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Gary Wilson: From Loner to King

Since 1977, Gary Wilson has eluded simple description.

Courtesy Photo

Since 1977, Gary Wilson has eluded simple description.

Gary Wilson is such an enigma, the years he doesn't make music are just as interesting as the years he does. The outsider music icon released his signature album You Think You Really Know Me in 1977 before retiring from the public eye for over two decades. But in that downtime, the legend of Gary Wilson grew; the founders of Sub Pop Records called him an inspiration, Beck mentioned him in 1996's "Where It's At" and Ariel Pink expressed an interest in his music.

"It was kind of a lonely time," Wilson says. "I didn't really disappear, people just weren't paying attention. Sometimes I miss it, but sometimes I thank God things changed. It's very magical how things turned around for me."

Wilson was resurrected (as he calls it) in the early 2000s, and has since expanded his discography by multiple albums, toured internationally, and worked with many of the artists who list him as an inspiration. His newest album, 2019's The King of Endicott, expands on the lore of Wilson, moving him past the once-vanished cult musician and into the realm of psychedelic pop royalty.

The King of Endicott is a colorful pop record filled with groovy synthesizer beats and a clean, futuristic optimism reminiscent of the Space Age aesthetic. Wilson's developed persona adds to this; he acts as a 50s DJ offering impromptu quips about which parts of the songs are his favorite. Perhaps the album's cover best sums up the music's feel: a somewhat disheveled Wilson, surrounded by vibrant oil wheel colors, wears big sunglasses and a faux crown.

"I say I'm a king, but I might be the king of loneliness," Wilson says. "You never know."

The lyrics also discuss the history and attractions of Endicott, New York, all through a particularly quirky aperture. It's an audio compilation of shining lights, Friday night dances, polka dot skirts, and the occasional dose of avant-garde weirdness.

"I have a lot of good memories from growing up in Endicott. It's kind of a magical place," Wilson says. "It was a very special place, but I suppose people usually have fond memories of where they grew up."

Something of a musical prodigy, Wilson learned to play multiple instruments while still in grade school and performed in jazz bands. He was inspired by rock and pop heart-throbs of the 50s like Dion DiMucci, Fabian Forte and Bobby Rydell. However, his music quickly made a turn for the experimental when he discovered avant-garde composer John Cage, who told him if your music doesn't irritate people, you aren't doing your job.

"I loved The Beatles, but when that wasn't weird enough, I moved onto Rolling Stones, and then when that wasn't weird enough, Frank Zappa," Wilson says.

This experimental ethos culminated in 1977's You Think You Really Know Me, as well as a series of performance art style concerts throughout the late '70s. The album was recorded both in Woodstock, New York and Wilson's parents' basement, and self-released upon completion. One could write pages and pages about the weirdo brilliance of You Think You Really Know Me (and indeed many have). The album can go from porn-esque grooves and jazzy instrumentals with Wilson acting like a hip emcee who can get all the cool cats dancing, to haunting and experimental soundscapes with Wilson saying lines like, "Sometimes I feel like God forgot me" and "You know something? I don't kiss on my first date." But Wilson's debut, like all of his music, really must be heard to be believed.

"You Think You Really Know Me is kind of the nucleus of my live shows still," Wilson says. "Sometimes personality can get lost in all the chaos of a live show, so you have to make sure to balance it out. You have to stay on course."

From going two decades without a release, Wilson now records and performs quite regularly, releasing five studio albums in the last five years. And although The King of Endicott came out only a few months ago, he says he's already finishing up a new album.

"When I was resurrected in 2002, I wasn't really sure what the public wanted from me," Wilson says. "But things sure turned around for me. I always say that." ■

More by Jeff Gardner

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