Still Starry-Eyed

Find the Englishman in the British Pub. It’s like playing Where’s Waldo, only with a pint in your hand. It sounds tricky, yet once inside, it’s not as tough as you might think. Studio City’s Fox and Hounds is rockin’ in that Friday night blow-off-steam sort of way, but something is definitely askew. The appearance checks out – the bar’s decked out with the requisite décor of Boddingtons Ale mirrors, Arsenal Football Club flags, plentiful on-tap options of fine English brew.

But looks are deceiving. I didn’t see a crowd entranced by that crucial Division Three matchup between Hull and Cheltenham on any of the many televisions that hover overhead. Instead, it’s all SoCal: Lakers playoff game; Dodgers game; Angels game. And the crowd? Few British accents but plenty of inebriated frat boy types – obnoxious, loud, bellowing in a primitive shorthand of grunts that would require subtitles to understand.

Thus by process of elimination, it was fairly easy to find the person I was looking for. Stood out like a sore thumb, really. He was the one over in the corner with his mates. The guy with the tinted granny glasses, thinning blond mullet, Syd Barrett T-shirt and jeans. Has aging rock bloke written all over him. Except that he was eating nachos instead of bangers.

Ladies and gents, I bring you John Wicks. A man who rode the new wave in England 25 years ago as a principal member of the Records, a criminally unsung band who’ve been described (at least by the All Music Guide) as the British Big Star. But after a three-year run (roughly 1979-82), it was over. Really over. Which may explain why he lives in obscurity in Burbank.

To hear him tell it, obscurity sure beats the hell out of rigor mortis. Though the 51 year old is a card-carrying power-pop deity, Wicks may have more in common with musical elders Barrett, late of early Pink Floyd, and Fleetwood Mac founding guitarist Peter Green. Each was a talented fellow who happened to flip his lid.

John Wicks’ musical career was a blip, a caress with success, largely due to the Records’ “Starry Eyes,” a lovely track that snapped, crackled, and popped with energetic verve and sharp Byrdsian riffs. It receive ample airplay on the cooler radio stations in the U.S. and became the band’s calling card.

After “Starry Eyes,” though, there would be no more hits, no more near misses. Nor would there be any second chances for Wicks in England. By the mid-80s he had been cast aside for younger, newer blood. He was clinging to the Records’ name, drowning in a legal morass, and money was scarce. “If you’re from England and you’ve been around the block, the second time around nobody really cares,” he says matter of factly.

With a self-esteem he admits was low to begin with, the failure proved all too much for the guitarist. And so he went mad. He leans in against the bar, shouting over the noise. “Mentally, I never really came back from it.”

Years were lost, relationships spontaneously combusted. When Wicks finally resurfaced in 1994, he found himself in the U.S., in Arlington, Virginia. “I thought I could put a band together,” he says, which he dubbed John Wicks and the Records, “to see if I was bankable enough to get an agency. Everybody wanted me to play but nobody wanted to pay me real money.

“Many times I wanted to pack it in. In 1998 I came to L.A and tried to record an album and I ran out of money,” he says. With life’s clock pounding away, pragmatism began to rear its ugly head: Wicks began selling real estate in Virginia.

“I did it for a while. I wore the suit and I looked the part, but I just realized it wasn’t me. But I had to find out.”

Now ensconced in middle age, Wicks at last gave in to the muse, this time without strings attached. By the end of the century, he returned to Los Angeles for good.

“Whether I make it -- whatever that means -- isn’t really the point. I’ve got to do music whether I make money or not,” he says. “I still want to write songs, whether they make money or not. I feel like I have something to say. “

These days, Wicks spends most of his time in the studio, working on new Records’ songs, as well as collaborating with Zack Nilsson (Harry’s boy) and Randy Hoffman in an outfit called WHeN.

Without the burden of chasing the brass ring, Wicks is finally comfortable with his lot in life. “I think I’ve wasted too much time being so far down,” he says. “I’m making up for it now. What’s important is that I can write a good song. Never mind if David Geffen is interested. A good song is still a good song.”