THIS WORLD IS ONLY GOING TO BREAK YOUR HEART
WICKED GAME – The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey
by Michael Goldberg
Spooky, soulful, nitro-twang genius, James Calvin Wilsey, Chris Isaak's beautiful guitarist, who conjured up all those memorable Ennio Morricone spaghetti western, eerie “Twin Peaks” vibes, was born in the Midwest but did not stay there long. His dad was one of those real old time, no nonsense, hard knocks, military aggressors.
I had a lot of close friends who played guitars in my middle school early garage bands, who had fathers like that. Ex-military, real macho, gonna make a manly man outta ya, big game hunter, type o guys. So yeah, being from smalltown Kentucky, my grandfolks family who raised me, were all old veterans and I was not like my cousins. I was never gonna be a 4-H show cattle, play sports, go to war for college money, type of person.
Then, we moved to a town whose only industry was building tanks in Ohio. man, that was a disaster for a little kid like me who could not catch a fucking football. My grandma had gotten me into Elvis from like, birth, almost. I used to wear a pink Presley concert ticket from the Rupp Areana show he never played because he died around in my middle school fedora during my "Pretty In Pink" years.
For me, it all started with Elvis. From there, I inherited an aunt's Monkees records and started seeing their show reruns on WXIX TV. My mother was a school teacher who tried to get me piano lessons, drums in the school band, a folk guitar that got stolen at Baptist reform school, but I sucked as a player. When I discovered Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop, I kinda decided I should be a loudmouthed frontman because I had all this feeling inside me, I wanted to express about the conflict I had with the sports and military culture I grew up in.
The authorities were always over disciplining my friends and me. They could paddle you back then, rough you up, grab you by the arm, leave big bruises, and put you in the history classroom closet as an example to the herd and no one saw anything wrong with that. They could put you in a detention hall isolation closet for weeks, and no one saw anything wrong with that. It was extremely fucked up. My first songs were all intended as confrontational Sex Pistols/Damned style fuck you anthems, but they all had the deeedly-dee-deedly-dee, weedly-wee,-weedly-wee, classically influenced metal overplaying on them, because my first friends who played guitar were all like into Ozzy and Quiet Riot. One by one, I ended up having to replace those guys, three of them were brow beaten into joining the Marines and that made me sad.
One of those dudes was a super natural guitar player who sounded like Gary Moore but looked like Billy Idol. So then, I'd be trying to write these romantic new wave songs about my first loves, ala New Order or the Smiths, but they all sounded just like the Ramones and Johnny Thunders, because that's what my replacement guitar players were all into. Finally, as I got a little older and more experienced as a songwriter, my songs were becoming more poppy and melodic, but by that time, the replacement guitarists split for college, so now I was trying to write this country and western, cowpunk influenced, torch and twang type stuff with a real primal, jungle instinct, hairy knuckled Steve Jones/Malcolm Young type sideman, and some of that became a bit promising because it sorta sounded a bit original sometimes, me tunelessly caterwauling my Beasts Of Bourbon, Gun Club, and Claude from Smack influenced street poetry over my main dude's Four Horsemen/Zodiac Mindwarp/The Cult/AC/DC styled, hard rock meat and potatoes riffage.
Few people would recognize how deeply, primarily influenced we were by Chris Isaak, because I do not look like a handsome ‘50s movie star, or sing in a breathtakingly angelic falsetto, but the stark and neon lit, romantic Isaak records were throwbacks to the old Elvis and Orbison music that was so dear to my grandmother, with a real star-crossed Sharks vs the Jets type feel, and the heartsick yearning love songs he did reflected my own feelings for a girl I fell hard for who went away. So yeah, I always loved that Everly Brothers and Ricky Nelson and Rowland S. Howard kinda yearning cat call torch ‘n’ twang music. Big effect on me. Both Isaak's very romantic, sad, and sometimes funny lyrics, old show biz entertainer shuck n jive and sequinned cowboy suits, and the late great, James Calvin Wilsey's soulful, late night, bad side of town tone prose were immensely influential upon my collaborators and my whole outlook and worldview, really.
"Kings Of The Highway" meant the world to me when I was in my early 20’s ‘cause my smalltown rollin' buddies and myself were always making these desperate road trips, gas n go, flat tire, leaky oil, broken water pump, reckless misadventures in unreliable $100 vehicles. We were just so determined to make some kinda connection on the coasts so we could ditch our pizza jobs and relocate to the city, where gangs of apeish males were less likely to harass or harangue me for looking like Boy George and trying to become like Billy Idol.
"Trouble...in this town..."
Even in my late teens and early 20s I was STILL being targeted and stalked unrelentingly by these dumb packs of golf shirted goon squads and stonewashed metal mullets because I liked new wave and never could conform to their smallminded military standards of male hood or whatever, I was not a good little capitalist boy scout. I was always getting beaten to a bloody pulp in that state and even the women would act like it's right and it's proper, kinda like all the smiling white folks who used to send postcards of lynchings. It was some very real proto Edward Scissorhands shit growing up goth or new wave in the Buckeye stupid Midwest. My bass player at the time was a little older than me and way more pop-oriented, he got me into some stuff like Lone Justice, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Jason & The Scorchers.
Met a sax player in Boston who shared my love for old Elvis and Johnny Cash, Scotty Moore and James Burton, we'd spend many nights sitting there snowed in at our second-floor apartment drinking booze and talking about the Stray Cats and Chris Issak and the Cramps and Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch soundtracks, that "Jungle Exotica" retro fifties stripper music compilation CD I got from my job at Rounder/Ryko Records. We were integrating all those sorta sultry influences into our songwriting, but me and the AC/DC guy were both broke as a joke convenience store and record store workers so we had really limited recording equipment and could rarely find drummers who liked any of the same music we did. We kept running into all these idiot speed metal drummers who liked Metallica and did not understand where I was coming from, at all. At all. Much like now, most drummers just wanted to play for whoever had money and was already "popular", which is almost always code for rich parents paying for recordings and rehearsal rooms. We were into ‘70s glam, some Australian weirdo blues punk, and the romantic jangle-town troubadours of the Jacobites and Bounty Hunters and Snatches Of Pink. Sadly, it was the "Alternative" music era-all that Alice In Chains and Nirvana shit. My various former bandmates were way more into that than I was. I was still deeply immersed in my teenage new wave fixations during all that. When all the normal people were embracing Soundgarden and shit, I was still playing Echo & The Bunnymen, Charlie Sexton, Chris Isaak, Duran Duran, Lords Of The New Church and Hanoi Rocks, mostly. Some Nick Cave.
Like James Honeyman-Scott from the Pretenders, the King Of Slow, James Calvin Wilsey, was always about stark minimalism, milking that one perfect note full of emotional drama and cinematic impact. It has been said that wherever you go, all over the world, people recognize the iconic first two couple of haunted, beat hotel holy notes from Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game". That's the Wilsey Sound. Achingly heartfelt and pained, catcalls from the past. He could play one note and make you visualize a whole movie inside your head.
I loved all those songs. I knew I wanted my own music to always have some of that shimmering, moody, brooding quality. "Nothing's Changed" stayed in my life for 30 years as a major musical touchstone. Calvin-Wilsey shared my love for Patti Smith.
I've repeated this story far too many times already in my various writings, but when my loathsome school administrators kept sending the army recruiters to try to seduce me with promises of how they had barber shop quartets and bands in the Army, I'd always show them my Pegasus Trapper Keeper full of Smash Hits magazines and photographs of Brian Jones and David Bowie and Warhol superstars xeroxed out of library books, read them my MC5 White Panther derivative anti-war poetry, show 'em all the in your face colored pinups of crazy Fuzzbox and Dr. & The Medics haircuts and makeup pix torn from I-D magazines of Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Bananarama and the Thompson Twins and The Cure, and eventually they'd finally fuck off. When one of those loudmouths asked what my career goal was for the thousandth time, as if everybody always has a career goal, I told him the truth, that I saw myself as somethink like a rough equivalent to Patti Smith, that I wanted to be like a male Patti Smith. She was also not a Barbie's Dreamhouse beauty queen with some kinda Whitney Houston properly trained singing voice, but she used her words and feelings to convey her life's experiences quite effectively, and I always remained pretty confident in my own ability to do the same, even as the capitalist culture around me always felt it was so all important to shake my confidence in that and shout me down and make me conform to their bullshit dress codes and green greener greenest grass suburbanized bullshit social hierarchies.
Summa the Beasts Of Bourbon stuff reminded me of Isaak. Like "Blue Stranger". My first ever guitarist who joined the Marines used to call me, "The Flower Power Popster" way back when we were like, eleven and mostly performing like, super cheesy heavy metal covers for girls whose parents were not home, ya know, we'd have like a 12 pack and I'd be singing through a bass amp and three dudes in satin jackets would all be soloing on top of one another, me bellowing some pretentiously arty and opaque Jim Morrison and later, Simon Le Bon influenced lyrics. Wilsey and Isaak really were like my generations perfectly suave and soulful Everly Brothers.
When I worked at Tower Records during peak-grunge, we were supposed to only play like that preapproved bullshit all the time. Barenaked Ladies, Pearl Jam, Crash Test Dummies, Liz Phair and Hole, but at night, when my dandified indie/import expert goth friend Thom Jones was managing, he would let me open the Clash or Chris Isaak's "San Francsico Days and San Francisco Nights" which would sound really fantastic being played too loud over Tower Records big system. Everybody would be tracking in snow, ya know, it was still the place where people went every day-in the mornings, noon, and night. Tower Records was still like a main social hub for a truly diverse and multigenerational clientele, it was where folks socialized. We took it for granted.
I used to bitch about that job because I couldn't stand Evan Dando who was always everywhere and I was drinking and wanting to be on stage making wild music like Tex & The Horseheads or the Stooges, not simply restocking Pearl Jam's "TEN". I spent half the day getting wasted at Charlie's Cheeseburgers, across the street and loss prevention would sneak me back in through the side door, a green-haired girl with a nose ring named Danielle would take my register shift if I was too tipsy.
Wilsey had a son named Waylon. How beautiful is that? Even though he co-created over a whole decade's worth of emotional, picturesque, unforgettable music, James Calvin Wilsey died emaciated and hated, yellow, feared and distrusted, while living on a piece of cardboard on a city sidewalk in Eagle Rock, California. His story hits me hard not just because Chris Isaak's entire oeuvre of sultry songs like "Blue Spanish Sky" "Two Hearts" and "Beautiful Homes" and "You Owe Me Some Kinda Love" were imbued with so much beauty, heart and soul in the tradition of Ricky Nelson, Link Wray and Duane Eddy and James Burton, but because so many of my own dearest dive bar companions, former loves, and loud laughs drinking buddies all died under such sadly similar, permanently traumatizing circumstances.
James Calvin-Wilsey was an undeniably essential element of Chris Isaak's ongoing worldwide superstardom. I just watched an Isaak concert on one of those concert channels the other night. I love his drummer and his band are still really entertaining and competent crack professionals, a bit like the Fleshtones, really, but the current dude could not hold a candle to JC Wilsey. I was always playing my bandmates those first four Isaak albums as examples of how less can be more and it's okay to not be playing jackhammer hardon riffs at all times, we can say a lot more sometimes when we remember to slowdown and breathe, layback and let it simmer, that was the Wilsey sound for me-a silvery shimmer, a nightime seedy hotel moonlit neon throb.
Sometimes you are trying to write songs about sorrow and grief, alienation, homelessness, mourning and broken hearts, feeling lost in this big old world and when you wanna express that sorta thang, it's frustrating if collaborators just wanna turn it all back into "Chinese Rocks", everything can't be fuckin' "Chinese Rocks" again. Wilsey had such a magic touch and knew how to create those rainy back alley atmospheres-poisonous slip wearing bombshells, danger, cigarettes on the fire escape, bad wine and dirty drugs. Chris Isaak did go looking for his friend after he'd fallen into the junkie lifestyle, but Wilsey could not be saved or rescued and it is one of rock ‘n’ roll's great tragedies. I think it was Joe Strummer who lamented how it is almost like some kinda law-our most brilliantly talented and soulful and sorrowful genius artists almost never get their just due in their time, and even the very "Lucky" few, who get to go streaking briefly across the sky, frequently fall into those traps for troubadours and don't get to last here for very long.
I will be listening to those Chris Issak/James Calvin-Wilsey records for the rest of my life, and I know many of my old garage band hombres will always be listening to the Avengers. I am ever so grateful that this sharp writer, Michael Goldberg put so much passion and dedication into telling Wilsey's story-about 400 pages of highs and lows and winning and losing and heartbreak and the whole human drama. Only the lonely love Chris Isaak and James Calvin Wilsey like I do. Greatness to behold. Get the book, you'll be glad you did.
PRE-ORDER: WICKED GAME – The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey by Michael Goldberg at HoZac Books here.