The Cult of Personality

In the late 1970s, Gary Wilson was 24 years old and living in the basement of his parents’ house in Endicott, NY. Having already dabbled in a number of local bands and with a failed “I’m-moving-to-NYC-to-be-a-rock star” attempt under his belt, Gary turned the basement into a recording studio and in 1977 self-released a 12-track album of experimental music, entitled You Think You Really Know Me. The record, perhaps expectedly, tanked. “It was hard to get interest in my music”, says Wilson, who tried to garner supporters by mailing the album to radio stations and music critics nationwide. Despite the commercial disappointment, Gary did develop his own fan base, as rabid as it was small. At Washington’s Evergreen State College, for instance, the radio station KAOS became an active promoter of Gary’s songs, featuring one on every radio program for years. But that was pretty much it for Gary Wilson. Seemingly destined to live the ordinary lifestyle of a not-even-close celebrity, Gary ceased recording in 1981 and, for all intents and purposes, vanished.

But Gary seemed destined to make it somehow, and this year, more than twice the age he was when he made his album, he’s also enjoying one more shot at the career he missed back in the 1970s. After hearing his music, representatives from Motel Records went on a hunt for Gary Wilson, and begged him to reissue You Think You Really Know Me with them. And he did! Gary even consented to playing live dates in order to promote the material, recently doing a gig at the legendary Joe’s Pub in New York City. His moment to shine, it seemed, had finally come.

The Gary Wilson story has all the trappings of a fairy tale, right? The musician with a dream and heart, but no listeners, finally gets his shot at stardom. The record, a jewel destined to be lost in the shuffle, finally gets the exposure it deserves. Fate, I tell you, fate! Justice, the sweet smell of justice! It’s enough to make you go back to church, to believe in a thing called destiny and, dammit, to give yourself wholeheartedly into the goodness of the All-American Dream.

Don’t go calling Oprah or waving the stars and stripes just yet, though, as I’ve omitted a few details. Let’s start first with Gary’s influences, which range from the Rolling Stones to John Cage. Yes, you read those correctly. Next, his sound: synthesizer-steeped, toying with the sensual schmaltz-posturing of a Barry Manilow or Bobby Rydell, over the sounds of water running, glass breaking, machines malfunctioning. Add to this a quick survey of song titles (“Groovy Girls Make Out at the Beach”, “Chromium Bitch”) and lyrics (“What you trying to do, put me on a sick trip or something?”; “Your mind is so imbalanced / I don’t care if they call you a whore / Whoo!”). Did I mention that Gary sent along pictures with his albums — pictures of him covered in magnetic tape, pictures where plastic bags draped his face underneath his sunglasses, pictures where much of his body was splattered with paint? Did I tell you that he often made music while covered in baking flour because, as he says it “reminds me of snow?” Oh, and despite having hardly anyone listen to his album, you likely have heard those influenced by his sound — for instance, Beck, who even cites Gary in one of his songs? ( “Where It’s At” — “passin’ the dutchie / from coast to coast / like my man Gary Wilson / rocks the most”.)

Ahh, Gary Wilson. For the performer who is as much performance artist as he is lounge act, a pat fairy tale simply will not do. His fade into obscurity came largely because no one could understand his music; today, it still sounds light years ahead of its time and maybe not even of this planet. More than that, You Think You Really Know Me is a record you can’t believe someone actually made — its sounds are just plain weird, its subject matter embarrassingly private, and its creator nearly incomprehensible.

This is a dare: anyone who thinks that they’ve heard it all, that nothing musically can floor them, need only listen to the crown jewel of You Think You Really Know Me, a jazzed-out number entitled “6.4 = Make Out”. It’s the kind of song that a person could only write just before, just after, or maybe during masturbation. Gary’s tense, electrified, sex-starved vocals hang tactilely above soulful synth, which is interrupted in parts by what sounds like thunder claps, in others by gentle, almost angelic tinkling. “How old did you say you were?” Gary asks, as he winds a fantasy of attempting to seduce the object of his desires. “Sixteen”, calls out one of his band mates, to which Gary answers “Did I ever tell you, I’ve got a real crush on Karen?”

The album banks largely on this sort of teenage sexual crisis, most of the songs about making out, girls with red lips, and having crushes — and not just on Karen. “C-I-N-D-Y spells Cindy / And she’s a groovy chick”, Gary sing-speaks. “And when you want to kiss her lips / She’ll tell you it would be real cool with her”. And yes, Cindy and Karen are real people. “Most of them probably don’t even know I sing about them”, Wilson says. “Even with my girlfriend Bernadette, I find it awkward to sing a song for her or to a girl”.

Which may explain why, during his recent live performance in New York City, Gary sang his songs to a mannequin, a naked black-haired thing which he fondled as his vocals quivered with their signature pre-orgasmic warble. Backing him were a gaggle of players, like Robert Palmer’s ladies but men, uniformly dressed and wearing sunglasses. Throughout the show, which was composed of almost the entirety of You Think You Really Know Me, the lights oscillated in screwball colors, video streamed of furry things being beaten against speakers, and a man kept entering the stage with a bag of flour, sprinkling Gary as he sang on his knees or did Hail Marys.

Gary had aged — receding hairline, graying ponytail — but the material sounded as fresh and modern as it does on the record, and 25 years did nothing to temper Gary’s proclivity for peculiarity and pathos. Opening the night with “I Wanna Lose Control” — two minutes of up-tempo sleaze — Gary’s singing sounded even more desperate than it does on record. “I wanna lose control for about 15 minutes”, Gary crooned, donning light jeans, a black blazer and no shirt that were leagues away from the svelte, skinny tie look he sported in the 1970s. “And then I’ll feel real cool for the rest of the night”. He had reason to feel real cool — the artist had sold out two back-to-back shows, which drew hoards of indie hipsters as well as members of his long-time cult of fans.

The album’s title track, “You Think You Really Know Me”, is possibly the key to cracking the mystery of Wilson. On the album, it’s a short cacophony of noise — rhythmless drums and cymbal hits, beeping and keyboards, found noises that whir, crash, and buzz while Gary speaks robotically, repeatedly “you think you really know me?” Gary performed this on the ground, like the song was his death or birth, as his backing musicians reveled in going apeshit on guitars, beating the drums when they felt so moved, and filling the venue with feedback. There may be a thousand Gary Wilsons in the world, but don’t think you really know this one. Gary Wilson is like no one else.

Though somewhere deep inside all of us, there’s a little bit of this particular Gary Wilson. It’s the person who still lusts after that high school sweetheart or penned tormented love songs for an unrequited crush. It’s the part that howled, like an injured animal, at the devastating bruises caused by teenage rejection, or worse. And it’s the untamed soul we bury deep, fearful of being misunderstood and equally fearful of being taken seriously. Gary Wilson has made sure that these parts don’t starve in the pit of our souls or waste away in our diaries. He’s projected them, not once but twice, into the world; and for heaven or hell’s sake, we owe it to ourselves to listen. Once we do, as Gary puts it, “we’ll see what happens”.