From out of an Endicott, New York basement in 1977 came a
brilliantly insane record almost no one heard. A short run
self-released LP, Gary Wilson’s You Think You Really Know Me
featured titles like “Chromium Bitch” and the enigmatic “6.4 =
Make Out.” Copies were passed hand-to-hand and dorm room to dorm
room, and it became a strange-beyond-words underground
classic. Luckily for long-time adherents and those new to the
Gary Wilson phenomenon, there is renewed interest in his avant
You Think You Really Know Me is less ahead of its time than it exists almost entirely outside of time. It was recorded by the then 24-year-old Wilson, almost single-handedly, on a 4-track reel-to-reel in his father’s basement. In places it is lounge-act smooth, reminiscent of Steely Dan with a Love Unlimited Orchestra attitude. Still, there is simply no other recording quite like it. Gary’s insistent garage band crooner voice evokes an obsessive teenager in love with Linda, then Cindy, then Karen. His lyrical universe is frozen at that anguished moment when going to the dance and making out are life’s zeniths- all the while depression, losing control, and self-destruction might be just around the next hazardous turn. The album has the soundscape quality of a single work that is meant to be heard from start to finish. Its stand-out moments are many: key recurring phrases like “sick trip” and “Make Out!,” lyrics like “I Wanna Lose Control for about 15 minutes,” the maniacal repetition of “She’s a real groovy girl/And she’s got red lips,” and the fabulous couplet “Cindy makes out just like a mink/Yeah, Cindy makes out, she’s the missing link” are but a few. Add a collage of sometimes disturbing sound effects and lines punctuated with his characteristic “Ha!” and “WOOOO!,” plus punk-influenced cover art. You’ve got the outline of the Gary Wilson mix.
After a stint in bands including Lord Fuzz – who once opened for the 1910 Fruitgum Company – and Dr. Zork and the Warts, Wilson recorded his first album, Another Galaxy, in 1973-1974 as the leader of the Gary Wilson Trio. The trio actually recorded with four players in all: Chris Putrino on guitar, Gary Iacovelli on drums, Frank Roma on saxophone, and Gary Wilson on stand-up bass and piano. The music of the instrumental jazz project was more traditional than what has become the Gary Wilson sound, but the stage antics had already begun to get interesting: “I remember playing some gigs with the jazz trio where I would wrap myself up in duct tape and connect myself to the string bass. I remember taping the whole band together with duct tape and trying to play.”
Going to New York City and hearing lots of avant garde jazz and classical music deeply influenced the young Gary Wilson. Listening to “all sorts of music” in the 70’s informed the work he was to create, especially composer John Cage and Dion, who he mentions as his overall favorites. Other admired musicians he mentions include Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, Herbie Hancock, Cecil Taylor, Burton Green, and Anthony Braxton. Wilson eventually realized that “New York City [audiences were] more receptive to [his] music” than upstate New York listeners and he began to play at the legendary club CBGB’s in 1976. Punk rock clubs became the most suitable for his show. After the 1977 release of You Think You Really Know Me, Gary and his band—by then The Blind Dates, with Gary on lead vocals and keyboards, Butch Bottino on bass, Dave Haney on drums, and Joey Lunga on additional vocals and keyboards—moved out to San Diego where they played in local venues and made a few rare recordings. Gary Wilson and the Blind Dates returned to the East Coast to play three shows at CBGB’s once again on August 23rd-25th, 1979. The notorious band Steel Tips opened for them on August 23rd, 1979. Mi-kel McDonnell, then a member of Steel Tips, remembers: “My friend Jacy had given us an advance copy of Gary’s stuff. We were all very impressed that he recreated the album so well with The Blind Dates. The only difference was that there was less synthesizer & more funky Farfisa organ.” Gary’s way of starting off the show was particularly memorable. “Gary started the night by just reciting girls’ names, which seemed to go on forever. Then he ended the intro with repeating something like ‘All the girls in the world are for me!’ They were definitely in a league of their own.”
In time, it began to get more difficult to book the eccentric show. In the early 80’s Wilson played bass with bluesmen Roy Brown and Percy Mayfield. His current girlfriend of 23 years, Bernadette Allen, was then a graduate student at UCSD in San Diego and they did some experimental shows and videos together. “Every now and then The Gary Wilson Band would play, but after a while you accept your fate and things slow down,” Wilson recalls.
However, some did continue to carry the torch for Wilson’s music. In 1991, Cry Baby Records, a Philadelphia Record Exchange label, re-released a vinyl edition of You Think You Really Know Me. Fans who had been turned on to Gary but only had cassette tapes of the original LP were able to view a red colorized version of the album’s original black and white artwork—which includes pictures of Gary lying in a corner entangled in what looks like tape, wire, and newspaper—for the first time. Beck pays tribute in “Where It’s At” from his 1996 Odelay album: “Passin' the dutchie from coast to coast/Like my man Gary Wilson rocks the most.”
Most recently, Gary Wilson’s work has been released on Motel Records. “A friend of Christina [Bates] and Adrian [Milan] played them a copy of You Think You Really Know Me,” Wilson explains. “The friend was Ross Harris who also turned Beck on to the recording.” Eventually, Bates and Milan were able to track Wilson down through his friend Vince Rossi. An appropriate addition to his mystique, they found him in San Diego, where he was playing in a lounge band and working at a 24-hour adult bookstore. In April 2002, Motel released You Think You Really Know Me for the first time on CD to much indie buzz and acclaim. It includes great liner notes and photos, and its front cover features the colorized Cry Baby Records version of the LP cover. The black and white version is seen on the front of the CD booklet insert.
Audiophiles laud You Think You Really Know Me for its high recording quality, especially for a home recording. A few articles on Wilson’s work have appeared in The Absolute Sound. In Stereophile Magazine (December 2002), all three pressings of You Think You Really Know Me were used as a reference for testing high end stereo equipment alongside classic artists’ work like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop, Grandmaster Flash's The Message, and John Cage’s Third Construction:
…it was very easy to hear that the 1991 reissue (Cry Baby BH03) flawlessly replicated the natural, extended tonal balance of the vocals and instruments on the original 1977 release (Gary Wilson GW001). Furthermore, it was clear that the mastering of the 2002 reissue (Motel MRLP007) had boosted the bass a few dB, and that the midrange was now richer and more holographic, along with some compression in highly modulated high-frequency passages compared to the earlier pressings.
In January 2003, Motel released Forgotten Lovers, a collection of his works recorded from 1973 to 1979, including tracks from Another Galaxy by The Gary Wilson Trio. Wilson’s personal favorite tracks on the new CD are “Chrome Lover” and the title track, “Forgotten Lovers.”
So far, being on stage again at select performances after the re-release of You Think You Really Know Me has been a good experience for Wilson. “In the old days, the audience would get mad at my band,” he remembers. “They would yell at us and throw things at us.” Performing for audiences unused to shows involving flour, chocolate milk, and duct tape coupled with a bizarre indefinable sound, there were times the band even needed a police escort from the clubs. “Now it seems the audience, for the most part, likes what I do,” says Wilson.
Andy Gesner, owner of Hip Video Promo and leader of the grassroots musical collective, Artist Amplification, is a devoted Gary Wilson fan. He had the opportunity to see a show during Wilson’s 2-night appearance at Joe’s Pub in New York City. “The room was electric,” Gesner said about the May 18th, 2002 show. “It was surreal. It was like if Captain Beefheart came back and played one show… an artist you thought you’d never get to see.” He was thrilled to meet the artist he’d listened to and wondered about for so many years. Hoping there would be more performances in the future, he asked Wilson, “Are you going to be playing anymore?” Wilson just smiled and said, “Not tonight.” Gesner characterized Wilson’s odd appearance. “He was a small, fragile man covered in white powder and lipstick. I could analyze what it all means, but I’m not sure if that’s something I’m willing to do,” he laughed. Unlike Wilson’s early performances, instead of throwing things, many in the enthusiastic audience sang along with every word.
Gary Wilson acknowledges that many of his songs are about tortured relationships. He recognizes both happiness and loss as influences. “Most of my songs come from traumatic or happy things that have happened to me. The death of my mother when I was 19 was very hard on me.”
“All the songs I write are about real girls I have dated,” he continues. “Cindy, Linda, Karen… Some I dated longer, some only a one night stand… always looking for love.” After so many years, he still feels a connection to the old tunes. “I still feel these songs from the past and the feelings…weigh heavy on me and reflect in my current state of being.” He’s “just a bit older and more mature,” he reports.
Perhaps the pain in his past points him in the direction of his simple and nonviolent life philosophy. “I try to get through life with a minimum of stress and believe in the golden rule ‘do onto others as you want done to you.’ I become angry when I see people sport fishing and hunting. When did it become acceptable to enjoy killing fish and animals? When I see people fishing on TV, it drives me crazy. These people enjoy holding the fish up as it struggles for its last breath. Horrible.”
Wilson often listens to classical music these days. However, he recently bought an eight-channel recorder, so he “listens to [him]self the most.” This is good news. Not one to stray too far from a theme, a new CD called Mary Had Brown Hair has seen limited independent release with a wider label release pending. “I always try to stay true to what Gary Wilson is all about and what I should sound like,” he says. “I write many songs, and they have to pass my expectations to make it to my list.”
One song that has long perplexed fans is “6.4=Make Out.” For those who have for years pondered the age-old question of why on earth 6.4 should equal Make Out and have had nary a hope for an answer, your wait is over. In part, Wilson simply liked the way “6.4=Make Out" sounded and looked in printed form. But now for the whole truth: “In the early days I had read that certain beers had 6.4 percent alcohol. Also that the average size of an erect penis was 6.4 inches.”
The Word according to Gary. Ah, the stuff that make out parties are made of.
Robin Renée, july 17, 2003 (revised september 14, 2004)
Gesner, Andy, phone interview, July 17, 2003
McDonnell, Mi-kel, phone interview, July 17, 2003
Milan, Adrian and Bates, Christina, liner notes, You Think You Really Know Me (Motel Records, April 2002)
Milan, Adrian, liner notes, Forgotten Lovers (Motel Records, January 2003)
Reina, Robert J., “Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood MM phono cartridge”, December 2002
Webster, Jacy, phone interview, January 2003
Wilson, Gary, e-mail interview, January 2003
Robin Renée is a singer/songwriter and freelance writer whose current CD release is All Six Senses. Her essays have appeared in That Takes Ovaries! - Bold Females and their Brazen Acts (Random House) and Blessed Bi Spirit: Bisexual People of Faith (Continuum Press). Her website is www.robinrenee.com.
Gary Wilson links
Weirdomusic Review: Forgotten Lovers
Buy Gary Wilson CDs at Amazon.com
Gary Wilson @ Freewilliamsburg.com