Gary Wilson talks about his relationships with Beck, John Cage and Ducky-Doo 

click to enlarge Avant-garde performer Gary Wilson is far more down-to-earth than he seems. - CAMERON MURRAY
  • Cameron Murray
  • Avant-garde performer Gary Wilson is far more down-to-earth than he seems.

The Gary Wilson on the phone seems much more well-adjusted than the one who appears in unsettling electro-pop songs like “Gary’s in the Park” and performs onstage wrapped in cellophane, duct tape and bedsheets.

In fact, the real-life Wilson sounds like any other guy from upstate New York who happens to have been name-checked in a Beck hit (“Where It’s At”), deconstructed in a rock documentary (You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story), and rediscovered by a who’s-who of indie-music weirdos (Ariel Pink, Animal Collective, Earl Sweatshirt, the list goes on).

Earlier this year, Wilson released The King of Endicott, an homage to the town that also gave us Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, feminist author Camille Paglia and metal banshee Ronnie James Dio. Once described as Steely Dan on crack, Wilson’s music has always been ahead of its time, and most likely always will be. His sing-songy croon, bouncy synth-pop and art-damaged jazz inflections are a perfect fit for songs about the other Gary, the one whose adolescent obsessions straddle the line between eerie and endearing.

A bona-fide child prodigy who once studied with John Cage, Wilson spent his teens delving into experimental music, making avant-garde films and playing in a short-lived garage band. In 1977, he released his proto-New Wave debut album You Think You Really Know Me, then moved to California and disappeared from the public eye for a couple of decades.
Wilson has since made up for lost time by recording 20 albums, including a forthcoming collaboration with R. Stevie Moore. We caught up with him in the midst of his current 14-city tour to talk about the joy of ducks, new uses for duct tape, and the persistence of small-town heartache.

Indy: The year after Beck gave you a shout-out in “Where It’s At,” he did that MTV Video Music Awards interview where he kept quoting from your songs. How did that feel?

Gary Wilson: Well, at the time, I was working in San Diego at Midnight Video [an adult entertainment emporium] from 12 to 8 in the morning. It was a minimum-wage job that I’d worked for many years, and I remember my shoes were duct-taped together because they were falling apart and everything. I’d just gotten up and was getting ready to go to my midnight shift, and I turned on the TV and Beck had just won all these awards for Odelay, right? And they were interviewing him as he’s coming out of the place, and all of a sudden he starts quoting [Wilson’s songs] “6.4 Equals Makeout” and “I Wanna Lose Control.” And I’m thinking, Jesus, what did I just see there? I remember going in to work that night and it was like I was almost in this magical world.

Tell me about your encounter with John Cage. Did you really just phone him up out of the blue?

Well, yeah, his phone was listed at the time. I was 14 or 15, so I didn’t really realize the importance of what was going on. I called him and, bang, he gave me his post-office box address to send my scores to. And then he invited me to his house, which was in Haverstraw, outside of New York City, and my mom would drive me back and forth. He’d sit with me and go through my scores, and talk to me about them, and fix my notation. I remember at one point, he said, “You know, Gary, I never made enough money from music to survive on it until I was 50 years old.” And now, I think, Jesus, that’s almost what happened to me.

Did you ever meet him again?

Not until 20 years later, when my girlfriend was giving a performance as a grad student at UC-San Diego. John Cage was a visiting professor at the time and, lo and behold, he came so see her perform. I was actually part of her show. We had two video monitors, and I was hiding under the sheets. And when I got up, the monitors fell over. And then I stepped on a violin, and the violin professor let out a gasp. But afterward I went up to John Cage, and I said, “Mr. Cage, do you remember me from way back?” And, you know, he nodded, but I don’t think he did. And I had a copy of my album with me, so I gave it to him and told him how much he influenced me. So yeah, he was my hero.

So you were already experimenting with performance art by that point?

Yeah, ever since junior high school, I’d been trying to figure out who Gary Wilson is. I was into John Cage, but I was also into Zappa and Beefheart and The Beatles, who I went to see play Shea Stadium. And I was really into Dion, the teen idol who always sang about girls — you know, Sandy, Donna — and I thought, “How about if you put Dion in front of a John Cage show? Or what if you put Tony Bennett, with a sack of flour over his head, in front of a John Cage show?” So I just kind of incorporated all of those things.

You’ve also played lounges a lot, right?

I still do that on the side. That’s what my dad did, you know, he was a lifetime member of the musicians’ union. And I still play with a guy named Donnie Finnell, who does Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole and Sinatra songs. I’ve played piano behind him for 35 years. And the people who go to see him don’t know anything about me, which is kind of cool.

Several of the songs on The King of Endicott are set in your hometown. Having grown up in a town of 900 people myself, I can understand that sense of lonely alienation, especially when there was no social media to show you that the rest of the world was just as weird as you.

Yeah, but then one has to turn around and embrace that feeling of being alone, and use it to your advantage sometimes. We’d book a gig at the VFW, where everyone’s expecting a polka band, and then we show up and just do this extreme avant-garde performance. And yeah, a lot of it is about the heartache that you feel, especially in small towns, trying to meet girls and all that. My group of friends were always the musicians and artists who — I don’t know if we would call ourselves the rejects — but we were always on the outside of things.

But you weren’t like the Gary in your songs, out lurking in the park, were you?

Well, my parents’ home was right on Endicott’s Northside Park, and I had to go through the park to go anywhere. So the park is a big part of my memories. You had the merry-go-round and there’d be all kinds of events. They’d have pet competitions where people would bring their dogs, and I’d bring my duck, and…

You’d bring your duck?

Well, yeah. My dad wouldn’t let me have a dog, but we could have ducks. So, you know, every Easter, the five-and-dime stores like Newberry’s and Woolworth’s, they would sell baby ducks and chickens. And they would color the chickens purple, green, yellow — they probably couldn’t do that now. But my parents would buy me a baby duck. And if the weather was still cold, it would live in a refrigerator box down in the basement. And yeah, he followed me all over.

What was his name?

Well, Ducky-Doo was one. Yogi was another one. Yeah, they always remind me of little dinosaurs. And Ducky-Doo, especially, would follow me all over the place. Ducks are very loyal. I wish I could have a duck now, but I live in an apartment. But who knows, maybe I will at some point.


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