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Gary Wilson’s music might be a gradually acquired taste for some, but in my personal experience people either get Gary or they don’t. I’ve been a huge fan for years thanks to my friend Marcello McDonnell (Steel Tips, Spy Gods, Vinyl Dogs) and I have had the opportunity to turn many people on to Gary Wilson’s work. Some love it and never look back. Others just look completely puzzled or slightly freaked out. Personally, if I ever were to leave for that fabled desert island, Gary Wilson’s cult classic You Think You Really Know Me would be a must on the playlist.
For many years, it seemed unlikely that I’d ever have the chance to see his live performance, so I was amazed when he began performing again in 2002. Now I check out the live show whenever possible, and am excited to go to see Gary Wilson with his band, The Blind Dates on April 20th at Glasslands Gallery in Brooklyn.
There is much to the Gary Wilson back story, but I’ll take a tip from Five Minutes 3 Seconds and will not reiterate here. You can read my account of the story along with insights from the man himself in this 2003 piece for WeirdoMusic.com. I will say that I’ve described various aspects of Gary with the terms “outsider rock groove,” “obsessive teenager in love,” “punk-influenced,” “maniacal repetition,” and “Steely Dan with a Love Unlimited Orchestra attitude.” All those still hold, and don’t even begin to cover it.
Gary Wilson exemplifies The Dream Between concept in many ways- his sounds and “out there” stage performance float free within their own lexicon, existing in no single musical or psychological universe. All this points toward just the kind of mind I can’t help but explore. Big thanks to Gary for taking the time to respond to these questions with honesty, oddity, and ultimately with optimism.
Robin Renée: According to my understanding, you tend to play and record all the time. How does your process change when you are getting ready to release a new recording? What was happening as you wrote and prepared for Feel The Beat?
Gary Wilson: Nothing has changed since I was 13 years old. I get inspired and I walk into the room where my recording equipment is and start recording. It can happen anytime. I might come home from playing piano in some country club, turn a horror movie on the TV, throw a cheese pizza in the oven and wait for the inspiration to hit me. Then it begins. For me, coming up with an album’s worth of material is a long process. I do a lot of self-editing. I toss out a lot of tracks that I spend a lot of time on. That can be depressing. You think you might have a song, then after working for weeks on it you throw it away. That’s showbiz.
RR: Even though your process seems to hold steady, will your audience be hearing new sounds and shifts since Electric Endicott in 2010?
GW: First of all, Feel The Beat was recorded on my new recording equipment (Tascam 2488neo). It’s always exciting for me to get familiar with the capabilities of new recording equipment. It’s sort of like a new toy. I started with a Wollensak mono tape recorder when I was 12 years old. Always had an interest in recording. Also the dynamics of life, from day to day, bring a new adventure into my world. This becomes part of my music. Each album is like giving birth to a baby. There’s excitement in the beginning, then it’s released and a sort of gloom comes over me. That’s when you go back into the recording room and start a brand new project.
RR: The people and places of your youth in Endicott, NY still persist and are the backbone of your work. Linda, Cindy, Debbie, Bermond Avenue, Northside Park– What continues to draw you into these stories?
GW: I guess it brings me back to a happier, less stressful time in my life, though growing up is no easy feat. When I perform now, I try to recreate the way I felt when I began playing professionally at 12 years old. Music was fun, exciting and innocent. Our parents would take us to the gigs. That is why sometimes I will bring a large cardboard box on stage with my home address painted on the front of the box. I can sit in the cardboard box and recreate, in my mind, the way I felt when I was a young teenager on stage – the way I felt when Linda, Karen and Lugene would come see my band (Lord Fuzz, Dr. Zork and The Warts, Gary Wilson and the Blind Dates) at the local teen centers. When I come out of the box I feel refreshed.
RR: Do you recall a defining moment or incident that solidified these memories as your palette?
GW: I recently was talking to my older brother and he mentioned that I was hit in the temple with a baseball bat when I was 10 or 11 years old. We both thought that perhaps that event, getting hit in the head with a baseball bat, was what determined my perspective on art and music.
RR: “Lugene Kissed Me Last Night” is reminiscent of the intense ending of your classic “6.4 = Make Out.” What inspired you to introduce “the new girl,” Lugene, on Feel The Beat? (Note: I asked this question temporarily forgetting that Lugene was mentioned previously in “Your Dream is Not My Scene,” in 2008 on Lisa Wants To Talk To You. It’s not easy to keep track of all of Gary’s women.)
GW: Lugene was my first girlfriend, before Linda. The first girl I really kissed. I have fond memories of summer days at my friend’s house in Endwell, NY. His parents worked in the day time so we had the whole day to hang out at his house. Lugene and Cheryl would bus it down from Johnson City, NY to Endicott, then make their way to my friends house in Endwell. Yes, Lugene kissed me that night.
RR: I have an artistic love of mannequins and wig display heads. At least in part, I think I have you to thank for this influence. The mannequin aesthetic has carried throughout your artwork and live shows. All kinds of theories could arise on what they indicate – beauty, uniformity, sexism, objectification, idealization… What’s the mannequin thing about for you?
GW: There is something modern, surreal about mannequins. I’ve been fascinated with mannequins ever since watching the black and white Twilight Zone episode “The After Hours” when I was 8 or 9 years old. The story featured Anne Francis. That’s the episode where the department store mannequins come to life for a short time. For me, the mannequins represent the girls in my life –frozen for eternity in the form of a mannequin, as if our love will never die. I remember my first “comeback” gig at Joe’s Pub in NYC in 2002. The record label rented 3 or 4 mannequins for the night. By the end of the performance, the mannequins were damaged. It cost the label something like $650 per mannequin. The label decided to put the damaged mannequins in their NY apartment as works of art.
RR: I once had a cassette of yours called You Made Me Feel My Misery. As I recall, a few of those tracks, like “Gary Saw Linda Last Night (Kissing Frank Roma)” reemerged on later albums. I always loved the title song. Whatever became of it? What factors help you decide which tunes make the cut?
GW: I re-recorded “You Made Me Feel My Misery” recently. I was going to include it on my album Feel The Beat but decided against it. When I self-released the original Mary Had Brown Hair back in 2003 before Stones Throw Records released it, “You Made Me Feel My Misery” was included on that release. When Stones Throw re-released Mary in 2004, (hip-hop producer and Stones Throw Records founder) Peanut Butter Wolf eliminated three cuts including “You Made Me Feel My Misery” from the original version. The song will appear on my next album.
RR: What do your noise pieces and avant garde jazz interludes (“Why Did You Kiss Me?,” “Stephanie Was Crying in the Rain”) say that aren’t said in your songs constructed in a more traditional pop fashion?
GW: I’ve been involved in the avant garde since I was 12 years old – recording my own electronic music, composing avant garde classical music, modern plays, painting, etc. The weirder the better, when I was growing up. This is what led me to John Cage inviting me to his house in Haverstraw, NY when I was 14. I always try to combine both elements on my records and performances. I also love the music of Debussy, Ravel, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
RR: Yes, I always hear that combo of distinctly avant garde and smooth, upbeat pop in your music. I am wondering: does each style help you convey or express a different set of emotions or experiences?
GW: Yes, the avant garde and smooth pop convey different emotions, though they can collide. This occurs in many of my songs such as “Chrome Lover,” “Sea Cruise,” “6.4=Make Out,” “Gary Saw Linda Last Night,” “Linda Wants To Be Alone” and others. When we do these songs on stage, you never know what can happen. I always wanted to do a 30 minute version of “6.4=Make Out” with my band and I performing with a large classical chamber group complete with a large string section.
RR: What was your visit like with John Cage? What an honor at 14.
GW: It was an honor to spend three days with composer John Cage at his house. I was 14 or 15 years old. I was playing cello and string bass with our school chamber orchestra and string quartet. I was composing experimental music and our school chamber group would occasionally perform my classical compositions at school events. This led me to contacting John Cage by phone. Mr. Cage gave me an address where to send him some samples of my music. A few weeks later John Cage invited me to his house in Haverstraw, NY, not far from NYC. My mother drove me to Haverstraw from Endicott, NY. On our first visit, my mother became lost in the wooded area not far from John Cage’s house. We stopped at the local general store and I called and told him we were lost. (He) drove down to the general store and picked me up and drove me to his house. Here I am at 15 years old being driven to John Cage’s house by John Cage himself. My mother drove me to Haverstraw for three days. Each day John Cage went over my musical scores, corrected things, and suggested things. I still have some of the scores where he went over my original notation and put in what he thought the orchestra would be better at interpreting. It still amazes me that he took the time to meet with me, a young teenager. College grad students would give anything to meet one-on-one with John Cage and have him correct and advise on their compositions. One of the highlights in my life.
Many years later, I had a chance to meet with John Cage again at the University of California, San Diego where he was a composer in residence. Bernadette Allen was a grad student at UCSD at that time. I handed John Cage a copy of You Think You Really Know Me and asked if he remembered me. He said he did. Truly an inspiration to me.
RR: You had a very long artistic and personal relationship with Bernadette Allen. I heard about her passing – I’m so sorry, Gary. If you are willing, will you please say something about your years with her? Where was your connection and what was her influence on your life and work?
GW: Bernadette Allen passed away in 2011. My heart is broken. We were together for 32 years. I miss her dearly. Bernadette performed with me often and we did many videos together. Bernadette even attended (though didn’t perform) our last CBGB’s gig back in 1979. Stones Throw Records has been converting all her 3/4″ videos to DVD for a future DVD release.
RR: How wonderful to have such a partnership for so long. What qualities made her such a special person in your life?
GW: The great thing about Bernadette was she let me be myself. I felt comfortable with Bernadette. She was very intelligent and artistic and put up with me for 32 years.
RR: Thank you for being willing to share that, Gary. Is there an essential story you ultimately wish to tell? One’s roots are never forgotten? Something about life as a romantic quest? The surreal nature of consciousness? Love is pain? Is it really all much simpler?
GW: Life has its ups and downs. We all try to get through life the best we can. Try to follow your passion. Try not to hurt people and animals. I know sometimes following your passion can be difficult if you have family and many responsibilities. One has to sometimes put your dreams aside to take care of your family and your responsibilities. That’s sad. But still, you still can do what you love part-time. My father worked for IBM for about 40 years. He still played music at the local hotel lounge four nights a week. He didn’t give up music even though he had a wife and four children and work 5 to 6 days a week. In other words, don’t let life bring you down to the point where you lose your dreams. I’ve been fortunate in the last ten years to be able to do what I really enjoy and will continue as long as I can.
RR: Is there anything else you’d like to share today from the heart-mind-soul of Gary Wilson?
GW: Please don’t sport fish and hunt. The poor fish and animals have it hard enough already without humans killing and hurting them for sport. How can someone laugh and smile while they hold up a gasping fish on a hook. Poor fish is dying. What’s so funny about that? Or chasing some animal through the woods for the sole purpose of killing the animal. Don’t the hunters see the fear in the animal’s eyes right before they blast away at the poor thing? It’s one thing, and that’s even sad, when one has to hunt and fish for survival, but not for blood sport.
RR: It’s good to hear you speak out for non-violence. I am also so glad that your re-rediscovery has led to your being able to do what you enjoy. Fans who never imagined new recordings and live shows are pretty happy, too. So, I can see how the songs themselves convey the “follow your passion” message, particularly if your passion is pursuing Linda, Kathy, or Karen. Is there anything else you hope the songs themselves convey directly to the listener?
GW: Yes, I appreciate all that has happened to me. When people listen to my music and come to my shows, I do get different reactions, which is good. I hope I convey to the audience what I learned from John Cage. Walk one’s own path. Be yourself. Have fun with your art, and your life. Don’t worry what other people think. Ask yourself what would you like to see and hear. Then do it. It takes time to get one’s personality imbedded into one’s art but if you keep working at it, you never know where it can lead.
Gary Wilson will perform at Glasslands Gallery, 289 Kent Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, Friday, April 20th
Doors open 8:30pm (Early Show)
Also on the bill: The Immaculates, Moonmen on the Moon, Man, Slowdance (DJ set) and Mr. Fahrenheit (DJ set)
$10 adv/$12 day of show
Gary Wilson online: www.sixpointfour.com
This has been the most difficult week so far to keep writing for NaPoWriMo. I have been too busy, too tired, too restless, too something to write almost all the time. Sometimes the basic idea and the essential words come late at night when I am not present enough to write and in the morning when my brain is awake it falls together. I haven’t enjoyed putting forth some of the pieces that are more likely sketches than real poems. Still, I feel the value in taking on the challenge of showing the rough edges and the work in motion.
I have been noticing simple themes that help lead me. The spiritual power that dancing holds (Sex Dwarf New Wave Dance Party!) and the organic emotions that electronic music stirs up have come to the surface. I am anxious to start a new branch of my musical journey writing with samples and sound libraries more a part of the initial process.
It was strange to discover myself being not quite honest in poetry. Longing to connect with one particular individual, I wrote about longing for many. What I wrote was not untrue – I do want to travel to all those places and see those folks – but in the moment, there really was a certain place I wanted to be most of all. What a cop out! Maybe one day I’ll profess my silly crush. Leave it to the making of art to point directly to these fears.
My favorite poem of the week is First Child/Old Soul, written for the daughter of a friend of mine, who I hope will be a friend in her own right. She recently showed up in my world as a college student (!) wanting to interview me about my work for one of her classes. I’ve been enjoying her poems at Sonnetess in Progress.
April 13, 2011
New wave pied pipers
pulled me back across the bridge
DJ-healers Marilyn and Robert
pushed reset and I remembered
When I slowed down dancing
I saw geese and green return
and got over the Anywhere-But-Here
Still there is the genuine longing
for unkempt love and ballsy new creation
Kansas City, Stockholm, Delray Beach and Seoul,
Dublin, Mt. Tremper, Port Angeles,
New Brunswick, New Jersey to New Brunswick, Canada
Chuck Berry’s Promised Land for all and for now.
I will dial home, touch down in Philadelphia
and I’ll dance worldwide
April 14, 2011
Phone-shaped cages and
the minds of weird geniuses:
home to angry birds.
April 15, 2011
Tangerine juice and the light on mysteriously downstairs.
No good explanations but variety and ghosts.
I try to recall what I’ve learned today
but life and lessons aren’t handed out in gold bars.
I wonder if fun for me is possible in the future
where there are old CD cases and bodypaint, taxes, sudoku and gardens.
I hear your voice still there, and your touch,
So I’ll guess ‘Yes.’
I hope there will be tangerine.
April 16, 2011
First Child/Old Soul
She emerged whole cloth
Anime & zombie cloaked
Wise in a field of sleep,
waiting for ripe fruit.
She knows the young love poems
& the secrets to rise from the see-no-evil dead.
Listen: her new voice is a healer’s rain.
April 17, 2011
yields a dull spark
where life is measured in TV news
and sitcom currency.
April 18, 2011
The Hair is a Big Shape
That my hair is a big shape,
I learned today,
and that my ribcage casts a shadow.
“The” hair “and “the” ribcage, I should say –
With art modeling, there’s nothing personal.
Stood 6 hours
an all-day mannequin to assist
the slow birth of illustrators.
Some days the dreams come,
the novella, the poems,
so vivid I am sure
all props hold still vibrancy
and the “girls” in Gary Wilson’s closet
live large in cramped quarters.
mind zeroed out
to big nothing
not like enlightenment,
In boredom, I exposed my imperfections
and the ones with the pencils
April 19, 2011
A sweet taste of memory
A walk in bitter shoes
Each inner freedom grows
To strengthen a table of friends.
April 20, 2011
A Sampled Prayer
Electric and nervous
Captured in bits
Used to be called cop-out
Now holy testimony.
Vision of sound waves
Across the path of downtown
Invisible kiss of motion
And all is forgiven.
I went to see Highway of Sight, Steve Forbert’s cell phone photo exhibit, this past Saturday at the ART629 Gallery in Asbury Park. I had been feeling a little anti-social all day, so it really was a good thing to hear from Nancey, my good friend and concert-going buddy, who convinced me to quit cocooning and come out and play. Thanks, Nancey—I appreciate that! The two of us have such fun hanging out and being Forbert groupies together- How could I miss this one?
As I came in the door, I was surprised by Steve, who said hello, remembered my name and that he had seen me the week before at his show at The Record Collector in Bordentown. I am not sure he remembered that I interviewed him for the 2008 Songwriter’s Market. He couldn’t have known that a few years ago I was contemplating using the title of this blog entry as the title of a book. The book would be based on a slice of autobiography – soul-searching in the years around my father’s passing and other lesser life complications – with the backdrop of my strange pursuit of this quietly enduring folksinger. For a long time I have also wanted to write about the power, mostly positive, I think, that exists in music hero worship, and the bonds and creativity borne out of fandom. When I heard about the recent publication of I Think I Love You I felt scooped, but whatever—I have different insights and stories to tell. There are quite a few books living in my head. One day, some of them will escape and find themselves written down, I promise.
The photos were simple, telling bits of Americana and curious things found along the trail of a touring musician. In this show, Forbert seemed to favor repeating items – like soda bottles or rows of eggs – that reminded me of early industrial innovation. I was checking out the images, wondering why an artist finds a particular fascination, or vice versa. The artist himself had been affable and talkative with attendees all evening. He managed to surprise me again and out of the blue walked up and asked, “So what’s the deal?” He wanted to know about the town I live in, and which photo was my favorite. My fave of the moment was “Glass Stems in Case.”
His question got me to confront something I had only idly mused over before:
Seriously, what is the deal?
Why this cyclical fixation (and the requisite goofy crush that goes with it) on the unassuming Steve Forbert and his live performances? I have the records and CDs, but it is mainly about the live show. I’ve seen him more in concert than quite a few of my other fangirl obsessions like Steely Dan, Gary Wilson (I know, he doesn’t play that much), and even Devo.
Though it is fun to revel in the mysterious nature of my adoration, I can say a little about what draws me:
Storytelling. Forbert is a solid craftsman of songs of struggle, love, work, and everyday greatness. He is afraid of neither politics (“The Baghdad Dream,” the ever-evolving “Oil Song”) nor humor (“Strange Names – New Jersey’s Got ‘Em)”. One of the surprising byproducts of the emergence of kirtan chant into my life was a lessening of the impetus to tell stories in song. When you are at OM, what more is there to say? I feel the stories reemerging now, and can look to the art of cutting to the core of basic human experience in Forbert’s best tunes for guidance.
He loves his career. I have heard him say more than once that he is grateful for the early success of “Romeo’s Tune” because it has enabled him to do what he likes for all these years. Another artist might be forever angry that meteoric success didn’t continue unabated. Steve seems to get that he has a good life and a really cool gig going on.
Perfect timing. Honestly, I believe this all started back in the day the first time I heard WMMR play “Goin’ Down to Laurel.” My heart melted and I was changed in some intangible way. Later, “Romeo’s Tune” was the summer love theme playing in my head as I would travel hours by bus and train to Connecticut to see a girl I was crazy about who I’d met at summer camp.
He is earnest. The language he uses is often matter-of-fact, sometimes cute, and may deal with pain, but is not meant to cause pain. He can write a personal or cultural critique without the cutting cynicism that I actually love from other artists. A Steve Forbert song is like an antidote to an overdose of bitterness. His body of work tells us that he really wants the best for the world and all of us in it, without even so much as a devolutionary twist.
Inspiration. Whenever I’m nervous about whatever it is my next move ought to be, I remember these immortal words: “You Cannot Win If You Do Not Play.”
A few years ago, I noticed that I occasionally had dreams and idle fantasies of throwing things away – nearly violent images of picking up old clothes, old papers, random electronics, and broken stuff—and tossing them all haphazardly and mercilessly out of an open window. Sometimes I’d break the window in the process. It felt great to care less. What a crazy, cathartic forced way to affect clarity, well beyond the fabled “letting go.” The fantasy may be a bit on the extreme side, but it speaks to things that need doing, and perhaps a bit to my Virgo Obsesso nature. My living space has been incongruent with the order that I long for inside and out. I am pleased to say that is changing.
These last two weeks have been the beginning of reclaiming my home as temple. I call my place the Arts Ashram of Atco. I am dedicating my current practice to continuing to move the energies closer in line with the name. This morning in the middle of working peacefully in my room near the main altar, cleaning the kitchen, and in brushing the light layers of snow from the car, I felt the yoga coming back into my home and my being. As of a few days ago, an area that was once jumbled storage space is now “The Yoga Nook.” Next— on to the office. It doesn’t have a clever name yet.
A lot of people seem to think that the best thing about being freelance is that you get to create your own hours. I find that what has actually been most beneficial so far is that I create my own days. If it is time to tour through to Detroit or Sarasota or Kansas City, I can plan the dates, pick up and go. The hours within a day of writing at home can be a lot trickier.
Creating one’s own hours can be a joy provided that it is actually done in a way that promotes order and balance. When I have been good at creating my own hours, I am up at least by 6:30am, meditating by 6:45, in the gym by 7:45, home and hitting the day’s work by 9:30. I think that what some people believe would be so great about creating one’s own hours would be having the liberty to stay in bed ‘til 10, and work most of the day in pajamas. I have sometimes taken that kind of liberty, but when it happens, it usually means that my mood is slipping.
When I’m happiest, I’m up and at ‘em. At the lab where I used to work, I was so much the morning person that I was forbidden to play Uz Jsme Doma, the then #1 on my personal playlist, until everyone else could handle it—usually after noon. I love all kinds of sounds, but right now in my realigning phase, #1 on my chart is The Eternal Om (but there’s always room near the top of the chart for Steely Dan and Gary Wilson).
I resonate with the evenness that a monastic-style schedule creates – there is the potential for quiet joy with little tribulation. Here in my own space once again, I am very much in the midst of the multitasking world, but I have decided to add a lot more structure- to make my own hours for waking, exercising, working, eating, creating, socializing, and sleeping. My friend Tom Limoncelli, activist and time management guru, advocates making your life “boring” through routine. I think it’s a good trick: Get basic life stuff done, time and mental space is available. Life is less worrisome, and in truth, not so boring. I am taking that advice to heart.
I believe in the Arts Ashram of Atco and what it can become, or not, as I choose. After this time of returning to center, I expect to invite in the kirtans, parties, retreats, and other gatherings I’ve wanted to host. Some will be reminiscent of events past and I have many visions of new ones making their way to fruition. So far, these visions don’t involve any SCTV moments, but I remain open-minded.