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He Found a Following, and Then Lost His Way
By NEIL STRAUSS
SAN DIEGO, April 6 — In 1977, a 24-year-old musician from Endicott, N.Y., released a wonderful, odd album called "You Think You Really Know Me." Combining elements of pop, proto new wave, jazz, avant-garde composition and electronic music, Gary Wilson delivered sincere lyrics, alternately sweet and angst ridden, about the women in his life and his fantasies, most notably in the pleading, quixotically titled "6.4 = Make-Out."
The album, which he released himself, quickly found a cult following, which over the years included the punk band Husker Du, the avant-garde group the Residents and the "Simpsons" cartoonist Matt Groening. It earned the status of a favored vanity-label obscurity among record collectors, and Beck, in his single "Where It's At," even sang about how Mr. Wilson "rocks the most." As the reputation of the album grew, fans naturally sought out its creator. But they soon discovered that Mr. Wilson was nowhere to be found. Evidently he disappeared after the album was released (though he said that was not his intention).
Adrian Milan, who runs the record label Motel with Christina Bates, spoke of the day that Ross Harris of the band Sukia first played him the record. Mr. Milan said he was blown away by the music and wanted to find the man behind it.
"Ross said he'd been looking for this guy for six years and would be really surprised if we could find him," Mr. Milan said. "I said, `I tracked down master tapes in some guy's closet in India to do our album "Bombay the Hard Way," so if this guy's alive I'm going to find him.' We worked 14-hour days and got a private investigator involved, but he couldn't find him."
Eventually Ms. Bates found one of his former band mates, Vince Rossi, who helped to put her in touch with Mr. Wilson, who lives in a small apartment here without a telephone.
On April 16, Motel Records will reissue "You Think You Really Know Me." Mr. Wilson will then make his first trip to New York in 23 years, for a performance at Joe's Pub on May 15.
On Saturday night, I arrived at Mr. Wilson's house to conduct his first interview for publication since the late 1970's. For the last 17 years, it seems, Mr. Wilson, 48, has played keyboards in a lounge act whose members and audience are not familiar with his original music. (Mr. Wilson's father was a jazz bassist who often played hotel lounges.) At midnight he reports to a pornography bookstore and peep show, where he works behind two layers of bullet-proof glass, handling cash and dispensing tokens.
Mr. Wilson — short, pale and with his hair pulled back from his forehead into a ponytail — conducted a tour of his small apartment. Shy and friendly, he pointed out the dusty Teac reel-to-reel four-track on which he recorded "You Think You Really Know Me" 25 years ago in his father's basement; he opened the balcony door to display the Farfisa organ he used on the record. In a corner of the room were dozens of reel-to-reel recordings, most of music he recorded decades ago but never released.
He said he no longer had any original copies of his album. "I used to break and smash my records onstage," he said. "Just snap them in half and throw them. And then one day I realized I didn't have anymore."
Mr. Wilson was known for outrageous, improvised performances. He used to dump pounds of flour on himself until at a radio station benefit in Seattle, he got some in his eye and it itched for weeks. He said he was not sure what he would be doing to surprise New York audiences at his comeback show in May.
"A lot of the performances were spontaneous," he said. "But I'm going to be out of my territory in New York. In a hotel room, there are not a lot of props to grab. There are things all over the place in a household. Maybe I can pull a bedsheet off of a bed."
His girlfriend of more than 20 years, Bernadette Allen, arrived shortly. Her paintings fill the apartment, her photography is represented in Mr. Wilson's CD reissue, and her videos often accompanied his performances. The pair displayed a photo album with an image of them taken 20 years ago at Max's Kansas City; next to it they placed an image of Charles Bukowski and his girlfriend because the resemblance was uncanny.
After the house tour, Mr. Wilson left for the Rancho Bernadino Inn in an affluent suburb nearby, where his lounge band has a monthly gig. The band crooned "The Girl From Ipanema" and "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" to the dozen or so patrons, most of whom were elderly. Using two keyboards, Mr. Wilson, one of the only band members playing by ear instead of with sheet music, executed the bass parts of the songs with his left hand and the rhythm parts with his right, occasionally adding a solo.
"I had no idea at all that he had this whole other side to him," Kyle Martin, the band's guitarist, said when he was told that Mr. Wilson was a cult hero.
During a break in the set, Mr. Wilson talked about his background. He said he had not seen his father since he left the East Coast 24 years ago, though he said he was considering returning to live in the basement where he recorded pop freakout jams like "Loneliness" and "Groovy Girls Make Love at the Beach."
He was born in 1953 in upstate New York, and quickly displayed a knack for playing just about any instrument. A fan of Dion and the Belmonts, he was once attacked by boys who tried to cut off his curly pompadour. In 1965 he saw the Beatles play Shea Stadium, and soon after joined his first band, Lord Fuzz, many of whose members would stay with him throughout his career. Before high school, Lord Fuzz had already released a single and opened for the 1910 Fruitgum Company, the bubble-gum pop group.
His taste soon took a turn for the avant-garde, and he sent John Cage some of his compositions. Mr. Cage was impressed enough to invite Mr. Wilson, who was only 16, to his home to discuss the work. Now performing as Dr. Zork and the Warts, Mr. Wilson's concerts began to incorporate poetry and performance art.
Mr. Wilson moved to New York City with Mr. Rossi. They soon ran out of money and found themselves sleeping in Washington Square Park and underneath a building in New Jersey before hitchhiking home after a few days, covered in dew, on the New Jersey Turnpike.
"She stopped at McDonald's
Back at home, Mr. Wilson holed up for seven years, recording an unreleased jazz instrumental album "Another Galaxy," an unreleased disco-era single, and, finally, "You Think You Know Me."
"I didn't put it out to make a million dollars or anything," said Mr. Wilson. "It was deeper, and I was trying to find myself. It was almost creating a piece of art, something I wanted to hear and then whatever would follow is fine."
Of course that doesn't mean that Mr. Wilson didn't have any ambitions. He talked about sneaking past security guards at the offices of Columbia Records to try to get executives to release the album. "They didn't quite know where to put me or what it was," he said of the labels he approached. "That's why it's funny that things kind of switched around in 25 years. I guess times have changed a little bit."
Most of the songs on the album are about real girls, like Cindy and Karen, who was not only a crush in his life but also the name of a mannequin he used to drive around town. Today Mr. Wilson said that he had a whole album's worth of new songs ready; some are about old flames."A lot of my new songs are about Linda," he said. "I was just dreaming about her, for the first time in 30 or 40 years. She was one of my first girlfriends, from eighth grade."
In 1978, Mr. Wilson and his band moved to San Diego and tried to find work in Los Angeles. After a few seven-inch singles and performances, including a return to New York to play CBGB, the band called it quits.
When Mr. Wilson finished musing on his past, he returned to the bandstand to complete his set. After the show, the musicians split a few meager dollars of tip money, and Mr. Wilson headed to his midnight shift at the bookstore and peep show. "I like working there best after 2 a.m., because it gets quiet," he said. "I always wanted to work in a place where other people weren't around."
Does he see himself as a recluse? "I really am, actually," he said. "I'm pretty private, but, you know, that's just the way I am."
As he arrived at work, Mr. Wilson shared a few horror stories about walking in on some odd goings-on in some of the private rooms and let himself into his bullet-proof cage. His fellow employees and the security guard, who say they have no idea that he ever recorded an album, paid him no mind, as if he were invisible.