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New Audience for a Star Who Never Was

June 27, 2002|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like many musicians, Gary Wilson will always remember the first time he heard himself referred to in a high-profile setting. It came at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards when Beck cited one of his songs.

"They interviewed him as he was walking out and he started talking about [Wilson's song] '6.4,' " says Wilson, who remembers being stunned as he watched the telecast.

This landmark moment came a full 22 years after Wilson's lone album was released.

The very embodiment of obscurity, "You Think You Really Know Me" was a strange, sinister mix of art-pop and avant-garde strangeness veering between Steely Dan subversion and John Cage abstraction. It was recorded by Wilson in his parents' Endicott, N.Y., basement and released without the help of a label. He printed only about 2,500 copies, reaching an audience seemingly limited to college radio programmers, who gave the record what little airplay it got, and members of the art-weirdness group the Residents, who for a time kept up an encouraging correspondence with him.

Today, not only does the album boast Beck's endorsement, but it was also reissued earlier this year by the New York independent label Motel Records, drawing rave reviews and sales already approaching 10,000 copies. In his first show in more than 20 years, in May at Joe's Pub in New York, Wilson delivered his music and performance art (fondling a mannequin, getting pelted with flour) to a rabidly enthusiastic audience. He'll repeat the exercise Friday at the Knitting Factory Hollywood.

Is the new attention belated vindication for his distinctive musical vision?

"Maybe that's reading a little more into it," says a sanguine Wilson, 48, who's been living a low-key life in San Diego for more than 20 years. "I'm flattered everyone likes it now. It's a great joy for it to come around again."

Wilson hadn't exactly been looking for a comeback. After a fruitless late-'70s move to the West Coast to try to stir label interest, he turned away from the music business, settling in San Diego and starting a series of jobs--deli server, theater usher, and, currently, keyboardist in an Italian restaurant lounge band and weekend night-shift clerk at an adult book store.

A few years ago, interest in Wilson started to grow in record collector circles. One collector, musician Ross Harris, made a copy of the album for Beck, who was so taken with it that he name-checked Wilson in his hit "Where It's At" ("Passin' the dutchie from coast to coast / Like my man Gary Wilson rocks the most") and occasionally performed Wilson's oddball ode "6.4 = Makeout" in concert. Wilson, who didn't really follow pop music, heard vaguely through friends about Beck's references, but it wasn't until seeing the MTV interview that he believed it.

Still, he wasn't waiting for a record company to call at this late date. He didn't even have a phone.

"I often wondered after I put the album out why it met so much resistance," he says. "I could never figure it out at the time. But after a certain number of years, you accept your fate, so to speak."

An Unexpected Turn

Fate, though, took an unexpected turn earlier this year when collector Harris played Wilson's album for Motel Records owners Christina Bates and Adrian Milan.

"We were blown away and said, 'What do you know about this guy?' " Milan says. "Ross said, 'I've been looking for him for five years and other people have as well, and no one can track him down.' I said, 'I don't care. I'm going to find him.' "

After two frenetic weeks, the pair and the private investigator they hired had turned up nothing. But on a hunch, Bates tracked down Vince Rossi, a former member of Wilson's band the Blind Dates, who was still living in Endicott. Rossi was able to get word to Wilson.

A week later, Wilson finally called, although he was not wholly enthusiastic about their proposal to put the album out.

"He had this dream and persona for so long and had to let it die in order to live regularly," Bates says. "And re-sparking that was probably scary. He had to work past that."

By and large, he has worked past it, the key moment coming when he walked on stage in New York to front a band featuring Rossi on keyboards and Milan on drums. (For the L.A show, Wilson will be backed by a group that includes Harris, Milan, original Blind Date Joe Lunga on keyboards and Ed Ruscha on bass.)

"I haven't done too many huge things" since making the album, Wilson says. "Just trying to keep going without getting too bummed out in life. Try to keep it so I don't have too much stress. Then I do these shows, and it's a contradiction. I was worried about that before I went to New York, but once I got there and saw how much fun it was, I was fine.

"I was surprised when I walked out and people knew my songs. There were people from the Village Voice and the New York Times, but also a whole core group of younger kids who knew the lyrics, which was kind of intriguing. Twenty-five years ago people were throwing stuff at me."

*

Gary Wilson, with Rilo Kiley and the Movies, Knitting Factory Hollywood, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 8 p.m. $8. (323) 463-0204.

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