(Jay Allen Sanford explores the fall and rise of a San Diego indie pioneer.)
“You don’t remember who I am, do you?” Gary Wilson asked me via e-mail. I’d been interviewing the indie-rock pioneer about his rediscovery since being name-checked in Beck’s “Where It’s At” ——
“Passin’ the dutchie from coast to coast/ like my man Gary Wilson rocks the most.”
Wilson was employed at the same local strip club where my housemate at the time (“Savannah”) worked. I used to hang around the place to talk with him about music and vintage TV shows we both loved, particularly the aforementioned Thriller series. He may have mentioned he used to be in a band.
But I didn’t know he was THE Gary Wilson, whose homemade ’70s records are being reissued to such acclaim.
A recent documentary film, You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story, details the life of the eccentric indie-punk pioneer, best known for his highly sought 1977 LP You Think You Really Know Me. The album was recorded in the basement of his parents’ house, and only a few hundred copies were pressed — many of them smashed over Wilson’s head at shows.
“I originally pressed 300 copies in 1977 and then pressed another 300 in 1979,” Wilson tells me. “I only have one copy left. When I went back home [to film scenes for the documentary], I did find the original lyric sheets for YTYRKM, but no more copies of the records. I found copies of my first album, Another Galaxy.”
Even many devoted Wilson fans (and their numbers are legion, growing every day) often aren’t aware that You Think You Really Know Me wasn’t his first homemade album. “Another Galaxy was self-released in 1974,” Wilson tells me. “This was an instrumental album consisting of four extended selections. Gary Iacovelli, who was later featured on some of the songs from You Think You Really Know Me, played drums.”
Highly influenced by avant-garde performer John Cage, Wilson says “I feel [Cage] is the most important composer of our time. Mr. Cage was my idol when I was growing up. When I was 12 and 13 I was listening to Edgar Varèse, [Alban] Berg, [Arnold] Schoenberg, other 12-tone music. I thought that that music sounded cool and weird. I went to the local university record library and listened to the album that I consider the most important album in my life. It was called Concert for Piano and Orchestra by John Cage, with David Tudor on piano. When I heard this record, my ears and thoughts expanded. I started to go for the most extreme avant-garde music and art I could find.”
Born in upstate New York in 1953, Wilson grew up admiring Dion and the Belmonts, even copying Dion’s piled and styled hairdo (which once got him beat up by neighborhood bullies). After seeing the Beatles play Shea Stadium, the multi-instrumentalist joined his first band, Lord Fuzz, a teen group who’d released a single and opened for the 1910 Fruitgum Company.
He was still living in the small town of Endicott, N.Y., at the time. After he founded his own offbeat group, the Blind Dates, “Gigs for an experimental rock band were hard to come by. One time, I booked a gig at the local American Legion for my band. The place was filled with senior citizens expecting a waltz or a polka. I arrived with tape recorders and things to make noise with. I had contact microphones, highly amplified, hooked up to various objects, and the Blind Dates would scratch these objects against one another. This produced a horrible screeching sound. The tapes and the feedback along with an amplified saxophone produced a highly chaotic show. The Blind Dates were all wrapped up together in duct tape and covered with flour and paint.”
“After about 20 minutes we finished our first ‘song.’ The manager of the American Legion came up to us in shock and said, ‘What the hell was that?’ I asked him if he wanted us to continue. He told us to get the hell out of the place. Sometimes I would book my band into the wrong venue, just for my own enjoyment.”
In 1978, Wilson moved to San Diego, in hopes of furthering his thus-far DIY music career. “Some of the original Blind Dates — Joey Lunga, Butch Bottino, and Dave Haney — had moved from Endicott to San Diego a few years before me. I ended up moving into a house with them, and we were able to practice and put the group back together.”
Wilson and the Blind Dates performed all over San Diego in makeup, led séances from the stage, and were known to wear beekeeper’s hats or sheets of plastic held together by duct tape. Club operators at long-gone area venues like the Roxy in PB, the Skeleton Club(s) downtown, and Straita Head Sound often booted him over the messes.
“I have a fond memory of total chaos onstage, and someone from Straighta Head Sound yelling to Joey [Lunga, keyboardist] to please not throw the TV set off the stage,” Wilson recalls. “Joey, who is a big guy, picked the TV up over his head and threw it on the floor below the stage. The television set shattered into a thousand pieces. It was a great ending to our show. The stage hand was horrified.”
In late 1979, Gary Wilson and the Blind Dates played CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City in NY, among some other East Coast dates. Six of the shows were recorded for a possible live album. “At the time,” says Wilson, “I had two-track master tapes recorded right off the board at CBGBs. I lost these tapes. Hope to find them at some point.”
Around the same time, local music paper Kicks was running constant ads for Wilson’s new album, produced by Michael Coyne. “Michael Coyne produced and put up the money for Invasion Of Privacy,” recalls Wilson. “Michael was in negotiations with Capitol Records and would guarantee me to Capitol Records. He then got popped in Lima, Peru and spent years in Peru’s jail. He lost everything.”
“Gary Wilson had tape and stuff wrapped around him and there’s flour being thrown all over during his performances,” recalls Mark DeCerbo of Four Eyes. “I’m sure the crowd there that night had never seen anything like it in their lives…. Gary would run through the crowd like a maniac and out of the club and disappear. We would see him back at the house after the gig, and he’d be sitting there in the dark.”
Some of the Blind Dates would go on to play with Four Eyes.
“Our equipment was broken down and ragged and literally held together by duct tape,” recalls Wilson today. “Something caught on fire onstage; I think it was caused by a power cord from one of our amps. After our performance, there was a tremendous amount of flour all over the stage and the club’s equipment. It looked like a snowstorm hit the place…. I can’t remember being paid for the gig. The owner probably got mad at us and docked us our pay.”
In the early ‘90s, You Think You Really Know Me was reissued by Cry Baby Records, an offshoot of Philadelphia Record Exchange.
“They were fans of the original 1977 pressing and thought it would be good to re release the record,” according to Wilson. “I said sure, and sent them the tape and the photos. They sent me a 50 percent advance and then, after they pressed it, sent me the other 50 percent. They also changed the cover of the original ’77 pressing from black and white to a negative red. As I recall, we had to have the Cry Baby reissue remastered because the speed of the reissue was different than the original. Since I recorded it on my home equipment, their tape machines didn’t match mine. I guess the times and circumstances (lack of publicity, etc.) were not quite right, and the Cry Baby reissue never went anyplace. I think they pressed 1,000 copies.”
Around the same time, Wilson was the anonymous keyboardist for a local lounge act called Company East, fronted by Donnie Finnell – not even his bandmates knew he was THE Gary Wilson. With a monthly gig at the Rancho Bernadino Inn, the group was pretty sedate, though Wilson recounts one incident that hearkened back to those crazy old sets with the Blind Dates.
“It was New Year’s Eve, early 1990s, at a private party held at the house of the president of a big company. The band was finishing up our last few songs for the evening, when all of a sudden there was a loud noise and commotion in the other room. … A fight had started, and guests started running out of the room screaming. They were covered in blood, and their tuxedos and gowns were ripped and destroyed. Two of the guests went through the picture window and were rolling around on the lawn. Glass everywhere. … We continued to play for another five minutes. I remember breaking down the equipment as fast as we could.”
Years later, after Sub Pop Records cited Gary Wilson as an indie inspiration, Beck made him immortal by mentioning his name in 1996’s “Where It’s At” (“Passin’ the dutchie from coast to coast/ like my man Gary Wilson rocks the most”).
New York’s Motel Records decided it wanted to rerelease Wilson’s seminal YTYRKM LP, and they hired a private detective to find the long-vanished, reclusive rock pioneer.
He was rediscovered working at the local porn shop and strip club where I used to chat him up while dropping off or picking up Savannah. In short order came the reissue, new records, sold-out concerts, and glowing reviews all over the globe touting this most unlikely comeback success story.
Stones Throw Records released an album of new music entitled Mary Had Brown Hair. A video was shot for the single “Linda Wants to Be Alone.”
All of a sudden, Wilson was earning tons of glowing mainstream press, in the Village Voice, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. 20 years after his final show as Gary Wilson, he returned to the stage on May 16, 2002, with two sold-out concerts at Joe’s Pub in New York City.
The reclusive legend is usually backed in concert by Blind Dates Joey Lunga (keyboards), Butch Bottino (bass), Dave Haney (drums), and Ian (guitar). A couple of hugely successful reunion shows have been staged here in San Diego. “Had a good time at the Casbah last night,” he e-mailed me after one show. “The flour was flowing freely.”
“Motel Records threw a big party for me at Chateau Marmont in 2002,” he says. “I was playing at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood and I had a chance to stay there…they had a good review in the Village Voice of my 2002 show at New York’s Joe’s Pub.” He still seems genuinely astonished by things like this.
Gary Wilson’s music is now spreading so far and wide that one of his songs was included on the Adult Swim Cartoon Network CD Chrome Children, also on the Stones Throw label. “It’s funny,” he emailed, “they are using an instrumental, ‘Dreams,’ that I put out as a single when I was 17.”
Continuing the DIY work ethic even into the new millennium, Wilson’s CDs often include homespun photography and artwork by his long-time girlfriend, Bernadette Allen, who also shoots video footage screened behind Wilson in concert. She’s known Wilson long enough to have seen him promoting the original 1977 album at Max’s Kansas City in New York. Here’s her surreal video “When I Think About Gary Wilson”:
(Concert shots 4-28-08)
On Thursday, July 10, 2008, You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story screened in LA at the Silent Movie Theater, in conjunction with the Don’t Knock The Rock Film And Music Festival. The gig was to promote the documentary’s DVD release by Plexifilm. “I will be doing a performance after the screening,” Wilson e-mailed at the time. “The backup band is Ross Harris on electronics, Patti Wilson on backing vocals, Ariel Pink on bass, Adrian Milan on drums, Adam on keyboards, and Grady on guitar. Should be a wild show.”
After the show, he wrote to say “We played on the rooftop of the venue…It was a warm night, so it worked out well. We went on about 12:45 a.m. I’m surprised the cops didn’t stop us, but that’s good.”
A few days later, Wilson’s new CD Lisa Wants to Talk to You was released by Human Ear music. “It’s all-new material,” he says, “recorded in my home studio, no computer.” Besides Beck and myself, others who cite themselves as Gary Wilson fans include the Roots, Questlove, and Simpsons creator Matt Groening.
You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story was reviewed in the New York Times: “Mr. Wilson’s magnetism has lost some of its valence when you see the experimental films he and his friends made in their youth. … His ponytailed locks are thinner and grayer, and his antics seem twitchier and creepier. …Indie-rock enthusiasts will find much to appreciate, however, in a film whose soundtrack is more enjoyable than its narrative. Gary Wilson and the Blind Dates, as his band was known, come off as pioneers of the suburban underground. They do for used record stores what R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar do for used comic book stores.”
Footage of Wilson in the 74-minute documentary includes interviews conducted while he worked behind bulletproof plastic in the San Diego porn shop (see above pic).
GARY WILSON’S FIVE FAVORITE RECORDS
1 – Dion, “Runaround Sue” or “Lovers Who Wander” (“Either single. Dion was my idol when I was nine…my mother would wake up in the morning and curl my hair [like Dion’s] before I went to school.”)
2 – The Fugs, Tenderness Junction (“I saw the Fugs at Cornell University right after they released it…one of the first real underground bands.”)
3 – Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, We’re Only in It for the Money or Absolutely Free (“I saw Frank Zappa many times. I still like the early recordings better than later records.”)
4 – Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, Trout Mask Replica (“A great recording. When I was 16 years old I saw [Beefheart] for the first time in Ithaca, New York. I saw him about four times.”)
5 – The Rolling Stones, Between the Buttons (“I was a fan when they still had the late Brian Jones playing with them.”)
FAVORITE TV SHOWS
1 – Boris Karloff’s Thriller (“Aired in the early ’60s — fantastic. I have a collection of episodes on VHS that I watch over and over, to the dismay of my current girlfriend, Bernadette.”)
2 – The Twilight Zone (“Rod Serling is from the same [New York state] area that I’m from.”)
3 – The Outer Limits (“The television shows have to be the original black-and-white episodes or I can’t watch them.”)
1 – Carnival of Souls, 1962 (“I must have watched my VHS copy a thousand times. Just recently [got] the director’s cut on DVD.”)
2 – The Mask, 1961 (“When the character in the film puts on an ancient mask, the audience simultaneously puts on a pair of 3-D glasses. This opens the audience up to the world that the character in the film is seeing.”)
FILM TRAILER “YOU THINK YOU REALLY KNOW ME: THE GARY WILSON STORY”
— Jay Allen Sanford
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