Gary Wilson

You Think You Really Know Me

An interview with Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson is one of the most accomplished figures in the world of experimental/outsider rock music. His seminal 1977 album You Think You Really Know Me is an underground classic with its mix of slick jazzy funk, atonal synthesizer groans and grunts, and Wilson’s trademark pinched nasal croon. Although Wilson’s recordings and notorious live shows, which often featured Wilson and his bandmates dousing themselves with household items and breaking copies of their own records, attracted some notice during the late 1970s, he wasn’t able to attain the cult success of many other post-punk revolutionaries. However, Wilson has undergone a renaissance in the past few years. He was mentioned on Beck’s 1996 hit “Where It’s At” (“Like my man Gary Wilson rocks the most”), and Motel Records has recently reissued You Think You Really Know Me as well as Forgotten Lovers, a collection of previously unreleased recordings. Wilson is currently touring selected locations in support of Mary Had Brown Hair, his first new album in 25 years. The High Hat’s Brent Bozman talked with Gary via e-mail about his winding musical road, John Cage, and mannequins.

What were your musical influences?
My father was probably my biggest influence. My father played string bass in a jazz quartet that played at local lounges around the triple cities. When I was 9 years old I started playing string bass in the school orchestra. At the time I was listening to Dion and Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon. I was a member of the Dion fan club when I was 10 years old. I wrote my first song when I was 10 years old. My mother would wake up before I went to school and curl my hair to make my hair look like Dion’s hair. I continued my interest in classical music and began to play in the youth symphonies. When I entered 6th grade the Beatles came out. I still clung on to my Dion and the Belmonts records but slowly worked my way into the whole British Invasion. The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five, The Yardbirds, etc. When I was in 7th grade I went to New York to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium.

To my surprise, John Cage invited me to his house, and we went over my scores. I went to his house for three days. I was only 14 years old.
You started by fronting a conventional garage band before gradually branching out into more experimental territory. What influenced you into changing directions musically?
I taught myself to play guitar and keyboards and joined my first garage band when I was 12 years old. There were garage bands on every block in the ’60s. Because my father was a musician, he would call me to the television set to watch modern jazz and avant-garde classical music programs. Thus, my interest in experimental music began to occur. When I entered 8th grade, I joined a garage band called Lord Fuzz. My father bought me a Farfisa Combo Compact organ and a piggyback Danelectro amplifier. I played Farfisa organ in Lord Fuzz for three years, from 8th grade to 11th grade. We played every weekend; our parents would take us to the gig. We were playing mostly covers of the better ’60s music. I continued to play in the local orchestra and began to write experimental classical music for the local chamber group I played cello with. This led to me sending composer John Cage some of my works. To my surprise, John Cage invited me to his house, and we went over my scores. I went to his house for three days. I was only 14 years old. My mother drove me to his house outside of New York. Next to my father, John Cage was my biggest influence. Thus, Lord Fuzz began to play more experimental music.

What was John Cage like?
On my first visit to John Cage’s house, my mother and I became lost in the wooded area around John Cage’s house. We went to a store and called John Cage. He drove his car to the store and picked me up. I remember talking to him in his car. My mother waited for me outside of the store as John Cage took me to his house. His house had very few furnishings. He was a very gentle and kind man. The community that John Cage lived in was made up of modern thinkers. I remember David Tudor was in the community garden. David Tudor was my favorite avant-garde piano player. I asked David Tudor if I could join his touring company. At the time, John Cage and David Tudor provided the music behind dancer Merce Cunningham. David Tudor told me that they didn’t have the budget to hire me. John Cage and I went over my music scores for three days. A very gentle, great man. I saw John Cage at UCSD shortly before his death. I went up to Mr. Cage and asked if he remembered me from our visit in the late ’60s. He said he did and I handed him a copy of my EP, This Is Why I Wear My Wedding Gown.

A lot of your songs, particularly on the You Think You Really Know Me album, seem to be about the torment of high school. Was that a difficult time for you personally?
My junior high and high school years were filled with both torment and fun. I was playing with a rock band (Lord Fuzz, Dr. Zork and the Warts). That was cool. Being in the band had its advantages. Many of the girls I sing about are girls I met while playing in the band. There were sad times and happy times. More sad than happy.

Even in the exploding New York music and art scene, I was considered an outcast.
Your first album was released in 1977, about the same time that a lot of experimental rock bands were performing in New York City (Talking Heads, Television, etc.). Did you ever cross paths with anyone in that scene? Did the ’70s underground movement help you gain a wider audience?
I started playing CBGB’s in New York in 1977. New York was exploding with bands like Television, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, etc. I had been going to New York since I was a little kid. We used to go into New York and see bands like The New York Dolls, The Fugs and the Mothers of Invention. I went to John Cage’s birthday at Lincoln Center. New York City is about 150 miles from Endicott, New York. At 13, I started taking my demos to the record companies in New York. I remember taking a number of tapes to ESP records when I was in 8th grade (14 years old). Even in the exploding New York music and art scene, I was considered an outcast. That was all right with me. I didn’t want to fit in with the rest of the bands anyway. We did get some press coverage (Trouser Press, etc.). New York was always a little more open to me than elsewhere.

How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it?
Throughout my years, people would often ask me to describe my music. That’s difficult for me in some ways because I am in the middle of it. An experimental rock band, an underground rock band. Maybe just a band that plays Gary Wilson music. If my name goes on a record, or in front of a band, it better reflect who I am.

What type of response did you get from record labels when trying to get a record deal in the ’70s?
Some of the labels in the ’70s liked my music but it was always the same. How can we market this? I was told that the president of A&M records had a poster of me hanging in his office. I decided to try Los Angeles and it was the same thing. How would we market Gary Wilson? I ended up playing bass with Roy Brown and Percy Mayfield in the early ’80s.

What were Roy Brown and Percy Mayfield like?
In 1979, I was asked to join a San Diego blues band, The Big City Blues Band. I played bass with the band. An ex-agent from the William Morris Agency took an interest in the blues band. He was an ex-doo-wop singer. He had booked Roy Brown and a lot of the blues acts from the Los Angeles area. Roy Brown was making a comeback and needed a band. Same thing with Percy Mayfield. I remember the first time I played with Roy Brown at the Whiskey A-Go-Go. The Sir Douglas Quintet opened for us. The night was electric. All these old-time blues legends came out to the club to pay their respect to Roy Brown. I was sitting in the dressing room with all these blues legends as we shared a bottle of gin. The sax player was the sax player who played on all the early Roy Brown records. It was the real thing. We played numerous gigs with Roy Brown, and then he died of a heart attack. I remember sitting with Percy Mayfield as he talked of the attack that almost killed him. He had a huge dent in his forehead where he had been struck in the head outside of his apartment. Percy had some big hits in the ’50s. He hooked up with Ray Charles and began writing for Ray. I was never much of a blues fan, so jumping into this was a great learning experience. How to occupy three to four hours of playing blues, and keep each song interesting, was a challenge. I got to play with Charles Brown and Smokey Wilson.

At the end of a very avant-garde show, I was covered in chocolate milk and flour. I had to rush home, jump in the shower, clean up and put a tuxedo on, and go play a very nice steak house that night.
You became notorious for eccentric behavior at some of your live shows (smashing your own records, covering yourself in flour and plastic wrap, etc.). What was the reason for doing that?
I was always interested in avant-garde art and music. This led to me incorporating certain avant-garde elements into my performances. When I was a young teenager, I would go to the public library and read up on anything that was experimental (music, art, theater). The library had a record department and listening room. I would spend hours listening to experimental classical music.

In addition to recording your own albums, you’ve spent time performing in a lounge jazz band. How did you enjoy that experience? Was it difficult to go from performing your own music to performing jazz standards?
My father, being a lounge player himself, brought me into the world of lounge music. As soon as I turned 18, I joined a lounge band. From 18 till now, I have always worked in a working lounge band. You pick up some extra money and it keeps you sharp. I remember doing an art/music festival in Binghamton in the mid ’70s. At the end of a very avant-garde show, I was covered in chocolate milk and flour. All the drums and instruments were covered with milk, paint, and flour. I had to rush home, jump in the shower, clean up and put a tuxedo on, and go play a very nice steak house that night. A total change in music and attitude. This kind of balances me, to play such extremes. Kind of like therapy. I always kept both bands separate. The lounge bands I worked with never knew I did original music. My father, being a jazz bass player, brought me into the world of jazz standards and more mature music. Most of the lounge bands I played in were jazz and soft rock. When I was 20, I joined a lounge band with the vice president of the musician’s union. The keyboard player, Lenny Corris, had played with Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra. Thus, most of the lounge music I play is a little more mature then the average rock lounge music. I have been playing every weekend with a lounge band since I was 18. I currently work weekends with a vocalist who sings the music of Mel Tormé, Johnny Mathis, Sammy Davis, Lou Rawls. I've been playing keyboards with Donnie Finnell since 1986.

How did you first find out about Beck mentioning you on his song “Where It’s At?” Have you ever met Beck?
I received a phone call from some people I knew in Olympia, Washington. I had played a couple of radio benefits in Seattle and Olympia in 1981. The DJs told me they went to see Beck in concert and he was doing “6.4=Makeout,” from my album, You Think You Really Knew Me. This was 1997. I thought, “Why would Beck be doing my music when he has so much of his own?” Anyway, Beck was on the 1997 MTV music awards show and he won four or five awards for his album and song, “Where It's At.” I was just getting ready to leave and go to work when MTV interviewed Beck outside of the MTV award show in New York. All of a sudden he started talking about “6.4=Makeout” and “I Want To Lose Control,” two of my songs. I still haven’t met Beck. When I played at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood, Ross Harris, who turned Beck onto my music, ended up playing keyboards with me for that gig. A company out of New York has recently finished a documentary on me called You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story. The film has been winning some best of show awards at some film festivals. Anyway, Ross Harris is in the film so I finally got the story from Ross. Perhaps Beck and I could do a version of “6.4=Makeout.”

How did you come into contact with Motel Records for the reissue of You Think You Really Know Me and the release of Forgotten Lovers?
Christina Bates and Adrian Millan, who ran Motel Records, were in Hollywood on business. They were hanging out with Ross Harris, and Ross played Motel my album You Think You Really Know Me. This led to Motel searching for me. At the time, I had disconnected my phone and Motel could not find me. Phones started bringing bad news to me so I disconnected the phone. Anyway, Motel hired a private investigator to find me. Motel finally contacted my friend and guitar player, Vince Rossi, who got in touch with me and told me that Motel Records wanted to reissue my album.

Some people have latched on to your music because it’s so unusual. Does it bother you that some people listen to your music in an ironic sense instead of genuinely appreciating it?
It doesn’t bother me why you listen to my music, it’s just cool that so many people have embraced it after so many years. If you listen to my music to make fun of me, so be it.

What are your plans for future music projects?
I finally set up a web page: and just released a CD of new material called Mary Had Brown Hair. I will be performing soon in Hollywood and I am scheduled to play at the CMJ Marathon in New York City in October.

Finally, who is the mysterious Mary? (Note: Gary signs all of his e-mails “Mary is waiting for me.”)
I usually travel with two or more mannequins. One of the mannequins is called Mary. The others are Cindy and Karen. Sometimes the mannequins get jealous of one another when we perform. I keep them locked in the closet (“other room”) at night. I think Cindy and Karen are mad at me because I named my new CD Mary Had Brown Hair.

LINK: Gary Wilson's website