Monday, August 27, 2012

#585: Good trouble

Bernard Stollman's ESP-Disk was 1 of the most adventurous record labels of the mid-'60s. Starting out recording free jazz (beginning with Albert Ayler's SPIRITUAL UNITY), ESP released albums by Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, then expanded 2 include on its roster such wild stuff as The Fugs, The Holy Modal Rounders, Patty Waters, Pearls Before Swine, The Godz, and Cromagnon.
Now, in Jason Weiss's ALWAYS IN TROUBLE: AN ORAL HISTORY OF ESP-DISK (2012), Stollman & more than 3 dozen of the artists he recorded look back on those times. The result is the best "oral history" I've read.
Oral histories sometimes lack a clear overview. The idea is that by talking 2 enuf people, a clear-enuf picture of the time or event being discussed can be painted for the reader. In this book it works -- partly because the people interviewed in this book seem to enjoy talking, & partly because it's an intresting time 2 look back on. I also think Weiss was a skilled interviewer who edited the responses pretty tightly. At the end of 283 pgs, you wish there were more.
Stollman himself gets about 1/2 the book 2 describe what running ESP was like. Turns out he ran the label out of his parents' apartment, using $$$ they gave him + whatever else he could scrape-up as a part-time lawyer. At its largest, ESP had 3 other employees, who sold the albums & talked 2 distributors. Stollman set-up recording sessions & arranged 4 album-cover art, pressings, etc.
There R lots of questions that go unanswered during this 1st section. Then the artists get their turn. Some of these interviews R hilarious.
Among the artists, there R 2 views of Stollman -- either "The man didn't want to pay anybody," or "This stuff (strange music) doesn't sell -- it never did." There R differing views on whether Stollman Got Away With Something, whether he was taken advantage of by record-pressers & bootleggers, or whether he pocketed some of the profits -- if there were any.
Stollman himself claims he was put out of business by the CIA at the end of the '60s because some ESP artists dared 2 criticize the government. But after that, Stollman became a full-time lawyer for the feds, only reactivating the ESP label in the last 10 years after retiring from federal service. Most observers agree Stollman didn't get rich by running ESP.
What he did was record some way-out artists that no other label would take a chance on at the time. Most of the artists have mellowed over the years, most of them appreciate the chance ESP gave them -- & most R delighted when Stollman appears at a gig & hands the musicians a royalty check ... 40 years later.
Some of ESP's artists did go on 2 some measure of fame -- Sun Ra & Coleman 4 work they recorded elsewhere. The Fugs, Holy Modal Rounders & Pearls Before Swine went on 2 lasting cult success. The Swine's leader Tom Rapp moved 2 Warner Bros. Records at the end of the '60s -- where his business manager allegedly disappeared with Rapp's 6-figure advance.
The Godz achieved some brief fame thru a rave review from legendary rock critic Lester Bangs -- I'd love 2 hear their 1st album just based on Lester's review.
Almost all these folks R interviewed in the book -- Peter Stampfel & Steve Weber of the Rounders (Stampfel's interview is hysterical), Rapp, jazzers like John Tchicai, Marion Brown, Milford Graves, Gary Peacock, Roscoe Mitchell, Roswell Rudd, Evan Parker, Burton Greene, Gato Barbieri, Sunny Murray, Sirone, poet Amiri Baraka, members of The Godz -- even the drummer 4 Cromagnon!
The only downside I see here is that there's no discography of ESP albums -- a list I thot woulda bn a necessity 4 a project like this. There R some nice photos of the artists, tho.
Maybe the book's title shoulda been ALWAYS IN FINANCIAL TROUBLE....

Coming next: Enthusiasm!

1 comment:

R S Crabb said...

All i have to say about the ESP label is that they made Frank Zappa's Bizarre/Straight label sound like Mitch Miller!

i used to have the Contact High With The Godz and the guys sounded like they couldn't play their instruments and everything sounded like one take. The Crogmagon Caveman Rock is even more out there, with the first song sounding what Al Jorgensen was doing with Ministry but with tribal drums. The only thing close to anything rock and roll was a forgotten band called Octopus. The singer sounded a bit like Stephen Stills and the music somewhat blues rock.

The Fugs always said that they signed the World's Worst Record contract when they were with ESP Disk and their first two albums Fantasy reissued in 1994. The Fugs first was folk blues but the Fugs Second Album is out there with Group Grope or Kill For Peace some anti highlights, I've heard bits and pieces of Tom Rapp and Pearls Before Swine but not enought to base an opinion about it, nor really cared that much.

ESP did issued a lot of jazz albums there was a Bud Powell In Paris that is fine piano bop jazz and done when Powell was in a good frame of mind. The Heliocentic Works of Sun Ra (may have the title misspelled) Volume 1 is Avant Garde jazz but not as out there as it could be I don't think, although Albert Ayler does push the limits on his album and there's another ESP Disk artist I can't think of that did something what Ayler was doing. Not for the faint of heart and I played it once and filed it.

One thing about an ESP Disk though, it will clear a room out of Sheryl Crow fans in no time flat. ;)