Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Alberti Records (2001) pt. 2

FROM THE ARCHIVES, Aug. 4 - This is the second half of my obituary for Alberti Records (see yesterday's post for part 1)

Ken from Prank and Mike from Broken Records arrived mid-morning. They'd left San Francisco at 2AM and appeared grim. Andy and I clawed through boxes with the euphoria of those disoriented by hot manual labor. When Bill Alberti found me perched between shelves & pallet, 6 to 7 feet over the concrete floor, he politely asked if I might consider using their ladder. "No, we want to do this! We signed waivers!!" "Fifty five years and only one behanding," Andy added, giddy. "I think your safety record speaks for itself!" Later in the day, Long Gone John unearthed a dozen boxes of old Redd Foxx 7"s, pressed on the Dooto label several centuries ago. A very quiet and intense period of looting occurred until someone (me?) pointed out that we couldn't all sell these on eBay at once.

On the third day we reverted to scavenger hunts from my list. The dark loft was revealed as a graveyard of Alternative Tentacles jackets. Andy and I discussed which important mother would look the prettiest mounted on his wall and installed with one of those crafts store clock innards. On the envelope for the KRS 250 stampers I read: PUT BACK IN NOTHING WRONG WITH THIS PLATE SOMEBODY WAS LOCO. I overheard the familiar disembodied Frank voice, explaining to the telephone: "this would've been our fifty fifth year." On a Kill Rock Stars box I found a sad, hand-drawn heart, crudely crossed out with magic marker. It seemed emblematic of something. I used a lull to debrief Bill Alberti. How long had they been in this building? (Since Eisenhower.) How long had Frank worked here? (Since Ford.) Had they ever refused anything on grounds of content? (Never.) Did he listen to any of the records he'd pressed, for enjoyment? (back in the seventies). Any problems with bootlegs? (They'd been raided by the FBI thirty years ago, but CDs had made the issue irrelevant by the 80's.. "after a while the FBI wouldn't even return our phone calls.") We discussed some of the financial events that had led to the company's demise. An estate battle resulting from the death of Mr. Alberti (Bill's father and the plant owner) earlier in the year had triggered the final cash drain. But the economics of vinyl, no surprise, had been on a steady decline for the last decade. By 2001, their main customers were Mordam labels and Ebullition. And certain Mordam labels had stopped paying (he didn't mention any names and I didn't ask). "McClard always paid up front," said Bill. "He's a hell of a guy." Andy called out from the other side of the room, "what's this thing?" Bill showed us the recycler - used for removing paper labels from "remil". Andy picked up a chipped label and said, "Hey... it's Brown Reason To Live!". Bill examined the shard, then looked up, stumped. "Is this a good record?"

On Friday we made one last van trip. Loading finished before 2. Our repeated offers to treat Frank & Bill to lunch were bordering on the awkward. Bill hemmed and hawed and finally said he wouldn't have the time. Frank laughed and roared off on his forklift, cigarette dangling. I searched for more stray parts and found a few. A representative from a rival plant arrived, thumbing through his own inventory for different record labels (I might need to do business with him someday, so; no names). We introduced ourselves. "Our place is nothing like this", he said, nodding towards the disorder of the assembly room. "Actually, their plates and mothers were exceedingly well organized" I said, blushing at this man's terrible rudeness. Insulting Alberti at this stage seemed like head-butting a lymphoma patient. "Yeah, ok," he continued, "but... I mean, look at this place. We're nothing like this."

Bill agreed to take us on a quick tour of the pressing station before we set out. This was the dark cavern behind the assembly room, one I'd only peered in. He hit the lights, illuminating the mechanical guts of the operation. The drama of insolvency had seemed to overwhelm Bill, but here he was in his element - a guy as versed with steam-release valve mechanics as he was with a spreadsheet. We passed sacks of shiny pellets from Keysor corp of Saugus, CA. This was the Alberti's prime number - raw vinyl. I'd pictured it simmering in vats of blurpy liquid. In person, it more resembled cattle feed, bagged and unpretentious. We were shown to the record presses, large Semi-Automatic SMT's (for Southern Machine & Tool). There didn't seem to be anything automatic about these monsters. Each stood chest level, a weird jumble of pipes intersecting pipes, secured at points with 5 inch bolts that would be better suited to the bowels of a supertanker. "These cost us $70,000 apiece." Even with the overheads, the room remained a dreary and atmospheric place. Random spots of machinery were illuminated by stray beams of light strobing through the roof fans. The windows were clouded with years of calcium deposits. Nearby, a woman in a bikini gazed at us from a faded 1986 Thermoking Of Indiana calendar. "They're worth about $200 now," Bill added softly. He tugged on a jutting tube and a set of metal jaws rolled out and popped open. A faint hiss rose from somewhere deep inside the machine. He showed us where water cooled the system, where steam entered, where the plates and hot blobs of wax were inserted for pressing. I asked how many records one machine could make in a shift. "1,500 records can be pressed on one machine in any 8 hour period.... that's if there's no bullshitting around." My heart sank at the inhumanity of the work I'd commissioned without regard for labor, as if I had been ordering up an endless series of pay-per-view movies. Bill added: "This is where it really gets hot".

I asked to use the office phone. A pang of gloom registered when I found my own name at # 27 on the speed dial. I'd lived in California for two years at this point. Why hadn't I visited earlier? Why, at the very fucking least, hadn't I sent a sympathy card when Mr. Alberti passed away? These opportunities to verify your humanity are rare and irretrievable. Clearly I hadn't been the worst financial offender (disclosure; I was, at a point in '97, a year behind in my Alberti bills. I also caught up in '98 and even prepaid for a batch of repressings, a rarity among the Mordamed. I'm not sure if this all equals out). But I had acted in collusion with every other stupid, thoughtless record label by default. It was too late.

We shook hands out front, the van packed. Bill and I exchanged email addresses. I told him I'd send lists of AWOL plates. The sun continued to bleach cardboard in an overflowing dumpster. "Well." I paused for a moment, unsure what to say. "What now?"

Bill shrugged. "Start over, I guess."