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All Rocked Out

Death of a Star: Kevin Gilbert, who launched his music career in the clubs of the South Bay, died in his home near Los Angeles at the age of 29.

From writing songs for Sheryl Crow to auditioning as Phil Collins' replacement, South Bay musician Kevin Gilbert could do almost anything, except get the recognition he deserved

By Richard Sine

MTV DID a gossipy report on its news show. The Associated Press wrote it up. And the L.A. music scene knows all about it. But in the South Bay, where Grammy winner Kevin Gilbert grew up and first made his name in the music business, his death caused barely a ripple. The San Jose Mercury News buried a few cursory paragraphs on Gilbert on its obituary page.

Some of his friends think that oversight is a shame.

"What upset me the most is [that] this guy, with this much talent and all these connections, was our shining star," recalls former KOME DJ Greg Stone about his friend. "He was gonna make it out of this town, and make it big."

Gilbert, 29, died at his home outside of Los Angeles on May 18. The coroner listed the cause of death as "asphyxia due to partial suspension hanging."Friends and MTV more explicitly reported the cause as autoerotic asphyxiation.

The tall and good-looking Gilbert grew up in San Mateo, where he attended Serra High School. After spending a year at UCLA, Gilbert moved to Sunnyvale, where he formed the prog-rock band Giraffe, which played gigs at clubs around the South Bay, including the Oasis and the Cabaret.

After spending some time entrenched in the South Bay music scene, Gilbert moved to Los Angeles in 1989, where he established himself on the fringes of a much larger music scene. Gilbert wrote songs for Sheryl Crow, engineered a single for Michael Jackson, and helped to write Madonna's songs for the Dick Tracy soundtrack. Friends say he had a great deal of talent but just kept missing the brass ring--always working for big stars but never quite capturing the spotlight on his own.

"Kevin could do anything," says Cintra Wilson, a playwright and columnist who lived with him. "The problem was finding a niche for himself. People kept trying to pigeonhole him, but his work was totally non-derivative. The music industry doesn't have a use for people who are that original."

IN MUSIC history, Gilbert may become best known as the man who discovered Sheryl Crow, who scored multiple Grammies for her catchy 1994 album Tuesday Night Music Club. Crow was an unknown when she auditioned to be a keyboardist with Gilbert's band Toy Matinee, which also featured lead guitarist Mark Bonilla of Walnut Creek.

According to Pat Terrell, a fan of Gilbert's who became a good friend, Crow and Gilbert dated for about two years. During that time Gilbert joined in a weekly jam session known as the "Tuesday Music Club." Eventually, the Music Club started writing and recording for Crow.

Crow named her album after the group and described it lovingly in the disc's liner notes. But Gilbert did not tour with Crow, and friends say the two parted on less than cordial terms. "The relationship started to go south as soon as the Tuesday Music Club started recording for Crow," says Terrell. "No doubt part of it was jealousy. A&M was pouring millions into the project, and he was essentially blackballed."

Terrell and Stone claim that Gilbert actually wrote most of the songs on the album that are credited to Crow and four other members of the Music Club. "You can tell from listening to Giraffe or Toy Matinee that those are Kevin's songs," claims Stone.

Terrell says the other musicians and Bill Bottrell, the producer, demanded a writing credit, and thus a share of the royalties, in order to participate in the project. "Kevin was willing to surrender his stake at the time because he had no idea the album would be such a huge success."

Terrell adds, "Kevin saw it as an example of how people can change after a huge success. The Tuesday Music Club went from a bunch of people getting together to jam on Tuesday to a corporate machine in which he was steamrolled, as were many others. He watched A&M throw millions at this album, almost to turn it into a hit. He realized the record companies could turn who they want into superstars."

Stone also says that Crow betrayed Gilbert with her own record company. "When Sheryl Crow hit it big, Kevin realized he had to get his own record deal," explains Stone. "He realized he could walk into A&M and say, 'These are my songs.' But she told them that she was just being nice to everyone by mentioning him in the liner notes. She said he didn't have anything to do with these songs. That pissed him off and got him depressed."

A publicity person at A&M Records in Hollywood said Crow had no comment on Gilbert's death.

Ultimately, Gilbert received a Grammy for co-writing Crow's smash hit "All I Wanna Do." Terrell says that at the time he had gone into serious debt to build his own studio, to the point that he lived in it on a mattress. The royalties from Crow's album helped him find a place to live, and he began working on his own career.

Gilbert released a solo album, Thud, which fared poorly on a small label. At the time of his death, he was working on an album with ex­4 Non Blondes singer Linda Perry. Terrell says he had also completed an album with a group called Kaviar and a concept album about "a boy from the sticks who goes to the big city to become a rock star."

Gilbert was a big fan of the rock group Genesis when it was headed by Peter Gabriel, and wowed crowds with his performance of Genesis covers. According to friends, he was scheduled to fly to London the week after his death to audition to replace Phil Collins in the seminal prog-rock group.

Wilson says that Crow played only a minor role in Gilbert's life. "He did a lot of commercial stuff because it was extremely lucrative. He was in such demand, a real Renaissance man. He could pick up any instrument and just start playing it."

Terrell says Gilbert had a moody streak that led to frictions with the big studios. He says Gilbert had been diagnosed as a manic-depressive. "He could be several people in one. He had his goofy side, his intense, perfectionist side, his manic genius side. Other times he would just disappear for a week. Many people in the music business ultimately gave up on working with him because of his inconsistency. When he was looking for a record deal, the word got around that he was more trouble than he was worth. But I think anybody with raw genius has that."

"He always seemed just on the outside," Terrell says of his friend. "He could always get work, but could never break through completely for himself. It was frustrating for him to always be on the edge of success."

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From the August 1-7, 1996 issue of Metro

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