In that lull between Xmas and New Year’s, I check out the list of beauty makers–and musicians, especially–who have departed over the previous 12 months. While it might seem a dreary exercise, it’s actually just the opposite: reading about Aretha Franklin, Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks, and James (“Jimmy”) Calvin Wisley, the long-time guitarist for Chris Isaak, provides a more moderate cadence of thinking and memory than, say, reading the headlines of The New York Times. The memory part can really be happy-making, too, especially if I have even a tenuous connection to a new addition to Aretha Franklin’s choir in the great beyond.
Just about 33 1/3 years ago (July 1986), my friend Rob M. and I drove two hours to see Chris Isaak and band at the Keystone Palo Alto. I was still 17, and Chris and co. took the stage around 1130pm, so it’s unlikely it was an all-ages show, and I have no idea how we got past the doorman.
The band were working on material for the 2nd LP, which was still six months away from release. Chris told stories about his boxing days in Japan, and the coincidental re-release of Elvis ’56, which he played incessantly in his hotel room. (That gorgeous nose of his has plenty of healed cartilage within it.) One day, while walking the halls looking for the ice machine, he heard his cleaning lady, who didn’t speak a word of English, singing a pitch-perfect version “Heartbreak Hotel.”
He also told a story about Jimmy, who he reported was just a kid, but they were both nearly 30 at this point. Jimmy, he noted, regularly showed up at practice with sharp new clothes, maybe a new guitar, and it piqued Chris’s curiosity. He knew Jimmy couldn’t afford new gear based on Chris’s payroll alone. So Chris visited Jimmy one time at his
apartment and, upon entering, asked Jimmy, “Jimmy, where did you get all this stuff?” And, Chris recalled, “Jimmy replied, ‘I get my stuff from chicks.'” (It was a different era.) “Jimmy,” Chris replied, “this looks like a dangerous game, man. You got all these women, giving you expensive gifts. At some point, you’re going to have to pay them back. You’re going to owe them some kind of love”–and, of course, then they launched into “You Owe Me Some Kind of Love,” which ended up as the opening track of their sophomore LP. The band also played a handful of Spanish love ballads, which allowed Chris to show off his impressive vocal chops (which were seemingly unaffected by his post-boxing nose). Chris, too, told a handful of other stories that I’ve long forgotten. The Keystone was a regular stop on their ascent to pop stardom, and–at the time–we understood that night to be the final show at the Keystone, which closed its doors shortly thereafter. (It seems John Cale played the final Keystone show a month later.)
When the self-titled LP came out that December, Tower Records in Stockton had a beautiful wall collage composed of copies of the cover image. To claim dibs on wall displays, you simply needed to be the first to ask. So I asked, but the cashier told me, “Well, Chris’s Mom asked for it.” “But of course,” I replied. Chris’s Mom still lives in Stockton.
I saw Chris Isaak two more times, maybe, in the next couple of years, and “Funeral in the Rain” never made it to a live set list. I don’t know if he’s ever played it live, but it was long my favorite track on his debut LP.
RIP Jimmy C. Wilsey, a man who knew how to make the strings — and allegedly the women — tremble.