An indie to the core

Special to The Times

Fourteen years of rumor and legend could not have prepared a visitor for this. Long Gone John, the famously reclusive owner of independent record label Sympathy for the Record Industry, lingers for a moment before a collection of rare books gathering dust in the dark-wood interior of his Long Beach home.

To step inside the two-story 1930s Spanish-style house is to begin a kind of descent into hell. Or, perhaps, an alternative-music heaven. Huge, nightmarish paintings by Robert Williams, Todd Schorr and Mark Ryden are dwarfed by their massive, baroque frames. Demons leap out of a custom-made wood mantelpiece. A giant mahogany chair is carved with skulls.

The windows are mostly covered, and in the gloom it is vaguely apparent that every square inch of the house is heaped and hung with stuff. Incredible stuff, as it turns out, each piece as irreverent and punk and valuable as the music that has made Long Gone the industry's newest hit maker.

John was the first to recognize the now-hot Detroit garage-rock scene, putting out the first three albums by the White Stripes, who had been passed over even by other independent labels. Detroit scene mates Von Bondies have recently been snatched off Sympathy by legendary Sire Records head Seymour Stein for a rumored $1 million. The Detroit Cobras, the Dirtbombs, Ko & the Knockouts, Slumber Party and Outrageous Cherry -- as well as a Boston duo named Mr. Airplane Man -- may be next in line.

He'd like to say that he saw the commercial potential of these bands. But Long Gone John has put out more than 700 other releases in 14 years that he also believes in. The truth is that he can't help himself. He is utterly, totally obsessed with music. As evidence, there's this house.

Sensory overload

"This is where I listen to music," John says in his nasal, deadpan voice. He's a big man with a gentle, worried expression, about 6 foot 1, maybe 220 pounds, with frizzy blond hair cascading over a worn denim shirt. He pushes on the bookcase with hands loaded with heavy silver skull rings and it swings inward, a hidden door.

The room behind it is a music nut's dream. Lighted only by a single, foot-square window high in a corner, the deep crimson chamber is completely encased by custom shelves holding thousands of artifacts. CDs, LPs, vinyl picture discs and original album artwork cover every available wall space, and there are hundreds of rock-star and Japanese Sailor Moon-type figurines and action figures.

Dozens of big-eyed "Little Miss No Name" dolls patterned after Margaret Keane paintings ring the top shelf. There is Sid Vicious' gold record for "Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols." There are framed blank checks from John Sinclair's early-'70s White Panther Party. Wooden shrines and sculptures crowd a coffee table. The entire room is built around a stereo system, and directly in front of it is a sunken-in loveseat, the only visible place to sit.

"I'm a big record collector. I'm a big book collector. I'm a big toy collector. I'm a collector of everything. Art," he rattles along, the slow cadence of his speech hiding the furious march of his mind. "I want to really be bombarded with sensory overload."

But the house is not the product of random choices. It reflects the discriminating tastes of a likable man who is private to the point of eccentricity. He has no answering machine, no cell phone or pager, and hasn't used his last name in 25 years -- but he knows what kinds of art and collectibles will hold their value. Including music.

With the garage-rock sound that characterizes a lot of Sympathy releases threatening to become the next grunge, and with Detroit as its axis, Long Gone John is utterly unimpressed. His only concern is to keep in contact with visionary art.

"Look at that disc behind you," he says. It's a double set of 7-inch picture discs called "The Little Record That Wished It Could," whose four sides, with art drawn by English lowbrow artist Savage Pencil, function like a book. The discs no music, recorded on them, and are meant to be appreciated as artwork.

"I see this as art," he says with a sigh, tossing it down. "And nobody understands it, nobody wants it. And I've done things consistently like that, that I can't give away. That's the kind of passion that I have for music and art. That's why I got into this."

Business on a handshake

"It's a weird time right now, with bands like the White Stripes being successful," says Larry Hardy, owner of another indie, In the Red Records, which has releases by some of the same bands as Sympathy, such as the Dirtbombs, Reigning Sound and Knoxville Girls. "A friend who works at [major label] Hollywood Records phoned me and said, 'Do you get contracts with your bands? You should, because a lot of bands on your label could potentially be snapped up.' "

Like Hardy, Long Gone John does business only on a handshake. He doesn't do any A&R; or scour the clubs, but relies on fate to send him music. Jeff Evans, of Memphis bands '68 Comeback and the Gibson Brothers, put him on to the Detroit Cobras, and they introduced him to the White Stripes, and so on. If John likes what he hears, he simply offers to put the band in the studio and put out an album.

The success of the White Stripes, however, definitely stretched this good faith arrangement. The band sold 50,000 records for Sympathy, an unheard-of amount in an indie business, where moving 10,000 albums is considered a smashing success. But, with no contract, the band simply walked away from Sympathy in 2001 and sold the three studio albums that John financed to V2, the label of Virgin Records founder Richard Branson.

John was hurt that he didn't get any money on the deal, but says he's not changing the way he works.

"If a band doesn't want to be with you anymore, why do you want 'em?" he says, noting that he's never once gone to court with any of his bands. "And if they owe you a record, what kind of record are you going to get out of 'em?"

The smell of cash has whipped up a genuine major-label feeding frenzy in the Motor City, and that's thrown mutual respect out the window. Many of the bands on Sympathy's 2000 Detroit compilation, "Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit," have been approached.

Stein, whose Sire Records launched U.S. punk with the Ramones, Talking Heads and others, says he doesn't listen specifically to Sympathy recordings, adding: "I heard about the Von Bondies through their live shows more than through the record. I knew there was a record that existed, and I listened to it. There's some very good things on that record."

But Stein knows only too well how valuable are the ears of Long Gone John and those like him. He had first-listen deals in the 1980s with brilliant U.K. indie labels Mute, 4AD, Rough Trade and Beggars Banquet, which brought him a parade of U.S. hits from Depeche Mode, the Smiths, Erasure and others. In his devotion to finding neglected music, Long Gone John is part of an ancient network of such fringe mavericks as Sam Phillips' Sun Records, which first released Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Today, John's taste in unpolished rock 'n' roll makes him a colleague of Sub Pop's mysterious Bruce Pavitt, who discovered Nirvana and Seattle grunge; of former Bad Religion frontman Brett Gurewitz's Epitaph Records, which corned the market on pop-punk; of the new Saddle Creek label in Omaha and Angeleno Rich Egan's Vagrant Records.

"Without the indies, there'd be no music business," says Stein. "They're the life's blood."

Detroit's rock renaissance isn't the first case in which Long Gone John's been an early adopter. He started his label to help support L.A.'s eclectic and uncommercial '80s punk scene.

John grew up mostly in Whittier, born in 1951 a middle child in a Catholic household of nine children. At 12, he was involved in a minor burglary and his parents surrendered him to the juvenile system. He went home again only once, for two months, at 16, and then was out for good.

"The rest of the time I was at boarding schools, juvenile hall, or boys' homes," he says over heaping plates of Mexican food at a Long Beach haunt. "But that was fine with me. I had a much nicer little existence because of it.

"I think that's why I love collecting now," John adds, getting to the heart of his obsession with music and art. "I literally grew up with nothing. So now I'm making up for it -- in spades."

It's been rumored since the start of Sympathy that John inherited money. "Totally untrue," he says. For 10 years, beginning in the late '70s, he worked in a warehouse as a member of the Teamsters Union, getting up early on Saturday to drive out to the Bomp Records on San Fernando Road in and buy "every new release that there was."

Equal passion for art

His obsession with collecting has made him good money. Many art pieces he bought cheap are now worth 50 times the price. It also drove him into the clubs. Though he didn't dress as a punk and wasn't a part of the lifestyle, his passion was the eccentric extremes of the music. He was a regular at the Masque, Hollywood's downscale underground club.

In 1988, his friends in the L.A. "cowpunk" band the Lazy Cowgirls needed someone to put out their album. John suddenly decided to put it out himself.

Around this same time, he was fired from his warehouse job. He sued, and the company settled out of court for $20,000. He was 37 years old. Thus began one of the funniest, most eccentric accidental businesses in music today.

The logo for Sympathy for the Record Industry features a nude angel, kneeling, with a tear running down her face. Below runs the Latin phrase "Odi Profanum Vulgus et Arceo," translated as, "I Detest the Ungodly Rabble and Keep Them at a Distance."

SFTRI catalog number 001 is the Lazy Cowgirls' "Radio Cowgirl LP/CD: Live at KCSB, Santa Barbara," a loose spray of fast, funny, somewhat countrified punk. En route to mastering the record, he thought of the name of his company, an ironic take on "Sympathy for the Devil" by the Rolling Stones. Thus, he equated the record industry with the devil. It was meant to be a little joke, but then the name stuck.

"At a lot of real independent labels, there's this real 'majors versus indie' mentality," John says. "I don't have that. Major labels can put out stuff that I love. We're in two different worlds."

And his is a world, he claims, that "created itself." Though he had no intention of doing more than the one album, it was followed almost immediately with "Vomit Wet Kiss" by metal-edged punkers the Jeff Dahl Group. Now on catalog number 706, he's never had even one employee. From finding acts to pasting the labels on the singles to shipping, he does it all himself.

His model record label, he says, was not Sub Pop, as some people claim, but Stiff Records from the U.K. His tastes run from the pretty French chansons of April March to the Satan-obsessed Texas blues of the 13th Floor Elevators' Roky Erickson to the supercharged rock 'n' roll of Rocket From the Crypt. He released the first album by Hole, and singles from Bad Religion.

But his real love is special packages -- many of which end up losing money -- dedicated to his favorite bands. Like a special double-CD of unreleased Gun Club studio and live tracks called "Early Warning," which comes with a second CD that has leader Jeffrey Lee Pierce playing solo acoustic, his vision of what he wanted the Gun Club to be. Or Long Gone's many promo 7-inch releases, such as "It Takes Two, Baby," an eight-song compilation of Sympathy two-piece bands, including the White Stripes. All of these are now serious collector's items. He gave them away.

Some things he will not release: hard-core punk, whose moshing skinhead fans, he believes, destroyed the great L.A. punk scene; and rap, hip-hop and funk, which he hates. "I like rock 'n' roll," he says.

Many of his releases also involve commissioned artwork from well-known comic-inspired artists such as the Pizz and Robert Williams, often involving subversive riffs on other famous works, like the album cover of the Rolling Stones' "Their Satanic Majesties Request." Painter Camille Rose Garcia is working on another big-eyed tableaux for Long Gone's latest greatest-hits disc, due this month, called "Their Sympathetic Majesties Request, Vol II."

"Who's going to make things just to give them away?" crows John, back in his house again, standing in an office crowded with statuary. "Small labels my size can't do that. But that's what I do. I thought that that sets me apart."

That, in the end, is what Long Gone John wants to Sympathy to represent. "I go to great lengths to make beautiful, rare artifacts," he says. He looks around his room. "It's all art, the visuals and the music -- it's all art."

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From the vaults

Selected highlights from Sympathy for the Record Industry's rock legacy.

Hole, "Retard Girl." This vinyl recording was Sympathy's first successful release; it remains dear to Long Gone John's heart. Taken from its four-track recording "The First Session," it shows why he considered it one of the best bands in L.A. in 1989.

Rocket From the Crypt, "State of Art Is on Fire." A favorite of the thrift-store citybilly set, Rocket's brand of guitars-on-fire rock music turns dancing in bars into a kind of weapon in this EP.

April March, "Paris in April." Pretty French chansons by a California girl that were a homage to originators such as Serge Gainsbourg.

The Von Bondies, "Lack of Communication." The album's title track and first single, "It Came From Japan," demonstrate why Sire has signed them to a major-label deal. The recording chimes with the best of the blistering Detroit garage sound.

The White Stripes, "The White Stripes." The original album that chummed the waters for the coming Detroit feeding frenzy. John put this out after other indies had turned it down.

Gun Club, "Early Warning." One of John's favorite L.A. bands captured in two discs of unreleased recordings, including one whole disc of Jeffrey Lee Pierce on solo acoustic.

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