“>Kurt Cobain’s death. The world at large never heard of Wesley Willis. Cobain was blond, beautiful, brooding, the face of a new sound of rock and roll whose band sold millions of copies. Willis was a three-hundred-pound black man, a singer and schizophrenic from Chicago who wrote songs like "Spank Wagon" and "I Wupped Batman’s Ass" ("Batman beat the hell outta me and knocked me to the floor / I got back up and knocked him to the floor / He was being such a jackoff"). Record critics and music industry types tended to love him. Wesley Willis was 40 years old when he died from internal hemorrhaging. Kurt Cobain was twenty-seven years old when, addicted to heroin and still struggling with his success. Cobain might have lived if he had had a little more Wesley Willis in him.
The world heard that today is the tenth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. The world at large never heard of Wesley Willis. Cobain was blond, beautiful, brooding, the face of a new sound of rock and roll whose band sold millions of copies. Willis was a three-hundred-pound black man, a singer and schizophrenic from Chicago who wrote songs like "Spank Wagon" and "I Wupped Batman’s Ass" ("Batman beat the hell outta me and knocked me to the floor / I got back up and knocked him to the floor / He was being such a jackoff"). Record critics and music industry types tended to love him. Wesley Willis was 40 years old when he died from internal hemorrhaging. Kurt Cobain was twenty-seven years old when, addicted to heroin and still struggling with his success. Cobain might have lived if he had had a little more Wesley Willis in him. When punk roared out of England in the late ‘70s, it brought some features with it; punk fashion remains instantly recognizable, even if it’s slowly been absorbed into the mainstream. Punk music is somewhat more muddled — Fugazi‘s music remains vital, even though it’s now made by a quartet of married guys in their forties and doesn’t sound a bit like Ian MacKaye’s old band. But the punk aesthetic? You can draw a line between then and now: screw it all and do it yourself. As Roberta Bayley put it:
The idea of punk that I liked was that you don’t have to be an expert. An amateur is a good thing. An amateur is somebody who does something because they like doing it. You don’t have to be an expert. You can try different things. You could try going on-stage before you were a virtuoso. You could pick up a camera if you hadn’t gone to photography school. You can do these creative things.
As seminal punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue famously put it: "Here’s a chord. Here’s another one. 0Here’s another one. Now start a band." And people did, and most of it, inevitably, was crap. And people didn’t care, because it felt good anyway. Roberta Bayley and Sniffin’ Glue‘s Mark Perry knew what they were talking about. Even if they couldn’t play — maybe especially if they couldn’t play — it could still rock.
The Shaggs — performing again after many years — couldn’t play their instruments a lick. They were downright bad, painfully bad, a Metal Machine Music-level joke on their nonexistant fans. I do not doubt for a minute that Frank Zappa meant it when he said that he thought they were better than the Beatles. Rock and roll was music for romantics, and it loved the same sorts of things — disharmony, unease, irrationality — that the Romantics embraced when they rejected classicism. The Romantics embraced angel-talking William Blake and untutored rustic John Clare and drew in part on religious madman Christopher Smart, whose "Jubilate Agno" remains a thing of transcendently sweet, creepy, wonderful genius. Authenticity and raw emotion was the thing. Half Japanese‘s fans might well be aghast if the band became popular, but I don’t think Jad Fair would mind until it started changing his relationship to the music.
So when Jonathan Richman, the student of Lou Reed, who had kicked off New Wave with his band, the Modern Lovers, stopped writing songs like "Road Runner" and "Pablo Picasso" and started writing songs about being stuck in the back seat of a car as a child, he was simply reaching back to that childlike innocence, the most easily located source of unmediated feeling. (The twee impulse to ground every indie pop song between the tender ages of eight and sixteen probably comes from the same place, with extra dashes of Alex Chilton and the Smiths; Moe Tucker had actually been in the Velvet Underground, one of the half-dozen most influential rock bands ever, and she still sounds by turns childish, unskilled, and unprotected on her wonderful solo work.) It wasn’t a desire to emulate art brut or Confessionalism or even a simple exploitative love of kitsch (although that was there too) that made half-crazy artists like Willis and Daniel Johnston critical favorites. It was because they were keeping it real, even if the real wasn’t very good.
Kurt Cobain used to record for Kill Rock Stars. Coming out of a tradition that denigrated success, what was he going to do as a pin-up, a poster boy? I’ve got nothing good to say about Courtney Love, but the idea that she was the sinister unseen hand in his death is patently ridiculous. His overdose on sleeping pills a few weeks before his death was a hesitation mark. Kurt Cobain didn’t know how to be an elder statesman of his brand of rock and roll. People pay attention to Fugazi or Neil Young or Sonic Youth not just because of their longevity or influence but because artistic growth is hard. Kurt didn’t come from a tradition that venerated the rock star (or, at least, the unironic rock star); Mark Perry shut down Sniffin’ Glue, lest he wake up one morning and discover that he had become a mainstream rock journalist. Kurt didn’t even have it in him to contemplate what happened when he stopped being an icon; maybe some young thing would have hired him the way he hired Pat Smear of the Germs. (Who wants to be Wordsworth, outliving radicalism and relevance, if you can go out tragic and doomed like Keats or young, vital, and fighting like Byron? Mature reconsideration of the follies of youth does not make for legends.) So he wrote his suicide note — what else could it be? all apologies — and turned out the lights. Wesley Willis — whose performances were a "headshakingly awful musical experience", complete with "crappy synthesizer… that’s below the quality of your average Nintendo game" and "an honesty to his madness that makes him one of the more fun guys to listen to in an awful long time" — was schizophrenic; he was a religious man who struggled with his demons:
Everywhere you go, God is watching you
Bust that sound check.
It’ll sound the trumpet for you
Like it will sound the trumpet for me.
His main concern, apparently, was that when he was gone he wouldn’t get to go see any bands. Rock over London, rock on Chicago. Rock and roll will never die.