Artist: Gandalf The Grey
Release Date: 1972, Re-release 2003.
Label: Self-released in a print run of 1000. Re-released on Gear Fab Records with 5 bonus tracks.
Artist Info: Chris Wilson, better known to the world as Gandalf The Grey, or even “The Wizard,” started off as just another hippie. He moved to the West Village in New York as a teenager in the mid 1960’s. He brought little with him but love for his fellow man, an innocent spirituality, and a psychedelic gleam in his eye. He ran with the crowd at Columbia records, sharing managers with the group Elephant’s Memory who would later back John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He also played coffeehouses like Cafe Wha?, where he rubbed elbows with the likes of Bill Cosby and The Boss. He started playing around the Village as ‘Gandalf’ around this time, usually complete with robe, pointed hat, and pipe. He would go on to become something of a weird public-access indie TV guru… releasing the first Video Single in the US in 1982, and purportedly inventing the infomercial by sheer accident. (Yep. You can blame the Wiz for those, people.) He still plays music… singles can be found on his website: wizardtv.com.
Album Review: Okay, first of all: if you’re looking for a lot of studio alchemy, complex instrumentation, or the maneuverings of an avant-garde virtuoso, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. The Grey Wizard Am I is no magnum opus of underground psychedelia. The songs are fairly simple, the guitar work is adequate, the vocal style is clean and unburdened without being particularly interesting. The lyrics slide between different levels of competence and cleverness… never quite good enough to really impress but never horrid enough to make fun of. And, of course, with an artist name like Gandalf The Grey, the album is swollen with Lord Of The Rings references… the first three tracks, (“The Grey Wizard Am I”, “My Elven Home”, and “From The Grey Havens”,) are explosions of blatant Tolkienian name-dropping. To top it all off, the whole thing is bathed in low-fi hiss, so that it sounds like you’re listening to the record through a jet engine.
That being said, this album is absolutely brilliant.
It is impossible to fairly review The Grey Wizard without taking a few factors into account, the first being the method of its conception. Gandalf himself describes the recording process of the record on his website: “This album was made on a small Sony stereo reel to reel, one instrument at a time, starting with the drums. After playing an instrument, I would send that music to the other side, and add the next instrument or vocal, going from left to right, until it was completed. I played and sang everything, and recorded it in my bedroom at 57 west 8th Street in Greenwich Village, apt 1a.” In short, the man was a home-recording pioneer. It’s hard for us to appreciate, being in the era of pro-tools… when any jerkoff with a laptop has a mini-studio at their disposal. The pretentious indie rockers of yesteryear look down their noses at digital recordings, touting the skill required to make decent sounding music from home on a 4-track cassette recorder… but Gandalf is a whole other story here. Nobody, I mean nobody, was home-recording in 1972. And with such equipment, a single-track stereo tape, one instrument at a time, layered by switching channels? It’s incredible that he got anything of listenable quality at all.
Listenable it is. Considering his equipment, the mastering on this record is insane. Every instrument is clearly audible, including the bass. The drums, while shallow-sounding, are captured phenomenally well, even with the constant barrage of cymbal. The levels are perfect… the vocals aren’t buried, the guitars aren’t overpowering, the few harmonies are mixed well. Sure, there’s that constant hiss, but we can’t hold it against the Wiz when we consider his technological handicaps. And besides, it adds to the lo-fi mystique of the whole experience.
All well and good, but Lord of the Rings references? Really? Yes. Yes really. This shouldn’t be considered a ‘cheesy’ record, and I’m not touting it for comedic value. We need to take the Wizard thing seriously. Now, once again, there’s history to deal with here: LOTR wasn’t such a geekfest back in the day. Hippies wore ‘Frodo Lives’ buttons, and dropping a nod to Tolkien was kind of a hip thing to do. (As evidenced by Zeppelin.) Not that this was about being cool… Gandalf the Grey was looking to make “pure Elven music,” he played in local coffee-shops with a pointy hat and a backup guitarist billed as ‘Legolas the Elf.’ He did it unironically, and he meant every word he sang. He wholeheartedly saw some deep truth in Tolkien’s work, and he wanted to invoke that in his music. And that might just be the most endearing thing about The Grey Wizard, the sense of earnestness behind it.
The songs on this record are completely free of pretension. And once we move past track three, when the focus of the album shifts thematically away from Middle Earth and toward actual Earth, we come across some really heartfelt tracks. From the ambitious “Here On Eighth Street,” the longest and perhaps the most poignant song on the record, to his ode to an “Old Town Church,” and the insightful “The Home Coming (Sun Is Down)” the Wizard delves into the complexities of human nature with innocent and optimistic candor. Tracks like “Go and See” and “Sunshine Down The Line” are catchy and buoyant without becoming tiresome.
The bonus tracks are a bit more hit-or-miss, b-sides from assorted recording sessions over the years… the sound quality is certainly better, but they do stand out from the rest of the album. “The Future Belongs To The Children” sounds a little tired, and “A Young Girl Just Died” is frankly just painful to listen through. But “An Elven Song Of Love” is a shining jewel of folk-pop, a well-crafted and endearing ditty that you cant help but smile with. Because sometimes in life, all you need to feel good about the world is to listen to a sweet-voiced man in a pointy hat sing about love.
Availability: Forget about the initial release on vinyl. It was a vanity press self-release for his friends and local fans, and supposedly a sealed one is worth about a grand due to rarity. Not on iTunes, not in most record stores. If you’re in New York, keep your eyes peeled on those bargain bins, but aside from a limited stock of the CD on Amazon, the Wizard’s website might just be your best bet on this one.