-by Michael Goldberg
Jimmy Wilsey was a little known guitarist whose greatest success was in the shadows of Chris Isaak. So why would I spend three years researching and writing a book about him? Let me tell you.
On Christmas Day, 2018 I was scrolling through the Mabuhay Gardens Facebook page posts. One post shocked the hell out of me: it reported that Jimmy had died the previous afternoon. Oh no. Jimmy dead! How could that be? I was stunned.
Jimmy had been a star of the small late ’70s San Francisco punk rock scene, a scene that could fit inside one club in North Beach, the Mabuhay Gardens. He was the “heart and soul” of the Avengers, one of the best punk groups in the country, according to Patti Smith Group guitarist/rock critic Lenny Kaye, critic Greil Marcus and myself, though hardly anyone outside the Bay Area and Los Angeles had heard of the Avengers at the time.
When he died, I’d known Jimmy for 36 years. Although I’d seen and photographed the Avengers in 1978, I didn’t meet Jimmy until 1982, when I saw the version of Silvertone he’d co-founded with Chris Isaak at the Berkeley Square and the group’s producer/ co-manager Erik Jacobsen brought me back stage after the show. (At the time Howie was playing songs from a Silvertone demo on KUSF, a great college radio station where he did a weekly show; Howie told me he wanted to release the Silvertone song “Blue Hotel” on his 415 Records label, but that didn’t happen.)
I became friends with Jimmy in 1991, after Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game became a top 10 hit in 10 countries including the US and brought Chris Isaak and Silvertone into the spotlight. I would drop by Jimmy’s Victorian apartment on Oak Street, across from the Pan Handle, a few blocks from Golden Gate Park, and we’d hang out. For a while Jimmy was nice enough to give my teenage son Joe guitar lessons. That was the kind of guy Jimmy was back then, gracious and willing to do a friend a favor.
Jimmy’s genius guitar work played a big part in Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” becoming a hit, as Isaak told me. Director David Lynch had included a couple of recordings that Jimmy, Isaak, Jacobsen and two session musicians made for Isaak’s first album, Silvertone, in his film “Blue Velvet.” Some years later he came back asking for music for a new film he was completing, “Wild at Heart.” He listened to tracks that had been completed for Isaak’s third album, including “Wicked Game,” with it’s haunting two-note intro, and used the recording minus Isaak’s vocal-- essentially Jimmy’s guitar and a sampled rhythm track-- in the film.
When the music director at Power 99 (WAPW), a Top 40 station in Atlanta saw the film, he flipped over “this hypnotic instrumental,” went back to see the film two more times just so he could hear the music, and then added “Wicked Game” (with Isaak’s vocal) to the Power 99 playlist. In early March of 1991 “Wicked Game” ascended to nearly the top of the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #6, and reached the Top 10 in nine other countries. It has remained on radio stations around the world ever since. Here in the U.S., it has been streamed on Spotify nearly 310 million times, and just in the past three years it’s been played nearly 210 million times on the streaming service.
After I learned of Jimmy’s death I kept my eyes open for an obit in the San Francisco Chronicle; after all, Jimmy had played in two important San Francisco bands, but there was nothing. Same for the LA Times, even though Jimmy lived in LA for over 20 years and died there. Nothing in Billboard either. So after a week or so I contacted an editor I knew at Rolling Stone and wrote a 2000 word story about Jimmy that ran at Rolling Stone online. But I felt there was more to tell, and even after writing an 8000-word story for an Australian magazine I write for, Rhythms, I wasn’t satisfied. By then I wanted to understand why Jimmy became addicted to heroin, why his life turned out the way it did. And I felt Jimmy deserved to be remembered. People need to know who he was, and why he’s important.
And so for the next three years I conducted in-depth interviews with more than 60 people who knew Jimmy-- family members, friends, girl friends, music business acquaintances and associates. I also drew on four hours of interviews with Jimmy I’d done in 1987 and 1991, and a three hour interview with Jimmy done in the summer of 2018 that I got access to. And then there were the over 10 hours of interviews I did with Chris Isaak between 1982 and into 1995. The result is Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey, which will be published by HoZac Records and Books on June 1.
Jimmy’s story is a tragic one. He began smoking Persian Brown heroin around 1985, and basically never stopped using the drug. He managed to keep things together until 1992, when an escalating bitterness towards Chris Isaak that began in mid-to-late 1982 was exacerbated; Jimmy felt he deserved credit for his role in making “Wicked Game” a hit, and more money than he was getting. When his actress girlfriend Jennifer Rubin broke up with him, his heroin use accelerated and Isaak let him go. He never played with Isaak again. Jimmy had a liver transplant in 2014, but his addiction continued. He became homeless in the fall of 2018, and died a few months later.
“It’s a shame he died,” said producer Erik Jacobsen. “A shame he left Silvertone, a shame he couldn’t get along with Chris and a shame he went on drugs.”
“We played at crummy bars and clubs for next to nothing and were thrilled to do it… Jimmy had so much heart and a great sound…” Chris Isaak posted on his Facebook page Christmas day. “I look at his picture now; good looking, cool, young Jimmy and I miss him, and I’m so glad I had those times with him. I’m going to put on an old record and listen to my friend. Rest In Peace James Calvin Wilsey.”
Michael Goldberg was a Senior Writer at Rolling Stone for a decade and founded the first Internet rock magazine/site, Addicted To Noise. He also wrote for Esquire, the New Musical Express, Creem, Downbeat and numerous other publications. He has published three novels. “Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey,” can be ordered from HoZac Records and Books . Michael will also have a collection of his music journalism, “Addicted To Noise: The Music Writings of Michael Goldberg” published by Backbeat Books in November. It can be pre-ordered here.
Michael has given me two autographed copies of the new book. And... the two people who contribute the most to any candidate on this page, each gets a book.