Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey By Michael Goldberg, 414 pgs.

Sep 22, 2022

James Calvin Wilsey (Jimmy from here on out, as he was to his friends, family, and bandmates) had two important musical lives before finally succumbing to the heroin addiction he had fought on and off for decades. As the bassist for seminal San Francisco first generation punks The Avengers, he helped write the music for anthems like “We Are the Ones” and “I Believe in Me” and played the infamous show where they blew the Sex Pistols off the stage in front of six thousand people. After that, he met a teenage singer who shared his affinity for old country, rockabilly, and surf and they set out to make a retro band with a modern coolness. That young singer was Chris Isaak and they ended up touring the world for just over ten years together.

Four hundred-plus pages is a lot for even the most storied musician’s biography, so I was a little worried about how well Goldberg would be able to hold the thread together for someone whose discography is rather thin. Well, my fears were unfounded, as Goldberg has crafted a fascinating and heartbreaking portrayal of a man who was complicated, frustrating, hilarious, charming, and also played guitar for a living. This is not terribly surprising as Michael Goldberg was a head writer at Rolling Stone for a decade and has written for Creem, NME, Trouser Press, and a host of others, plus he was friends with the subject for decades.

The strongest parts of the book concern the growth of Wilsey and Isaak’s band, Silvertone, from opening act to major venue headliner (now billed as Chris Isaak only, of course). Goldberg argues convincingly that the main impetus for that success was David Lynch using the instrumental version of “Wicked Game” in Wild at Heart, starting an incredible run up the charts for the album version of the single, and effectively insuring Chris Isaak would become a star.

Jimmy never felt he got proper credit, or financial compensation, for this and the greatest achievement he made in music also became the catalyst for his deepening depression, drug use, and eventually quitting Isaak’s band. Isaak and Wilsey make a classic odd couple, one dead sober and ambitious, one sly, clever, in love with guitar tones and chasing the dragon, and their dynamic is the most compelling in the book.

So, even if you’ve never heard the Avengers, or, like me, you could go the rest of your life without hearing “Wicked Game” again after living through the ’90s, pick this one up. Michael Goldberg keeps you invested and rooting for him until the very end, even if you already know the inevitable is going to happen. –Justin Bookworm (Hozac Books, hozacrecords.com/books)

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