Sunday, December 18, 2011

Weird Records I Bought in High School

In my teenage years during the late '80s, I was in a unique historical position to gain knowledge about real alternative music. I was in the right place, at the right time. Before the dawn of the internet, most of the tips I had on strange culture came from solitary research, primarily through various books and magazines. I was glued to reference tomes like the concisely crititcal "Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records" and a bunch of other telephone-book thickness, dry-as-toast books whose titles now escape me. Compendiums of writing by people like Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs also contained big hints and clues as did magazines from the obscure (Forced Exposure, Chemical Imbalance, Butt Rag), middle ground (Option, Alternative Press) and newsstand (SPIN, Rolling Stone). I would spend hours at the public library looking for references to weird bands. If I came up with anything interesting, I immediately jotted it down for future use. I still have several notebooks I started around the age 11 which are devoted exclusively to lists of personnel and their discographies. From this obsessive research I was able to quickly discern a trajectory of development running through many genres of modern music. Instinctually, I was interested in dissonance. I wanted to hear "the wrong notes". I was equally interested in modern classical cacophony, wild free jazz, atonal no wave and anything else that sounded like a total mess. It all made sense to me and I craved hearing as much this stuff as I could find. Most other people were happy with whatever mainstream crap was foisted on them I but I always needed more than that. Luckily I took the initiative to look for it all.

By 1985, I was financially able to start buying a few of my own records here and there. The radio wasn't really cutting it for me anymore. I was too curious about the big universe of the underground scene out there. Luckily my podunk Illinois town had not one, but THREE killer record stores. One of the greatest aspects of record stores during the '80s was the phenomenon of the cut-out bin. Most records have always had a point where they just don't sell anymore, so the label would eventually be stuck with a lot of bulky stock that would never go anywhere. So, the labels would dump their overstock for pennies on the dollar to a cut-out dealer, just to get rid of it all. What this meant was, you could go to any record store - underground or mainstream - and find all these cool, weird sealed LPs for a few bucks that nobody wanted. Nobody, except for me, of course. I remember going into a totally square, corporate chain store in 1989, and buying a Dils live record for a dollar, for example. Hilarious. They didn't know what it was, and certainly didn't care. It was junk that just came in the box from the cut-out distributor as far as the store was concerned. Those were the days!

Trouser Press Guide: MEMORIZED
The 229-CLUB doubled as a very cutting edge place to buy punk records in addition to being a teeny-bopper new wave juice bar. My friends and I would meet there and play SST singles on their jukebox, taking frequent breaks to make fun of the goth wussies dancing to early Ministry or Yaz. Around 1985, I saw the epic 1981 new wave performance film "Urgh! A Music War" and I was blown away by the diversity and uniqueness of all the bands featured in the movie. Even the shitty ones were great! Something about the rawness of the music being performed totally live - watching all these musicians break an actual sweat - connected strongly with me. The highpoint for me was a totally crazed performance by the Cramps. Seeing their battle-scarred, monstrous looking singer Lux Interior lose his mind in front of a frothing crowd of drooling cretins was unlike anything I had ever seen. I immediately went out and bought their first album "Songs The Lord Taught Us" (IRS Records) and devoured it whole. I also spent a lot of time waiting for a specially-ordered copy of the "Urgh!" soundtrack to come in. For a while, 229-CLUB was a dependable source for locating records of bands I saw during those seedy, weary hours of late night cable TV. For example, I paid a paltry $2.99 for a copy of The Residents' twisted "Third Reich and Roll" LP (Ralph Records) after seeing the pioneering video from the album. Nobody else was interested: I just walked into the store and there it was, waiting for me! My first James Chance, Chrome, Eno, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Magazine and Gun Club LPs came from that same lowly, neglected bin. The store also stocked many of the great early ROIR cassette releases by The Contortions, 8-Eyed Spy, Television, Bush Tetras, Glenn Branca Richard Hell, Einsturzende Neubauten and the like. I believe I still have receipts for some of these purchases laying around in the archives. The mere acquisition of some of those records became serious landmarks for me at the time. One year, my grandmother asked me what I wanted for Christmas and sent her with a laundry list: The Birthday Party "Junk Yard", Sonic Youth "Bad Moon Rising" and Lydia Lunch "In Limbo". She did a pretty good job. They didn't have a copy of "Junk Yard", so the clerk recommended "Prayers On Fire" instead. Fair enough. By early 1987 or so, 229-CLUB shut its doors. I remember the last time I went there, after it had downscaled to another smaller location, and I bought a Chrome/Bauhaus videotape from them for a few bucks. It was a bittersweet moment, but luckily there were other places around to suss out.

Another store in my hometown featuring a wider scope of genres was the venerable Appletree Records. One might buy prog, jazz or mainstream rock records there in addition to the punk/new wave stuff. After the decline of 229-CLUB, I quickly installed myself at Appletree as the resident "young kid who knows too much about music". At one point I had typed up a flier featuring a list of records I was dying to hear which politely asked anyone who saw it to make me copies (featuring stuff like John Coltrane's "Ascension", 1/2 Japanese's "1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts", the Mars EP and other crazy shit I had read about). This sheet went straight up on the wall of Appletree Records, however I got no response. Ha ha ha. I was pretty desperate. There were a lot of records you would hear about and just couldn't find, no matter how hard you tried. Those were different times. My first Albert Ayler record (.99 cents!) came from that store as well as slabs by Material, Art Bears, Killing Joke, Lounge Lizards, Dead Kennedys, James Blood Ulmer, Flipper, Last Exit, Blurt, Shockabilly, Johnny Thunders, Pussy Galore and more. I would occasionally special order vinyl there, like the Antilles label stuff (Slits, "No New York", Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society). I remember how psyched I would get when some crazy record I was looking for wound up there by chance. I recall barely containing my excitement when a sealed copy of Ornette Coleman's "Body Meta" surfaced in their bins for $3.99. I was buying all kinds of straight retail stuff there too like Stooges and Captain Beefheart records, early Frank Zappa remaster cassettes on Rykodisc and not-so-hot contemporary releases on the Shimmy Disc and Caroline labels. Give me a break, okay? Back in 1988, you had to buy the new Live Skull record! There was not much else coming out that didn't suck! The store had a lot of weird imports and I now kick myself for not snatching up some of the choice items. I remember finding Essential Logic singles and stuff like that in there for a few bucks a piece, but you couldn't buy it all, especially not on my meager budget. At one point I blew a chance to work there because I was a bit too naive and honest when it came to the "morals and integrity" section of their application. Adolescent note to self: instead of telling the truth, tell your employer what they want to hear when you want to get the job. Check.

The third cornerstone was a bizarre local institution tagged Toad Hall, which was a three-level affair in a house run by a couple of old weirdos, one of which was long rumored to have had a sex-change operation. They sold comics, movie posters, books, porn mags, old board games, video tapes, records - any kind of superfluous collector garbage you wanted/needed. I originally started going there around '84 or so, looking for cheap copies of '60 Jack Kirby Marvel Comics, but eventually realized they had some cool records there also. When I was young, my parents were reticent to let me go in the place alone. It was a bit creepy. I would head there on Saturday afternoons by myself and scour their basement for jems, emptying unlabeled and unpriced boxes of vinyl and spinning whatever I found on their crappy listening station turntables. In '87, I was absolutely dying to hear more James Chance and one afternoon I just waltzed in there, and used copies of the first Contortions and James White and the Blacks records were just sitting there for four bucks each! The musty used record shelves at Toad Hall were where I got some serious back history research done. I was digging out battered old Roxy Music, Hawkwind, Hampton Grease Band, Black Pearl, Last Poets, MC5, Funkadelic, Godz, Blue Cheer, Pere Ubu, Massacre and Material records - you name it. Lester Bangs would have been proud. My serious 8-track collection started there too after finding some '65 Coltrane, King Crimson, Yoko Ono, Beefheart, Mothers of Invention and other cool stuff like that. The real motherlode came in 1988 when I was on the prowl for free jazz. One day a ton of new boxes sat on the front table of the shop. Like a magnet to steel, I was drawn towards them. The jerk who hung around the store acting like he worked there (you know the type), told me to move along and that there would be nothing interesting to me there. I said, "how do you know?" He just smirked. I began to dig through the crates and my eyeballs just about popped out of my skull. Here were hundreds of classic free jazz records, and I had the first dibs! I frantically grabbed a bunch of the gems and sheepishly went to the counter to ask how much I was going to get wallet-raped for them. The guy at the counter, looked them over, shrugged his shoulders and said "four bucks each". I almost passed out from relief. I walked out of there with a clean copy of  Sonny Sharrock's BYG record "Monkey Pockie Boo", a sealed copy of Ornette's "Science Fiction", Don Cherry/Ed Blackwell's "Mu Part One" and Archie Shepp's "Fire Music" for less than 20 bucks. I would be back in that place week after week for years, plunking my chump change on the counter and stocking up on Pharoah Sanders, Anthony Braxton, Paul Bley, Sun Ra, Roswell Rudd, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Jazz Composers Orchestra and that sort of thing. At the time, their normal jazz stacks were full of '70s Miles Davis records too, so I was buying funky used copies of "On The Corner", "Get Up With It" and "Agharta" for a few bucks each. Back then, you couldn't even give those records away. Toad Hall was continually getting in some extremely obscure used items. I don't know how they got there, or who the hell from my town might have bought them the first time around! Two complete mystery records were L. Voag's "The Way Out" and "No Cowboys" by Prag-Vec. I bought both of these because they sounded interesting, but it would take years and years to figure out what they actually were and who they were by. There was very little access to this kind of information back then. Imagine liking a record a lot and not knowing who it was by! That used to actually happen. For years after I left town for college, I would continue to return sporadically to Toad Hall and root through every last nook and cranny looking for one last hidden nugget.
My 1989 NMDS want list. None of these were in stock. EVER.
Another surefire source for underground releases back in the era was mail order. Essentially, one might spy a provocative ad and then send a few bucks or a self-addressed stamped envelope to get some kind of catalog back. I was ordering direct from labels like ROIR (the hallowed cassette-only label), Subterranean Records (home of Flipper and other West Coast noisemakers) and Ralph Records (The Residents, et al.). A lot of the weirder, more non-idiomatic music I was looking for came from tuned-in independent music hubs like Systematic and NMDS. Their catalogs were like bibles to me. I would absorb the descriptions of the groups and their releases, chewing it all up and carefully determining what to send away for with my paltry allowance. You always had to send a big list of alternates to these places and hope you got what you wanted because generally most items went in and out of stock at random. It was always a big kick to get that box of LPs in the mail, opening it and digging through to see what came. Sometimes the distros would even throw in free stuff for kicks. I was ordering early Elliott Sharp records from Systematic for cheap as well as various unknown noise rock stuff. NMDS, founded by Carla Bley and located in New York City, sent me a massive catalog with a Keith Haring cover one year, supplying me with a direct line to bizarre slabs by Ornette Coleman, DNA, Borbetomagus, Kip Hanrahan, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Jayne Cortez, Sedition Ensemble and more. I think the place was bankrupt by '89 or '90, but browsing through their catalog these days, is like scanning a rare records list. Oh, if I had only bought those Arthur Doyle and Milford Graves records when they were only 8 bucks each!

I am glad I came to age in an era which didn't offer instant gratification. I learned how to seriously search for things and also how to truly savor them once they were found. In terms of recorded music in the Western world, these are bygone concepts. Culture is suffering from cracked-out short-attention deficit and it's hard to say if things will ever come back around. It is difficult to convey to younger people the feeling of what it was like to have to be so vigilant and intrepid to locate the music you really wanted to hear . . . the process isn't necessarily superior to how things work now, but it's what I know.


Eric said...

Great! I felt like I was combing through the record bins with ya.

Erick Bradshaw said...

On the money. Nailed it with the cut-out bin angle.