When his dreams tracked him down, Gary Wilson was a man who wouldn’t garner a second look. A balding man in his 50s, they found him far from the stage — working the same night shift at a San Diego porn shop and cinema that he’d worked for years.
He was a guy who played piano in hotel lounge acts. A man who hardly ever spoke of his late ’70s avant-cult status. The days of wrapping himself in cellophane and being pummeled with flour while singing songs about the girls he loved… it was all long gone. It was just a memory he recalled from time to time, but nothing he latched his hopes on.
When Motel Records execs came across Wilson’s 1977 self-recorded album, You Think You Really Know Me, they felt they had come across the Holy Grail of underground music. It was a record so strange, so groundbreaking and so honest, they itched to re-release it under their moniker.
Problem was, no one knew what ever came of Gary Wilson. He’d disappeared shortly after the album was released and hadn’t spoken to anyone — friends, family — since.
When Motel finally tracked him down (through a private investigator) and gave him the news — that they intended to make his record a hit once and for all — Wilson wasn’t optimistic.
“You realize maybe at some point that nothing is going to happen, and you settle down,” he says. “You get kind of used to it. You get hardened from it a little bit.”
“I remember one time in my career I was doing the midnight shifts, and I just turned on MTV Video Awards or something before I went to work — this was, like ’98 or ’97. I can’t remember. They had Beck come out and he started quoting my album,” Wilson says. “That was a launching point. I was feeling depressed that night and then I went off to work into this whole other world… but they are talking about my songs on TV. I’m thinking: ‘Whoa, Jesus.”
But Motel came through where others hadn’t. Their re-release of Wilson’s record spawned a tour. Shows filled with fans who knew every word to “6.4 = Make Out.” A documentary was made about his life. His future records found a home with Stones Throw Records (who also houses Spokane’s James Pants).
Today, Wilson’s avant-garde ballads find fans. But back in the late ’70s, the songs of ex-lovers, the stage blood, the mash-up of funk and soul and electronic — it was a little hard for the masses to swallow.
“Some of the shows used to be just total chaos. I wouldn’t even do the songs,” he says. “I remember I got us a gig at the American Legion, and all of these people were expecting a polka band. We came in with mics on the chalkboards, scratching the chalkboards.”
He laughs: “When you’re in a small town, you’re going, ‘Geez, this is the wrong place for this.’”
But the music world’s tastes finally caught up to Wilson. Listeners could see through the droning instruments and past the stage antics. His were simply songs from the heart.
It’s in the way his voice goes up at the end of a line of lyrics: “You think you really… know me?” Or the way he recites a chorus methodically, sadly — turning songs into disturbing lullabies of loneliness and struggle and breakup. Wilson does nothing to disguise his pain, allowing it to flow freely as soul and funk and free jazz. He sings songs (occasionally creepy ones) about watching girls in the dark. Songs about Sandy, Mary, Karen, Lisa, Linda.
It’s unapologetic and it has made Wilson an icon.
Now a few years after his re-emergence, Wilson is still living far off the grid of popular music. He still idolizes John Cage and Fabian and Bobby Rydell. He still plays hotel lounges.
He’s still just Gary Wilson.
Gary Wilson and the Blind Dates play with James Pants & the Royal Zodiac and Hey Is for Horses at Empyrean on Saturday, Sept. 12, at 8 pm. Tickets: $7. Call: 838-9819.