Monday, September 12, 2022

Q&A with Michael Goldberg


Photo by Roni Hoffman



Michael Goldberg is the author of the new biography Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey. Wilsey (1957-2018) was perhaps best known for playing on Chris Isaak's hit song "Wicked Game." Goldberg is a longtime journalist whose work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Rolling Stone and Esquire. His other books include the novel Untitled


Q: What inspired you to write this biography of guitarist James Calvin Wilsey?


A: On Christmas day, 2018, I was shocked to learn from a Facebook post that Jimmy Wilsey was dead. He was only 61.


I had first met Jimmy in 1982, backstage at a Berkeley, California, club; their manager/producer, Erik Jacobsen (who produced seven Top 10 hits for the Lovin’ Spoonful in the mid-‘60s) brought me backstage and introduced me to the members of Silvertone, which included singer/writer Chris Isaak and Jimmy on lead guitar and harmony vocals.


Over the years I got to know Jimmy and in 1991 we became friends. But in 1993 he got real flaky and it became impossible to get in touch with him so then years went by when I was not in touch with him. The year he died, I had exchanged some Facebook messages with Jimmy in the summer and fall of 2018. So his death was really a shock.


I expected there to be obits in the San Francisco and LA papers, but there was nothing. No mention in Billboard. I felt like that was just wrong. He was one of the great guitar players, had been in one of the best punk bands, the Avengers, in the late ‘70s, and was the reason Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” had the chance to become a hit. He deserved to be remembered.


When two weeks went by and still no obits, I contacted an editor I knew at Rolling Stone (where I had been on staff for a decade in the ‘80s/’90s) and suggested an obit for Jimmy. I ended up writing a 2,000 word story about him for Rolling Stone. But I felt strongly after researching that story that there was more to his life than what fit in 2,000 words and I felt compelled to write a book about him.


The book I wrote, Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey, is of course his story, but it’s more than that. It’s also the story of the San Francisco punk scene of the late ‘70s, the story of the Avengers, the story of Silvertone/Chris Isaak, the story of how “Wicked Game” became a hit, and, really, the story of the dark side of rock ‘n’ roll.


Jimmy became addicted to hard drugs including heroin. He had been homeless for three months when he died of multiple organ failure on Christmas Eve day. There is a lot about addiction and the factors that can lead to addiction in the book. His story is a rollercoaster ride that ends in disaster, but there are also many positive moments in his life, particularly in the late ‘70s and at times during the ‘80s and very start of the ‘90s.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I began interviewing musicians and writing about them in the mid-‘70s. I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, New York Rocker, Trouser Press, Musician, Creem, the Berkeley Barb, California magazine, New Times and many others, and in 1984 became a senior writer at Rolling Stone.


In 1994 I started the first Internet rock magazine, Addicted To Noise. In the late ‘70s I interviewed and wrote about many musicians/bands that were part of the San Francisco punk scene. In 1982, I wrote about Silvertone for the first time and met producer Erik Jacobsen, Jimmy Wilsey, Chris Isaak, and the other members of Silvertone.


I was at Winterland when the Avengers performed right before the Sex Pistols’ final show before breaking up. I saw firsthand the Avengers at the first punk club in San Francisco, the Mabuhay Gardens. So I had a lot of good background info regarding the scene in SF that Jimmy was in, and that Silvertone/Chris Isaak emerged from. All of that was helpful in writing my book about Jimmy.


Additionally, I had four hours of interviews I had done with Jimmy in 1987 and 1991. And the last person to interview Jimmy shared his three-hour unpublished interview with me. I also had over 10 hours of interviews I had done with Chris Isaak between 1985 and 1995. I knew some key people who worked with Jimmy including Erik Jacobsen and Avengers singer Penelope Houston.


There were others that I knew who were friends or associates of Jimmy. And people I interviewed introduced me to others that they thought could share important info about Jimmy. There were also a lot of friends who posted about Jimmy after he died and I made contact with many of them.


I ended up interviewing over 60 key people in Jimmy’s life, including both of his sisters. Some of the people I interviewed many, many times over the course of the three-plus years I wrote the book. There were also people I exchanged questions with via email and text during those years.


It was a very intense project. The book is 414 pages; over 150,000 words and over 150 images including photos, flyers and record covers. I took some of the photos that are in the book.


There were many things I learned about Jimmy that I hadn’t known. For instance, from 1985 on he wore a toupee. In researching drug addiction, I learned a lot about what can cause someone to become addicted to hard drugs.


I had no idea that he had started becoming bitter regarding Chris Isaak back in the early ‘80s and what was behind that. I learned that it took payola to get “Wicked Game” to get initial airplay on many radio stations. I really knew nothing about his post-Chris Isaak life until I started talking to Jimmy’s friends from the late ‘90s and 2000s. I knew nothing about his relationship with the actress Jennifer Rubin until I spoke to her at length about him.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what impact did it have on Wilsey to play on Chris Isaak's hit song?


A: When I first started working on the book, I came up with the title. To me it made total sense. First of all, Jimmy came up with the guitar intro for the song, and he wrote and played all the electric guitar parts that run through the song.


An instrumental version of the song (essentially Jimmy’s guitar parts and a sampled rhythm) was in David Lynch’s movie Wild at Heart, and an Atlanta music director saw the film and flipped over the instrumental. He went back and saw the film two more times so he could hear the instrumental.


When he got the soundtrack album he discovered that the version of the song on the album had a vocal, and he started programming that version on his station. Because of that airplay, Warner Bros. released the song as a single. Jimmy’s experience in the music business was a “wicked game,” as was his use of drugs and alcohol. A game he lost.


Jimmy had co-founded the second version of Silvertone with Chris Isaak; according to Jimmy, they were partners in the group. Back in 1980 when Jimmy and Isaak met, Jimmy was a local punk star and Isaak was some guy no one in San Francisco knew who came  from Stockton.


But as time went on and Isaak, being Silvertone’s charismatic front man, got all the attention, the power balance shifted and at a certain point Isaak got Jimmy to sign a contract that gave Isaak a lot more of the record sales royalties than Jimmy was to get.


That really bothered Jimmy, but it didn’t really have an impact until nine years later when “Wicked Game” became an international hit. That’s when there was money – a lot of it. Isaak got all the songwriting royalties and most of the record sales royalties. That really upset Jimmy.


Also, and possibly more upsetting to him, he didn’t really get the credit he felt he deserved for writing the guitar intro that made that song a hit. I mean to this day, most people, if they hear the first two notes of that song, they instantly know what they are listening to.


As many have said, Jimmy’s intro is one of the most memorable song intros. Period. Writing and playing that intro put Jimmy into the history books, even if most people who hear that intro have no idea who played it. Of course now they can read my book and find out who played it


Q: The writer Denise Hamilton said of the book, “A riveting biography of a brilliant but doomed guitarist who helped usher in San Francisco punk, played haunted guitar for Chris Isaak, then remade himself as a Downtown LA loftista musician and IT guy before self destructing as a homeless junky. This reads like a classic noir spiral and is hard to put down.” What do you think of that description?


A: I really appreciate it that Denise Hamilton read the book and was nice enough to write that blurb for the back cover. I think it’s totally accurate. Sadly, Jimmy’s life really did play out like a “classic noir spiral,” and many, many people have told me that once they started the book, that couldn’t put it down until they finished it. Jimmy’s story is as dramatic as a fictional tragedy. How it plays out is so sad.


The former Creem magazine managing editor, rock critic and current novelist Robert Duncan wrote:


“Here’s the story of an unsung genius that, in many ways, is the story of every working musician, a cautionary tale of crappy apartments and cool guitars, of untold temptations, abject surrender and the pawnshop at the beginning and end of the arc. It’s a story of youth, beauty and inspiration on the razor’s edge, of love and compulsion, solidarity and betrayal, of a quiet man who played loud. Of a dark song and darker fate. And of San Francisco in the era of the Mabuhay Gardens, $150 rent and Persian Brown. Michael Goldberg’s book about his friend Jimmy Wilsey will give you chills. Not since Ben Fong-Torres’s biography of Gram Parsons (one of Wilsey’s musical forebearers) has there been a more heartrending portrait of a rock star.”


I think Robert Duncan also really captured what the book is about. Jimmy’s story is unique in the details, but in a way it’s the story of what I call “side guys,” musicians who play a critical role backing a singer, contributing to songs, writing key riffs, but don’t get the credit or money that they feel they deserve.


So in a way, to read my book is to learn about both Jimmy and, in a more general way, what the life of the many “side guys” in rock & roll (‘cause most of them are men) is like.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a new book, Addicted To Noise: The Music Writings of Michael Goldberg, being published by Backbeat Books on Nov. 1, 2022. It’s 440 pages and contains the best profiles, interviews and essays that I’ve written during the past 45 years. Rock critic and historian Greil Marcus wrote the foreword.


Artists covered include: Bob Dylan, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, John Lee Hooker, James Brown, Frank Zappa, Neil Young, Sleater-Kinney, Flipper, Crime, Richard Thompson, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Prince, Michael Jackson, Tom Waits, Jolie Holland, Flipper, Robbie Robertson of The Band, Gil Scott-Heron, Rick James, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and others. Also, 40 full page photos including 28 that I took of artists included in the book.


I wrote an intro preceding each piece, which provides some context and background. The book really sums up my lengthy career as a journalist writing about music and musicians. I’ll be helping to promote that book into 2023. I’m really proud of how that book turned out. I worked on it for at least three years.


Many of the stories had not been digitized and I had to a locate a bunch of them. I hadn’t kept copies of everything and we’d moved a number of times over the years. So while it might seem that putting together a collection of mostly previously published articles shouldn’t take that much time, in fact, it took a lot of time.


I wrote one new piece for the book on the very first feminist rock band, Eyes (who only existed for a few years in the early ‘70s), which previous to my essay, had only really been briefly mentioned by Ellen Willis in a piece she wrote for the New Yorker in the early ‘70s.


I located the former lead singer and after some consideration, she decided to speak with me. I’m excited for that story to be published in the book. I also included previously unpublished interviews with Tom Waits and the punk band Flipper.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: In his foreword to my collection of music articles, Greil Marcus wrote about me: “You can feel the atmosphere: someone has walked into a room with a pencil in his hand—as the words go in perhaps the first song about a music critic, not counting Chuck Berry’s aside about the writers at the rhythm reviews—and suddenly people are relaxed. … He isn’t after your secrets. He doesn’t want to ruin your career to make his. He doesn’t care what you think you need to hide. He actually is interested in why and how you make your music and what you think of it. So people open up, very quickly, and, very quickly, as a reader, you’re not reading something you’ve read before.”


I think he’s right. The thing is, I’ve always been interested in music and everything that has to do with music. The musicians, the recording studio, the technology used to make music, the songs, the history, the influences. When I interview a musician or someone who knows the musicians I’m writing about, I’m really interested in what they have to say.


It’s never been a job, it’s really been a calling. I didn’t write about Jimmy Wilsey to make money, I wrote a book about him because I felt I had to write that book. No one else was going to do it, and I was the person best suited to do it. 


Also, I’m donating 25 percent of my royalties to Jimmy’s teenage son Waylon. If someone wants to buy the book, I hope they will order it directly from the publisher, HoZac Books, because that way the most money goes to Waylon,  as well as to myself and the publisher, who is a total music fan, and has a great independent record and book company.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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