Note: this was originally published in May, 2007 on the Volcanic Tongue website. Volcanic Tongue was a record distributor and label run by my friends Heather Leigh and David Keenan out of Glasgow, Scotland. Volcanic Tongue is over and I wanted to document some of my 'other' writing on my blog, so I'm re-posting this here. Below is the original introduction written by David, followed by the article itself. Photo by Chris Gray, originally published with the article as well.
Mike Bernstein is a central cog in the Northeastern USA art/noise scene. As a member of Double Leopards he brought a sophisticated feel for primitively re-wired electronics and hi-jacked music software to the table, lending their already fathoms-deep sound a couple of miles more boom. As a member of Religious Knives alongside his partner Maya Miller and Nate Nelson from Mouthus he has convincingly formulated new approaches to rock song that would incorporate the most advanced noise syntax. As co-owner of the Heavy Tapes imprint he has been at the forefront of the analog renaissance and has set new standards for homemade art documentation, an area of interest that he has further expanded upon via his curatorship of the current Leaderless: Underground Cassette Culture Now exhibition at Printed Matter in New York City. We’re pleased to welcome him as a Volcanic Tongue columnist with a very personal piece on Bootleg Culture.
It started at a head-shop/record store next town over called "Prime Cuts" that my Safta (Grandma to you) misheard as "Chaim Putz" when we asked her to take us there. She waited outside in the car while my brother and I went in to spend some of that beautiful grease that we always got floated when Safta was around.
I wandered around and checked out CDs in long boxes, some dusty records, and some truly righteous t-shirts while my brother looked through a binder, filled out forms, and waited around for...a cassette? Turns out he was picking live Grateful Dead sets out of a list of chronologically arranged recorded shows that were available for something like $2.00 each and copied onto Maxell Chrome c90 tapes.
He would pick the date, they would copy it for him in the back, use a pricing gun to mark the date on the tape (it doesn't cost $1,210.69, it's a show from 12/10/69) and then he would copy the set list out of the book onto a J-Card of your choice (Calvin & Hobbes, Dancing Bears, pictures of the boys, etc.) and he would walk out with a whole new show he'd never heard before.
I thought the band was weird for supporting the tapers, got generally mystified by the whole experience, and then started to buy my own pieces. It was an easy bike ride from my house. I'd pick based on the song titles, even if I didn't know what they sounded like or were about. Simple things intrigued me -- "Beat it on down the line" was always abbreviated as "BIODTL" and I was very intrigued on what a "China Cat" and a "Sunflower" had to do with each other and how a --> could really connect them. What kind of connection was that?
I learned how to listen to a band live by listening to these tapes. They're always live; live every time. Your walkman is a time machine and so is your turntable. I loved the applause, the stage banter, and of course, the songs. Some of the tapes were recorded so well that the transparency was almost frightening. Others are noisier, rife with conversation, exploding with applause, shock, and amusement.
I wasn't deep enough to make it through a Dark Star --> Drums --> Space 45 minute side yet, but the depths of the tunes, the great ones, really got to me. 15 years later I'm still obsessed with collecting live shows. I've never been to any of these gigs, but I've read about them, studied pictures of them, and pretended I was there.
Some bands and the rare solo performer just transcend "the gig," but it's a mixture of complex emotions that draws fans to pursue these recordings. It's more than just collecting. It's the closest thing we have to musical transubstantiation. The bootlegs for some bands, like the Dead, are popular because the band played so often, and recorded so little in the studio. Others are so guarded with their lives or ideas that people can't help but be curious.
What do they reveal when you can get a real sense of the environment when they're playing? In my opinion this is why Dylan's "Great White Wonder" was the first popular rock bootleg – because the dude was so inscrutable! You know that if people were camping out outside his house that they were collecting his live shows. Dylan might have considered both of those things trash at the time, but his live work still continues to astound. His shiniest moments, including the epic tour with The Hawks in 1965-66, the Basement Tapes work (kind of a bootleg in this sense, but still private and mouldy as anything in the basement of Safta's house in Queens), and the unbelievably rich Rolling Thunder tour from 1975-76 are rife with timeless classic moments of pathos, joy, and musical discovery.
Live! As many times as you can handle it.
Neil Young is another great example of an oft-bootlegged performer who was free and easy in so many contexts that his fans needed (and still do need) some crib sheets to get ready for the next time around, even if they ended up being useless half of the time. Neil is famous for being justifiably but perhaps excessively controlling about his recorded output, and the examples of his live performances on unauthorized LPs are rare but very powerful treasures – He makes jokes! The audience cracks up! He's up there alone, with a piano and a harp around his neck, wearing white jeans, a white t-shirt, and suspenders. His hair is short, his eyes are red. He's alone.
Part of collecting bootleg LPs is not only getting closer to the band, but getting closer to the fans. Deadheads, for instance, made awesome looking "fan club" and "giveaway" LPs of live shows which heavily feature crudely drawn skulls, scrawled wasted aphorisms, and no dearth of grinning bears. Neil Young fanatics crudely and sometimes disgustingly hid their obsessive releases with garish covers of tropical getaway scenes and red-lipped vaudevillians. Don't ask.
The shows that they cared about end up being the shows that you care about. Some call it piracy, theft, greed, whatever. What is it that draws someone to release a live show on LP? I don't care, but the results are the real deal – re-contextualized pictures of your heroes. Cheap.
The tops for me, live, are the obvious ones...I'm easy. The Grateful Dead, Velvet Underground, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Rolling Stones. Not to mention Throbbing Gristle, The Fall, Joy Division and Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Bad Brains, and also Jefferson Airplane, Trad Gras Och Stenar, and man, Coltrane, Miles Davis, and recently Wooden Wand, Hair Police, Aaron Dilloway, and Vibracathedral Orchestra, amongst others.
But the best live, on wax, are the Dead, the Velvets, and Neil. No doubt about it in my mind and I have stacks of horribly packaged, poorly pressed and unevenly recorded documents amongst the few princely examples of high quality recordings (packaged "simply" but "effectively" – that triple LP set from Germany, for instance, or the official looking Bottom Line joint) – to prove it.
There's certain kinds of record shops that you can just tell will have good bootlegs as soon as you walk in. There was that one in Brussels where the ROCK section was so swelled with live shows that I ran out of time halfway through the H's. In NYC there's Subterranean, which has Television and Velvets posters all over the walls and has as many live albums as studio albums for most of the bands listed above.
The dusty ones will almost always set you up -- by now I've trained my senses and my spine tingles when I cross the threshold, usually onto a wooden plank floor and often to the chagrin of the shopkeeper who is all but passed out in a rocking chair. Mooncurser, we'll miss you.
I'm not shy about wishing I was there. It's a well documented fact, personally bolstered by my own (admittedly wimpy in comparison) experiences "on the road" and "in the studio," that you take it to a whole new place when you have to play it live every night. When you're trying to make it happen like that, on that scale, it usually does.
I like sections of my record collection to have some real depth. The breadth of any collection should be wide within its given niche, but it's the depth, for me, that has proven most evocative. Having the studio albums, the extra tracks, the singles, and live shows all next to each other and available allows you to see the cubist view of the artist. It's an almost profane desire that we have to understand as much as we can about the artist whose words and sounds impress us so deeply.
Lately though, in the past few years I would say, I have been obsessed on a new level – beyond imagining myself in Wembley Empire Pool in 1972 with gloves on because it was so cold, watching the Dead's first and second shows in their Europe '72 tour – one that frightens me but compels me equally.
I started to download the shows from the above performers, which are posted all over the internet for free in uncompressed formats which sound amazing. All of the people who used to trade tapes now trade CD-Rs and download on both public and private networks. Everything is digital which means everything can be shared. And shared it is!
Some of the resonance is missing, and I still prefer vinyl when I can get it, but this kind of trading has made the disparate pieces fit together that much more easily. I have found clarity in a lot of these recordings which are passed around this way – tapes or LPs that I have of shows from the 60s and 70s have been submitted to the virtual meat-grinder and emerge spotless!
While LPs can often be made from whichever recordings the label could get their hands on, only the highest quality recordings are traded in these networks. This doesn't mean you can't hear the applause and laughter, it just means that no songs are skipped, nothing is edited to fit the side of an LP, and you can generally hear all of the instruments and a good strong vocal. The Dead took their live mixes very seriously. They knew it was how the real fans heard them, in a concert hall.
Anyone can download this stuff and I'm posting some links to where it can be gotten from, along with a list of favourite bootleg LPs, easier to get CDs, and some reading material. Be sure to check mp3 blogs as well for this material – they have flourished as a fantastic resource to anyone obsessed enough to care.