The time for my telephone interview with Gary Wilson has come and gone when the press rep from New York’s Motel Records calls. She sounds a little frantic, like someone who has misplaced her neighbor’s kid and is trying to stay calm. "I’ve got some bad news," she says. "We can’t find Gary. We’ve lost him in New York." Twenty-five years after he first appeared in, and then vanished from, public view after self-releasing a fascinating and bizarre album called You Think You Really Know Me, Wilson was nowhere to be found. Again.
When Gary disappeared for the first time, after a small legion of college-radio listeners had championed the You Think You Really Know Me’s quirky hybrid of proto–new wave and self-lacerating synth-soul, the woundedly defiant title of the record proved prophetic. Few folks really did know Wilson, or at least what became of him. All that remained was his intensely personal articulation of the peculiar world that inhabited the four walls of his bedroom in Endicott, New York. That and the memories of those who attended his shows at CBGB’s, where Wilson, backed by his band the Blind Dates, would sing songs called "Groovy Girls Make Love at the Beach" while rolling around in flour and milk.
Those ingredients were a core part of his act until "that got too weird," as he puts it when he materializes for our interview the following day. The milk, he confesses, was eroding the band’s gear. So he switched to just flour, which reminds him "of snow." But even that, apparently, has caused problems. "You know what they did? They actually hid the goddamn bag of flour on me," he says of a special concert engagement in NYC a couple of nights earlier. The gig was a celebration of Motel’s re-release of the long out-of-print You Think You Really Know Me. "By the second show the bag had disappeared, and we had to go to the cook and get a little pan of it."
After all these years, You Think You Really Know Me still sounds like an unnerving fusion of Steely Dan, the Talking Heads, and the snake-oil-slick lounge lizard Bill Murray played on Saturday Night Live. Still, a chagrined Wilson confesses to being overwhelmed at the attention being lavished on his songs 25 years after the fact. "It is surreal in a sense. I had gone into hibernation and disconnected myself from everything. I submitted the album to all kinds of labels back when I first released it. And there were always some people who liked it but couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it. I couldn’t figure out what the hell the problem was. I really put my heart and soul into it."
When the folks at Motel heard an old copy, they knew they had to track Wilson down. They found him two weeks later in San Diego playing piano with a lounge act in an Italian restaurant. When the label approached him about reissuing the album, the 49-year-old Wilson was stunned. Although he had never stopped writing original material, You Think You Really Know Me was, after all, ancient history. And he was generally happy with his life in San Diego. "I’ve always been in working bands. My father was like that too. He worked at IBM during the day and then he’d play the motel lounges at night. The lounge thing keeps your hands limber — you get to play music, and it might be Mel Tormé stuff, but it’s cool, and a lot of the songs are well-constructed."
No less well-constructed are the dozen weird basement dreams that constitute Know Me. They’re dreams populated with "cool chicks" and "sick trips" and, of course, Wilson, who asks whether the "chromium bitch" and the "groovy girls" in his head are "still into" his "chrome." In one corner of his psyche, there’s the disturbing instrumental squall of "Another Time I Could Have Loved You." In another, there’s the suicidal chill of "Loneliness" (one of several unsettling psychodramas here). The signature tune, though, is the fever-dream curiosity "6.4 = Make Out," which, he explains, "is the average length of an erect penis."
More Wilson dementia may be on the way. One reason he vanished from New York City this time was to travel upstate to his home in Endicott. Rooting around his bedroom, he found a stash of old reel-to-reel tapes and copies of his never-released instrumental album. He’s even thinking about moving back to New York City because, as he says, 25 years is "enough hibernation." For now, at least, it appears he’s been found again. Better yet, Wilson seems to have found a part of himself he thought was lost forever.