Remembering Nick Walusko: 1960-2019

A tribute to Nicky Wonder, cofounder of the Wondermints and guitarist for Brian Wilson, who died this week at age fifty-nine.

“Hey, Dan—it’s Nicky,” the phone calls would always begin. Once that brief formality was dispensed with, though, the conversation would immediately veer off at an unpredictable (and sometimes vertigo-inducing) angle, because Nick Walusko never phoned up just to make small talk. He always had something—and usually, several things—on his mind that he wanted to air out, which could include anything from obscure sitar-stoked 1960s B-sides, to the dubious technology behind Scientology’s “E-Meters,” to random riffs on Charlie Manson or whatever ridiculous conspiracy theory was currently amusing him, to the introduction of some even more ridiculous pun that he’d just come up with. (Nick once described a musician we both knew as a “sumo-intellectual,” because he was “always wrestling with ideas.”) 

Nick had a perverse sense of humor that was as infectious as it was surreal. He once told me that he wanted to outfit his car with a boomin’ bass system—not so he could cruise around the neighborhood blasting block-rockin’ beats, but rather so he could give the world a dose of “Sunshine Girl” by sixties soft-poppers The Parade at skull-crushing, bowel-loosening volumes. I have no idea if he ever followed through on the concept, but I’ve carried that mental image around with me ever since.

Many fans and friends knew him as Nicky Wonder, but I could never bring myself to call him Nicky, since that name struck me as far too juvenile and diminutive for a man of such prodigious knowledge and talent. When I first met Nick in 1994 (at LA’s late, lamented Jack’s Sugar Shack), it seemed like he had already absorbed every note, chord, and melody of every great pop song of the 1960s and 1970s, and could confidently play them for you at will—and always with the perfect guitar tone, thank you very much. The Wondermints, the group he formed in the early ’90s with vocalist/keyboardist Darian Sahanaja, were brilliant at reproducing classic tracks by The Beach Boys, Raspberries, Burt Bacharach, Todd Rundgren, etc.; that’s how they initially caught the ear of Brian Wilson, who of course knew a good thing when he heard it with his one good ear, and summarily drafted them into his band. Their ongoing collaboration not only helped Wilson revive his solo career, but also added considerable credibility to his live performances, enabling the former Beach Boys leader to present his legendary works Pet Sounds and Smile in concert for the first time.

But the Wondermints also made brilliant music of their own, which artfully blended their personal musical obsessions with whimsical lyrical references to everything from forgotten TV shows to astrophysics to overweight prog-rock superstars. This, of course, was not exactly a recipe for blockbuster success in the music biz of the 1990s; Bali, the band’s 1998 masterpiece, was so proudly out of step with the electronica and rap-rock of the day that only small independent labels in the UK and Japan would even consider releasing it. That the Wondermints’ following never really expanded beyond a smallish (albeit international) cult is one of the great injustices of late twentieth/early twenty-first century music history—though also, sadly, a completely predictable one.

Rather than wallow in bitterness over the indifference of the music industry, however, Nick just got on with it, happily drawing strength and validation from the people who did get what he and the Wondermints were up to. I remember how utterly thrilled he was when the band was tapped to write and record a song for the soundtrack to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, a project that couldn’t have been more perfectly suited for a person of his particular pop-cultural tastes. His two-decade tenure in Wilson’s band regularly brought him in contact with legends like Neil Young and Jeff Beck, who seemed to instantly and intuitively grasp that Nick was the “real deal.” But success and recognition did not inflate Nick’s ego; he always seemed as humble and real as he did in the days when the ‘Mints were playing cover sets at an Irish pub in South Pasadena, and all the world travels and brushes with famous musicians just gave him more hilarious stories to lay on you the next time you talked to him. A gifted mimic, Nick could have you in tears with his imitations; even as I write this on the tremendously sad occasion of his passing, I’m laughing out loud thinking about his note-perfect account of Wilson suddenly busting up a pre-show prayer circle with a ribald tale from “back when I was in the mental institution.”

That the Wondermints’ following never really expanded beyond a smallish (albeit international) cult is one of the great injustices of late twentieth/early twenty-first century music history.

When Nick unexpectedly passed away yesterday, at the far-too-young age of fifty-nine, Wilson himself saluted him as “my favorite guitar player ever.” And no wonder—as one friend sagely put it, Nick (with his dapper threads and Mephistophelian beard) not only looked like he could have been a member of LA’s fabled session musician coterie The Wrecking Crew, but he actually played like one, as well. He could certainly wail and burn when the situation called for it, but he also understood how to seamlessly fit his instrument into an ensemble, and (especially) the importance of supporting the song. What he was playing onstage might not have always jumped out at you from the mix, but you would have absolutely noticed something “off” if his guitar had suddenly cut out.

Tragically, Nicky Wonder’s guitar was silenced forever on August 7, 2019, just hours after he landed in Buffalo, NY with his bandmates to begin Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds: The Final Performances Tour. Wilson and band gave their fallen comrade a fitting tribute on the first night of the tour, placing his guitars and amps onstage in their usual positions, with a bouquet of flowers situated on the spot where he would have stood.

Nick Walusko was a true character, a total one-off, and a completely genuine human being. He simply was who he was—I don’t think he’d ever seriously considered any other option—and he lived the life he wanted to live, which is all that any of us can ultimately hope for. It’s just terribly sad for the rest of us that he didn’t get to stick around longer. 

Though Nick’s contributions to Wilson’s solo discography are considerable, you should also honor his memory by seeking out the incredible work he did with the Wondermints, Elliot Easton’s Tiki Gods, and Baby Lemonade frontman Rusty Squeezebox (whose gorgeous 2000 album Isotopes Nick recorded, mixed, and mastered), all of which bear the mark of a truly gifted (and agreeably warped) musical soul. Me, I’m gonna go outside and blast The Parade’s “Sunshine Girl” really fucking loud for a righteous dude whose presence, humor, and kindness I was lucky enough to experience firsthand. Groove on, Commander Walusko; may the next phase of your voyage be the most astounding yet. FL

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