This series of reissues makes it clear that today’s over-hyped drivel is just that: drivel. Who needs overly derivative artists like Cody ChestnuTT channeling Prince and Al Green (poorly, I might add) when you have Gary Wilson? Recorded almost thirty years ago (that predates Prince, baby), these works put an arty DIY spin on Steely Dan, Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra, and Prince (Am I insinuating that Prince borrowed from Gary? No, but Beck did in his Odelay days).
The Gary Wilson saga is a sort of Horatio Alger story for indie hipsters: After recording four-track masterpiece You Think You Really Know Me in his parent’s basement in Endicott, NY in 1977, Wilson disappeared (or, more accurately, stayed) in obscurity. But the rare self-released album was passed hand to hand among the rock cognoscenti. After hearing the album, the good folks at Motel Records hired a private investigator to track him down and found out that he was living quietly in San Diego, working the graveyard shift in an adult bookstore and playing jazz piano gigs in an Italian restaurant. They nabbed him and re-released his under-recognized opus. Then, a well-timed NY Times Arts feature by Neil Strauss blew things wide open. Last May Wilson returned for two triumphant sold-out shows at Joe’s Pub, and the album has been selling briskly at NY’s Other Music ever since.
To the delight of those who loved You Think You Really Know Me, it turns out that Wilson has copies of other b-sides and rarities recorded between 1973 and 1979, recently compiled by Motel Records and called Forgotten Lovers. His lo-fi indie eccentricity, which is said to have influenced deejays at Olympia’s KAOS radio station to start spinning underground cuts, leading to the founding of Sub Pop and K record labels, was ahead of its time in ’77 and is still ahead of its time today. Forgotten Lovers shows even more variety than You Think You Really Know Me does. It’s got pop gems that sound like an artier, druggier Steely Dan, jazzy instrumentals that sound like an artier, druggier Barry White & Love Unlimited Orchestra, and arty, druggy forays into sound collage that sound like an artier, drugier John Cage.
Lyrically, Wilson alternates between bizarre outer space shit and pseudo-stalker madness, such as “I’m your boyfriend so that entitles me to one kiss.” On paper some of his lyrics could come across as quaint ’50s pop, but when Wilson repeats the lines in his pathetic prickly voice, they come off so earnest and feverish that they’re creepy. Lines like, “You make my finger’s tremble” take on another level entirely with Wilson’s delivery. And some cryptic lyrics, like “I want to take you on a sea cruise/ you little bitch,” are scarily direct.
Bottom line is that no one, even today, sounds like this. Wilson proves that you don’t need to record a lo-fi home album with just voice and guitar to make a deeply personal album. Musically there’s a lot going on: chilly synths, jazzy chords, and plenty of other curveballs. But there’s also real feeling here: loneliness, teenage awkwardness, and what it’s like to have painful obsessions. But it’s still wrapped up in such an arty mind-fuck of an album that every listen reveals something new. Is this tongue in cheek? Is he a real sick-o? How did he get that synthesizer sound? Was he new wave before new wave existed? Pick up this CD for the answers.