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Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2008

Gary Wilson

You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story (Plexifilm)

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  During the 1970s, Gary Wilson was hanging around his hometown of Endicott, N.Y. He made small experimental films and played concerts that resembled performance art. In 1977, he took his creativity into his parents' basement, where he recorded You Think You Really Know Me. He and his band, The Blind Dates, did a few shows, including a particularly chaotic gig at CBGB.

  Then, he vanished.

  As the CD-DVD set The Gary Wilson Story tells it, albeit with little narrative drive, his one album became an underground sensation: record collectors coveted its rarity, stereophiles marveled at its sophistication, musicians realized they too could get high-fidelity art from low-fidelity circumstances.

  In 2002-six years after Beck gave his hipster nod to Wilson with "Where It's At" and the line "Let the man Gary Wilson rock the most"-Motel Records wanted to reissue You Think You Really Know Me, but had to find Wilson to get his permission.

  As the documentary film reveals, again without much dramatic sense, Wilson had holed up in San Diego, not so much a recluse as a guy who just wanted to be left alone. Interviewed in the grim fluorescent sterility of the adult bookstore where he works, he notes that San Diego really wasn't a place that dug his music. He recorded sporadically but seemed to stop after pressing 500 copies of a 1980 disc, Invasion of Privacy.

  Nevertheless-and this is where The Gary Wilson Story finally gains momentum-he allows himself to be convinced to return to the spotlight. With sunglasses and wry, dry humor in place, Wilson comes back to New York City at Joe's Pub and plays an Endicott homecoming show. He even revisits the basement in the house where his father still lives.

  Director Michael Wolk is never better than when he's simply following Wilson around: The man is a fascinatingly calm eccentric. Yet while Wolk manages to gather many key figures in Wilson's limited legacy and resurrection, he tends to let them ramble instead of focusing their reminiscences.

  He also doesn't get the big sources. He has a former child actor who claims to have introduced Beck to You Think You Really Know Me, but he doesn't actually have Beck, and the rest of the non-musician lot is made up of publicists, minor music critics and other natural Wilson cheerleaders.

  Nevertheless, Wolk has just enough information and more than enough enthusiasm to get a viewer to become a listener, to flip open the other side of the DVD box and pry out the included copy of the album that inspired his documentary. A little more than three decades after its inception, it sounds like Lou Reed putting his all into Jonathan Richman-style pubescent-romantic lyrics over a Steely Dan foundation, with a few digressions into sonic collages built around hypnotic vocal repetitions.

  It is not a masterpiece, but it is an unforgettable piece of work, and Wolk is right to give his documentary an open ending. In 2004, Wilson released Mary Had Brown Hair, and this summer he's scheduled to put out Lisa Wants to Talk to You. The Gary Wilson story isn't over yet.