Central Arkansas lost one of its most prolific and important artists and musicians over the weekend. Victor Wiley, 37, died on Sunday from complications related to congestive heart disease.
It’s hard to conceive a more electrifying performer. The front man for dozens of local bands over the last two decades, Wiley channeled a kind of primordial joy onstage, an unhinged, pure burst of creativity that longtime friend and band mate Andrew Morgan describes as “funny, frightening, and always intense.”
He set things on fire, took his microphone deep within the crowd, and contorted his body in almost impossible ways. He was always arresting, Morgan says, no matter who was in the audience or how big it was.
He played in bands called the Stranger Steals, the Ventilators, the Third Sleeper Is the Brain, Uptown Prophets of Armageddon, High School Pusher, Sex, Fu-Yu, the Looks, Three Beats Box, Agua Azul, Flowers of Romance, High Tension House and Clicking Beetle Bad Omen Band. Those groups feature dozens of players and many of them sound wildly different, but with Wiley as a unifying factor, almost all sound brashly experimental, but visceral — challenging music that always manages to transcend.
Perhaps that’s a testament to Wiley’s vocals. The musician played everything from a saxophone to an altered record player he used to make beats, but worked no instrument like he did his voice. Noise factored heavily in a lot of his groups, and accordingly, he sang loudly and aggressively, but within that tone, he could manage a wail that was as haunting and soulful as the deepest blues.
Art always factored into Wiley’s performances and life, friends said.
“To be in a band with him and to be his friend, you were always surrounded by stuff he was making and had made,” said Stacy Mackey, a longtime friend and sometimes girlfriend. “You’d become part of it.”
Mackey met Wiley in the early ’90s when she was a student at Hendrix and he was a sculpture major at UCA.
“A lot of people know him as being really thin and fashionable, but when I met him he was this broad-shouldered big guy, who was really athletic and a great skateboarder.
“He drove a car and the front seat was gone,” she said, laughing. “He sat on a milk crate. There were other things missing in the car, but it just gave him more room to store his art supplies.”
When Mackey and Wiley moved back to Little Rock after college, Mackey said, they hungered for the kind of art and music resources college had afforded them. After a year or so of planning, they opened Das Yutes a Go-Go, an all-ages performance space that helped foster the city’s vibrant underground music culture of the day. The fire marshal forced them to shut down the venue after only eight months when he said it wasn’t up to code.
As early as 1993, Wiley and Mackey started feeding the homeless on a weekly basis, first as the People’s Picnic and later under the nationally recognized name Food Not Bombs. The project, Mackey said, came from the idea that there’s so much excess in the world coupled with so much hunger.
Friends say Wiley was passionate and earnest in his art and music and volunteerism, but always with a sense of humor.
“It felt like we were always doing something for a laugh,” said Ai Lien Draheim, another longtime friend, “even if we were doing something completely serious, like Food Not Bombs. He worked hard to ensure that a good time was had by all.”
“He was a total goofball,” Morgan said. “I’ve been trying to think of recent conversations we’d been having, and I can’t quote him, I can just hear him laughing. He had like 10 different laughs.”
A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, May 24, at Ruffin & Jarrett Funeral Home Chapel, 1200 Chester St. Mike Poe, another longtime friend of Wiley’s, has secured the Darragh Center for a post-memorial lunch with food donated from Starving Artist Cafe and a concert featuring local bands to follow at Rumba-Revolution at 5 p.m.