Gary Wilson: Forgotten Lovers

[13 February 2003]

By Devon Powers

Portrait of the Artist as a Sex-Crazed Eccentric

Music is a little something like autobiography. No other art form has kept such a stranglehold on the notion of “artist”, or championed that the self is the reservoir of truth. Despite image handlers and publicists, we think we know something about our favorite singers by the songs they sing and the beats they rock, in a way we could never know a Tom Hanks or Nan Goldin working in their respective art forms. And hey, musicians do their part to maintain this ego fetish, time and time again reminding us listeners that they’re “just plain old Mary” or “Jenny from the block”.

This is especially true for a musician like Gary Wilson. Last year, Motel Records, by gumption and good graces, unearthed Wilson’s 1977 gem, You Think You Really Know Me, an intensely disquieting peek into the sexually frustrated mind of a twentysomething (still living in his parents’ basement, I might add). It’s the musical equivalent of listening through a wall to your neighbors getting it on, a delicious mélange of arousal and alarm. It was also an unequivocal example of musical vanguard. John Cage, Barry Manilow, and Brian Wilson probably never thought they had anything in common-and hey, they still probably don’t-but Wilson has found a synergy between them and, god bless him, it works.

After an experience like You Think You Really Know Me, ironically, Wilson’s fans just might think they do-or at least, listeners would have pretty good insight into the self Wilson has relinquished to his art. We know him as a quirk, an enigma, an elusive recluse whose is both tantalizingly overt yet opaquely coded. We know we can’t figure out who (or why) the hell he is, which is 99% of his draw. So, the critical question with Forgotten Lovers is, do we get to know that Gary Wilson—that obscure, unknowable, full of shocks Wilson—any better?

Well, yes and no. Forgotten Lovers is composed of Wilson’s previously unreleased master tapes of yesteryear—stuff that didn’t make You Think. And for good reason. On the whole, even the catchiest songs off Forgotten pale in comparison to the zing of a nanosecond of You Think. As an album, also, Forgotten lacks a certain dynamism, flow, and internal logic. It sounds like what it is: disconnected songs strung together. Such insight into Wilson’s apparently expert judgment of his own creation is just about the only new wrinkle we get on this go round, however. Song for song, there’s little more to work with here towards crafting our Wilson hero—and mostly tracks which suggest that You Think was all there was to know.

That’s not to say that a number of tracks on this album aren’t a good listen. Indeed, the slick grooves and erotic moves that Wilson does best are plentiful. Instrumentals such as “Soul Travel” and “Softly Flows the Water” are strange, beautiful, often danceable gems. “Chrome Lover”, a bongo-disco-Vegas-synth swing, that breaks partway through for an extended music box solo, Wilson desperately crooning “make out” like he’s never done it before. The music box gives way to bongos, and static, and some other guy singing, and a trippy sax solo, and a bunch of other unidentifiable, but definitely creepy noises. Somewhere, something’s dripping and the phone is off the hook. Is that a vacuum cleaner? Is someone talking into the water?

“Chrome Lover” is followed by the jive-turkey “Sick Trip”—fast-paced, footloose, and fancy free. “I want you to know/ that I’m your skin diver”, Wilson blurts, channeling the souls of Bobby Rydell, Mick Jagger, and James Brown simultaneously. The synth mews a sinewy bop, the bass snappy, the drums simple, cool. When Gary Wilson’s got it, man, he’s got it. But there are enough tracks on this album that, were they contemporary recordings, could be cast off as filler—like the static “Rhythm in Your Eyes” and annoying title-track, “Forgotten Lovers”.

This album should not sour fans on Gary Wilson, not by a long shot. In fact, if anything, it should make his listeners even more anxious for new material, to showcase to us who he is now. And to prove once again that we don’t really know him at all.

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