Don't Call It a Comeback
Twenty-five Years Later, Gary Wilson is Still On His Way Up
It's 3 p.m., but Gary Wilson's apartment is unsettlingly dark. The shades are completely drawn, cinching out any sunlight. Except for the low hum of a nearby freeway, the place is library quiet.
Wilson leads me through the apartment to the inner space he has chosen for our conversation. I see a mattress on the floor wrapped in sheets, a pair of bar stools, some battered and dusty instruments. Along the wall stands a dresser stacked with ancient audio equipment.
I learn later that one of these units, a TEAC reel-to-reel, is the machine on which Wilson recorded You Think You Really Know Me, the album that is suddenly being championed by publications such as CMJ, The Village Voice, and The New York Times. They're calling it "new-wave," "transcendent," and "raw and irresistible."
Beneath Wilson's natural modesty, I detect a timid satisfaction at this abrupt explosion into the mainstream press. It's been a long time coming. Wilson recorded the album twenty-five years ago, by himself, in the basement of his mother's house.
Despite the growing media frenzy over this prodigal son of pop, no one seems able to adequately describe his music. Rather than hitching together a half-dozen genre labels into a meaningless jumble, many reviewers resort to invoking known creative icons: Wilson has been described as "equal parts David Byrne, Andy Warhol, and James Brown" and "Prince on crack." Wilson is more than happy to let the critics grapple for appropriate words.
"It's experimental rock music," he shrugs, making clear his general disdain for categories and the limits they imply.
Ironically, it's precisely this ineffable quality that may have kept Wilson's music off record store shelves for a quarter of a century. After self-producing the album in 1977 at the age of twenty-two, Wilson began promoting his work to anyone with influence. Using his own money, he had two thousand copies pressed into vinyl, which he then mailed from his home in Endicott, New York, to radio stations and music journalists all over the country.
A few stations placed him in rotation, and the small cult following that emerged won him an audience with record labels. "The record companies liked it, people liked it," recalls Wilson. "It seemed like we were always one step from getting signed. But it was always, 'Well, we don't know exactly what to do with this. We don't know how to market it.'"
In 1978, Wilson assembled the musicians he used for live performances and moved to San Diego to be closer to Los Angeles, where he hoped for better luck, but to no avail. "I didn't understand the resistance. People liked it, they kept the record for their own collections, but they said they couldn't market it. And I thought, well geez, if you like it, then what's the problem?"
The problem is that Gary Wilson's music is like nothing else anyone has ever heard. As a result, he almost disappeared into obscurity forever. The band members drifted in different directions, and Wilson settled down with his girlfriend, dropping his original work in favor of more lucrative lounge gigs.
For twenty years, the two thousand vinyl seeds that Wilson had sown in the late seventies lay dormant. They lived in dusty sleeves at the bottoms of record collections, pulled out occasionally by a handful of Gary Wilson fanatics and shared with friends, but unknown to the public at large.
Then, in 1997, some music industry friends in Seattle telephoned Wilson with surprising news.
"They had been to a Beck concert," recalls Wilson, "and they said he was performing '6.4 = Make Out' [one of the songs on You Think You Really Know Me.]
"So then I watched him in this awards show, I think it was the MTV Video Awards, and he came out and started talking about two of my songs. It blew my mind a little bit. I was kind of surprised he never tried to reach me, but then I guess everybody tried to reach me but couldn't find me. At least that's what I'm told."
Four more years passed. In 2001, Ross Harris, the Los Angeles producer that reportedly exposed Beck to Wilson's music, played the record for some associates visiting from Motel Records in New York. In their own words, "As soon as the needle dropped, so did our jaws."
After "two sleepless weeks" of searching for the visionary behind the music, Motel Records discovered Wilson living with his girlfriend in San Diego, playing keyboards in a local lounge act, and holding down the graveyard shift at an adult bookstore.
Wilson still had the original masters, so they quickly made arrangements to re-press the record on their own label. It was released earlier this year to a flurry of critical acclaim. In support of the release, Motel Records arranged several live performances in New York.
It was sold out and we had big crowds, all very exciting," recalls Wilson. "It was surreal to me. Everybody seemed to know the lyrics to my songs. I ran into the guy who owned the club, and he said he had had my album since '78. So all these things were sort of coming together for me."
Playing packed crowds that sang along with him was a new experience for Wilson. "There was a time when people used to throw stuff at us and kick us off the stage because we were a little too experimental," he recalls, referring to his performances in the seventies.
"We did have wild shows. The band would go out garbage picking before a gig. We'd pick up all this stuff - dresses, bails of hay, anything we could find - and we'd load up the whole stage with all this garbage - but interesting garbage. During the show, we'd just start throwing chocolate milk and flour and red paint and all this stuff.
"There was a lot of breaking of instruments. We were all drenched in milk and flour. I've eliminated the milk now, because I'm older and don't want to get electrocuted, but we still use the flour."
According to those who attended Wilson's appearances in New York, the shows still hold their edge.
As this article goes to print, Wilson's associates are working to organize future live performances, some of which may feature original band members. In the meantime, pick up a copy of You Think You Really Know Me, if you can find it (the Motel Records release is sold out at many stores).
And if you happen to live in an apartment next to a quiet, forty-something gentleman with a ponytail and an aversion to sunlight, you might want to ask him for an autograph, just in case.