James Calvin Wilsey at the beach Santa Cruz - 1992- photo - Michael Goldberg
James Calvin Wilsey at the beach. Santa Cruz, 1992. Photo: Michael Goldberg

Michael Goldberg on The Avengers’ Jimmy Wilsey and His Wicked Punk Guitar

Michael Goldberg captures The Avengers’ Jimmy Wilsey and his downward trajectory with spare, slow, searching lines much like the guitarist summoned from his instrument.

Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey
Michael Goldberg
June 2022

In this heart-shaped, elegiac book of disappearances, Michael Goldberg, a music journalist and photographer, and formerly a senior writer at Rolling Stone magazine, traces with affecting compassion the hinkypunk life of guitarist Jimmy Wilsey. Goldberg’s meticulously researched biography delivers a deep-hearted and poignant account of the rare and extraordinary creative talent who—following his legendary entry into the music scene as bass player for San Francisco’s primeval punk band, the Avengers—crafted the incomparable yearning two-note opening to Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”. Observes Goldberg,

Jimmy was the master of minimalism, of less-is-more, at times seeming to play as few notes as possible…The dreamy, mysterioso opening riff that defines “Wicked Game” consists of two sustained notes. It is exquisitely simple— perfect. (37)

– Michael Goldberg

An eloquent remembrance of the man, his guitar, and the haunting reverb-soaked tone they made, Wicked Game tenderly captures the entwinement of Wilsey’s extended downward trajectory with the spare, slow, spacious, searching lines the guitarist summoned from his instrument. Positing a causal relation born of early trauma Goldberg notes, 

Maia Szalavitz writes in Unbroken Brain that the kind of obsessiveness Jimmy brought to his guitar playing is not unusual for someone addicted to heroin.” (267)

‘”It is impossible [says Szalavitz] …to not be struck by the amount of pain and heartbreak that precedes most cases of addiction.’”  (72)

– Michael Goldberg

Wilsey’s pain and the obsession it bred gave life to the deep lonesome that defined his sound and the effects it wrought. Effects are illuminated tellingly by a quote Goldberg draws from writer Joy Williams’ July 1987 article, “Guitar Full of Soul”:

‘It’s Wilsey’s reverb-drenched guitar stylings, equal parts Duane Eddy and Scotty Moore, that lift Isaak’s self-titled Warner Bros. album above the roots-rock pack and fire his incendiary live shows.” (271)

– Joy Williams via Michael Goldberg

The yearning and vulnerability born of Wilsey’s early trauma coupled with career disappointments following his iconic performance on “Wicked Game” propagated a string of darker consequences that we are given to understand from the biography’s start. 

Beginning near the end with EveAnna Manley, owner of an exotic audio gear laboratory, shooing the homeless Wilsey from her stucco building, Goldberg—to the book’s advantage—frames the story of the guitarist known as “the King of Slow” not as a matter of what, but of how and why. The author’s chosen vantage point expands Wicked Game from what might have been a simple chronological log of the making and disintegration of Wilsey’s bent-string-of-a-life into a vigorous and revealing examination of the context that enabled and contributed to the rise, emergence, and long drug-fueled descent of this profoundly original voice. Indeed, Wisley’s tale sadly echoes Chet Baker’s slow disintegration and the hauntingly beautiful music the trumpet player fashioned during his decay. 

Worthy of prominent mention in Goldberg’s portrayal of Wilsey’s elusive life between the notes is the book’s method of exposition. Rather than pursuing a single sustained narrative line, Wicked Game operates as a biography by bricolage. Goldberg, Wilsey’s long-time friend with whom his son took guitar lessons, and photographer of the punk scene in which Wilsey came of age, layers intimate reflection and historical inquiry. Chapter titles are drawn from rock lyrics—“He Was a Friend of Mine” (from Jim Carroll’s song “People that Died”), “Walk on the Wildside” (following Lou Reed’s genderqueer classic). Goldberg takes a journalistic perspective and assembles richly quoted voices into a remarkable salade composée of this outsider musician’s life.  The author’s method of massing the voices of Wilsey’s contemporaries.

“He had my kind of sense of humor,” ex-Avengers drummer Danny Furious said. “That super dry, slightly sarcastic irony that Jimmy would inject into everything. And then he would give that Jimmy grin. His teeth were a little bit crooked and he would grin from ear to ear and laugh at his own silly jokes or anecdotes.” (37)

“He had a lot of taste, a very refined guy,” said guitarist/songwriter Michael Belfer, who co-founded the Sleepers and played in Tuxedomoon. “And he certainly had good taste in women.” (37)

“He always had a twinkle in his eye,” said Amy Starks, who was one of Jimmy’s girlfriends in the late ’70s. “He could make you laugh and he could do that ’til the day he died.” (37)

– Michael Goldberg

This method reminded me at times of Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s biography of Edie Sedgwick, Edie: American Girl (1994) which consists entirely of quotes from those who knew her. Goldberg, though, walks more dangerous ground than did Stein and Plimpton. The author positions himself simultaneously as a journalist, a named character in the text, and simply another vocal contributor to the task of reckoning with a life marked by absence. 

Unlike today, when nearly every song is available instantly via streaming services, music fans had to haunt used record stores to find semi-obscure recordings, which was something Jimmy did. Fans had want lists of albums and singles they were searching to find, and it could take months (even years) to locate a treasured record at a reasonable price. Sometimes you never found it. “As a teenager I remember seeking out ‘cutout bin’” in drug stores and at Woolworths and finding ‘cutouts’ (records that the labels dumped at deep discount prices) that I wanted…(93-94)

– Jimmy Wilsey via Michael Goldeberg

There is something humble and honest in this, and it fits well with the life of the artist who titled his one solo album El Dorado, and said of himself, “I only make disappearances.”

Chris Isaak and James Calvin Wilsey, Boston, 1985. Photo: Sue Brisk, courtesy of Michael Goldberg

As likely to be the definitive text on its subject, The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey speaks with meaning to various constituencies. Punks, players, and fans, will find much to prize in Goldberg’s discerning exegesis of San Francisco’s underground music scene:

Like the rock of the ’50s, punk wasn’t simply entertainment… Proto-punks such as the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the MC5, the New York Dolls, and early punk combos including the Patti Smith Group, the Ramones, and Television, were dead serious. They were raw and real as life itself. To be in your teens or early twenties in 1975 was to witness a musical revolution as profound as the ’50s rockabilly scene and the mid-to-late ’60s counterculture… 

While it might seem farfetched today, in the mid-’70s, if you were young and immersed in the punk scene, you could believe that life as we’d known it was over, and something the older generation would never understand had arrived to replace it. (81)

– Michael Goldberg

Gearheads will revel in Goldberg’s obsessively detailed descriptions of Wilsey’s choices in equipment. 

Although initially for effects he used an Echoplex, an Ernie Ball volume pedal and the reverb and tremolo in his amp, he told me in May 1991 that he had replaced the Echoplex with an Alesis Quadraverb MIDI-controllable digital delay. He also said that on stage he used a Boss Heavy Metal distortion pedal for rockabilly-rave-up “Gone Ridin’” and “Wild Thing.” Regarding the Ernie Ball pedal, Jimmy said, “I like getting swells of sound without hearing the pick against the strings…(241-2) 

– Michael Goldberg

Journalists, students of popular culture, and music historians will appreciate the volume’s accounts of the inequitable formalization of work relationships as Silvertone, Isaak and Wilsey’s band, traded gigs in seedy bars for a life in the industry; the psychology of addiction as learned behavior, and the indignities born of music business machinations that became too much for Wilsey to bear. And, most certainly, B-Bender aficionados will rejoice at this obscure piece of guitar-tech’s inclusion in the narrative:

The B-Bender is a device developed by guitarists Gene Parsons of the band Nashville West and Clarence White, who played in both Nashville West and the Byrds. It’s installed on a Telecaster allowing the player to bend the B string by pulling the guitar neck down, away from the player’s shoulder…

– Michael Goldberg

More significantly, readers enamored of the visual will be thrilled by this biography’s vast array of images including playbills, album covers, and photographs by Goldberg, Michael Zagaris, Ruby Ray, Bruce Connor, the great Marcus Leatherdale, and Blondie’s Chris Stein. Wicked Game’s masterly integration of these images into the larger narrative, makes the fullest and best use of illustration in a rock biography that I have ever seen. For those who were part of the San Francisco Punk Rock Generation, Goldberg’s book, like a Proustian madeleine, will have a potent transportive effect—It will take you there.

Works Cited

Michael Goldberg, Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey. HoZac. 2022.

Stein, Jean Stein and Plimpton, George. Edie: American Girl. Alfred A Knopf. 1982.

Szalavitz, Maia. Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary Way of Understanding Addiction. Picador St. Martin’s Press. 2017. Cited quotation by Goldberg (at 72).

Williams, Joy. “Guitar Full of Soul”. Guitar World. July 1987. Cited quotation by Goldberg (at 271).

RATING 9 / 10