be a real album or we’d be digging our graves, especially since we had lost a key guy.  If you’re not making your best album at this point, you better do something else.

“On the next one, will we be a little easier on ourselves and be a little more experimental?  I kind of hope so.”

Imaginary Friends

Freezepop will be playing El Corazon in Seattle on Monday, September 27th with Ming & Ping and Aerodrone.  Tickets are $12 in advance, $14 at the door.

Bill Hicks: Still Essential

The Hicks Family

There are more than a few great artists whose legacies might have been handled dubiously.  The easy cynicisms fall on the estates of Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and Tupac Shakur, whose copious musical output from beyond the grave can’t help but arouse suspicion.  That posthumous skepticism is wholly absent from the domain of comedian Bill Hicks, whose family he left in charge of caretaking his legacy.  Rather than cashing in on the fame that was still in the process of explosion at the time of Bill’s death in 1994, the Hicks family has spent the sixteen years between then and now as modest curators of a massive library of Bill’s work, neither opportunistic, nor starstruck, nor pretentious, nor shy about sharing Bill with any who ask.  Their most recent project is Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection, an extensive audio/video anthology which goes well beyond the established Bill Hicks routines.

In the course of speaking with Bill’s mother, Mary Hicks, and his brother, Steve Hicks, it became clear that both of these very warm and engaging people are enthusiastic about Bill’s work and treat the responsibility of preserving it as a humbling honor.

Currently living in Little Rock, Mary Hicks spends her time maintaining the Bill Hicks archives.  Before having children she worked as a teacher, but she stayed at home with the kids after their birth.  “Other than substituting,” Mary said, “I had not really done anything until after Bill died.  Since [then], I have been working with his material to be sure that it’s used correctly and that it gets out.”

Steve Hicks is Bill’s older brother by five years.  He lives in Michigan, works in retail, and is married with two kids and a dog.  “My life is very unexciting during the day, but on nights and weekends, along with my mother and sister, I also get to help manage Bill’s stuff.  It’s a labor of love, and it’s great for us to be able to share Bill with the rest of the world.  As long as people are interested, we’ll keep sharing what we have of Bill with them, and that seems to be the case.  Actually, the interest has increased over the years.”

Mary remembered Bill’s formative years as tumultuous, with the future Outlaw Comic developing his sense of insurrection.  “Bill was a sweet, loving little boy,” she said.  “He was that way until he hit his teenage years.  While we had some rough times, we had some fun times.  We could always find a laugh in there, but I would have liked for him to not gone down some of the paths he did.  But he was trying to find his way; he was not going the 9 to 5 route and he didn’t know what he was going to do.  We were trying to keep him on the path that we thought he should follow, which was to finish high school and go to college and discover something that he was interested in.”

Bill wasn’t keen on that route, but his parents forced him to graduate high school – sort of.  “The teachers loved him, but they did not want him in their class,” Mary said.  “He did what he wanted to do, which was mostly to sit in the back of the room and read.  Yet he passed, but just passed.  He knew exactly how many points he had, and how many he needed to make a passing grade.  But Bill was smart.

“He told me one time that he was going to drop out of high school.  I said ‘you’re going to graduate if I have to push you across the stage to get your diploma.’  Well, he did not go to his high school graduation; he went to the comedy club.  I think they were having ‘Pajama Night’ that night.  His dad and I went to his graduation, and it wasn’t too long after that when he went to L.A.”

“He had a funny joke about that where he’d say he graduated 481 out of 490, just ahead of the AC/DC fan club,” Steve added.  “But he did end up graduating.”

Being quite a bit older than Bill, Steve’s involvement with his brother came later.  “I think our time and togetherness moved in and out until we got in our adult years,” he said.  “I went to college when I was 16 and Bill was 11, so I’d see him on weekends when I came home and summers.  But I was finding my own way in life, and he was just a little kid.  But it was around that time when he told me to come down to the comedy club in Houston where we were living.  I went down there, and Bill was performing.  The place was sold out, and he was hilarious.  He must have been 15 years old.

“I got married three years later, and he was the best man in my wedding.  I often traveled to where he was performing to see him perform and to hang out with my brother.  There was a stretch of time when I lived in Austin, Texas with my family.  Austin was kind of a second home to Bill; he never lived there, but he was there often because he performed a lot and had friends there.  For those five years we saw each other multiple times a year.  He spoiled my kids; they loved Uncle Bill.  He knew all the cheat codes for the Mario games, so they’d sit up all night and Bill would show them how to beat the games.  He was a great brother and a great uncle.”

Bill Hicks: Nintendo Master

Both Mary and Steve admit to not following stand-up comedy outside of Bill’s work.  Perhaps owing in part to this, his choice in careers came as a surprise.  Nonetheless, both noted and supported his certainty in his calling.

“It was different,” Mary said.  “Bill asked me one time if anybody in the family had been in show business.  He would ask if anybody had done public speaking.  Well, there are some preachers way back.  He was always curious about why he was so led to do what he was doing.  It was like he couldn’t not do it.”

“He did it since he was 12 years old in some form or fashion,” Steve added.  “I think it’s pretty rare for anybody so early in their lives to find that thing that they wanted to do, and he never really wavered from that.”

Yet despite his unusual occupation, the comedian was treated no different from the rest of the Hicks family.  “Bill was a stand-up comedian,” Steve said, “so he had a job that you could go see, but what we remember most out of that were the times when he was just being that family member.  Our family got together for holidays, and whenever Bill was not on the road performing somewhere he would be there with us too.  Since show business wasn’t in our background it was certainly unusual that that’s what he did, but beyond that he was just a guy in our family that we enjoyed spending time with.”

As Bill developed as a comedian, he developed the reputation of a philosopher working with the courage of his convictions.  In his high-minded work as well as in the rest of his comedy, the Hicks family wasn’t spared from his wit.  In one of his pieces, for example, Bill calls his father to task for being a fan of Rush Limbaugh.  Yet when asked their points of view on Bill’s various beliefs, both Mary and Steve found very little they disagree with in total, and a lot in which they had common ground.  Furthermore, even within topics they disagree with, they praised the open-minded stance from which Bill advanced his arguments.

“Bill – and all of my children – are not that crazy about organized religion,” Mary said.  “I think they all are Christians and live that way.  To tell you the truth, I’m not sure that I’m crazy about organized religion either, but I am a Christian and I do go to church and I do enjoy the fellowship with people in my little Sunday school group.”

If there was one topic which she disagrees with, it would be Bill’s frankness about his drug use. “I’m not into drugs, and I don’t know that they do good or don’t do good.  I do know that there are people whose lives are ruined by them, but if marijuana really could help people who have cancer, then I think it should be used.  I’m not against using things to benefit people, but I would be against them if they ruin lives.  I don’t know how you’d know whether it would benefit.”

“I think it’s an individual thing,” Steve added, “and I think that’s what Bill’s message was.  He didn’t tell us to take drugs or not to take drugs.  He said find your own way in life, and here’s my story.”

Mary agreed.  “That’s exactly what he did.  He never encouraged; he just said his views that he had good times on it.  If he did, I’m glad he did, but I’m glad he got off of them and he said he was too.

“I liked what he said when he quit.  He said: ‘Mom, somebody came in and offered me drugs, and I looked at myself in the mirror in the dressing room and said that was not who I am.  And I quit.’  I liked that he realized that he was not that.”

“Bill and I were closer in age,” Steve said, “so I guess I wasn’t as put off as an older generation might have been at some of the stuff Bill said.  None of it really bothered me; I’m pretty open-minded like he was.

“I will tell you a story, though, how Bill and I might discuss things and disagree.  It’s probably the closest we’d ever gotten to a fight.  He was always checking things out, spiritual things.  He did sensory deprivation things, the drugs for a while, yoga, lots of things trying to tap into the spiritual side of life.  So one time he was at my house, and he was telling me that he had seen people levitate.  I said I don’t believe that; you think if people were levitating, you’d see it somewhere!  It turned into an argument, and he was adamant and wasn’t going to give up without me agreeing that it could be possible.  I was just as strong-headed as he was in my beliefs.  When I see someone levitate, I’ll believe they can levitate!  I don’t care if people levitate or not, but having someone tell me they saw someone levitate doesn’t do it for me.

“That would be an example of our discussions about philosophy, and we’d finish it and it would be fine and that would be that.  As far as his general philosophy of life and his key things that he spoke about in his comedy that resonate with so many people these days, I pretty much agree with most of that.”

Within his act Bill often mentioned unpopular beliefs – such as the idea that children are not special – which he claimed were responsible for keeping him an anonymous figure in American culture.  Yet after his death, Bill Hicks was anything but anonymous.

Considering the role of Bill’s death within the greater scope of his critical acclaim is a fair question to ponder, but the Hicks family doesn’t see his enduring relevance as a product of martyrdom.

“I look at it this way,” Steve said, “I think a lot of untalented people also pass away, and their legacies don’t live on.  Then there are talented people who don’t pass away, and their legacies don’t live on.  While there may be some importance to Bill passing away, I think that his material is so relevant to people years later.

“I always think about Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, locked in time.  You don’t know what would have become of their lives later on.  There’s certainly some of that, but I tend to think that there’s something about Bill’s material and the way he presented it that resonates with people.  If that wasn’t there, I don’t think it would go on like it does.”

“If what Bill said did not have meaning and were just jokes,” Mary added, “I’m not sure that we would be where we are today.  It just so happens that he had some profound thoughts, and he got enough out there that these people come up and send letters and emails telling us what Bill meant.  Bill’s been gone 16 years and on the day of his death I still get emails from people who say they are remembering Bill.  [He] had some points that are going to be relevant till we all die.”

Steve continued: “I think something that’s important is when we meet fans – and this past 18 months we’ve had a lot of opportunity to do that because we’ve been traveling to film festivals to support another Bill project, a film called American: The Bill Hicks Story – what we hear echoing and in everything we get is that people don’t say: ‘We wanted to tell you how funny Bill was.’  What they say is: ‘I wanna tell you how Bill changed my life.’  There’s some way that Bill reaches people on a big level.  Alive or dead, if that wasn’t the case it just wouldn’t have grown into this legacy that it has.”

Taking the question to a close, Steve described a shocking phenomenon within Bill’s renown.   “We still will occasionally – maybe a time or two a year – get an email from somebody finding out about Bill for the first time and asking us for his address, so they can write him a letter, not realizing he’s dead.  What they’ve seen is something so relevant, and current sounding, and moves them on a different level that they want to get in touch with him.  That’s not a frequent occurrence, but it does still happen.”

In compiling the hours of material which comprise The Essential Collection, Bill’s family rewards the dedication of his fans with an in-depth look into his life and work.  The family spared no effort in making this a unique body of work, featuring bootleg videos, a goofy B-film, and a collection of guitar ballads in addition to familiar audio recordings.  Steve summed up the box set’s purpose as such:  “We wanted to have things that fans could discover and see something new about Bill.  That’s how we went about the box set.”

Steve went on to explain its production: “With The Essential Collection, Rykodisc, the label that Bill’s stuff has been on all these years, called us and were interested in putting out a box set to commemorate Bill.  They thought it was time.  It was funny because they asked if we had some unpublished photos sitting around, because fans really like to see things they haven’t seen before.  Yeah!  We’ve also got several hundred hours of video and several hundred hours of audio.  They were very excited about that.

“What we proceeded to do was go through all of this stuff and decide what we wanted to put in this box set.  Our criteria were a couple of things.  We wanted to avoid as much duplication of anything that’s out there commercially, especially on the video side.  We went back through some of Bill’s DVDs, Sane Man and Relentless and Revelations, and tried to pick things that weren’t shown on those DVDs, even though they might be familiar bits off one of his albums like Rant in E-minor and Arizona Bay.  That’s what we did for the later years.  With the early years, the first DVD out there of Bill was Sane Man, and that was 1989, so we focused on the years from 81 to 86, because that’s stuff that hasn’t been seen much.

“We were real excited to find these songs that Bill had recorded.  We went over to Abbey Road Studios in London and had them remastered to include on this download card in the box set.  I think some people know Bill played guitar on Rant and Arizona Bay, but someone who had written and recorded songs, I don’t think people were expecting that.  That was a real bonus discovery.”

As well as working on this ambitious project, the Hicks family opened their vaults to the makers of American: the Bill Hicks Story. Calling this “the definitive documentary of Bill Hicks,” Steve described the making of this film.

“These guys, Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, are directors of this documentary.  Bill is huge in England, and for a few years Matt Harlock was doing tribute nights to Bill on the anniversary of his death in London.  The things would sell out, and he’d send the proceeds to the Bill Hicks Wildlife Organization.  Somewhere along the way he got in touch with my mother and father, who was alive at the time, and started communicating with them.

“It just evolved into Matt wanting to do a series of 30-minute documentaries about comedians, and he was going to start with Bill.  That led to him coming over to the States and going to Little Rock, Arkansas to start going through all this stuff.  We just opened everything up to these guys.  I think when they found out how much stuff there was, this thing turned into a four year project.  We support them 100%.  It was their vision, and we would occasionally give them feedback along the way, [but] we didn’t micromanage anything.

“It’s very, very well done, and we’re proud of it.  They’re even getting some notoriety because they enhanced an animation technique they used in the movie to work from all these still photos.  Beyond the fact that people love the documentary because of the story it tells, Matt and Paul are getting an awful lot of interest because of the techniques they used to tell the story.  It’s been showing at film festivals around the world, and it’s won two awards.  They released it theatrically in the U.K. over the summer, and it’s the second-highest grossing documentary of the year.  The DVD is coming out later this month in the U.K., and it probably won’t come out in the U.S. until next March or so.

“On the DVD, they have five hours of extras beyond the documentary – a lot of extended interviews, and only about 30 extra minutes of Bill performing – but even with that we collaborated so there isn’t duplication between that and what we have in The Essential Collection. They really do stand alone and they expose different things about Bill.  Both projects were done from an extreme position of love and respect, and I hope people will enjoy them both.”

If these projects are any indication, Bill Hicks the comedian is as powerful as ever.  But my final question to the Hicks family was what their favorite things were about Bill Hicks the man.

Mary was quick to distinguish between the demeanor of the two.  “I think a lot of people do pick up on the fact that he was – somebody called him a humanitarian.  I asked Steve when he first started seeing Bill before we did what he was like, and Steve said he’s nothing like he is at home.  He was different on stage.  [At home] he was quiet, he was serious, he was very considerate.”

Steve agreed, using a specific example to illustrate his brother’s good nature.  “I’d use compassionate to describe him, not only to his family and friends but to strangers.  When he would come to Austin around Christmas, there were at least two years where we went down to the main drag where the homeless people were, and Bill would hand them five dollar bills and look them in the eye and say Merry Christmas.  He was just a good guy.  Even though his comedy style was in your face, that came through.

“I think that’s what resonates all these years later – there was soul and heart and passion to this guy.  Beyond the iconic comedian, he was just a really kind-hearted, intelligent, passionate guy that made you feel important when you were around him.”

Photos Courtesy of the Hicks Family

Jammin’ George: LOCAL HERO.

Jammin' George

The first thing I noticed when I met up with local comedian and surrealist Jammin’ George was that he had a bobble-head of himself sitting on his table. It wasn’t a total likeness; the sculpture reminded me of Harry Caray whereas George, a big man with close-cropped white hair and rectangular black glasses, looks more like Drew Carey. But the fact that Jammin’ George commissioned a bobble-head to be made of him is stunning. It’s one more way by which he crawls into one’s head and wreaks havoc.

My relationship with Jammin’ George is full of such brain-melting incidents. Earlier in the year, my cohort Shuggypop Jackson got a hold of me and delivered an urgent message: he had something he had to show me. His offering was Jammin’ George’s Land of Fun, an hour-long video in which George dances to music, reads poetry, does impersonations, and films his television. It’s one of the most bizarre videos I’ve ever seen, but the strangest thing is that I’ve watched it so many times that I’m no longer fazed.

The Sweet Shop janitor known on his paychecks as George Haug is a joyous man, quick to ham it up and not given to extensive self-examination. The one thing he isn’t is a one trick pony. Land of Fun, which was made circa 2006, is his newest project, but Jammin’ George has been around for decades. In that time, he’s also been a stand-up comedian, written his own newsletter, and released three comedy albums. His current goals are to get some of his videos up on YouTube and perhaps make it to the Twin Cities to do a few shows.

“I’ve been a comedian since the early 80s,” said George. “I started out writing newsletters, these ‘Jam Reviews.’ Then at Popcorn Tavern’s open mics I would get up and do a little schtick, little jokes, and they asked me to do more and more. [I usually perform] once a month, maybe once every other month. I haven’t done it for a while.”

George described his stand-up as such: “I do one-liners, but I also do impressions or lip-sync somebody, like Roger Whittaker’s ‘Wind beneath My Wings.’”

His influences, both in comedy and beyond it, range from the obvious to the surprising. George is a big fan of Chris Farley, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, and Bill Murray, but he’s also into surreal artists such as Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso. In reading his newsletters I picked up an affinity for Tracy Chapman and the Grateful Dead. The fact that he likes the expectation-shattering Andy Kaufman is no surprise.

He LOVES Alice from The Brady Bunch.

George’s newsletter, The Jam Review, captures the full spirit of Jammin’ George. The volumes which George brought to the interview ranged from 1989 to 2001, and were filled with one-liners, poetry, photography, and strange stories. One story described “The Weekend from Hell,” in which George had to deal with his shiftless brother-in-law, who drank heavily and stuck George with the bills. In one edition there’s an autograph from Danica McKellar, who played Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years. Her picture next to the autograph is in negative, giving the whole exhibit a disturbing quality.

“I had my dad’s secretary type them up, and I took them to the printer. I was taking them to RC Printing, down by WKBT. I had about 12 issues, about 100 or so [copies], and they’d have them at the Co-Op or Deaf Ear. It was kind of fun, but my brother goes: ‘You don’t think people are actually gonna read these?’ They were very odd.”

The Jammin' George Audio Collection

Jammin’ George followed this project up with audio recordings, beginning with a series of tapes and resulting in three comedy albums. In chronological order, they are Giving the Fans What They Want, The Joke’s On You, and Jammin’ George’s Buffet. The old tapes were mostly helmed by Chris Zobin or John Boyle, frequent contributors to Jammin’ George’s misadventures. Boyle also helped produce Fans, whereas Ken Eisler helped create the two latter albums. Though much of what I heard on the audio recordings consisted of one-liners, Jammin’ George attempted to translate his entire act to the albums. “At the end [of Buffet] I sing ‘Cheer Up, Charlie,’ and I’ll sing that song by Barry Manilow, ‘I Write the Songs,’ except it’s ‘I Write the Jokes.’”

A few smaller videos followed, filmed by George’s neighbor John Ross, before the pair created Jammin’ George’s Land of Fun. On the differences between recording an album and a video, Jammin’ George said: “When you’re doing a CD you can read the whole thing; you almost have to wing it in a video, but it’s the most fun.”

Jammin’ George isn’t in this for the money. George has released roughly a hundred copies of each newsletter, album, and video, and most of the time he gives them away for free. With his video, the reason is partly because he’s playing copyrighted music and filming television shows, so there would be an easy infringement case if he tried to turn a buck. But the greater truth is that he would rather someone find his work for free than not find it at all. An example came during my interview as George gave me a t-shirt featuring the Jammin’ George bobble-head, with no thought of repayment.

It’s one more way in which Jammin’ George sets himself apart from typically safe and fantastically average comedians. The current state of comedy doesn’t impress George much. “It’s pretty lame. Most [comedians] always tell the same [jokes],” he explained. The problem, in his estimate, is that it’s too easy to predict what a comedian will be like.

Do people know what to expect from Jammin’ George? After laughing long and hard, he answered: “Maybe, sometimes.”

Oh yeah. He has a bobblehead.

Say Rah! Discussing the Daddy of Rock n’ Roll with the Directors of “Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides”

Wesley Willis: Rock Star

Chris Bagley’s favorite Wesley Willis song is, appropriately enough, “Chris Bagley.”  It’s a signature Willis friendship song in which the rock and roll hero pays tribute to his buddy.  Kim Shively has her own song in this style, but she lists her favorite as either “NFL Shit” or “The Turkey was Wild” – the latter describing a fateful encounter she had with a wild bird, immortalized in song by Wesley.  The pair’s tributes are found on Willis’ 2001 album Full Heavy Metal Jacket, and Wesley also has songs which call out Bagley’s brother and dog for special distinction.  He must have been really excited about the movie which the two were making about him.

Around the same time as they were being lauded in Full Heavy Metal Jacket, Bagley and Shively were setting up shop in Cheyenne, Wyoming, forming their filmmaking imprint, Eyeosaur Productions.  Having met as film students at the Colorado Film and Video Instructional Studios (now the Colorado Film School), the pair teamed up on experimental projects and short films before moving on to documentaries.  One of their short films featured a cameo by Wesley Willis as a cowboy.

Bagley explained his move toward being a documentary filmmaker.  “It was an interesting time at film school because everything was just at that moment [when] it was starting to go digital.  It changed the work flow.  There was a documentary class in film school, and at that point it became obvious that doing documentary on digital video was a viable option.  It was something that you could do and maybe not break the bank, maybe get a lot more coverage.”

The name Eyeosaur quickly evokes thoughts of vision and dinosaurs (and, similarly, a song on Full Heavy Metal Jacket has Wesley singing about his own record label, Earosaur Productions).  Yet Bagley also derives the company’s philosophy from a skewed homophone.  “All the things I’ve ever been drawn to are things like eyesores, things that are kind of on the edge of society that are crumbling nuisances.”

Wesley Willis's Joy Rides

Continuing their explorations of such fringe characters, Eyeosaur’s current project involves the world of Lucha Libre wrestling, the focus including its deep history in Mexico and growing popularity in the United States.  Bagley also hinted at the possibility of a future film concerning Live-Action Role Players.  Yet Eyeosaur’s achievement of the moment is the release of Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides, a film which may well be the definitive look at Wesley’s life.  Reaction to the film has been positive; having made the rounds at various film festivals, Joy Rides won the Gold Hugo for the Chicago Award at the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival.

Wesley Willis certainly qualified as an Eyeosaur candidate.  Indeed, to more than a few he is that very eyesore who most would rather be hidden away from view.  A schizophrenic colossus, Wesley is best known for singing along to preprogrammed keyboard accompaniment, his songs almost always adhering to the same template, right down to the “Rock over London, Rock on Chicago” which invariably closed each song.  Wesley was prone to outburst, sang foul-mouthed songs about drugs, violence, and bestiality, and he bumped heads with so many people that he developed a permanent bruise on the center of his forehead.  His life story wasn’t any more benign; he was often the victim of severe acts of neglect, exploitation, and violence.

No, he wasn’t for everyone, but therein lays the genius of Wesley Willis – he didn’t need to be for anyone. Through Wesley’s sincere and unwavering conviction that he was a rock star – albeit one free of the usual entitlements and pretense – he became one, and more people than might have been expected got that, and loved him.  When he died in 2003, many people genuinely mourned him.  (I learned of Wesley’s death as I was heading out my door to go to an amusement park.  It was the saddest, most lifeless day I’ve spent on roller coasters.)

Wesley Willis: Sex Bomb

“Before I ever even met him, he changed the way I see everything, just by listening to his music,” Bagley said.  “I never really saw the novelty of McDonald’s until I heard ‘Rock and Roll McDonald’s.’  Then I never could look at McDonald’s the same way again.  I felt like I somewhat knew him before I met him, because he was so prolific with his songwriting and there were so many aspects of his life that he touched on.  It just felt very real to me, and it was kind of refreshing.  There’s so much music out there that’s full of people fronting, so when you come across something that’s as genuine as Wesley’s music, it’s a breath of fresh air.

“Once I met him, he was even more compelling, because he wanted to give me a headbutt!  Once I got my first headbutt from Wesley, I thought that someone needed to document this guy’s life.  That never came into focus until years later, when I had the ability to do that.”

Performing with his earlier rock band, The Wesley Willis Fiasco

Wesley has been the subject of many documentaries, the other most notable being The Daddy of Rock n’ Roll. Yet while the tendency of most of these films was to simply follow him around and allow the viewer to react as he or she saw fit, the scope of Joy Rides is monumental, examining all aspects of Wesley’s life and filling his story with context.  To put the difference in perspective, Bagley – who followed the production of the other film – estimated that the crew of Daddy followed Wesley around for about a week.  The creation of Joy Rides took almost a decade, amassing around 100 hours of footage of friends, family, and the man himself.

Shively summed up the mission statement of Joy Rides as follows: “The intention was never to make a day-in-the-life film.  We wanted to do something more in-depth.  We had always envisioned it to be a film that was made with him; it was his film.  When he got sick, that changed the whole direction, so it became something that showed him for who he was: an amazing person.  A lot of people misunderstood him; we wanted to show the guy that we knew.

“Chris shot his first footage of Wesley in 1999.  From then until 2003 we filmed with Wesley on and off.  When Wesley got sick and passed away, we weren’t sure if we were going to finish the film or not, and it took another year or two to get back on it.  We went back and did a lot of interviews after that.  It was a really long process; we officially finished editing and cutting the film in 2008.”

Bagley described the process involved in documenting such a subject, noting Wesley’s frequent visits to Wyoming to make himself available.  “Originally we just wanted to make a documentary about Wesley, because we thought he was such a unique individual that his experiences needed to be documented.  Then, when he’d come and stay for a month or so, there would be so much time when we weren’t shooting anything.  The thing that I’ll probably take away the most are all the in-between times.  He just kept coming.”

One time Wesley stayed with Bagley and Shively for so long that Chris suggested they head back to Chicago to visit.  At another point, they ended up in London with him.  “At first it was like we were fans of Wesley doing the documentary,” Bagley continued.  “Quickly, we became friends of Wesley, and the documentary was secondary.”

One of the most interesting parts of Joy Rides is its initial focus on Wesley’s prodigious drawings of the buses and towers of his Chicago landscape (the footage of Wesley in Wyoming shows him seeking out the trains instead, showing his inclination toward mass transit).  His friends from the art world spend much of the film’s first act discussing Wesley’s talent for perspective and his photographic memory.

“I don’t think we ever made a plan,” Shively said in describing their focus on art, “it just happened organically.  The history of his art became just as compelling as the music.  It’s just as important, just maybe overlooked because he’s more known for his music.”

An Example of Wesley's Art

In fact, it could be argued that Wesley’s art career eclipsed his music.  “He was every bit as prolific when it came to his drawings as he was with his music.” Bagley said.  “[For] a lot of people who didn’t know he was an artist, that was the part of the documentary that they really responded to the most.  It blew some people out of the water to see that part of him.

“He started doing drawings in the early 80s.  I ended up getting a drawing of his from the 80s that I’m really happy about.  It was an amazing piece.  He was doing that for years before he got into music.  It’s really powerful, the way he would lay down his marker or pen and just go to town.  There was never a moment of hesitation; he just went for it.  I think that goes for his musical career, too.”

This focus led to Eyeosaur animating some of Wesley’s artwork and bringing it to life.  Bagley stated that the idea came to him in a waking dream, after which he convinced Wesley to animate the self-portrait which introduces the film.  Shively offered a less esoteric rationale.

“I think it was important to convey the scale of those drawings because they were so huge.  If you just take a still picture of it you don’t get a perspective of the scale or the depth or the detail.  It was lots and lots of photos and scanning.  We didn’t want to go overboard on animating it, so a guy named Chad Herschberger, who had helped us with the film and was a friend of Wesley’s, we worked with him on the animation and described to him what we wanted, and he did it just how we had hoped.  You don’t want to change the nature of the art, but you want to bring it to life somehow, so we tried to find a balance.”

Chad Herschberger, it should be noted, also got his own song on Full Heavy Metal Jacket.

Yet all this work was almost completely derailed by Wesley’s illness and death.  “It’s okay to have a thought of what you want it to be, but documentaries have a way of going their own way,” Bagley said.  “When Wesley passed away, it was really hard.  We couldn’t even look at any of the video for a long time afterwards.  We had no objectivity, because we were so close to Wesley at that point.  We got some perspective on it; it took us quite a while, and that’s why it’s been so long.  It took years and years.  It got to the point where it was so personal for us that to try to consider it some product and shoot it out the door just didn’t feel right.  We wanted to go around and interview people.  We were trying to do it justice with the resources we had.  But eventually you just have to get it out and let people have a chance to see it.  There were some moments in there that I felt like I was hording by not having it out for people to see.  There may be a day when more of the unedited footage might end up getting released, but that’s probably years off.”

Shively explained the financial reasons behind the film’s delay.  “We wanted Wesley to be a part of the whole process, and [then] he was gone and we had lost a friend.  It was kind of a big thing to deal with and then to think about what we were going to do.  We had a responsibility to put this film out there, [but] another aspect of it was that we had no outside funding.  It was [done] on our own time when we could afford to do stuff.  We got a little money when we started editing, but it takes a long time when you have to work full-time jobs.  We also didn’t want to rush it; we wanted to be really careful about how we were putting the film together.”

The second act of the film’s production began at Wesley’s funeral.  It was here where Bagley and Shively met many of Wesley’s friends and family and encouraged them to share their memories of him.  Among the crowd of close friends, art patrons, and cohorts in music, one group of interviewees comes to dominate the narrative of Joy Rides in explaining how Wesley became the man he was – his family.

There’s a moment in the film in which Wesley’s brother Michael provides a lucid insight into the Willis family’s terribly troubled dynamic.  In describing life in the Stateway Gardens housing projects where the family lived, Michael noted his neighbors’ aversion to the Willises.  “People in fact didn’t like us at all when we were over there,” he said.  “They ridiculed us constantly.  We were ‘The Willis family.  Don’t talk to them; they’re crazy!’”

This line illustrates a larger point made by the film – that Wesley’s mental illness wasn’t an isolated case.  The even-handed perspectives of Michael Willis rank him among the film’s most compelling subjects.  Yet with some of the other family members featured in the film – including two more of Wesley’s brothers and his father – something seems, at best, off-center.

“We tried to get in contact with as many of his family members as we could,” Bagley said.  “It became obvious right away that he came from a broken home, that a lot of his family didn’t have a whole lot to say.  We tried to put the ones in there that had the closest ties to Wesley; unfortunately, none of them really had very close ties to Wesley.  Michael was very articulate, and his physicality is very similar to Wesley, so it made sense to have him.  Ricky had probably the closest ties.

“The interesting thing about Ricky is that he’s a lot like Wesley.  He has this photographic memory; he knows every street of Chicago by heart to the point where he can make model buildings by memory.  His abilities are definitely lopsided, because he’s not able to communicate as easy, but we really love Ricky.  We became close to him since Wesley passed away.  He always calls, and he’s especially fond of the ladies, [so] he always calls Kim.  But he calls me a lot, too.”

One aspect of the film which disturbed me, one I couldn’t help but feel cynical about, was the appearance of Wesley’s father.  Being filmed alongside Ricky, Walter Willis Sr. – who himself died around the time of Joy Rides’ release – appeared to mug for the camera, and he made a point about how a person’s kin sometimes doesn’t realize that person’s goodness until everyone else does.  To me, the interview came off as callous and a bit exploitative.  Bagley and Shively didn’t see it that way.

“His dad was a pretty complicated person,” Shively said.  “I think he had a lot of guilt when Wesley passed away because he didn’t pay attention to his career.  I think it’s also important to notice that his dad had mental illness – I think he had schizophrenia – so he was not equipped to be a good dad in that sense.  That time we were there visiting with him, he genuinely was sad that he didn’t know more about Wesley’s life.  He was very disapproving of what Wesley did when Wesley was alive, but I also think he didn’t understand it.  I don’t think he tried to benefit from Wesley’s fame in any way I can see.”

Bagley noted a specific moment which showed Mr. Willis’s love for his son.  “We were just sitting outside of the funeral home, way early.  No one else had even shown up yet.  We saw this old guy going up and down the street, clearing the sidewalk and street of trash because he didn’t want there to be any trash at his son’s funeral.

“He had his own demons, [but] for somebody who has mental illness to open up their door and let you see his life, I felt like he was very warm to let us be there, especially in the context of having his son just pass away.  I think his dad was extremely genuine.”

With much of Eyeosaur’s work on this film involved prolonged encounters with people with mental illness, it goes without saying that the directors of Joy Rides emerged with a changed perspective on the mentally ill.

Wesley, in a down mood.

“I’m less fearful of people who are walking down the street talking to themselves,” Shively said.  “I’m more intrigued by those people now because I think they have so much to offer.  Just because they maybe can’t function the way society thinks [they ought to], we sort of miss out on what they have to give to the world.  I think Wesley helped me understand mental illness.”

“I didn’t realize how much reverse discrimination there is,” Bagley said.  “People are so afraid of being accused of exploitation that they’ll stop dead in their tracks, and then these people don’t have the same opportunities as everyone else.  I think, in general, people would rather have people who are mentally ill out of sight and out of mind.  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, because as soon as legitimate people that are doing legitimate work turn their backs on people who are mentally ill, all these vampires have a tendency of filling the void.  In the end, a lot of these people are really being exploited, but it’s only because everyone else has turned their back on them.”

He noted that Wesley’s chosen career wasn’t exactly predator-free, either.  “[In] the music industry, people who aren’t mentally ill are exploited all the time.  But they want to be exploited; they’re putting themselves out there to be exploited just to get that first record deal, just so they can get their foot in the door.”

Wesley at the Wheel

Yet as Bagley and Shively conveyed in their film, Wesley’s story is a success story.  Despite having every obstacle in the world seemingly against him, the man made a career doing what he loved, and he made a lot of people happy doing it.

Shively discussed the reaction to the film.  “It’s interesting, because you have the people who watch it who are fans, and you have people who have no idea who he is who watch it.  The nice thing is that a lot of people have said that they did know about his music, they knew that he was this ‘crazy person,’ but the film showed him as a really amazing person who achieved an incredible amount of work in his short life.  That was the nicest thing to hear, that people really did walk away with a deeper sense of who Wesley was.”

When asked what about Wesley Willis made him so amazing, both acknowledged Wesley’s talent as a hustler and his fearlessness.  Beyond this, Bagley and Shively emphasized different aspects of his character: Bagley praised his sense of freedom (referring to him as a “Han Solo”), whereas Shively noted his intelligence and sense of humor.

When asked what a success Wesley’s says about the music industry at large, both had a lot to say.

“He was ahead of the game as far as being out there and self-promoting,” Shively replied.  “He did have a relationship with Alternative Tentacles, [the label, run by the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra, which put out his three “Greatest Hits” albums,] but I think he’s proof that you don’t need to be tied to all this press and publicity.  The record industry is not really there anymore.  Now everyone’s doing what Wesley was doing 20 years ago.  It’s just great that he was so successful.

“The one thing about him that was really great was that his fan base was so diverse.  He had young punk kids, but he also had businessmen who were millionaires, and they liked his music.  His music appealed to everyone, and he didn’t discriminate.”

“The problem with art and artists,” Bagley said, “is that it usually comes from a place of privilege.  The fact that Wesley had no privilege, that he came from the hardest situation anyone can imagine, a broken home on the south side of Chicago, and he was able to find his way – that’s an amazing accomplishment. In the music and art communities, it’s great to have some fresh voices, and Wesley was a completely fresh perspective.”

Bagley also noted Wesley’s strange ability to take corporate slogans and make them his own.  “The one that I think most applies to Wesley is the one I always loved to hear him say: Nike’s ‘Just Do It.’ I never, never liked it when I heard it on the Nike commercial, but with Wesley saying it, it felt like the real deal.”

Wesley Willis is a man who cut a wide streak of legend throughout his life, and as such, there are a lot of people who have great stories about him.  One of the best parts about my conducting these interviews with people who knew and loved Wesley – which I’m also assuming was one of Bagley’s and Shively’s favorite parts of making their documentary – was hearing some of these tales of Wesley and cutting through some of the surreal mythos surrounding him.

Rock and Roll McDonald's. Really.

For example: in his songs Wesley often mentioned things and concepts that didn’t always seem real.  One piece of evidence is shown in the film, as Wesley’s old friend Carla Winterbottom described her confusion when reading some of his lyrics which mentioned defenestration (it means to drop from a high place).  In the course of our conversation, Bagley deflated a conspiracy theory of mine linking Wesley and the film Mac and Me by explaining that his signature song, “Rock and Roll McDonald’s,” is based on an actual restaurant in Chicago which mixes Big Macs with the Hard Rock Café.  Furthermore, both Bagley and I have sought out and obtained Hoisin sauce due to Wesley’s mention of it in a song.

Both Shively and Bagley, in recounting their favorite Wesley stories, mentioned a scene in Joy Rides showing Wesley in the film’s most joyous moment.  He was almost exploding with laughter as he tried not to swear in a restaurant and failed.

“He wasn’t having a hellride,” Shively explained.  “He was just being funny and reading out loud from one of his songbooks which had a lot of profanity in it.  He was cracking himself up, cause we kept saying, ‘Wesley, they’re gonna kick us out!’  He just couldn’t stop!  It was the funniest thing.  And then he finally said, ‘Suck my Dick… Cavett!’ as if he did this play on words all the time.”

When cops strolled in, Wesley tried to tone it down.  “Any time he saw a cop,” Shively continued, “he’d say ‘I’m not gonna break the law’ out loud to let the cops know he was cool.  I think he was saying it more to himself.  Who knows.”

It was a great moment, yet there was one more Wesley story which Bagley told which had me doubled with laughter.

“We ended up going to one of these aquarium places.  There was a father talking to his son, and there was a tank full of otters.  Wesley was checking out the otters, and I was in the background listening to this whole thing.  The father was telling the son: ‘The otters!  They’re the clowns of the sea!’

“And then Wesley chimed in and said: ‘I can see his dick.’”

Rock over London, Rock on Chicago!

“Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides” is available now.  More information can be found at www.wesleywillissjoyrides.com.