A Life's Story
September 11, 2021
Rock 'n' roll force of nature
Colourful, dazzling, charismatic Winnipeg-raised Vancouver performer Gerry-Jenn Wilson was one of a kind
By: Jen Zoratti
Gerry-Jenn Wilson was, to borrow a line from the Rolling Stones, like a rainbow.
As the Winnipeg-raised veteran of the Vancouver music scene and the colourful frontwoman for dozens of bands — including the incendiary Vancouver punk outfit JP5 — Gerry-Jenn Wilson was commanding, bold and bright, lighting up every and any room she was in.
"So much charisma without even trying," recalls her JP5 bandmate and longtime friend Ligaya Fatima. "Just absolutely naturally gifted with whatever that touch of the universe is."
The ballad of Gerry-Jenn Wilson was cut short when she died, suddenly and tragically, on March 30 at the age of 52, after a fire ripped through her home in Maple Ridge, B.C. Her father suspects, but can’t be sure, that she may have gone back inside for her dog. Gerry-Jenn almost always had a dog.
Her life was colourful from the start. Gerry-Jenn was born on Christmas Eve, 1968, in Guelph, Ont. A few months after she was born, her father, former MLA Bob Wilson, was invited to Toronto by an old flame who, as it turned out, had some life-changing news to share: she’d had a baby, and the baby was his. It was decided Gerry-Jenn would be raised by her dad, so Bob brought his tiny daughter home to Winnipeg.
"When Dad returned to Winnipeg with me, the news made quite a splash," Gerry-Jenn wrote in a scrapbook-style memoir she had begun assembling before she died. "He organized the largest, and most likely the first all-male baby shower in Winnipeg’s history!"
It wasn’t long before Bob married the woman Gerry-Jenn would consider her mother: Charlene Rizok, an elementary school teacher who bore a striking resemblance to Nancy Sinatra. It was a happy time. Gerry-Jenn was a well-liked, gregarious little girl who made friends easily, a natural-born entertainer with a big imagination.
"Jenn would hold circuses and carnivals and all these kinds of things in the front yard," Bob recalls. "That was her joy." Her beloved childhood dog, a gentle giant of a St. Bernard named Junior, figured prominently in all of her schemes; at her fridge-box fairs, Junior would take kids for a ride for 25 cents. Their home in Armstrong Point was a meeting place, always filled with neighbourhood kids.
It was an idyllic childhood, until it wasn’t. Charlene and Bob split up — though Charlene would remain in Gerry-Jenn’s life — and, in 1980, Bob was convicted on drug conspiracy charges in a high-profile case that ended his political career and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Gerry-Jenn always maintained her father’s innocence and wrote a song about it called The Ballad of Bob Wilson.
Still, she thrived during her years at Kelvin High School, where her punk-rock identity was beginning to assert itself. "I think you will find out that she had quite a presence," her father says affectionately.
In 1986, when she was 17, she netted her first sizable feature in the Winnipeg Free Press for the zine she’d founded, Psychobelia — a gritty chronicle of the local music scene. But Gerry-Jenn was never meant to observe from the pit. She was meant to be onstage.
She travelled. She picked up the guitar. And then, in 1992, she loaded up her feather boas, amps and guitars and headed west to Vancouver, where she was roommates with another Winnipeg-turned-West Coast musician, Bif Naked.
While Gerry-Jenn played in more bands than can be mentioned in this space — beginning with Hypnotic Wail in Winnipeg — JP5, which formed in 1995, was likely the most influential of her projects.
Fatima, JP5’s bassist, remembers the first time she met Gerry-Jenn. Fatima had just learned how to play the bass, and JP5’s James Brander, who knew her through the scene, asked her if she "wanted to join a real band." Gerry-Jenn went over to Fatima’s apartment to see what she could do.
"She walked in and she’s like, maybe four-foot-eight, just covered in really cool, funky jewelry — she had this necklace that she wore, and I actually got one to match it, that was this little revolver," Fatima recalls. "She was covered in glitter, she was wearing sparkly, high-heeled cowboy boots, the whole nine yards. This glitter whirlwind comes in and sits down in my living room."
They ended up spending the next 12 hours together, going over every song Gerry-Jenn knew. The pair had an instant connection that would ignite a lifelong friendship.
JP5 toured all over North America — including a gig at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas — and put out one album, Hot Box, released in 1999 via Sudden Death Records, the Vancouver punk imprint founded by D.O.A. frontman Joe Keithley. Life on the road was certainly not easy; Fatima recalls having to finish out a tour travelling illegally in the back of a U-Haul after their van broke down, but Gerry-Jenn was in her element. (Her dad even went to a few shows, though "not the real noisemakers," he admits.)
"We’ve gotten into all sorts of trouble," Fatima says with a laugh. "Honestly, there’s nothing subtle about Gerry-Jenn — in the best of ways but also if you’re trying to, like, not get caught, there’s nothing subtle about her at all. But you just love her because she was the real deal. And anyone, no matter who they were and what they did for a living — or whether or not they went into punk rock or art or anything — would absolutely be able to see that."
Peter Lipskis is a Vancouver filmmaker and longtime friend who has been documenting Gerry-Jenn and JP5 for years, including a six-hour opus called JP5: For True Fans Only. "She sometimes referred to me as her manager, and I would say jokingly, but also seriously, that she was unmanageable," he says with a laugh.
The first time he saw JP5, he was actually there to film another band. But it was that Gerry-Jenn Wilson intensity that drew him in like a magnet. "She was a one-woman three-ring circus," he says. She revived his interest in rock bands.
"She had an incredibly powerful personality in all situations, fighting to triumph over adversity, even on her last day when we spoke on the phone," Lipskis says.
Fatima and Gerry-Jenn were still pals and collaborators in the years after JP5 stopped touring, working on a pile of projects together — things they’d still be doing if Gerry-Jenn had more time. She dazzled, and then she was gone. Like a rainbow.
"It’s like this energy comes to this planet and you’re like, ‘I should be so lucky to share the path with you for 25 years,’" Fatima says. "And that’s how I feel about it. I think everyone knows her and loved her feels the same way."