Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Booting 2002

FROM THE ARCHIVES, MAR. 22 - This originally ran in Punk Planet 54.


Timing’s always the thing with this column. I’m writing from mid-November 2002, six weeks before my record label gets the boot from Mordam Records. My assumption that all readers of this magazine are familiar with Mordam – its wooly integrity, its history – is probably inaccurate. Mordam is, after all, only a distributor, a backstage player. I’ve long been awed by the availability of bottled Frappucinos in every gas station in America, but I couldn’t for the life of me name the corporation that works this magic (perhaps I should find out in the next six weeks). So I will say that Mordam is the 16-year old music company that, starting with Alternative Tentacles and MRR and $1000, has risen to eminence as the most revered independent record distributor in the world. I should add that, for reasons of propriety, I’m not supposed to be mentioning my discharge publicly until after the fact. So this column has the chintzy gloom of Yul Brenner’s posthumously aired anti-smoking commercials, a bit of kvetching from the past.

This would certainly be the appropriate place to start complaining bitterly over the split. Such complaints would be following in a grand tradition. I can count a half dozen labels, magazines and ex-employees that have felt the need to vent their bottled spleen along these lines. MRR’s Tim Yohannon and Hit List’s Jeff Bale both took regular potshots at their own distributor. Lefty Hooligan, a hapless, middle-aged communist who ran accounting at Mordam for a great many years, sent several anonymous emails to all the labels after he was fired, urging them to jump ship. Just this last year I received a more somber and signed mass mailing from one of their ex-employees, angered at Mordam’s decision to carry a label with links to GG Allin (over the issue of Allin’s sexual assault & torture of the employee’s cousin - a fair plea, yet a confusing one; like the Sept 11 hijackers, GG has placed himself beyond prosecutorial reach. All we can do now is go after the associates).

But I have nothing bad to say. Mordam gave me a fair deal. I’m proud to have been associated with them. The heave-ho six weeks hence is at least justifiable, if not deserved. When one pays no bills and cleans no catboxes, one eventually gets kicked out of their parent’s garage. This is a bedrock principle of America. Only assholes challenge this principle. When my label started with Mordam in 1994, I’d already known half of the staff. I had far fewer friends on hand when the ax fell earlier this fall. And no business is immortal. To a time traveler of the latter 20th century, McDonalds’ stock value beating of the past eight quarters would probably be a bit of a shocker. All things are temporary.

Actually, I’m in awe of Mordam’s staying power. In the last three years, this company has lost Lookout Records, Kill Rock Stars, Man’s Ruin (twice), and the Dead Kennedys and White Stripes catalog, a several million dollar chain of doom that would have creamed a lesser company. Add to that the San Francisco real estate explosion, the budding gravity of digital music and the stresses of interacting with the punk community on a financial level… well, it’s mind grinding. The Green Day boom of the year of my arrival left impossible expectations in its wake. The tightening cash flow could be traced through the catering of Mordam’s annual conventions: in 1995, a massive gourmet buffet spread at a Japantown bowlery, in ’96 a nice meal in a bar’s backyard, in ’97 a less nice bar in the Mission with stray dog poop under the tables. 2001’s convention picnic was held in a public park.

I talked recently with fellow bootnick Bob, owner of Vinyl Communications, and we agreed that there was an element of relief in expulsion. Mordam’s monthly catalogs, filled with a merciless tide of mediocre independent music, has long since been a harbinger of mild clinical depression. At conventions, I’d hear about the commercial viability of something called “street punk” that, like the existence of “pogs” ten years earlier, made me feel disoriented and elderly. “Street punk”… is that what those menacing teenagers down on Holt avenue listen to? I don’t think I like that one bit – are there any workshops I can sign up for that tell us how to stop this sort of thing? And the element of community is a hard thing to nourish. My first convention was also the first in years without hostility – Tim Yohannon and Jello Biafra had already decided to avoid each other – and, consequently, the least exciting in years. Karin Gembus left in the late 90’s, and with her the most vocal conscience of the Mordam machine. Gembus was once responsible for Bob VC having to fly from San Diego to San Francisco to defend a rather innocuous porn star’s techno record. I didn’t always agree with her, but the pesky straightforwardness was refreshing (disclosure; Karin once told me, in response to a procedural question concerning a UPC check digit, that she “eschewed” bar codes… forcing me to look the word up in a dictionary, feeling embarrassed but unsure of for whom).

And I am going to miss Ruth. Ruth Schwartz, owner of Mordam, the closest indie music will ever get to a Winston Churchill, was the only person on Earth with whom I could plausibly use the sentence “I don’t want to get buttfucked on the shipping”. That this heartfelt sentiment – I don’t want to get buttfucked on the shipping, not now, not ever - no longer has a proper conversation outlet in my life is… heartrending. I once shared a surreal car ride with Ruth and her husband Rene (the former lead singer of BGK) up front, sitting in back while their precocious grade school daughter and Suzanne, my daily contact, leafed through color proofs from Suzanne’s lingerie photo shoot. Just another wild day at Mordam was the implied message. We’re unpredictable folks, we lead exciting, rich lives and we’re glad to have you on board, McPheeters.

Ruth is also a connection to a Mordam, to an underground, I was more comfortable with. In Loud 3D, The incredible book of 3D photographs of early 80’s hardcore bands (Gary Robert, Rob Kulakofsky and Mike Arredondo, IN3D publications…. the patient seeker can find a battered copy on Ebay 3 or 4 times a year for $30) there’s a 1984 photo of the MaximumRocknroll crew on Page 21. In the picture, a radio studio is crowded with a dozen people, only a few I recognize – Jeff Bale is the most prominent, arms stretched towards the viewer like a stoned grad student. Ruth is in the corner of the frame, wearing a DRI shirt, beaming towards her buddies. Tim Yo is directly behind her, frozen in time with a pair of headphones suspended over Ruth’s head. Everyone in the photo is smiling, at ease with each other. That a future Ruth never once took the public bait for a feud from either Jeff or Tim was admirable. That I actually became friends with two people from this book meant a great deal to me. Ruth and I remain friends now. And she probably wouldn’t mind if I called from time to time to tell her how very much I still do not want to get buttfucked on the shipping. But, frankly: it won’t be the same.

The year I started with Mordam I tracked down the equipment used to shoot Loud 3D. This was in the final days before the internet (for me), and many months were spent searching. The camera is a Stereo Realist, manufactured by the David White company of Milwaukee. They stopped making these things thirty years ago, so one is reliant on a small and cranky crowd of 3D enthusiasts for tech support. Far from being a nifty gizmo, I found the camera painful, un-ergonomic, probably the kind of thing that would draw fatal attention to me in foreign countries. It resembles antiquated optometry equipment and taking a picture felt like shooting a daguerreotype. I had an impossible time finding anyone who would develop the oddly spaced negatives. Digital three dimensional cameras have already arrived in this country. There’s no reason for me to keep it.

But I haven’t sold it yet. This month, facing an impending Ebay auction of the sacred relic, I find myself seeped in sadness, all that lost potential. As with all things, the time has come to let it go.