You Don't Know Me

You Don't Know Me
Photo: João Canziani

  • Daddy Bones
  • Dazed & Confused
  • September 08, 2004

You could be forgiven for misjudging Gary Wilson because virtually everything about him seems odd. Take a look at sleeve of his seminal 1977 LP You Think You Really Know Me - it seems to show him as a young American slickster of the Punk era, outfitted in plastic wraparound shades, a preppy jacket and a skinny tie. Even the pose, with its air of cool disdain, seems to portray a poster boy for new wave nihilism. Flip the album over, and things start to look a little different. Here we see the same man - in the same damp, dirty basement - but hair bedraggled, unshaven and stumped in a corner, stripped to his underwear and wrapped in yards of electrical cord and magnetic tape. The sleeve bears no label name, no sleeve notes, no contact details, just song titles like "Chromium Bitch" and "6.4 = Make Out". It just looks weird.

The mystery only deepens when you actually play the record. Recorded in the cellar of his parents' house on the cheapest four-track tape machine available, Wilson sang and played bass, drums, organ and synths. The results have been described as a "demented blue-eyed Soul record" and "Steely Dan on crack". It is, by turns, funny and mesmerising. Despite his upbringing in Endicott, a backwoods town west of NYC, Wilson was a prodigious musical talent, tutored on double bass from the age of nine by his father, showing brilliance throughout his youth not only as a multi-instrumentalist, but as a classical composer too. At 12 he joined a local garage rock combo as organist and at 14 he discovered, contacted and visited the avant-garde experimentaUst composer John Cage. Cage made an arresting impression on the teenager and his singular mindset of following one's own path and ignoring outside influence would become Wilson's touchstone. "I always treasure that," Wilson says now, sitting at his San Diego home, "that's one of my great moments, because he was my hero." Thereafter, Wilson's music and behaviour got rather freakish.

Dressed in a tuxedo, but barefoot, Wilson would walk his pet duck on a string through his hometown. At house parties he would shut off the power and crawl around the floor groping people. If there was no house available to party in he would lead costumed seances in the nearby woods instead. His infamous band of the mid-70s, Gary Wilson & the Blind Dates played their shows garbed in make-up, torn suits, beekeeper's hats, sheets of plastic held together by gaffer tape. They churned out perverted experimental rock and would routinely finish a live show by destroying the equipment. None of this might arch a critic's brow today, but in the New York mindset of that epoch, people were frightened. "We usually lasted about three songs before people got scared," recalls one former Blind Date.

"We did a live thing in Binghamton," remembers Wilson, "this must have been 72/73. It was really messy - 1 was all covered in milk and flour. The whole thing was wrecked, and I had to go to a gig, four hours later, wearing a tuxedo, in some nice steak house. I always kept the two things going. Always balancing them. They never knew about one another."

Endicott could barely contain Wilson, but remarkably he found no joy in the big city either, "Even in the exploding New York music and art scene, I was considered an outcast," he confesses. "That was all right with me. I didn't want to fit in with the rest of the bands anyway." So some months after releasing his solo album, Wilson left NYC to try his luck with the big labels in California, but found out that they had no idea how to market him. Not being that desperate for fame after all, he cut off his phone and vanished. Several of his friends assumed he had died.

For the next 25 years, Wilson's magnus opus lived on as a mystery cult without him. Despite its rarity (he pressed just 600 copies, many of which were smashed over his head at shows), its magic spread far and wide, abetted by indie radio stations such as New Jersey's WFMU and Seattle's KAOS (whose playlists were a major influence on Sub Pop). New listeners were rarely able to resist the magnetic pull of the album's bare soul, including Beck. The self-styled loser openly divulged his love for Wilson's songs at an MTV awards show and even name-checked him on the huge chart hit "Where It's At" - "Passin' the dutchie from coast to coast, like my man Gary Wilson rocks the most."

Eventually, after years of underground devotion to Wilson as a lost pioneer of 10-fidelity individuality, New York's Motel Records realised that this incredible work needed reissuing, the artist needed finding and his story told, but no one could find him - not even a private detective. As label partner Adrian Milan said - "Who doesn't have a phone?" Finally in 2002, after trawling for ex-band members back in Endicott, a third-party letter got through to Wilson and contact was at last made. He was almost 50, gigging at the San Diego's Rancho Bernadino Lounge and working late shifts behind a bullet proof counter in a porno bookstore. Suddenly, both his old career and persona were resurrected and his life immediately began to be documented in a whirlwind of attention. The New York Times ran a feature, critics hailed his name and now a new feature-length documentary - You Think You Really Know Him: The Gary Wilson Story - looks set to raise the accolades even further. "It was the music that sucked me in and the mystery of Gary that compelled me to do the movie," claims director Michael Wolk. "The weirdest thing is that having done the documentary, and having watched the documentary, when I listen to the album, it's still a mystery to me. A mystery I feel a little more at home with."

Stones Throw Records boss Peanut Butter Wolf, who was narrowly beaten to the reissue deal, is equally passionate about the ageing Endicott freaknik. "It's rare that you hear music which you like so much that you want to give it away to everyone as a gift," he enthuses, "also, I was single back then, so I started showing the album to every girl I knew. If the girl liked Gary, I could consider dating her. If not, forget it." Following Peanut Butter Wolf's endorsement and subsequent deal with Stones Throw, Wilson started recording new material this year as if it was 1977 all over again, resulting in his new album, Mary Had Brown Hair. Like You Think You Really Know Me, his quirky style and heartfelt lyrics show that no misdemeanour from his youth has been forgotten. Those high school girls still throb in his head as if he'd never really escaped.

So with his shades and lipstick back on - and his head once more wrapped in plastic sheeting, Wilson slips back into gear and defies the time gone by in the video for his latest single "Linda Wants To Be Alone". And thus we witness a man in his 50s exorcising demons and fantasies three decades old, surrounded by mannequins and hot, pillow-fighting brunettes on hand to beat his head with handfuls of flour. Asking anybody if they "really think they know him" may just be rhetoric. Who could possibly?