Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey, Jim or Jimmy Wilsey to friends and family, brought his passion and mystery to music over several decades. He helped define San Francisco punk with the Avengers, went around the world with Chris Isaak, played one of the catchiest guitar parts in the history of guitar music…and ended his days–before his hospital deathbed that is–crashed out on a piece of cardboard, praying for no rain. Veteran music journalist Michael Goldberg, in his new book Wicked Game, tells us about the man, his roots, his artistry, his ambition, and the drug addiction that took him down.
Wicked Game is available now. Goldberg was kind enough to take some email questions. He asked me to mention that the best way to get the book is straight from the publisher, which delivers the most money to himself and to Wilsey’s only child, Waylon Wilsey: https://hozacrecords.com/product/wicked-game/
He also asked me to mention that he’ll do an online event courtesy San Francisco’s Book Passage bookstore, on Thursday, July 21st 5:30 pm Pacific Time, co-hosted by former “Creem” editor (and author of that crucial Kiss biography), Robert Duncan: https://www.bookpassage.com/event/michael-goldberg-robert-duncan-wicked-game-online-event .
Seattle Star: You obviously knew Jimmy Wilsey as far back as his days with the Avengers. What are your earliest memories of hearing him play live, seeing him with the Avengers, and speaking to him?
Michael Goldberg: The Avengers are one of the great punk bands of all time. I saw them open for the Sex Pistols and I saw them at the Mabuhay Gardens and they were an intense, mesmerizing band live. They made some killer recordings as well. Robert Christgau said “We Are the One” was the best single of 1977 and I agree with him. It’s a total classic.
I was onstage taking photographs for part of an Avengers set at the Mabuhay and it was like being at the center of an explosion. Only you don’t get blown up, you just get to experience it up close.
I don’t recall meeting Jimmy when he was in the Avengers. I believe the first time I met Jimmy was when he was in Silvertone [Chris Isaak’s early band]. I saw them at the Berkeley Square, a great club. I stood right in front of the stage, a yard or so from the band and I thought they were terrific.
Afterwards Erik Jacobsen, who was their producer and co-manager, who had produced seven top ten hits for the Lovin’ Spoonful in the mid-‘60s, and had discovered Tim Hardin and produced “Spirit in the Sky” for Norman Greenbaum, took me backstage and I met the guys including Jimmy. He was friendly. they were all glad I was writing about them. I was more focused on Chris Isaak that night.
Seattle Star: How did your impressions of Wilsey grow and change over the years?
Michael Goldberg: Jimmy was a serious musician. He joked around a lot, very deadpan sense of humor, very knowledgeable about music and musicians. He presented himself as serious and responsible and in fact until he got heavy into using heroin in 1992, he was someone who could be counted on to do what he said he was going to do.
The more I got to know him, the more I liked him. He was one of those people you just dug hanging out with. Among other things, we bonded over our love of the Rolling Stones, and we dug a lot of the same music.
He was one of the first musicians using various new-at-the-time programs to record and edit music on a Macintosh computer. I was really interested in all of that and so we spent a lot of time with him showing me how that worked. Also he was heavy into MIDI.
I wrote a story about the computer as a recording studio for “Rolling Stone” and Jimmy figured prominently in that story. He was also in one I did later for “Wired.” I wrote a book about digital recording, and Jimmy was one of the people I profiled. While all that was going on we were becoming friends.
Seattle Star: What are your earliest memories of seeing Wilsey with Chris Issak in the Silvertones, aka Silvertone?
Michael Goldberg: Silvertone was initially a rockabilly trio. For two or three gigs in 1980 they called themselves the Silvertones, then changed the name to Silvertone, probably because of the Swan Silvertones, a gospel group that had been around for a long time.
Chris Isaak broke up the trio in August of 1980 because he was sick of the rockabilly thing, and the other guys weren’t as obsessed with success as Isaak was. By then he was getting together with Jimmy and they were working on music. Isaak was writing original songs, they were working those out. The two of them co-founded a new version of Silvertone.
Jimmy brought in the bass player, Jamie Ayres, and then when Danny Furious, formerly of the Avengers, didn’t want to play drums, they brought drummer John Silvers back. They did their first gig as a quartet in late September 1980.
Erik Jacobsen started working with them in the summer of 1981, so when I saw them in February 1982 at Berkeley Square, they’d been playing for about a year and a half and working with Erik for eight months. At that point they were still dressing like 50s rockabilly guys. Jimmy was doing harmony vocals on some songs. There was one where they sounded like the Everly Brothers, a duo that both Jimmy and Isaak were big fans of.
Seeing those guys up close on a small stage in a relatively small club was what it must have been like seeing the Beatles at the Cavern Club. For years they were like a precious secret. In San Francisco they would play these small clubs–the Nightbreak on Haight Street held 100 to 150 people. You could get right up front. Every time I saw them they were better, but they were good from the start.
Every time they played a new song it was thrilling. To my ears every song they played should have been a hit. When the first album, Silvertone, was released I thought it was a perfect album from start to finish.
First I saw them in Berkeley in early 1982. Probably the next time was in early 1985 when the first album came out. I saw them a number of times at the Nightbreak on Haight Street that year. Off and on during the 80s I saw them at the I-Beam on Haight Street and Club Nine south of Market in SF, and the DNA lounge in SF. Later I saw them at the Omni in Oakland.
You have to remember that I was a freelance writer in the early 80s writing about lots of bands and solo artists. Then in 1984 I became a Senior Writer, a staff writer, at Rolling Stone and I was working a lot more than fulltime (sixty to eighty hours some weeks). So Silvertone were a band I loved but I was super busy. I tended to see them when I was working on a story about Chris Isaak, and I wrote six or so stories about him during those years.
Seattle Star: What were Wilsey’s most crucial inspirations on guitar?
Michael Goldberg: Scotty Moore, who was Elvis’ guitar player, Duane Eddy, Don Rich from Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, Hank Marvin of the Shadows, Link Wray, George Harrison, Billy Strange, Vic Flick. Keith Richards. There were others.
Seattle Star: What did he take from each, and how did he transcend each?
Michael Goldberg: You can hear a vague echo of those guitarists in his playing, sometimes it’s more than that, but Jimmy took what those guys did and created his own thing.
One of the things he did very early on, starting in high school, he would figure out how to play a song that he liked, he would look at the guitar parts and consider why, say, George Harrison, played what he played on a particular song. What was it that Harrison added to the song that was unique, that made it special, what were those guitar parts doing for the song.
Because a great recording of a rock band, the verses aren’t the same in terms of what the guitarist is doing. Lead parts will develop and up the ante, so that a tension keeps building from verse to verse, and the listener is pulled along into and through the song. Jimmy worked hard to learn how to do that and he did that in the recordings.
There was nothing static about his contributions. Jimmy was very creative. The intro to “Wicked Game,” the guitar part, that everyone in the world pretty much has heard, is two notes. It’s very, very simple. Jimmy said he could teach someone who didn’t know how to play the guitar how to play that intro in 15 minutes or less. That’s the beauty of it in a way. It’s so simple but so memorable and so haunting.
Seattle Star: How did Wilsey’s playing with Issak grow and change over the years?
Michael Goldberg: Jimmy arrived at a distinctive approach to playing guitar early on and you hear it throughout the first album, Silvertone. From there he refined it. His tone got more refined, but it was all there from that first album.
Seattle Star: Wilsey cut four albums with Isaak. How does his playing shift over the course of those albums?
Michael Goldberg: I don’t know that it shifts. His guitar on “You Owe Me Some Kind of Love,” the opening track of the second album, Chris Isaak, is just devastating. He works his riffs around Isaak’s vocal. It’s like a dance. And then his solo–you’ve never heard a solo quite like that before. Each song was like that.
It was like he was improving on what he did. He wasn’t changing it, he was getting better at it. His control of the tremolo bar, and his use of the volume pedal and the B-Bender on his Telecaster. He became a master of the tools and he could use them to deliver a very unique approach to intros and guitar parts for the verses and for the choruses and the solos.
There’s a whole lot of Jimmy’s soul that went into his playing. You can hear the sadness and sorrow and pain he experienced during his life in his guitar playing. And also at times his anger.
Seattle Star: Which one of the four albums is your personal favorite, and why?
Michael Goldberg: The first two albums, Silvertone and Chris Isaak, are perfect albums. Heart-Shaped World is a classic too. They’re beautiful and moving and filled with emotion. The songs are unique. Isaak’s vocals are very moving and Jimmy’s playing just knocks you over. Put on one of those albums and what you hear will blow you away if you’re open to it.
But music is a very personal thing. I can love a song and you might hate it. There are people who just don’t understand what’s so great about Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde. I think it’s one of the greatest albums every made, that his singing is brilliant, the songwriting is some of the best ever. But that’s me.
Well it’s the same regarding those Chris Isaak albums. I can talk about Jimmy’s playing and those songs, those recordings, but when I do it’s all after the fact. You hear the song for the first time and you connect with it. You don’t think: Well let’s see, I’m going to like this song because of this guitar riff that starts in B and the four/four beat and that bass line, and yes there’s that thing in the voice that happens.
No. You hear it and it’s instinctive. You connect. You’re moved. So then you can try to analyze it but, like I said, it’s all after the fact. You’re trying to find words for something that is probably beyond words. I do my best and I think I convey in the book what is so special about Jimmy’s playing and what he and Isaak bring to some of the songs that makes them so unique. But still, there’s nothing like listening to the recordings.
Seattle Star: Which songs by Isaak and Wilsey together, are your favorites, and why (including rarities and never-officially released material)?
Michael Goldberg: “You Owe Me Some Kind of Love,” “Lover’s Game,” “Lie To Me,” “Waiting for the Rain to Fall,” “Blue Hotel,” “Cryin’,” “Dancin’,” “Funeral In the Rain,” “The Lonely Ones,” “Unhappiness,” the live version of “Tears” from a show at Nightbreak in SF in late 1985, “Western Stars,” “Wicked Game,” “Can’t Do a Thing (To Stop Me).” Those are some.
Jimmy’s guitar playing is transcendent. I’m a huge fan, what can I say. There’s also an amazing live power-pop version of Ann-Margret’s “I Just Don’t Understand” that they played at the I-Beam in SF in 1985 that’s on a YouTube video.
Seattle Star: Do you believe Wilsey was entitled to co-writing credit on those songs?
Michael Goldberg: I wasn’t there. My understanding is that Chris Isaak came up with the chords and the melody and the words. If you write the chords and the melody and the words then you are the writer of the song. There is a legal definition of what it means to write a song.
Coming up with guitar parts doesn’t mean that you legally deserve a writing credit. But you know, with the Avengers, they split everything four ways. Every song, they all got a writing credit, even if two of them hadn’t been involved in the writing of a particular song. They didn’t want to have problems later, resentments. And they felt that all four members each made huge contributions. It’s not how Chris Isaak chose to do it.
Seattle Star: Do you believe Wilsey could have obtained co-writing credit if he’d been more forceful?
Michael Goldberg: I have no idea. Probably not. But that’s just my guess.
Seattle Star: Isaak’s never conclusively commented on whether Wilsey quit, or was fired. What’s your take on it, after all your research?
Michael Goldberg: I’m told, and by a few people who were in a position to know that I spoke to after the book was already completed and set in type, that Jimmy was fired by Isaak. He was fired because he was showing up for rehearsals and he was so messed up on heroin that he couldn’t remember his parts. And he didn’t seem to care anymore.
If he had managed to clean up, I was told by Isaak’s manager, that Isaak would have brought him back in. Isaak waited three years before hiring a permanent replacement for Jimmy. But Jimmy was also fed up by that point with working with Isaak, according to Erik Jacobsen, and Jimmy told me in 1992 that he was going to quit. So one way or the other, it was over between those two.
Seattle Star: Which performances, (including rarities and never-officially released material) by Wilsey without Isaak or the Avengers, are your favorites, and why?
His solo album, El Dorado, is a masterpiece. There is an unreleased demo from 2013 of Lana Del Rey’s “Black Beauty” with Jimmy playing guitar and Lana Del Rey singing. It’s so beautiful. There are live recordings of Jimmy covering “Sleepwalk” and “Superstar” that you can find on YouTube that are wonderful.
I have some live recordings of the band Miss Derringer with Jimmy on lead guitar that are great. I listen to those records and they take me somewhere else. It’s almost like going into a trance when I hear music that really speaks to me.
Seattle Star: At what point did you lose touch with Wilsey?
Michael Goldberg: Late 1992 or early 1993. He stopped answering the phone for the most part. And sometimes when he didn’t pick up, I’d drive to his storefront apartment and knock on the door. There was a side window that looked in on where his computer/recording area was. I’d go knock on the window and on occasion he’d be there, see it was me, and let me in. But that became less and less frequent and finally it was just too much.
Seattle Star: Did you suspect drug abuse at that time, or did that suspicion come later?
Michael Goldberg: It was only later that I heard that he was using heroin. I didn’t suspect it at all when we were hanging out. I never saw Jimmy drunk. I don’t recall him smoking weed when we hung out. It was later that I heard he had a serious drug problem. Then it made sense. But while we were hanging, I didn’t have a clue.
Seattle Star: When, where, and how did you heard the news of his death?
Michael Goldberg: On Christmas day  I was looking at the Mabuhay Gardens Facebook group posts, and Chester Simpson, the photographer, had posted that Jimmy had died on Christmas Eve day.
Seattle Star: How did you react?
Michael Goldberg: I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. He was only 61. It made no sense to me. I had exchanged some Facebook messages with him six months earlier. It was a strange exchange, but I didn’t really think he was sick or anything like that.
I had no idea he was homeless. I didn’t know he’d had a liver transplant in 2014. Or that he was using hard drugs again. None of that. It was a tremendous shock.
Seattle Star: What make you decide to write the book? What’s your percentage of archival interviews to fresh interviews?
Michael Goldberg: There were basically no obits in the major papers in San Francisco or LA, the two cities where he lived. He was a major guy in San Francisco. He was responsible for Chris Isaak having a Top 10 hit in ten countries including the US. But nothing. Nothing in “Billboard”.
So I wrote a 2000-word story for Rolling Stone online, then an 8000-word story for “Rhythms,” an Australian magazine I contribute to, and [critic/editor] Greil Marcus suggested I include that 8000-word piece in a book I was working on, a collection of my best writing from the past 45 or so years.
I took what he said seriously, and decided I wanted to do a bit more reporting, fill out Jimmy’s story a little more. Pretty quick I realized his story was bigger than an article and that I was going to write a book about him. I want him to be remembered. And I thought if there was a book about him, then people who wonder about the guy who played that guitar intro to “Wicked Game” could find out who he was and why he’s so important.
I interviewed over sixty people who were close to Jimmy during the past three-plus years. Family members, friends from junior high, high school. People he got to know when he first moved to SF in 1976, musicians he played with, music business associates, girlfriends, close friends from the later years of his life.
Quite a few of those people, I didn’t just talk to them for an hour or two. There are people I spoke to for maybe twenty hours over the course of three years. People I emailed questions to off and on for three years and who were nice enough to get back to me with thoughtful answers.
I probably spent 100 to 200 hours interviewing people. Something crazy like that. I also had four hours of interviews I did with Jimmy in 1987 and 1991, another three-hour interview that was the last one he did, in July 2018, that was never published, and I drew from that.
I have over ten hours of interviews with Chris Isaak, from 1985 into 1995. Interviews with Isaak’s mother and Erik Jacobsen and [Isaak’s] co-manager Mark Plummer from 1986. That was in the midst of things so I had those folks telling me about a lot of key things right after they happened or a few years after they happened. I used all of that.
I was in a very unique position to write about Jimmy because I had those interviews and I knew a lot of the folks going back to the late ‘70s. People like Penelope Houston and Jacobsen and Plummer – we had relationships that dated back many years so they were comfortable talking to me.
The book is full of quotes from Jimmy, many of them things he said to me. It’s full of quotes from Chris Isaak, again, many things he said to me. But all the other people I talked to were essential to telling the whole story of Jimmy’s life, and within Jimmy’s story, the story of the SF punk scene and the Avengers and Silvertone/Chris Isaak, and, really, the story of the dark side of rock & roll.
Seattle Star: What were the biggest uphill struggles of writing the book, and how did you work through them?
The hardest thing was finding out who the actress was who was Jimmy’s girlfriend from mid-1990 into early 1992. One of the first interviews I did, in January 2018, Mark Plummer, who co-managed Silvertone and Isaak for some years, said there was this actress that was Jimmy’s girlfriend and she broke up with him around early 1992, and it was devastating. No one I talked to could remember her name.
Two years into my research, after I had asked dozens and dozens of people if they knew her name, I found out it was Jennifer Rubin, who was in the 3rd Nightmare on Elm Street film and was in The Doors and other films. And so I managed to make contact with her and she was nice enough to agree to talk to me. And we had two lengthy interviews and she had some really important things to say that really added to the book.
Seattle Star: Which fresh interviews were the toughest, and why? How did you work through them?
Michael Goldberg: There was one of Jimmy’s friends who initially didn’t want to talk. She was really upset after he died. But months later, she decided that she did want to talk to me, and she had great things to add to my understanding of Jimmy. I felt like from the start I had the key info about Jimmy and so I never thought for a minute that I wasn’t going to be able to make the book happen.
In retrospect, it seems like it was an impossible task. Like how did I ever pull that off. But I was not thinking that way when I was working on it.
Seattle Star: How did you find a publisher for the book?
Michael Goldberg: A friend of mine, Pat Thomas, has written books and put together albums of unreleased tracks from people like Tim Buckley. I asked him who he thought I should approach with my Wilsey manuscript, and he suggested a couple of companies.
So I approached those companies, but it also got me thinking about other independent book companies and there was this cool indie company, HoZac Records and Books, that I read some things about. They published this great book by the late Michael Belfer, who was the guitar player in this SF punk band called Sleepers and he was also in Tuxedomoon. I read his memoir, it was really good, and I got in touch with him and asked him about HoZac. I talked to a music journalist who has a book he co-wrote that they published and he had great things to say about HoZac.
Belfer spoke to the publisher and told me HoZac was interested in my book and so I approached them and within a week we had a deal and I got them the finished manuscript on Jan. 1, 2022 and 200-300 images. We ended up using over 150 of those.
Seattle Star: How did you go about assembling photos for the book, and working on the final layout?
Michael Goldberg: I got all the images from photographers I know or who friends know and flyers and posters from the designers. It was an intense project but I was into it, and I accumulated many of the images during the years that I was researching and writing the book.
Todd Novak, the publisher, designed the interior of the book and he did a fantastic job. I suggested where in the book each image should go and we were in agreement. I had the cover designed by the great Todd Alcott. Look him up. He’s brilliant. I approached him and asked him if he could design the cover. I gave him a photo by Marcus Leatherdale. Sadly Marcus died recently, but he had given me approval to use a bunch of his photos in the book. I gave Todd Alcott the photo and the cover text
And I have to say, I think HoZac is unique in being up for putting over 150 images in a narrative book. No one else publishes biographies with 150 images.
I’m donating 25% or all my royalties to [the guitarist’s son] Waylon Wilsey. I felt that if I was going to write about his dad, that I wanted him to get a portion of my royalties. I decided that was what I was going to do very early on. I was told by one of his aunts that he’s a really good student and that he’ll be going to college soon.
Seattle Star: Is Waylon musical or creative at all?
Michael Goldberg: I have no idea. But from what his aunt told me, I think he’s on the path to have a great life.
Seattle Star: What ultimately do you hope people take away from the book, which has so much triumph and so much sadness through it?
Michael Goldberg: I hope it does what I wrote it for, which is allow Jimmy to be known and remembered, so he’s not the unknown guitar player who played one of the most recognizable intros to a song in the world.
And I hope musicians who read it, see what can happen if you mess with hard drugs. I hope this book helps keep some people from going down a dark path. It’s a cautionary tale for sure.
Seattle Star: What are your projects for the future, beyond the book?
Michael Goldberg: In November of this year Backbeat Books will publish Addicted To Noise: The Music Writings of Michael Goldberg, which includes interviews, profiles and essays from the past 45-plus years that I’ve been a professional music journalist.
It’s 400-plus pages. Artists covered include Prince, Flamin’ Groovies, Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Sleater-Kinney, Professor Longhair, Talking Heads, Frank Zappa, Robbie Robertson, Rick James, Devo, Captain Beefheart, Ramones, Tom Waits, Sex Pistols, Flipper, Crime, George Clinton, Gil Scott-Heron, Brian Wilson, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, the Clash, Townes Van Zandt, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, and Patti Smith.
There are a lot of my photos in it too. Todd Alcott designed the cover of that book for me as well. It’s a fantastic cover. Greil Marcus wrote the foreword, and that’s a big deal. It means a lot to me. Thank you Greil!