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I was a bit startled to realize on my birthday this past Monday, August 27th, that it was indeed the 10th anniversary of the release of my second solo CD, All Six Senses.  I had what still feels like an idyllic, dreamlike time recording those songs out in Marin County, CA with producer Scott Mathews at his Tiki Town Studios.  Over the past few days, I’ve spent some time listening to those tracks with my friend Amy, who played them, intermingled with other tunes, from her iPod in her car.  It is sometimes annoying to listen to old recordings, but this time I really dug hearing some songs that have mostly fallen away from the set list (“Cling To You,” “I Skate Alone”) and others that have become standard fare (“Holy River,” “First Sight”).  It is a very rewarding feeling to listen and feel that All Six Senses, for the most part, really does sound like the songs that I had in my head.  It does a decent job of expressing snapshots of the spiritual growth spurt I was in when I wrote these songs (there is the one cover – a slow, jazzy take on “Cruel to be Kind”).  I hope it might still manage to inspire anyone listening to examine their own lives and take their own journeys.

I remembered how much I enjoy these tunes and the recordings of them, and then I remembered another anniversary.  It would take more than a short blog entry to tell the many stories and make even an attempt at the impact, but the super-short version is that I was (and still am) blessed in life to have met and gotten to know one of my greatest musical/lyrical/cultural heroes, Warren Zevon.  Since meeting him at The Stone Pony (his show [opening for The Band!] was August 26, 1994 – his after-midnight autograph says August 27th – now this story is even stranger), we kept in touch.  The day after my official, yet totally indie release of All Six Senses, it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard from WZ in a while.  I happily tapped out a long e-mail asking him what was going on, telling him about my life, the new recording, everything.  The response I got back was very brief:

He was ill.

“My lungs and liver are shot” he wrote.

I didn’t know, and couldn’t have comprehended on that day the seriousness of what he was saying.  If it wasn’t that very day that he’d gotten the diagnosis of inoperable mesothelioma, it was within a day or so at the very most.  I don’t have words for what I felt, or really know what I did the rest of that shocking day.

He asked me to send a copy along to him, so even in the midst of coping with finality he took the time to listen to All Six Senses.  He said he enjoyed it, was glad I was continuing to work on the music, and advised me to “keep chanting.”  I’ve definitely managed to do that.

I could say more – try to create some storyline about the impact of cosmic crossroads or the mystical fusion of wonderful-horrible anniversaries.  I won’t.  I will just try to sit with it all as it happened, and with my own uncomfortable twinge at having been moved to share this ball of entwined emotions with you tonight.

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I used to spend a lot of time on the sunny indoor porch of our house when I was a kid.  Sometimes I’d be reading or attempting to draw something.  Most of the time I’d find myself immersed in music.  One particular day when I was 10, I was checking out The Bee Gees’ Main Course album.  The first song is “Nights on Broadway,” and naturally, I started singing along.  The next thing I knew, my mom was freaking out.

“Robin can sing!  Come listen, Robin can SING!”  “Of course, I can sing,” I thought.  I always sang!  I was puzzled and fairly startled by the flurry this caused.  I didn’t particularly enjoy my mom’s insistence that I perform my vocal rendition of “Nights on Broadway” for nearly everyone who came to the house for some time after, but now I find it an amusing memory.  I’m glad now that I know the exact moment when I began to realize that there is such a thing as a “singing voice” and that by some, this is considered a gift.  I was blessed to discover I had something someone thought worth developing, and blessed also that this was encouraged.

It is really too bad that the whole disco thing made The Bee Gees the group so many people loved to hate.  I am not a disco hater personally, and can have fun with the Saturday Night Fever stuff.  I also admire Barry, Maurice, and Robin as songwriters and performers who had the magic touch during that era to basically take over the world.  But it is their pre-disco, and some of the post-disco era music that I really love.  Many of the early songs are pieces of pop joy forever embedded in my brain, so much so that I rarely need to actually listen to them – they are just there somewhere in the deep psyche, part of me that can be called up anytime.  It is especially wonderful, then, when I do revisit tunes like “Holiday,” “First of May,” and “Massachusetts.”

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 It has taken the better part of this week for me to face writing this blog.  I was driving last Sunday, turned on the radio, and heard the beautiful harmonies on tail end of “Run to Me.”  I hoped against hope, but knew the truth.  The DJ was about to come back on the air and announce that Robin Gibb had died.  All week I’ve been avoiding typing those words.  I can think about it now, at least a little, without crying.  It is still hard for me to comprehend how his strangely gorgeous, haunting vibrato could really be gone.  One of my mother’s absolute favorite songs was “I Started a Joke,” which she thought was about Jesus.  Mom is gone, too, and I suspect that is a lot of what is coming up for me now.  Parents gone.  One Bee Gee left.  The passing of everything.  The wheel turns.

I love how Robin always seemed like the odd Bee Gee out – a little more of an introvert, sometimes seeming a bit off-time with the stage movements, usually with the hand over the ear thing, which I found both practical and endearing.  Andy was my major pre-teen heartthrob, but it was still fun to idly wonder once in a while what it would be like to one day become Mr. & Mrs. Robin & Robin Gibb.  That according to various gossipy sources his long and successful open marriage was with a bisexual Druid Priestess makes me imagine perhaps he & I would have gotten along very well.      I have been moved to tears many times over this past month as I read stories of Robin’s deep connection with his wife Dwina, as she and the rest of the family stayed by his bedside.  I send love and healing to the family.  Blessings on your journey, RG.

I’m fairly certain it was the same year as the “singing voice” discovery that two friends and I sat on the stadium gate at Great Adventure in Jackson, NJ.  We were determined to be first in line to get in to see the Andy Gibb show – our first concert ever.  Things went wrong when screaming girls rushed the gate and we got swallowed up by the mayhem.  It wasn’t until I was among the many thousands in Washington, D.C. for Barack Obama’s inauguration and felt the momentary wave of a densely packed crowd that I really realized how much potential danger we were in that day when we were kids.  In that moment, I grew incredibly grateful that we’d survived.

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There are many more Gibb musings where these came from.  I have a lot more processing to do over Robin’s passing.  Actual acceptance feels a bit far off.  Meanwhile so much about Robin in particular, his work, and his life inspire me daily. I have been working on a piece called Brothers, but it remains unwieldy.  I am finding that it is not easy to capture all the complexities that these guys and their music apparently call up for me. So for now, I will leave you with a poem fragment inspired by the little bro.

When the crowd began to swallow us
there was no time for comparison.
No angry ocean.
No Beatlemania.
The Who had yet to bear witness to death in Cincinnati.

Doors open.
In seconds, it is
a human autoclave,
heat, pressure
teenage giggle-screams,
full circles around us, we are
squeezed
blanketed by panic
and passion
many bodies, one drunk giant
Wallet, shoe tugging, then tumbling
beyond the swells and gone
Denise losing breath, slipping, a lost doll down.

Rollercoaster and Rotunda, we’d thought –
another day  –
as we’d waited, determined, in oppression of afternoon sun
on Six Flags stadium gate
first in line, first concert, for our collective first love
Now guards’ hands lift us straight up by thin child’s wrists
Somehow, up and over the death crush
to where there is air for ten-year-olds.

Later when we met back up with Dad and Uncle Lou
I wobbled and hopped, a shoeless pelican.
Between wet-faced sobs, I managed,
“Dad!  We saw him!  I LOVE him!”
Not only did we survive.
Andy, we had lived glory.

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

I have a very distinct memory of being next to the kitchen in my New Brunswick, NJ apartment somewhere in the 90s. I had a startling realization: I am biracial.  Suddenly, I had a new, very useful, consciousness-shifting lens through which to view and understand myself.  It is the nature of my family, and it’s very much who I am. 

I was equally startled that I hadn’t fully understood myself as having biracial identity before that moment.   I had been too busy listening to others’ ideas of me.   Those people in school who told me I was “acting white” or “not black enough” – They were just plain wrong. It was scary to say all that out loud to myself then, and it still is. Regardless, I have to continue to speak up.

This past Sunday I performed at Wilmington Delaware’s first Loving Day Celebration. Loving Day is celebrated on June 12th to commemorate the Supreme Court Case Loving v. Virginia, which in 1967 finally struck down remaining state laws against interracial marriage. Mildred and Richard Loving were married in 1958 in Washington, D.C., but when they came back to their home in Virginia, were arrested. My parents were married in 1963. Lucky for them, there were no laws against their marriage in New Jersey. Still, I have come to appreciate over the years how difficult it must have been and how much they must have loved each other to go against the grain in that era.

My good friend Jenn Phillips organized the indoor/outdoor Loving Day Celebration of music, food, information, and positive, good times. I had never seen her quite as focused and intense while creating or overseeing anything. Just how much it meant to her was apparent, and I am so pleased that her efforts turned out so wonderfully. Karen Rege and Brandi Chavis performed some well-crafted jazz and R&B standards and originals. I loved hearing Scratchy Catfish’s fun and funny blues tunes (“Rockin’, rollin’, getting’ bizarre/Doin’ the Catfish Stomp!”) I played my set and encouraged audience participation and sing-a-long wherever I could. Jenn asked me to write a song for the occasion, and I came up with a tune called “(Color My Love) Indigo.” This first performance of it went well enough. I was so emotional at the end of the event, that it was hard to leave and hard not to cry. It felt so good to have that deep a sense of acceptance and belonging.

Two or so years ago when I discovered the Mixed Chicks Chat podcast, I felt immediately at home. I got in touch with the co-hosts Fanshen Cox and Heidi Durrow and eventually was a guest on the show. I spoke about overall blended identity encompassing bisexuality, polyamory, and mixed music and spiritual practices as well as issues of race. When they asked their tongue-in-cheek yet serious question “What are you?” I told them: On my mother’s side as far as I know I am African, Haitian, Irish, and Hopi. I was adopted by my maternal grandmother and her second husband – my mom and dad. I felt so blessed to be among fellow “mixed chicks” where a description of nationalities and family circumstance is informational and conversational, never accusatory or confrontational. It truly felt like a homecoming. I am sorry that I missed their Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival in Los Angeles this past weekend, but I am sure that the Wilmington celebration was exactly where I needed to be this time around.

Trying to cope with people’s expectations of me based on assumptions about race has been one of the most painful challenges of my life. I wish I could have dialed down people’s anger and misunderstanding at times, but I would never trade my biracial and multicultural family experience. Among many things, it has helped me know that I may love whomever I love. It has helped me know that yes, a dark-skinned girl can indeed sing rock songs and play a guitar. And if she wants to add Indian chants or electronica or bluegrass or funk to that somewhere down the line, more power to her. That little awakening moment in my old apartment was the beginning of my understanding the importance of being all of oneself, even in the face of culture’s most strident artificial divisions. Every new celebration like Loving Day wears down those walls.

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