I suppose it had to happen eventually.
Truth be told I have wondered in a quasi distracted manner from time to time exactly how long it would be before I was witness to it happening.
Goodness knows, it may well already have happened on more than one occasion.
I just haven’t been aware of the fact until now. Well, Wednesday if we are going to get technical about the whole thing.
I love live music. I mean, I really love live music. And, seeing as how many bands have never released an honest to goodness live album (read not at all or an unsweetened LP) I soon found myself ensnared in the world of bootleg recordings. Or, ROIO’s as they have come to be known. That would be Recordings of Illicit Origin. Said intro came about via the most unlikely set of circumstances. It had to do with an overheard conversation in one record store concerning a favorite artist and and album of theirs that I had never heard of culminating in a conversation in a completely different record store the very next day. That and a healthy dash of curiosity tempered by equal measures of paranoia and teenage huts pah.
That was my introduction to bootleg recordings. As anyone who knows me knows, once I discover something new that catches my fancy and demands my attention I throw myself at it hook, line and sinker; both barrels; all in; quick, start the next chapter because I am running out of analogies…
And, so, now, we get down to brass tacks. WTF is the purpose of this post anyways? Smiles. Well, to lay it all out for you at the very least, of course. I have been enamored of live recordings for going on, well, 40 odd years now. At one point in time I had no other choice than to buy vinyl / cassette / CD versions of said live shows. And I did, gleefully for many years. Something that I came to love was the artwork and it’s evolution from when I first got into the game until the current day.
When I first started collecting bootlegs, they were on vinyl, in white record sleeves with a mostly monochrome paper insert. Eventually these illicit offerings turned to the digital realm; CDs with full colour inserts. To begin with, the art was rudimentary to say the least. Then things started to change, as they are wont to do.
I was more than aware that I had shared any number of concert photographs on the web, mostly via my Flikr account. Just this past Wednesday I happened across a bootleg recording of Queen, on their 1978 Jazz tour, recorded from the audience in Vancouver, British Columbia on December 14, 1978; a mere week and a half after I had caught them at Maple Leaf Gardens. Caught them and shot them. Back in the day everyone and anyone could bring their camera into the show.
Looking at the artwork for this particular bootleg I recognized the back cover artwork from somewhere…
Not quite sure from where I recognized it.
Allow me, if I may, to present you with the back cover artwork.
Let me know if you recognize the photo.
Flattered? Truth be told, yes. I mean, a photo of mine made it onto an honest to goodness CD, released in the black market of bootleg recordings to be sure but, considering the fact that many ROIO releases are pressed in batches of 10 – 1,000 copies (sometimes more depending on artist, quality and tour). How many people out there now own a copy of that disc and love the back cover photo?
Pissed? No, not really.
I have come to learn and truly appreciate that Karma (read Life) is but a wheel. For me, the appropriation of one of my best loved concert photographs only serves to bring me back, full circle.
That being said I am still waiting for the royalty cheques to roll in.
Some excerpts from my book now if I may (keeping in mind I wrote this back in 2008 so some references are most decidedly outdated):
Chapter 20: Step into my parlor, said the bootlegger to the fly
So many things in life are affected by where you are at any particular point in time. As an example, I met my future wife because of seaweed; really. Doesn’t sound too romantic, does it? Romance is attributed to most things based upon any number of external forces. I mean, why are roses considered romantic? Of and by themselves, they are just flowers. Very nice flowers I will grant you, but not inherently romantic.
A woman may consider roses as romantic because the receiving of beautiful gifts makes her feel more beautiful herself. Also, roses are usually used in combination with a nice candlelit dinner, again, not inherently romantic.
Guys find roses romantic because the giving of them usually leads to sex.
All the romantic guys are now saying, “Speak for yourself,” and my wife is saying, “Hope you weren’t planning on seeing any of that sex for the foreseeable future.” What I can say in my defense is this. I am a romantic. Honestly I am. It’s just that I tend to look for the humorous, ironic, and absurd in almost everything that I see. I just usually don’t express these observations out loud.
In my mind’s eye, my face has been slapped a thousand times.
Yet I still cannot look at seaweed without thinking of when my wife and I first met. Maybe I’ll tell you that tale one of these days. Maybe if you keep on reading…
Now, where was I? Seaweed… a slap in the face… roses…. Romance… right place, right time… Elton John… oh right, Elton John.
My trek to find and acquire all music Elton led me to start frequenting a record store located at the Oshawa Centre called Symphonette. Symphonette was situated on the upper level of the mall; near Sears back in the days when the mall used to stretch from Sears at one end, all the way to the Golden Griddle and bowling alley at the other.
By and large, the people who used to work at Symphonette were one- dimensional drones, there because they had to be, with no real passion for that which they sold; at least none that I could ever detect. One day, I was in line waiting to make a purchase. The guy in front of me already had a red bag, which obviously contained a record. He also seemed to know the guy behind the counter because he was spending one hell of a long time talking to him.
So, while waiting for them to finish whatever pressing business they had with each other, I turned my attention to the red bag lying on the counter. You could almost make out what was behind that thin red veneer. Just when I thought I could suss out the title (something about “Strange Rain”), he snatched it up and mentioned the two words that were always guaranteed to get my attention in those days.
“I just picked up this Elton John boot,” he said, withdrawing the record from its hiding place.
I was suddenly all ears and eyes. The album was a two-tone job, blue-green and white. It showed an image of Elton John wearing some weird looking headgear and outrageous glasses. The title of the album was “Just Like Strange Rain”.
“Where did you get that?” I blurted.
“Go away, kid,” snarled Mr. tall dark and pimply behind the counter.
“No, no. I really want to know. I love Elton John and thought I had all of his records. But I’ve never seen this record before.”
The owner of the record slid it along the counter to me. I snatched it up greedily.
Elton John – Just Like Strange Rain. Recorded live at the Hammersmith Odeon in London England on 12/24/1974. The record label was a company called “The Amazing Kornyphone Record Label. TAKRL for short.
Holy shit! Where had this come from?
Imagine that you are a collector of fine art. You love Leonardo Da Vinci. You think that you were aware of everything that the master ever produced. Then suddenly, one day, you are made aware of a completely and hitherto unknown work. What do you do? What questions can you articulate? So many questions; so little time.
I split the difference and cut right to the chase.
“Where did you get this?”
I didn’t care what it was; I just knew that it was something I had never seen before, apparently recorded by an artist that I was currently enjoying a very intimate aural relationship with.
After an interminable period of time, I got the information that I was after. Apparently, the record was something called a “bootleg”. If I really wanted one, I would have to go to an, at this time, previously unheard of record shop called “Moonglow Records”.
“Ask for Marty,” said Mr. Stridex pads.
“Thanks,” I said, turning to go.
“And kid,” this from the owner of the record. I stopped and turned to face him.
“You won’t find this record in the Elton John section.”
I stared at him. Where was I to find it then?
“These aren’t like regular records,” offered Acne central. “Tell Marty that Glen sent you.”
Glen… right you are then…
That was all they would say, so I thanked them and fled Symphonette as if my life depended upon it. My initial urge was to charge downtown Oshawa and try to ferret out Moonglow Records that very instant. Yet there was something in their words and tone of voice that spoke of danger. Baby steps were required here; baby steps and a backup.
Cowardice being the better part of valour, I decided to wait until the next day and enlist someone from the neighborhood to join me.
So next morning came around, and the only person I could find to accompany me was Jeff. With some effort, I talked him into joining me on my quest. I tried to emphasize the implied danger and play down the fact that the root cause of this danger was a record. On the way downtown, I filled him in more fully on what had transpired the previous afternoon. That these records were contraband was pretty evident. I had no idea how “Marty” would react to some kid walking into his store and asking to see some illegal merchandise.
We decided that Jeff would wait outside the store for five minutes after I went in before entering. Then, if I was in trouble, he could quickly exit and fetch the local constabulary.
With our plan in place, I screwed up my courage and entered the store.
Moonglow Records was a dimly lit narrow hole in the wall. No more than twenty feet wide by about sixty feet deep, its one aisle was lined down each side with record bins. Posters and additional record display racks fought it out for possession of the very walls themselves. As my eyes grew accustomed to the lighting, I noticed that I wasn’t the only customer in the store; two others listlessly flipped through albums near the back. Just inside the entrance was a counter flanked by a huge handmade display rack on the wall. Standing behind the counter was a stocky man with thinning black hair. I stood my ground as he spoke on the phone.
“… you can pick it up tomorrow afternoon. I have to go into Toronto so I can snag it for you tonight… yeah.. don’t worry, you’ll love this group… O.K. see you then…”
Hanging up the phone, he turned his gaze to me. “Can I help you?”
I swallowed dryly and ventured, “I’m looking for Marty.”
The man smiled and closed his eyes when he spoke.
“I’m Marty,” he chuckled, “what can I do for you?”
“I’d like to pick up the new live Elton John album.” I wished I could have remembered the title but the name escaped me.
Marty started to walk out from behind the counter and proceed down into the depths of the store. My heart swelled. Could it have been that easy? Near the back of the store, Marty stopped in front of one of the bins on the left-hand side. When I caught up with him, I realized that he was standing by the Elton John section.
“You won’t find this in the Elton John section…”
My heart sank. Screwing up my courage one more notch, I tried again. “No… I’d like to see the new live Elton John album.”
Marty started flipping through the albums.
“Yeah 11-17-70. It’s not new but it is his only live album… and I’m afraid we’re all out of it. I could order it for you.”
“The record I’m looking for isn’t in the Elton John section…” I ventured, while wondering what this 11-17-70 album was.
Marty looked at me balefully, a look that I would come to know only too well and said nothing.
“It’s a special album…”
“Yeah, a special LIVE album by Elton John.”
I said this quietly so as to not attract the attention of the other patrons in the store.
Marty eyed me suspiciously. You know the look you get when you are losing someone; bordering very much on the “whatever” vibe. Problem was that Marty was regarding me, very much on the “who the fuck are you and what the fuck are you blabbering on about” vibe.
I could picture myself beaten to a pulp, lying crumpled in a heap in some dark Oshawa alleyway.
In desperation I blurted out, “Glen sent me!” The gathering clouds receded from Marty face.
“Oh,” he said in understanding. “You mean the bootlegs!”
I recoiled, glancing furtively around trying to gauge what impact this pronouncement had made on the others. Where was my back up? Hadn’t it been five minutes yet? I needn’t have worried. The other patrons in the store continued flipping through the bins, lost in their own little worlds. When I turned my attention back to Marty, he was just disappearing behind the curtained opening of a doorway at the back of the store.
Should I follow? Was he going to get a gun? What should I do? Just as I made up my mind to follow him, he re-emerged clutching not one but two albums in his hand.
“Are these the ones you are looking for?” asked Marty as he passed them to me.
I didn’t recognize the first one. On its cover was a red and white picture of Elton John; he was wearing some weird-looking costume or another. All Across the Havens was the title. It was also recorded live at the Hammersmith Odeon in London England on December 24, 1974. This was the same place and date as the other record, but it had different songs. I quickly flipped to the second LP.
This was the one I had come for. Just Like Strange Rain. Marty quickly explained.
“These two are from the same show; part one and part two if you will.”
“I’ll take them both… how much are they?”
He smiled as he walked past me. “Let’s go back up to the counter.”
As we approached the front of the store, Jeff came tentatively through the door. When he saw me walking towards him under my own steam he seemed to relax.
So I bought the two LPs, raced home, slapped them on my turntable and proceeded to play them both over and over and over again. For the first time, I was listening to live versions of songs that I was all too familiar with in all their studio finery; the experience was nothing short of a revelation.
Some songs were played faster, more frenetically, obviously picking up on the energy of playing before a live audience. Other songs sounded close to their studio incarnations, with various instruments up higher in the mix. Some vocals were done straight up, others placed emphasis on different lines, different words. Yet others were extended in length, well beyond their vinyl constraints.
I was to find out through trial and error that bootlegs weren’t always of the highest sonic quality. That’s not to say that the two discs I bought sounded bad; on the contrary. They both sounded amazing. Maybe that was part of the problem. If the sound quality had sucked, my whole life might have turned out differently. But they didn’t and neither did it; the records and my life that is.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was how I bought my first bootlegs.
We interrupt this tale for a sermon regarding bootlegs, counterfeit and pirated recordings.
Chapter 21: Hot Wacks and the Great White Wonder
A pirated recording is a recording of officially released material dolled up to look like new product and released by someone who doesn’t hold the copyrights to the material.
A counterfeit recording is an exact copy of officially released material in the same album sleeve and trimmings with absolutely no effort made to distinguish it from the officially released album. Much like those bogus Rolexes you can buy in Tijuana and Nogales.
A bootleg record is made up of live recordings, studio outtakes and demos, none of which have officially seen the light of day.
The Recording Industry Association of America, RIAA for short, lumps all three of these items into the same illegal milieu. I am in complete agreement with their view on the first two. Pirates and counterfeiters are ripping me, the consumer, off. That’s just wrong. If I am going to buy material released by my favorite artist, then I am going to buy it from a legitimate source. The quality is just better, the artist gets credit for their work, and the record company will continue to release their material. Profits from recordings also go towards the discovery of new acts.
Pirates and counterfeiters should be shot and pissed on, not necessarily in that order. At the very least, they should have their executive washroom privileges revoked.
Bootleggers, on the other hand, are filling a demand for additional product that wouldn’t otherwise be available; this at the very least.
At their best, bootlegs capture moments in time that would be lost and gone forever if not preserved on tape. Many cultures throughout history have striven to preserve their accomplishments for posterity’s sake; even back when the word posterity didn’t exist. Think about it… why invent an alphabet if not to record words, thoughts and deeds so that future generations may gaze upon your nuggets of wisdom with rapt adoration. I look at recorded music as a historical time line of events and accomplishments. The record companies are responsible for releasing the major highlights that any one of us would want to be remembered for, on behalf of their clients.
Only problem is, for many artists that represents only a part of the tale. In the same way that diaries and personal accounts flesh out any period in history, so too do bootlegs flesh out the history of a recording artist. High points and low points unflinchingly captured for all to hear. When an artist is out on tour, night after night, each performance isn’t necessarily exactly the same; even if they play the same songs each night, eschewing the practice of switching certain tunes in and out of the set list in an attempt to keep things fresh. The guitar player could be having a particularly good night ripping off blistering solos and imbuing the proceedings with a certain magic. Or the singer might be under the weather and, in an effort to prop up their band mate, the rest of the band rally round and give a truly spectacular performance. Or moments that are just out of the ordinary.
Jeff Beck’s musical turn on Jean Genie / Love Me Do and Around and Around during Bowie’s infamous Ziggy Stardust retirement gig at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973 exists nowhere else save for on bootleg.
Mick Taylor joining his old band mates The Rolling Stones to play the entire show at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City on their 1981 tour of the Americas; you won’t find that filed under R for Rolling Stones.
Another sidebar here; it’s the whole issue of filing music. Elton John is a proper name. His records should be filed under J for John, Elton. The Rolling Stones should be filed under… no, no, not T for The. When filing an artist words like “The” and “A” are silent. You drop them before you file them. The Rolling Stones would be filed under R for Rolling Stones, The.
Jethro Tull? It’s a trick question. Even though Jethro Tull was an actual person, he does not now, nor has he ever played in the band. As a matter of fact, Jethro Tull the person died in 1741. It is doubtful that he ever heard Aqualung or any of the other songs recorded by his namesake. Since Jethro Tull isn’t the name of anyone in the band, you would file it under J for Jethro Tull. Same way you would file Lynyrd Skynyrd under L for Lynyrd Skynyrd.
George Thorogood and the Destroyers? Under T for Thorogood. As in Thorogood and the Destroyers, George.
This explains why you might go into your favorite record store from time to time and not be able to find your favorite artist. Don’t give up. After you have checked the right place for them to be filed, try to imagine that you are illiterate. Where might you file them if you just don’t have a clue? Odds are you will find them there.
Right, back to out of the ordinary moments in music; you have the cases of a final performance of a beloved member of a band before they leave, or in really bad cases, die.
The late great Bon Scott’s final gig with his beloved AC/DC in France before his untimely death exists only on bootleg for fans to enjoy over and over again. As is Freddie Mercury’s final live gig with Queen at the Knebworth Festival, Stevenage, North Hertfordshire, England in 1986.
This, more than anything in the transient world of rock and roll, highlights the historical service that bootlegs provide. Capturing an artist’s or a band’s last shows… talk about priceless. John Bonham’s final performance as the power behind the mighty Led Zeppelin at Berlin’s Eissporthalle on July 7th, 1980; I could sit here and rhyme them off all day long; Stevie Ray Vaughn, Buddy Holly, Brad Delp, lions and tigers and bears (oh my).
Bootlegs come from many different sources. Everything from FM radio broadcasts, line recordings from the soundboard right the way down to the lone taper who sneaks his tape / MD / DAT decks into a concert and presses record.
Obviously, quality varies from source to source. Some albums are as good as, if not better than most live recordings legitimately released. Others not so much so; a boot of Deep Purple live titled “Glutton For Punishment” for example, sounded as though someone took their younger brother’s first portable tape recorder into a concert hall and sat as far away from the stage as was humanly possible. Maybe even as far away as the parking lot.
It was a case of crowd with barely audible backing group. “Hot Wacks”, the bootleg bible, listed their review of “Glutton For Punishment” as: “Piss poor, worst bootleg ever.”
No really, don’t hold back. What do you really think of it?
Needless to say, I quickly introduced Ben to the wonderful world of illicit live recordings. When a copy of Glutton became available, Ben, a huge Deep Purple fan, snapped it up. All so we could experience exactly how poor piss poor really was.
It was pretty poor. I think Hot Wacks succinct review hit the nail squarely on the proverbial head.
We ended up playing Frisbee with it, in the parking lot of the Oshawa Centre. Seeing as vinyl records could be used as lethal weapons, we were lucky not to lose an appendage or vital organ. On one throw, the record arced high into the sky before slicing its way back down to embed itself two thirds of its circumference into a flower garden.
I gotta tell you though; when it hit a solid brick wall… it blew up real good.
The biggest kick for me with bootlegs was the ability to relive a live performance over and over again; in all of its ragged glory; especially if it was a recording of a concert that I had actually attended. Many official live recordings just don’t hold a candle. They are edited, incomplete recordings. Or worse; they have been “sweetened” with studio overdubs correcting a bum note here or a missed cue there. Even records like the much vaunted “Get Your Ya Yas Out” by The Rolling Stones, considered by many to be one of the greatest live albums ever, has been tainted by studio overdubs. Stones aficionados point to the bootleg “LIVEr Than You’ll Ever Be”, a show recorded in Oakland California as the quintessential document of the 1969 tour. It is an excellent sounding audience recording that was released in December of 1969, just over a month after its November 9th 2nd show recording.
As a matter of fact, “Get Your Ya Yas Out” was released by the Stones record company in large part as an answer to the release of “LIVEr”.
And that’s not the first time a bootleg has forced a studio into releasing a legitimate live product. Elton John’s live album 11-17-70 (titled 17-11-70 in Great Britain) was released as a direct result of bootleggers recording and releasing a live broadcast by Elton from New York radio station WABC.
Even the grandfather of rock bootlegs, Bob Dylan’s “Great White Wonder”, released on the Trademark of Quality label, had an impact on a major label. In the early days, bootleg vinyl came in plain white record sleeves with either a paper insert or a rubber stamp to identify the disc. GWW is widely recognized as THE first rock bootleg. It contained studio outtakes of songs by Dylan that had been recorded in his basement with his then current band (who were soon to leave Dylan and go on to become The Band).
So popular was this record that some legitimate record stores mistook it for an import and actually started stocking it.
Dylan’s record company recognized a buck to be made when they saw one and subsequently released the double LP “The Basement Tapes”.
True story; you can look it up.
One final argument that the RIAA uses against bootlegs goes something like this:
“People who buy bootleg recordings won’t necessarily buy the artist’s officially released material thereby denying them their due recompense.”
“People who buy bootleg recordings of an inferior sound quality might hold the group erroneously responsible for the sub-standard product.”
Let me say this about that. It has been my experience that people who buy bootlegs probably own every other officially released recording that they would have been likely to buy already. They are looking for the ever elusive “more”.
And in some cases, the process works in reverse. Remember my first exposure to Queen in Kirk’s cannabis suffused lair? The next time I heard Queen was when Ben brought his latest bootleg acquisition to my place to give it a spin. It was an album called “Command Performance” on The Amazing Kornyphone Recording Label.
“It was recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon in London around last Christmas.”
I remember the name Queen, as it applied to the band, rang a bell. By the time the strains of the first song came throbbing out of my speakers, I had made the connection.
“I know this song,” I blurted out.
How could I not? It was one of the songs that Kirk had played for me after the Bowery Boys had left his basement to go and check out the myriad changes the mall had undergone since the previous day. It was off of their album Sheer something or another and it was called… it was called… Now… I’m…
“Here!” I cried triumphantly.
And it was. “Now I’m Here”, the opening track from Queen’s third album “Sheer Heart Attack”.
Why do I bring all this up now? Well, just to say that the first Queen album that I ever owned was, in fact, a bootleg. That particular bootleg to be specific because, once we were through listening to it, I forced Ben to travel right back down to Moonglow Records so that I might pick up my very own copy of it.
Now I own every single legitimate recording that Queen have released, including Brian and Roger’s more recent collaboration with Paul Rogers playing the role of Freddie Mercury. Not to mention an additional bootleg or twelve.
So, I can personally refute the RIAA’s assertions that buying bootleg records will take money out of an artist’s pocket. How, you might ask, do I know that I wouldn’t have caught on to Queen eventually of my own accord? Well, the answer there is… I don’t. This was, after all, right around the time that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was turning the Top 40 world on its very head. But that’s not how it happened. Bootlegs led me to buy into the artist’s catalogue; a trend that continues to this very day.
As I have mentioned, sound quality on bootlegs can range from stunning to horrific, with many different aural shades in between. It is always wise to do some homework when buying them. With the advent of bootleg CDs, it is possible to give a disc a listen to prior to purchasing. You need to determine your own personal tolerance as it relates to the minimum sound quality levels you will be able to live with. Just because bootlegs have the ability to capture historical performances doesn’t always guarantee that they will be of the best quality. As with any illicit product, the price is higher than its legitimate counterpart. And whatever you do, if you buy a bootleg and it is of substandard quality, do not, for heaven’s sake, blame the band. They had nothing whatsoever to do with its production, sound quality et al. The only thing a band is responsible for is their performance. Keep in mind too, like you and I, bands aren’t always at their best.
Most people who collect bootlegs know that the quality can vary wildly. Some will collect a performance solely on the merit of the historical significance, the rarity, or for the sake of completeness, regardless of the sound quality. Others will only purchase excellent quality soundboards or radio broadcasts, forgoing some aspects of a performance to only gain quality. I tend to split the difference.
These people don’t hold the band or the label liable. Except maybe to wonder why an exceptional performance hasn’t been released officially.
Record companies just don’t like to see the profits going to anyone else…. End of sermon.
Can I get an “Amen”?
Chapter 22: Welcome back my friends to the record show that never ends…
So, collecting bootlegs soon bolstered my already burgeoning addiction for music. Like any addict, my hunger was nigh on insatiable. And like any addict, I looked for a place to sate my hunger. For me, that place was Moonglow Records. Marty was an entirely adequate dealer. And so I was happy… but things change, don’t they?
Upon moving to Toronto following my nuptials, I found myself without ready access. I could no longer easily truck on down to Moonglow to check out Marty’s constantly changing stash.
My supply had dried up and I was forced to go cold turkey. For a time, I was jonesing pretty bad. Eventually, this too passed and I found myself declaring an uneasy truce with the music monkey on my back. I would continue to feed it legitimately released CDs, and it wouldn’t force me to do all those nasty things to myself anymore…
This tenuous détente could well have continued indefinitely, but the rock and roll gods had other plans for us; plans which came to fruition one night while I was attending a party after work. At one time, Prudential was a fun place to earn a living. Employees were at liberty to enjoy various and sundry social functions that the company would arrange at regular intervals. It was at one of these shindigs that the wrongs of this forced prohibition were put to right, or exacerbated, depending upon your point of view.
Sad thing, I suppose, is that by this time, I had pretty much weaned myself from the teat of illicit recordings, admittedly due to a lack of supply rather than any real flagging of demand. The monkey, my monkey, had been lulled into a state of dormancy.
Prudential had some pretty weird rules at these functions. The bar would be open for two hours total; half an hour before the meal then for an hour and a half afterwards. They did this to curb excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Foolish mortals; my compatriots and I just befriended the bartender, allowing us to circumvent the one beer at a time rule imposed on everyone else. So, at a table of four, after the happy half hour and the hour or so that it had taken us to eat dinner, there were a combined twenty-odd bottles sitting bereft of beer in front of us. And by odd, I don’t mean unusual, freakish, or weird. I mean approximately.
And this was before we had really got down to some serious drinking.
A couple of guys were wandering from table to table, busing them as they went. When the taller of the two pushed his cart up to our table, the bored look on his face evaporated.
“My, you guys have been busy.” We blearily smiled back at him.
Not only was he tall, but he was taller than me, no small feat. His shoulder length blonde hair contrasted violently with the black t-shirt he was wearing. It was a David Bowie t-shirt from the recent Glass Spiders tour stop in Toronto.
“How was the show?”
He stopped collecting the bottles and grinned at me.
“Pretty good; very theatrical; Bowie has always been great in concert. Not so much with the hits though.”
In concert? The monkey on my back roused itself at the mention of live music.
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” I offered. His smile amped up noticeably.
“No, no, it’s not.” “My name’s Stephen.”
“Hi,” he offered, “I’m Craig.”
The monkey, so nearly cast from my back, leapt up and took control of the conversation.
“So, Craig, do you like live music?”
The monkey leering back at me over Craig’s shoulder provided all the answer I needed.
We spent the rest of the night talking live music. But as opposed to a lot of junkies who tend to hoard their stash unless they absolutely had to share, I found Craig to be a kindred spirit. His love of live music easily rivaled my own. While my collection was admirable, it lacked currency. His collection, on the other hand, was much more impressive and much more current. Surprisingly though, I was able to rhyme off a number of artists and concerts that he didn’t already own. Conversely, there was much in his collection that I coveted. It was a match made in rock and roll heaven. He would compile a list of his live music. I would compile a list of mine. Trades would then take place; the better to feed the beast.
“Are you going to the record show this Sunday?”
“I hadn’t planned on it… don’t have anyone to go with.” Craig smiled broadly.
“Alrighty then. Where do you live? I’ll come pick you up.” Truth is I had never been to ANY record show before.
That Sunday, I found myself standing in a rapidly growing line with Craig, trying to ignore the persistent drizzle that threatened to drown us all if we stood still long enough, and if God was really serious about flooding the Earth again, while waiting to get into my first record show. The show itself was held at the Lion’s Club on the Queensway just west of Kipling in Toronto’s West end.
Here’s a comeback sure to impress all of your literary friends when they are trying to get the lay of your intellectual land. If asked “Do you like Kipling?” look them square in the eye and answer “I don’t know, I’ve never Kipled.”
Traffic was light so we made excellent time. The show was slated to start at 11:00 AM. We had arrived at ten past ten. Even then, there were some twenty odd folk in line. And when I say “odd”, I don’t mean it the context of the English euphemism for “approximately”. I mean Odd, with a capital D.
This number continued to swell behind us. Dressed in an assortment of Doc Martin boots, concert t-shirts, and jeans, with hair plastered damply to their skulls and clutching some form of knapsack or satchel tightly to their bosom, I was fairly confident that a goodly number of them had never kissed a woman before; or a man, for that matter, if they were that way inclined.
When working as reporter, sports editor, and photographer for a local newspaper called The Whitby Free Press, I had created a who’s who photo wall of local celebrities, politicians, and persons that had managed to garner varying degrees of notoriety. I labeled it my Gallery of assorted Rogues, Dolts and Bozos.
The folks assembled here would have comprised a contrasting wall of Geeks, Dweebs, and Mouth Breathers.
Craig and I stood and talked music at length. Recommendations, corroborations, and a general exchange of musical knowledge ensued.
The guy in front of us was listening raptly to everything that we were saying, trying but failing to be as covert as possible. Not surprisingly, he never once offered his own two cents. I figured that I would try to draw him into the conversation.
When regarding him more closely, I noticed that he was wearing an old Aerosmith t-shirt from the “Draw the Line” tour, a tour that I had caught at Maple Leaf Gardens. The same tour that their road crew dubbed the “Lick the Boots That Kick You” tour.
“Did you see them on that tour?” I asked, trying to gauge the relative depth of his well.
He eyed me suspiciously. Undaunted, I pressed on.
“A buddy and I saw them at Maple Leaf Gardens. It was an awesome show. I bought a t-shirt then, but I’m pretty sure that even if I could find it, the damn thing probably wouldn’t fit me anymore anyways.”
Not that the t-shirt he was wearing even remotely managed to contain the doughy expanse of his girth.
The more I talked, the more his eyes took on the ‘deer in the headlights’ look, the Norman Bates kind of look. It appeared to me as though he was trying to force feed his knapsack into his chest. I had pretty much given up on this one- sided conversation and was turning back to get Craig’s take when it talked.
“I DON’T KNOW YOU!” he bellowed at volume.
As if to reinforce this fact, he turned to everyone else in the vicinity. “I DON’T KNOW HIM!” he pleaded.
This outburst unsettled the herd in front of and behind us. They started shuffling back and forth from one foot to the other, all the while lowing and whimpering in an attempt, I assumed, to return some kind of normalcy to the proceedings. This whole tableau managed to creep me out in a way that I hadn’t thought possible. The theme to Deliverance provided the soundtrack.
“Remind me again why we’re here.”
“Not to worry,” Craig offered, “they’re letting us in now.”
Sure enough, the doors had indeed opened and the folks ahead dutifully shuffled into the hall with all the self-awareness of diseased bovines floundering in their eyes. I took a deep breath and followed, not really sure what to expect, but content in the knowledge that all would soon be revealed.
Just inside the main doors, I was confronted by a large table literally papered with garishly-coloured handbills advertising upcoming record shows, as well as any number of flyers for vendors who were, presumably, on site today. Right beside it was a table where one had to pony up the three bucks admission. Even as I was paying, my ears were assaulted by a not-so-underlying buzz. The milieu of music and voices was pervasive in a very inviting way. My heart started beating faster as my brain vetted the sounds that my ears were feeding it.
That sounds like early Queen.
Did someone just mention a new Led Zeppelin boot?
A video of Genesis at the Gardens; I wonder if it was a show that I was at.
My heartbeat quickened. What wonders lay within? Could it possibly be as cool as my ears were leading me to believe it was? Why the hell was it taking this freakin’ idiot so long to make change for me? Then it was done. My hand was stamped with a blue musical note as proof of payment. Craig was all set. It was time to surrender myself to the mysteries that lay within.
The room beyond the main doors was a goodly size. A tightly crammed line of tables defined its outer reaches. Five rows of tables sat expectantly in the belly of the beast. Make no mistake; this room was a living, breathing thing. The murmur of the crowd was drowned out by the combined sludge of blaring music. I liken the effect of walking through this cacophony to driving long distance cross- country. A radio station signal starts out indistinct. As your journey progresses, the signal comes into focus, gaining in strength. For a while, you can enjoy the songs that it yields. Inevitably, though, the signal starts to fade, usually during a song that you really, really love. It’s a corollary to Murphy’s Law. You can look it up. Ultimately, the signal gives way entirely, only to be picked up by the next station sharing the same frequency.
Walking down the first aisle of my first record show, I experienced the same phenomenon, except the span was compressed from a distance of 60 to 100 miles to a distance of six to ten feet.
As I walked, my eyes swept over the entire room. There were little knots of people gathered at nearly every one of the 100-plus vendors’ tables, with many more streaming up and down the aisles like drunken ants, weaving from side to side in an attempt to find that which they most coveted. This was a Record and Collectibles show, so a Partridge Family lunchbox and a Bobby Sherman board game sat side by side with a copy of the Dayglo Abortions long out of print vinyl LP “Feed Us A Fetus”. Two posters of Star Wars’ good guys Luke Skywalker and Han Solo flanked a poster of Led Zeppelin’s bad boys Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.
And there in all his bloody glory was Al Pacino’s Tony Montana, from the über violent flick Scarface, machine gun blazing away.
“Say hello to my little friend…”
Over here was a set of John, Paul, George, and Ringo bobble head dolls; over there, a set of KISS Pez dispensers.
And vinyl records? You had best believe there were vinyl records. All over the fucking place. Those suckers act as one of the biggest draws for a lot of the folks who attend these things. But tell me, does anyone even listen to vinyl records anymore? Hell, in this age of iPods, Napster, and Bittorrents is there anyone that even listen to CDs anymore?
I closed my eyes and just kind of let it all wash over me.
Enough of the tourist routine, I decided it was time for me to dive headlong into the unwashed masses; and at this point, I didn’t realize quite how unwashed those masses were going to prove to be.
“The guy with the best selection of boots is just over there.”
Craig pointed to a horde of people, five rows deep, all crushed tightly together up against a long table by the wall, opposite the main door. Seems this guy was very popular.
So I waded in.
Now the trick to making your way to the front of a throng of people is to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. If someone steps to their right, you fill the void on their left. Turning sideways helps as well; you present much less physical resistance that way. The deeper I got into the throng, the more I came to take note of the fact it had been a goodly while since many, if not all, of those around me had last bathed. I felt somehow out of place in all my hygienic glory.
Measuring my breaths in short sharp intakes of air stolen through barely parted lips seemed to lessen the effect.
When I finally made it up to the very front of the crowd, I was able to take in a great whooping gulp of relatively fresh air. As my watering eyes cleared, the number of bootleg CDs on display left me awestruck. Row upon row of discs stared back invitingly at me, requesting, nay, demanding my attention. Fortuitously, I had emerged from the crush positioned between the A-B box and the C-D box. So I leaned to my left and started thumbing through. Six Aerosmith CDs immediately caught my eye.
Craig had told me in advance that the guys at this table were cool about letting you listen to the discs before you plunked down your hard earned pesos on them, so I had brought along my SONY Discman to do just that. I took the first disc and plopped it into the player. As I placed the buds of the headphones into my ears, one of the guys from behind the table managed to get my attention.
“Why don’t you check out all the titles first, gather up the ones you want to hear, and then listen to them all in one go?”
“Can I do that?”
“Sure, no problem; and if you have any questions, just let me know. I haven’t heard all of these discs but I can certainly help you with the ones that I have.”
So that’s exactly what I did. I made my way from box to box, gathering up each and every disc that struck my fancy. Bad Company, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, ELP, Gabriel, Genesis, Heart, Montrose, Queen, the Stones, the Who, Zeppelin and Frank Zappa. From time to time, I took the guy up on his offer.
“That one is great; haven’t heard that one. That one would make a deaf person cringe.”
I must have gathered together about twenty-odd discs. And when I say odd, I mean holy shit, Batman. That done, I nodded to the guy behind the counter, acknowledging my appreciation for his advice. And so, I stood awkwardly perched between the X-Y and Z box and the adjacent vendor’s table.
There, I proceeded to sample each and every one of them suckers, and fortunately too. Fourteen of the twenty-three discs turned out to be of questionable quality and were readily dismissed. That left nine. And because, as with all things illicit, these discs cost more than their legitimate brethren, there was no way I was going to purchase all of them. So I whittled.
“What all have you got there?” asked the previously unnoticed heavyset guy sitting on the business side of the table in a wheelchair. He gestured to me with one gnarled hand.
“Oh, three Stones discs, three Aerosmith, a couple of Queen, and a Zep from Berlin 1980.”
“Having a hard time choosing?”
“Yeah, I can’t afford the whole lot.”
“Well,” he asked, “which ones are you most interested in.”
I dropped the Zep disc because I already had a few from the 1980 European tour, one of the Stones discs from the 1981 tour for similar reasons, and an Aerosmith CD that I was kind of so-so about. I realized I was going to have to ditch at least one more but was damned if I could decide which one.
“I’ve never seen you here before.”
“Yeah, it’s my first time at a record show.”
I meant to say it was my first time at this show, not wanting to sound like too much of a newbie.
“Do you like live music?”
I smiled at him and proceeded to give him an abridged version of my bootleg story. At least I hope it was abridged.
“Hmmm… tell you what I’m going to do. What would you say if I gave you each of your singles for $20 and your two doubles for $40?”
I had already done the math in my head. I was holding $200 worth of discs in my hand and he was offering me the self-same for $60 less.
“Ahhh, I think I’d probably say thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Hopefully, we can do some more business in the future.”
“I think you can pretty much count on that…” I trailed off, prompting him for his name.
“…Bob,” I finished, “My name’s Stephen.”
I’ve done my best to uphold my end of the bargain; whenever I attend a record show, I always hit Bob’s table first and drop the majority of my allotted funds with him, all thanks to the kindness he showed me that day. Since I have become a fairly regular customer of his, Bob lets me collect my discs and take a seat on the business side of the table where I can listen to my horde in relative peace.
Remember, membership has its privileges.
At the same time that I was getting more acquainted with Bob, Craig was off on his own with other fish to fry. As such, I found him watching concert videos shot by a rather enterprising guy. Seems he managed to take in just about every single show of note that came through Toronto. And I gotta say, for audience shot videos, these were second to none. He had a friend at Maple Leaf Gardens who would let him up in a utility loft opposite end from the stage, where he could set up his video camera on a tripod and shoot the proceedings undisturbed.
Similarly, he had made a friend at the Skydome who would let him into any unoccupied Skybox to shoot the gig. He soon became a favorite stop of mine at these shows as well, especially if I had been to a concert or two since the last record show. Quite literally, I may well have attended a concert on a Saturday night and this guy would be at the record show the very next day with the same gig on VHS. For me, this was even better than a tour program.
Ultimately, greed ended up being his downfall. In an attempt to branch out, he started smuggling his video camera into various theatres trying to get the drop on the big studios when it came to video releases; a trend which, at the time, was fairly rare, but has come to be a real problem of late. Seems he snuck his video camera into a movie theatre to tape the just released Batman movie, starring Michael Keaton as the dark knight. By this time, he had set up a stand on Yonge Street from which to sell his video wares, and happened to offer a copy of the bootlegged Batman to a lifelong Caped Crusader freak, who promptly alerted authorities to this usurper that was trying to make a buck off of his role model.
Never underestimate the wrath of a geek spurned. I call it “The Geek Factor”. But that was down the road apiece.
I found Craig over at his booth and was amazed at the number of shows I had attended that his friend had shot.
After Craig had made his purchases, we wandered up and down the aisle to see what else we could see.
While leafing through some CDs at another vendor’s table, Craig nudged me. “That guy over there looks really familiar.”
There was a young guy not a hell of a lot younger than us wearing a blue denim shirt and very comfortable looking blue jeans, standing behind the vendor’s table perusing a batch of records.
Bugger me if it wasn’t Jeff Healey. “That’s who it is!” confirmed Craig.
Jeff Healey was a pretty unique case of local boy does good, having come up from the bars in and around Toronto as a blues guitar virtuoso of some note. And here he was, behind the counter of a table lined with box upon box of older 78s; as in 78 revolutions per minute? If you don’t remember 8-tracks and LPs, you may as well forget it. 78s are truly beyond your pale.
I knew that he was a huge blues/jazz/big band aficionado who had a radio show with a local station, spinning very eclectic tracks. And here he was, at this self- same record show, combing through the boxes for hidden treasures.
No small feat considering the fact that Jeff Healey was blind. “Hi, Jeff, find anything interesting.”
Jeff looked up and smiled. “Hey, how are you doing?”
“Good,” said Craig, “we’re having fun tracking down the obscure and the hard to find.”
A fellow audiophile, Jeff required no further explanation. “We weren’t sure that it was you.”
“Rest assured that it is me alright. But who are you?” Craig and I blanched.
“Us?” I started.
“We’re nobody,” finished Craig. Jeff frowned.
“Don’t say that, everybody is somebody.” Craig and I looked at each other and chuckled.
“Well, when you put it that way, I’m Chris and this is Stephen.” “Nice to meet you, gentlemen,” he replied, extending his right hand.
Introductions and handshakes done, we settled into a most enjoyable conversation about, you guessed it, music.
“Do you have any gigs coming up?”
“Yeah, we’re going to be playing around Southern Ontario this summer.” “Very cool,” I countered, “what about a new CD?”
“Just wrapping up recording next week, the disc should be out in the spring.”
And so the conversation went. Just as I was contemplating the mechanics of asking a blind person for their autograph, the Pillsbury Dough Boy showed up at our side. Well, at least a rotund, corpulent, devastatingly odiferous distant relative of his.
“Do you have any Zeppelin?” it demanded.
OH MY GOD. This guy smelt… bad. I mean, really, really bad. Take a block of limburger cheese; lock it away in the glove compartment of a car, parked in a shade-free section of Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, Arizona during July for a week kind of bad. I mean long dead, decomposing corpse kind of bad.
It was all I could do not to bazooka barf all over our new friend.
This idiot doesn’t have a clue who he is talking to…
But Jeff was cool.
“I’m not sure, let me ask the proprietor,” he said, before turning to summon the owner of the concession.
Chris and I stood by, turning all kinds of shades of green, trying with all our might to breathe through our eyelids, like the South American Lava Lizard. Finally, our man Stinky got tired of waiting and went off in search of someone else with which to share his body odor.
The three of us were left in his wake with tears streaming down our faces. The experience took all of the bad smells I had endured making my way through the throng around Bob’s table, commingled them and amplified them tenfold… hell, a hundred fold.
But we lived; barely.
“Now, somebody,” started Jeff, “should introduce that boy to a bar of soap.” Chris and I started laughing while Jeff grinned broadly.
“I’m just glad you didn’t think it was either of us,” I said, wiping the tears from my watering eyes as we bid Jeff farewell.
Chris and I spent another hour or so wandering up and down the aisle, stopping if something caught our fancy. I swear the person who coined the phrase “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure” must have frequented a record and collectible show.
Marty from Moonglow Records had a booth there. I went over and talked old times with him.
I’m sure you now have the idea that everyone at this show was a malodorous three-headed freak, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. Actually, as I made my way around the show, striking up musical conversation after musical conversation, I came to realize that these events attracted a number of regular folk not unlike Chris and I. Always assuming, of course, Chris and I could be considered regular folk.
It seemed as though the freaks came, armed with their satchels, a want list, and a raging case of paranoia. They almost always came alone and never bonded with those of compatible dispositions, owing in no small part to their aforementioned raging paranoia. They came early, talked to no one, took care of whatever business they had predetermined to be of sublime importance, and then left, no doubt retreating to the perceived safety of their self-accepted sanctuaries.
As Chris and I left the building, my monkey lying sated and spent on my back, one thought repeated over and over in my mind.
Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in…
For a time there, I became a regular at these record shows and was only too thrilled to discover that they took place a hell of a lot more frequently than I had ever imagined. The satchel people were still there and still smelled like the concept of personal hygiene was as foreign to them as gene splicing is to an aardvark.
That being said, I still go to record shows but I must admit that I am no longer as rabid about my attendance as I once was; this due, in large part to the internet and the all pervasive eBay. These days, eBay provides a place where you can buy just about anything, including bootleg CDs and DVDs, at all times of the day or night. It is quite literally, the record show that never ends.
My monkey continues to caper and cavort.