presents... Interesting Motherfucker: (noun)
An individual exhibiting such uniqueness or individuality that he or she will cause a roomful of bar cronies to exclaim, "That's one interesting motherfucker!" Actual sexual relations with one's mother are not required.

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Kevin Gilbert

By Wil Forbis
Kevin Gilbert was a rock musician from southern California who worked in several projects during the late eighties and nineties. He was a skilled performer who could capably play many instruments (primarily keyboards), sing, and write dense, multi-layered compositions that offered catchy pop hooks spliced together with nuanced musical elements. In addition to writing and producing his own projects, Gilbert did production and songwriting work for musical stalwarts such as Madonna, Michael Jackson, Sheryl Crow and Eddie Money.

Kevin Gilbert was also... Ok, I hear the snickering out there so I guess there's something I should get out of the way right now. Some of you are saying, "Waitasec! Isn't Gilbert one of these dudes who killed himself by autoerotic asphyxiation? Like he was wanking it while choking himself and it all went bad? Ha!" Sigh... yes, by all accounts this is true. But if you only think of Gilbert as a guy who jerked himself off to death then you are missing the much bigger and more important story.

As I write this article, I am presuming that most of my readers are unfamiliar with the career of Kevin Gilbert and that's just plain sad; few people were more deserving of a successful turn in the music industry. Gilbert had the talent, skills, music philosophy, intellectual lyrics, stage presence (and good looks) that are often precursors to fame and fortune. Additionally, during his twenties, he built up a track record of composing great music. However, for a variety of reasons, Gilbert never got his big break and never became a household name.

Gilbert's music career started early. He was barely into his twenties when he was touring and recording with pop rocker Eddie Money (and this is back when touring with Eddie Money actually meant something.) A short while later he joined in the formation of the synth-prog project, Giraffe. Giraffe recorded two cds and won the 1988 Yamaha Soundcheck competition, beating out thousands of other bands. (Interestingly, the first Giraffe album was the first ever independently pressed music CD, kicking off a trend that tens of thousands of bands would participate in during the coming decades.)

The music of Giraffe was quite good and expertly produced by Gilbert. It did have a certain 80's synth-pop sheen that might not appeal to some listeners and it didn't have the gravitas of Gilbert's later work. That said, it was far beyond the abilities of most twenty-something musicians. At that point, Gilbert's future in the music industry appeared bright.

The video for Toy Matinee's "Last Plane Out"

That future became even brighter when Patrick Leonard - a musician and producer best known for working with a mildly successful singer known as Madonna - approached Gilbert about forming a band. This ultimately led to a project called "Toy Matinee" which featured Gilbert as a co-songwriter and vocalist. The group released an eponymous* album in 1990 and two singles from the album---"Last Plane Out" and "The Ballad of Jenny Ledge"---charted respectably on Billboard.

* I'd like to point out that this sentence allows me to fulfill a lifelong dream of using the word "eponymous" in its correct usage.

The Toy Matinee album was how I first heard of Gilbert and his music. (Gilbert co-wrote the TM songs with Patrick Leonard so they both deserve credit for the album's sound.) A friend played it for me while demonstrating his stereo and the song "Last Plane Out" immediately caught my ear. It had the candy sheen of a top forty hit but was slightly askew, utilizing unusual harmonic material and interweaving melodies one might expect to find in jazz and classical music. (Gilbert was influenced by the masters of jazz-pop, Steely Dan.) The rest of the album followed a similar formula, combining catchy songs (that - I should be clear - were not afraid to rock!) with a certain musical eeriness, a dark melancholy.

Front and center on "Toy Matinee" was Gilbert's lyrical persona. He had a sardonic wit and crafted verse that intrigued the ear even when its meaning was not always obvious. It was clear from the lyrics that Gilbert had a focus on the dark side of life, a resigned fatalism that would only get blacker during the coming years.

The Toy Matinee project never really took off and after a few incarnations it disbanded. Bruised by the ups and downs of the music industry, Gilbert began taking part in a "just for the fun of it" music project called the Tuesday Night Music Club. The TNMC was a gathering of skilled musicians who would converge weekly to jam and write music. At some point Gilbert began bringing his then girlfriend to the events. The young lady was a former backup singer for Michael Jackson named Sheryl Crow.



Kevin Gilbert and Prog Rock
Part of Gilbert's challenge as a musician was that he was playing music derived from the genre known as progressive rock. According to most rock critics (whom are slightly less intelligent than most lobotomized gibbons (smell worse too)) prog-rock is lower than radioactive feces in terms of art. This built in disinterest from the hipster crowd didn't help Gilbert's attempts to build a career.

I would really call Gilbert's music "post-prog," a genre I take to include the 80s output of former prog rockers like Roger Waters and Peter Gabriel. Post-prog took the musical sophistication of straight progressive music and combined it with the conciseness, even minimalism, of pop (while often tossing in a World music vibe as well.) This kind of sound can be clearly heard on Gilbert's last two solo albums: "Thud" and "The Shaming of the True."

Gilbert commented on the challenges of bringing prog to the masses.

"What I'm trying to do is, and I'm actually consciously trying to do this, is de-stigmatize progressive music by integrating it with things that I do that are not progressive and that are largely considered to be a good idea in 1994. Where as progressive music is not generally considered to be a very good idea. By throwing in a song like "Shadow Self" in with some of these other songs that are going to go straight to KROQ and the credibility that working on Sheryl Crow's record gives what I do, it introduces a whole contingent of people to the fact that music can be more than just fashion or more than just anger."

The story of what happened between Crow, Gilbert and the rest of the music club is controversial and burdened with steaming acrimony and confusing allegations. It's clear that the result of those jam sessions was the creation of Sheryl Crow's 1993 hit album aptly titled "The Tuesday Night Music Club." What's less clear is whether people were fairly acknowledged and compensated for their contributions to the album. Several of the music club members allege that Crow used them as songwriters and performers and then dismissed them when she had a hit record on her hands. Bass player Dan Schwartz once stated, "I add Sheryl Crow to a long list of people in Hollywood who told me they were my friend until they got what they wanted from me." Crow's take on the events has - to my knowledge - never been presented but one can assume she recalls things differently. Gilbert did get a co-writer credit on two of Crows biggest early hits - "Leaving Las Vegas" and "All I Wanna Do" - but the whole episode led him to take an even darker mindset about a music business that promised so much but failed to deliver. This bleak view would be heard on his final albums.

As Crow's album sailed up the charts Gilbert focused on his own solo album, titled "Thud" (which, as many have noted, described the sound upon its release.) On "Thud" a different Kevin Gilbert was heard. Gone was the power pop of the Crow songs or the ultimately affirming synth-pop of the Giraffe albums. The melancholy and harmonic sophistication of the Toy Matinee albums remained but combined with a darker flavor reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails. While "Thud" was certainly an accessible album and a pleasure to listen to it was not happy music. It was a great album that the public failed to take notice of*.

* Another project worth mentioning from this phase of Gilbert's career was a heavy industrial project titled "Kavier." Unfortunately I've only heard a few songs from the album and can't offer much commentary on it.

"Thud's" lack of success did not snuff out Gilbert's desire to make music. In 1995 he began working on the album "The Shaming of the True." It would ultimately be released in 2000 though Gilbert wouldn't be alive to see it.

"Shaming..." is an example of what some view to be the height of pretension for rock and roll: a concept album. It starts with the rise of an honest and hopeful musician named Johnny Virgil and culminates in his eventual destruction at the hands of the music industry machine. It's a trite story - no doubt about it - and Gilbert broadcasts his grievances a little too loudly. I'd say the album could be ignored if it didn't have absolutely fantastic music. Unlike "Thud" and the Giraffe albums, "Shaming..." has a very organic feel. Keyboards are present but held in check, allowing acoustic piano, acoustic and electrical guitars and drums to breath. Gilbert's compositional abilities were at their peak on the album; he combined the unpredictability of progressive music - such as that created by his heroes, the theatrical art rockers, Genesis - with a creamy, dreamy kind of production that would not be ill-placed on a Norah Jones album.

Several tunes stand out. The second cut, "The City of the Sun" is unapologetic prog-rock, cinematic in its scope. It starts out on propulsive dark funk groove before taking flight towards Zeppelin riffology, half time acoustic gloom and warped a cappella. The ambitious "Suit Fugue (Dance of the A&R Man)" takes the fugue - a music form that had its heyday in the era of J.S. Bach - and makes it relevant (and comical.) The hard rocker "Certifiable #1 Smash" lampoons the music industry's vapid pursuit of hits. The emotional high point of the album comes with "A Long Day's Life," a seven minute long prog-rock ballad of lost hopes and crushed dreams.

Kevin Gilbert succeeded in recording "The Shaming of the True," but died by his own hand in an admittedly stupid way before it was mixed and mastered. The album was then assembled into a cohesive collection by engineer John Cuniberti who used Gilbert's rough mixes as guide and filled in unfinished sections with material from live shows. Thanks to Cuniberti's herculean efforts, a dead man's masterpiece earned a second chance at life and is earning new fans today.

When one reviews Gilbert's ouvre, one is plagued with nagging questions. How could someone with all of Gilbert's talents fail to become a household name? If genius of this level doesn't have a shot, how can anyone hope to? I think a lot of things damned Gilbert's effort. Certainly, the ego-driven insanity of the music industry deserves its share of the blame. And timing was against him. He was creating sophisticated, complex and richly melodic music during the grunge era - precisely when such elements were not appreciated. (Indeed, they were openly condemned as signs of pretense and corporate deference.) But Gilbert's biggest obstacle was probably himself. His lyrics speak of a fatalist streak, a "shadow self" (to use the title of one of his own songs) that would not allow him to be happy. He had high expectations of the world and life and fought bitterly when the tides turned against him. As he sang in the song "Waiting" off "Thud": "I am waiting for love to come... I am waiting for wonder to return."

Maybe he got tired of waiting.

Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at

View Wil's Acid Logic web log, a stirring endorsement of sex with pandas!

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Additional Kevin Gilbert Material:

Tons of Gilbert Music and Info:
A web forum page with dozens of Gilbert You Tubes plus bio info. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

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The fans speak out.

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