Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Problem: Unresolved Hate Mail

THE ZONE OF UNEASE, Aug. 12 - Some background: In early 1995, I received a large box with no return address. The box contained 75 copies of a bootleg 7" record of my old band, Born Against. As some sort of nonverbal good will gesture, the shipper also included a teddy bear. Each record had had its production code manually scratched off the matrix. Scratching off production codes is a time-consuming chore for any bootlegger, but worth the effort to produce a final, untraceable end product. A de-numbered record has no maker or factory of origin.

I, however, had 75 records. And with 75 records and some patience, it was entirely possible to retrace the missing number. The deciphered production code led me to United Records in Tennessee. After a few faxes, I had the bootlegger's home address. I held a destruction party with a few friends. We snapped records, ripped up covers, disemboweled the teddy bear, poured in some old Chinese food from the fridge, repackaged the box and returned the whole thing to sender. It was a smashing waste of resources.

I didn't care that the bootlegger might, potentially, make some money off my old band. There's not much money in 7" records to begin with. What did highly cheese me off was the idea that a stranger could insert themselves into my life and make creative decisions on my behalf. It was a violation a little bit like robbery or identity theft.

After I shipped the box, something stuck with me. The records had been sent without malice. The bootlegger had probably been surprised that I didn't share the good will. Future bootleggers might make the same assumption. On my next monthly advertisement in
Maximumrocknroll - the Internet of 1995 - I wrote WARNING: PEOPLE WHO BOOTLEG BORN AGAINST GET SUED. I didn't have the cash or desire to actually sue anybody, so this seemed the easiest way to proactively shorthand that future counterfeits lacked my blessing.

The ad was a hit, in that readers responded negatively, which was more response than my other ads got. A month later I got this anonymous letter, postmarked Oxnard, CA:

This particular threat confused me, specifically the charge of hypocrisy. Had the author falsely assumed that I'd once endorsed bootlegs? Or was this threat an offshoot of that slippery hippie mentality that held me a hypocrite for not generally going with the flow and being cool? Maybe the anonymous assailant, fed up with other, more real hypocrisies of mine, had taken my ad as some sort of final straw that could not go unanswered. Maybe the letter was from another bootlegger. And the nature of the threat also confused me. Was I to get the black eye just for mentioning litigation? Or was the black eye only to be delivered if I actually went to court? Was it a warning, or a promise?

This note marked a strange interlude in my life when I stopped getting threats from right wingers and started getting threats from left wingers. In retrospect, it seemed like a precursor to the insane hate-mail marathons generated by Napster just a few years later. I wonder now if the anonymous author ever reflects on this particular letter, and, if so, if he or she is either proud or embarrassed of telling me off. Maybe this threat was only one of hundreds or thousands of crank letters churned out by the same author. Maybe the writer has long since graduated to threatening politicians and cereal companies by mail.

Most importantly, I'm still puzzled over the statute of limitations on this. Will I need to look over my shoulder the next time I'm in Oxnard? Or anywhere else? Will I still need to guard my eyes when I'm 80, propped up in a beach chair at a retirement home?