Some 43 years ago, eclectic lounge eccentric Gary Wilson gave the world You Think You Really Know Me. Gary’s music straddles the line of “cry for help” pop and “warning sign” rock and yields a weird Freudian realm of obsessive latency. He's a figure beloved in circles as disparate as fellow freaks the Residents, to Beck. (Remember the line in “Where It’s At”: “Passin’ the dutchie from coast to coast, like my man Gary Wilson rocks the most.”) Wilson released his most recent album Electric Endicott in November of last year. Despite a longstanding reputation as a reclusive artist, Gary was more than happy to answer our questions about the mystery that is Gary Wilson.
Thanks for taking a few minutes to chat!
Good talking to you. Karen says hello.
Um, hello Karen! So you’re in San Diego, right?
Yes. I like to say that I have been on a long vacation.
How's So-Cal treating you?
Pretty good. I recently acquired the house I was born and raised in. This is in Endicott, New York. My long vacation in San Diego may be coming to an end. I will be moving back to Endicott sometime in the future and I will get back into the basement where I started; back to my roots.
I wanted to ask you about how you set out to make an album like You Think You Really Know Me back in '77. It's an incredible electro modern pop opus.
That is when everything came together. I had been playing classical music in various school chamber groups (string bass and cello) since I was ten years old. I was also listening to Dion and Fabian. Then the whole British invasion started and the Beatles came to NYC. I went to their concert at Shea Stadium. Now at this point I joined my first rock band Lord Fuzz. I was playing Farfisa Organ and was 13 years old. We were quite good and played every weekend. Now I started seeking out the 'weird' bands. I also became very interested in avant-garde classical music and art. When I graduated from high school I put out a couple of records. I was also playing in a working lounge band (you only had to be 18 to play in bars when I was growing up). I also would travel to New York City to see various jazz fusion bands. Everything started to jell together around the time of “You Think You Really Know Me.” That is when I felt I could put my name on my record and feel my personality was imbedded into the music.
I love the keyboard work on that album, the many moods and character expressions. I was curious to hear the story behind “6.4=Makeout.”
At the time I had a Fender Rhodes and my trusty Farfisa Combo Compact. I had use of an Arp and Roland synthesizer (analog of course) which I would borrow when needed. I also had my Fender Jazz Bass, Fender Music Master guitar (1958 version) and Leedy Ludwig Drums (that I painted with house paint). I had good cymbals and would use t-shirts on top of the snare and tom toms to mute and muffle the sound. Throw a pillow into the bass drum and you could get a pretty good drum sound. I used two microphones on the drums (Shure SM 57 and Electro Voice RE-10).
What do you think about that documentary that came out about you a few years back?
I like it. The whole rebirth of Gary Wilson back in 2002 took me by surprise. A happy surprise. I accepted in my mind after so many years of mostly being ignored that nothing was going to come of my music. One of the high moments in my life is when the Gary Wilson documentary premiered at Lincoln Center in New York. The place was sold out. The Film Society of Lincoln Center put on a big party for me after the showing. Very exciting and surreal to see and hear my life story unfold at Lincoln Center's state of the art theater.
So you're a big Dion fan. What do you like about his Dion and the Belmonts era versus his post-rehab reinventions?
When I was around 9 years old I became a big Dion fan. He left the Belmonts and recorded “Runaround Sue,” “Lovers Who Wander” and “Love Came To Me” all on Laurie Records. Dion then went on to Columbia Records and recorded some more material (“Donna The Prima Donna,” “Drip Drop,” etc.) that sounded like the old Dion. He then pursued a different style. I prefer Dion when he recorded on Laurie Records, his look, his voice, etc. Those recordings were my favorite albums ‘til the Beatles came out. My mother would wake up early in the morning on a school day and curl my hair over the stove. I wanted to look like Dion when I was 9 to 12 years old. Dion had nice hair. My mother and father bought me Bobby Rydell, Fabian, Dion, Joey Dee, teen idol records. This is why I like to think that what I am reaching for is a teen idol in front of a John Cage performance. This is Gary Wilson.
Are you more of a Fugs fan than the Velvets?
The Fugs. I had all the Fugs albums on ESP Records including Virgin Fugs. Then the group became more polished and they switched labels to Reprise Records. I went to see them at Cornell University.
Seems like everybody enjoys name checking you as a favorite and/or inspiration. Who are you raving about right now?
Debussy, Bax, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Christian Wolf, Bobby Rydell, Herbie Hancock, Fabian (1960), early Rolling Stones (when Brian Jones was in the band), Patty Waters, Charlie Haden.
What connects you to bed sheets, mannequins or their disembodied artificial heads?
It's been that way since I was 13 years old. Some sort of impulse comes over me before a gig and out comes the bed sheets, the duct tape and the mannequins.
How do you prepare before your wild performances with the Blind Dates?
It's like a transformation. I usually don't use the dressing rooms supplied by the venue so I 'transform' in a car, in the ally, behind a dark building, etc. Any place where I can have privacy. I carry things with me and have plenty of duct tape and flour. The thing is I don't know what I look like ‘til I enter the stage. I sometimes listen to tapes of Dion and Frankie Avalon right before I go on.
Tell us about recording Electric Endicott.
Electric Endicott was recorded in 2010 in my home, sort of a tribute album to my hometown of Endicott, New York. I play all the instruments and vocals, etc. When I watch the video for “In The Night” (from Electric Endicott) it sometimes makes me cry. Don't know why but it does.
Will your '74 release Another Galaxy see a reissue any time soon?
I have had several people request a reissue of Another Gallaxy. This album was recorded and self-released shortly after I graduated from high school. The drummer (Gary Iacovelli) later appears on some of the tracks from You Think You Really Know Me. You never know, I'm up for it.
Is it reading too much into the ever present statuesque dolls that they are perhaps a stand-in for your elusive butterfly “Linda”?
That's right. The mannequins are sort of a frozen reminder of the girls from my past. When we finish a gig I carefully place the 'girls' back into the closet. I can hear them whispering to each other when I walk past the closet. Sometimes when two or more of my 'girls' are on stage at the same time they fight with one another.
Can you tell us who your “Secret Girlfriend” might be?
'She' would never forgive me if I told you 'her' name.
Are there any artists with whom you would ever want to collaborate?
I am so used to working alone that I don't think much about working with other people. Perhaps Patty Waters, Ron Carter, Questlove (The Roots). When The Roots invited me to perform with them on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, I thought the Roots did a great job performing my music. Perhaps a future album called Gary Wilson and the Roots. I always thought it would be cool to work with David Tudor (piano). Mr. Tudor passed away a few years ago.
My condolences. Thank you for your time and keep on shining you mad cap diamond.