An unassuming piece of paper with a typewritten paragraph stuck to the front of Kevin Gilbert’s refrigerator in 1996. Titled “The Religion of Awe-ism,” Gilbert summed up his philosophy of life thusly: This thing is way bigger than I or anybody else on this planet can begin to know or comprehend, so we take in what we can, keep rubbing our eyes and trying to take in more of it, understand it when possible, learn from it at our own pace, forgive it and ourselves when we can’t do either, and look forward to death, summer vacation, or eighth grade, whichever comes first.”
For Gilbert, an extraordinary musician, songwriter, producer, and muse, the wonder of the world was more than an errant musing. It was a world he not only inhabited but also created for himself through music and relationships with those close to him. Despite winning a Grammy (for co-writing Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do”) and working with some of the biggest names in music, including Michael Jackson and Madonna, Kevin Gilbert never became a household name. Gilbert’s ex-girlfriend and good friend, Cintra Wilson, theorizes that Gilbert was too talented to be pigeonholed, something that didn’t work well with the music industry. Musician and producer Linda Perry remembers Gilbert’s phenomenal genius: “Kevin was the kind of genius people talked about, but never had the chance to meet. I was very blessed to have worked with him and he blew me away constantly. I remember Bill Bottrell needing cello on a song, and asked Kevin ‘Hey Kevin do you know how to play cello?’ and Kevin replied ‘Well get me one and I’ll try’. Within an hour Bill Bottrell was recording cello with Kevin Gilbert behind the bow.”
Gilbert’s heart was always in the music itself, not the fame surrounding it. In interviews, Gilbert described growing up among many musical influences in San Mateo, California. He began playing the piano when he was ten, perfecting his renditions of Bacharach standards in a house full of John Denver, Seals & Croft, and classical standards. He and his friends sought out underground punk bands in local clubs between spins of the Dead Kennedys. He was talented enough that he would play the piano at his church. There, an acquaintance brought him the Genesis record Fox Trot, which sparked Gilbert’s lifelong love of the band.
There was no question that Gilbert would work in the music industry. He toured with Eddie Money early on in his career and then won the 1998 Yamaha SOUNDCHECK competition with his prog-rock band Giraffe. His SOUNDCHECK appearance caught the attention of Patrick Leonard. Through Leonard, Gilbert joined an eclectic band named Toy Matinee, though they only released one album, Toy Matinee (1990). Gilbert remembered the creation of the album as being “like the Monkees,” with six musicians living in a beach house, drinking, and falling for the same girls. Despite the enthusiasm of the band members, last-minute legal trouble slowed down the album’s release. The release was delayed, there was no promotion because Leonard had moved on to work with Roger Waters, and, inexplicably, many record stores filed the album as religious music.
Throughout the recording of Toy Matinee, Gilbert maintained his focus on his life in music. He named the band after his fear of selling out and ceasing his role as creator to become another producer of mindless entertainment. “I just thought for me that was the metaphor of what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to give up my dream of what ideally I want my work to be and I want the world to view me as. I don’t want to sucked into blowing off and hanging out and watching the puppets dance,” he told Music News Network in January, 1995.
While such efforts may have dulled the enthusiasm of even the most hard-working musician, Gilbert persevered. He was working as a producer and musician on other albums as well as writing music for TV shows and other unknown projects under pseudonyms like “Kevin McThespian.”
In 1992, Gilbert’s greatest fame and betrayal came at once. Gilbert, Bill Bottrell, Brian MacLeod, David Ricketts, David Baerwald, and other musicians began to gather on Tuesday nights to play music and write songs. The nights were as much about partying as they were about music until Bottrell came in with a project: an unknown singer named Sheryl Crow had recorded an album for A&M records, and nobody at the label liked it, despite the $500,000 it cost to produce it. A&M asked Bottrell and Gilbert to help reshape the album, so Crow’s debut album, Tuesday Night Music Club, became the most famous project of the Tuesday Night Music Club. The members of the songwriting club have maintained open hostility towards Crow concerning her part–or lack thereof–in the album’s creation and her attitude towards her collaborators after she achieved success. Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Joel Selvin revealed the depth of the acrimony surrounding Tuesday Night Music Club. In Selvin’s article, “More Than the Piano Player,” David Baerwald notes that they were all equal contributors except Crow, pointedly saying, “She wasn’t one of us. We helped her make a record.” This rift has good reason behind it: as soon as Crow had the master of the album in hand, she told Bottrell that she didn’t want anything more to do with him or the other members. For Gilbert, who had been romantically involved with Crow, the betrayal was biting, even more so since her album was so successful while his first solo album, Thud, went nowhere upon its release. The members of the Tuesday Night Music Club later said that Selvin had quoted them out of context and tried to smooth things over a bit. It is known that Gilbert and Wilson wore funereal clothing to the Grammies the year of Gilbert’s win for his work on Crow’s album, and, after Gilbert’s death, Crow said in one interview that she was not surprised by his untimely passing because he was so deeply disturbed. (Crow declined to comment on Gilbert altogether for this article).
Gilbert had, of course, worked very hard on Thud. Despite his often-jesting persona, it was clear he was always serious about music. He wrote his own biography after being dissatisfied with the record label’s promotional one: “I am an abstract sculptor, a master archer, and a ruthless bookie. I once engineered sessions for Michael Jackson and unknowingly offered him a bite of my hot dog. I own many of Burt Bacharach’s instrumental recordings and periodically annoy the neighbors by playing them at a high volume. I sleep only fifteen minutes a night and do so standing up. It is not true that I performed covert operations for the CIA. I think Peter Gabriel was a brilliant artist until he underwent EST training. I am an unselfish lover, an investor in the Chinese stock market, a rabble-rousing herd boy, and an inspiration for freedom fighters everywhere. My dad was a respected physicist, and I changed my name from Kelvin. Children trust me. After one listen, I can play any song on several instruments. I do not own a television or a blues record. I was the lead singer and chief songwriter of Toy Matinee. I can make extraordinary four course meals using only a spatula and a toaster oven. I believed in and voted for Clinton. I have performed open heart surgery, and I have spoken to Elvis. But I have never released a solo record.”
One of the themes on Thud was Gilbert’s justified hostility towards the record industry. In fact, he almost titled the album “Radio Hostile” to spurn the radio-friendly desires of most record labels. True to Gilbert’s eclectic style, Thud contained a variety of styles, often within a single song. “The one your readers will like is called “Shadow Self”. It’s an essay on the dark side of human nature. Does that sound pretentious? It’s like seven minutes long and I went nuts production-wise. I just wanted train wrecks of styles, so like every eight bars it changes styles dramatically, instrumentation dramatically. There’s acoustic guitar and then this hip-hoppy bass part and a male choir of vikings singing at the same time. Then there’s out of context things where a really sweet sounding flute is against these very punk drums because I like the clash of style. That’s my favorite track in an adventurous sort of way. There are also some very personal songs on there, one called ‘Song for a Dead Friend’ that I wrote about a really good friend of mine who killed himself a couple of years ago. There’s not production on it, it’s just piano and vocal. It’s pretty long and I haven’t done that before either,” Gilbert excitedly told the Music News Network. The album was more than a continuation of Gilbert’s own mission; he had hopes of it changing music as well. In the aforementioned Music News Network interview, he explained, “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” 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. That’s all.”
Gilbert fan Thomas Symczak remembers the intimacy and broad range of the album: “Thud was about as personal and revealing as an album gets. There seemed to be an extreme if not oppressive sadness and futility that permeated that album. The first song “When You Give Your Love to Me” is about as happy as it gets, though I got the impression that the object of his desire needed some convincing. From there the album ranges from satirical (Joytown) to melancholy (Song for a Dead Friend) to surrender (Goodness Gracious).
Even though Thud barely made a pin-drop in the music world, Gilbert was still drawing attention and expanding his career. He briefly re-formed his band Giraffe to perform the Genesis album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. This performance was so convincing that, at the time of his death, Gilbert was slated to audition to replace Phil Collins in Genesis.
While music was Gilbert’s lifeblood, it was not all of his life. The humor he often revealed in interviews was complemented by a much darker private side, perhaps a manifestation of a bipolar diagnosis he once received. Gilbert’s friend Pat Terrell remarked that Gilbert acquired a reputation for being inconsistent and unpredictable, sometimes disappearing for a week. While Wilson knew of Gilbert’s profound sadness, most of the recollections she shared in her popular Salon.com column “The Awful Truth” are dizzying memories of a deep love. She tells of the couple turning restaurant tables sideways to reduce the space between them, taking hallucinogens to re-enact the love scenes they had seen sea otters perform at the zoo, and watching I, Claudius and The Singing Detective over and over in bed, holding hands and eating pancakes.
Wilson and Gilbert even shared a psychiatrist. It was this psychiatrist who made a call Wilson never wanted to receive. On May 17, 1996, Gilbert was found dead in his home. His manager, Jon Rubin, had stopped by to tell Gilbert that he had an audition with Genesis. Looking through the windows, he saw that something was terribly wrong. The days after Gilbert’s death were full of confused coverage, when there was coverage at all. In an attempt to maintain Gilbert’s dignity, some early reports cited various natural causes before the truth of his accidental auto-erotic asphyxiation came out.
Those who knew Gilbert have anything but forgotten him, and they are still working to introduce him to a new generation through his music, released and otherwise. Gilbert’s second solo album, The Shaming of the True, was released posthumously. Rubin and others established the Kevin Gilbert Memorial Foundation, which provides musical instruments and scholarships to talented musicians in need. (The foundation can be reached at 213-413-4042 for information on contributions). Tribute websites in Gilbert’s memory are full of moving eulogies from those who knew him and strangers who were touched by his music alike. Symczak laments, “I feel sad that he wasn’t with us longer. That perhaps was a selfish sentiment; because he had so much to offer and I wanted to hear more so I could have someone with which I could identify, but also because perhaps it was a life unresolved. Maybe it was meant to be that way and he knew it. His lyrics overall seemed to be at terms with the absurdities of life and that not everything ties itself up in a nice neat bow.” There is, in fact, an absurdity to Gilbert’s early passing. A musical genius passed into silence, the news barely making a sound, but the echoes ring on forever.