Thursday, December 07, 2006

Makes me want to go used record shopping every day (or...why New York is the coolest place on earth)

This sort of thing gets my blood pumping...


In September of 2002 Warren Hill of Montreal Canada was perusing a box of records at a Chelsea, New York street sale when he happened upon a nice Leadbelly 10" on Folkways, a water damaged copy of the first Modern Lovers LP on Beserkely, and a brittle 12" piece of acetone-covered aluminum with the words "Velvet Underground. 4-25-66. Att N. Dolph" written on the label. He purchased the three records for 75 cents each.

As I have a small knowledge of records and am an old friend of Warren's, I got a call from him the next day in which he described the acetate. Because of the date and the unique type of pressing, we both agreed that it was probably an in-studio acetate made during the recording of the first Velvet Underground LP back in 1966 (I had heard that they occasionally would have
a vinyl cutting lathe in the studio to cut records of the day's recordings for the artists and/or producers to take home for review). Warren didn't want to play the mysterious platter due to the fragile nature of acetates, and the cheap nature of his record needle, so we agreed that the next time he was visiting me in Portland we would check it out together. If it turned out to be what we thought it was, maybe we could sell it at Mississippi Records, the small neighborhood record store in Portland that I work at. Sight unseen and sound unheard, I assumed that it was likely an acetate pressing of the recording which would be eventually be released as
the group's first album, "The Velvet Underground & Nico".

It took awhile for Warren to visit, but when he did he brought along the acetate. We cued it up and were stunned -- the first song was not "Sunday Morning" as on the "Velvet Underground & Nico" Verve LP, but rather it was "European Son"- the song that is last on that LP, and it was a version neither of us had ever heard before! It was less bombastic and more bluesy
than the released version, and it clocked in at a full two minutes longer. I immediately took the needle off the record, and realized that we had something special. Between the two of us we had heard many Velvets outtakes on both official and less than official releases, but the present material had never been heard by either of us.

The next few days found us scrambling for clues and information about what to make of this find; calling every record collector/historian we knew and reading everything we could find concerning the early recordings of the VU. We pieced together that this was probably a surviving copy of the legendary Scepter studios recordings which had been regarded as lost (hence the epic moniker "the lost scepter studios recordings" applied to these unheard sessions over the years). The recording is comprised of the primitive first "finished" version of the LP that Andy Warhol had shopped to Columbia as a ready-to-release debut album by his protege collective "The Velvet Underground".

This acetate, which is possibly the only surviving copy, represents the first Velvet Underground album as Andy Warhol intended it to be released.

Though the same compositions and even a few of the same "takes" (albeit in different mixes) were used on the subsequent commercial release, that which was eventually issued as their debut album on Verve, "The Velvet Underground & Nico", was a significantly different creation. I had heard of these nascent recordings before... it was said by some that the master
tapes had burned in a fire, by others that all of those recordings ended up being on the released album, and still by others that the only existing copy of that material was on an acetate owned by David Bowie, and that he was known to tout it as his most prized possession.

The truth about what we held was fuzzy until Warren managed to track down the N. Dolph referred to on the label for an interview.

Norman Dolph was a perennial in the New York art & music scene of the 1960's. He worked as a sales representative at Columbia Records through 1967, and was deeply involved with different facets of the independent music world on the side. Andy Warhol, who was managing the Velvets at the time, contacted Dolph & offered him a painting in exchange for services as
"ghost" (uncredited) producer for the Velvet's first recording session. Warhol wanted to record a Velvets album before they had a record company behind them as this would tend to minimize meddling label executives' mobility in compromising the musical arrangement's distraught primal force, not to mention the unprecedented taboo lyrics which openly address sex, drugs, and depravity. Warhol's plan was to have Dolph record it and then shop it around to labels (first & foremost Columbia) as a finished recording.

...and so Dolph rented out Scepter studios, and with an engineer named John Licata by his side, they recorded the Velvets for four days. At the time Scepter studios was between reconstruction and demolition with walls falling over and holes in the floor. Velvets' bass & viola player John Cale would later recall the environment as "Post-Apocalyptic".

Dolph took the master tapes made during this session to the Columbia building, which still had an in-house pressing plant, and cut the acetate "after hours" with people he knew on the inside. Dolph then sent the acetate to Columbia to see if they were interested in releasing it. It was returned promptly with a note that said something akin to "do you think we're out of our f**king minds?" Dolph then gave the acetate to Andy Warhol or John Cale, he cannot remember which.

Six of the songs recorded during the Scepter session made it on to the "Velvet Underground & Nico" LP, albeit with radically different mixes. The other four songs were re-recorded in LA by Tom Wilson. As far as we know, the only listenable copy of the original versions of Heroin, Venus In Furs, I'm Waiting For The Man, and European Son exist on the acetate that Warren
found. (A Japanese bootleg of the same material did appear, but in poor, arguably ‘unlistenable' sound quality. It is possible that the source tape for the Japanese bootleg was made from this very acetate decades ago when it was in different hands. Who knows?) We have since realized that we are in possession of a likely one of a kind artifact - the first recordings by one of the most influential rock bands of all time!

After establishing the authenticity of Warren's find we photographed the item and made a high quality digital back-up copy of the material. A media frenzy ensued, with articles appearing in Rolling Stone, Mojo, Record Collector, The Globe & Mail, and many other news sources. Calls started flooding in from people interested in buying the acetate, as well as record companies interested in releasing the songs on it. After much consideration, we decided that it would be best to release it to the highest bidder through an auction facilitated by our good friends at Saturn Records in Oakland, California (a store that has a well-established presence in the international vinyl collecting community, and an excellent reputation on the internet).

As to the most interesting mystery brought up by the appearance of this item - how did such an important artifact disappear for 37 years & end up at a Chelsea New York yard sale priced at 75 cents? ...We have no answer.

The track differences between the acetate versions and the commercial recordings on "The Velvet Underground & Nico" are detailed as follows:

1.European Son- completely different version,. Guitar solo is much bluesier. Less noisy and experimental. Longer by 2 minutes or so.

2.Black Angel's Death Song-Same take as released version. Different mix.

3.All Tomorrow's Parties- Same take as released version. Different mix.

4.I'll Be Your Mirror-Same take as released version. Radically different mix. No echo on Nico's vocals. Background vocals on end of song are more subdued.

5.Heroin-Completely different take than released version. Guitar line is different. Vocal inflections different, and a few different lyrics. Drumming is more primitive & off kilter. There is a tambourine dragging throughout the song.

6.Femme Fatale- Same take as released version. Radically different mix. Percussion more prominent. Alternate take on background vocals. Much more "poppy".

7.Venus In Furs- Different take than released version. Vocal inflections completely different. Instrumentation more based around Cales' violin than the guitar as in the released version.

8.I'm Waiting For The Man- Different take than released version. Guitar line is completely different. Vocal inflections different, and a few different lyrics. No drums, just tambourine. Bluesy guitar solo.

9.Run Run Run- Same take as released version. Different mix.

This .75 piece of vinyl is currently going for over $150,000 on ebay, with one day left in the auction (check it out for yourself here while it is still happening) . I predict at least half a mil. (and I thought getting close to $200 for Jars of Clay's first CD or 100 bucks for Daniel Amos' Shotgun Angel was a rush! Damn!!)

UPDATE: That first auction fell through (at 155k). Fake bidders swarm like bugs to this sort of thing, but despite rejecting high-risk bidders until further authentication (one person bid 2,000,000!), a fake still got through and won. A more private auction garnered a more conservative winning bid of $20,000. I'm depressed. I mean, 20 grand is still a great return on .75 cents, but to go from 155k to 20k? well, I'd need some drugs and therapy, that's all I'm saying. Before I turned my prize over to it's new owner I might even listen it on a normal turntable out of frustration and bitterness. I'd be too disgusted by what I was doing to enjoy it, but my disappointment would have to express itself somewhere...

Monday, December 04, 2006

Confessions of a CCM bystander (pt. II)

So...what happened? How does someone go from living and breathing the CCM subculture to turning their back on it? Well, for me, a few things came together in my thoughts and experience that brought my growing dissatisfaction with the CCM world to a head, to a point where I finally decided I'd had enough and went in a completely new direction. Many people I have known have turned their back on their faith when they left the subculture, throwing the baby out with the shitty diaper, but I did not. Faith in the reality of God and Christ was and is still an integral part of my identity, but my understanding of that faith, and how it is expressed and lived out in this life was taking a radical turn...

My dissatisfaction with the christian subculture began relatively early on, when I left the christian school I was attending (Zion) for the educationally greener pastures of public school. I remember in 8th grade, at Zion, when one of my classmates was leaving to go to public school, the leadership prayed for him and warned him (and us) that the world was full of wolves ready to tear us apart. It would be hard for my classmate at public school, without the christian protection he had here. He was leaving "us" to go be among "them", and that is always a bad idea. And then a few years later, before 11th grade, I followed suit. The big bad wolves? Turns out most of them were actually at the christian school I had been attending. Public school turned out to be a very welcoming, unthreatening place for me. I made more friends my first month there than I had at Zion in most of the time I was there (and it seems I actually made more friends at Zion after I left than I had before). (Some of my deepest and longest lasting friendships, I will admit however, came out of my time at Zion, and for that, as well as the strong spiritual foundation I found in those years, I would not trade the time I spent there for anything.) That, along with things like the blatantly erroneous anti-rock stance prevalent at that school (christian rock included - a good friend and extremely important influence on my life, Rich Kifer, was kicked out of that place for "leading the kids astray with that satanic christian rock"! I can't think of many other honors I would love to have bestowed on me), all that and more were leading me to an understanding that all was not right in that little sheltered world. But these were just the beginning seeds. I would still remain a part of the CCM subculture for many years to come, participating in youth group, as well as attending christian music festivals regularly - Ichthus and then later Cornerstone - festivals whose impact on my life is incalculable - even working at a christian radio station for a time).

In my early-to-mid twenties, my sense that something was very wrong with the ideological world of the christian / CCM culture was reaching a tipping point. For one of many things, Catholic bashing was fairly widespread (if not always expressed), and coming from a very catholic family, this started to bother me a great deal, the plank sticking out of the eyes of the catholic-bashers the way it was. Also, the college-age discussion group I was a regular part of seemed less interested in digging into the harder, deeper questions of the faith and preferred rather to just rehash the same old basic teachings of Christianity that we were supposed to believe without much question. I often felt like an adult trying to fit into the desk-chair of a first grader. I asked too many hard questions and had too many doubts to feel very comfortable in that group for much longer. Oddly enough, the depth I found at Cornerstone every year made me more and more aware of the shallowness of much of the CCM world's way of thinking and living. Working at a christian bookstore for a year, surrounded by all the cheap nic-nacs and gimmicks stamped with a Jesus fish didn't help matters any. The music was sounding more and more contrived, and the lyrics started sounding like a polished sales-pitch for a certain viewpoint, like propaganda. Much of the predominant music itself wasn't very good, sounding like a bland homogenization of sounds into one general sort of sound, very little distinction of instruments was audible to my ears. (What I suspect was happening around this time is that CCM was becoming a very big, profitable business, and so the "artistic" decisions were increasingly being made not by artists, but by businessmen. The Corporate Hand always has and always will take the heart out of art (especially music) in the name of making it more palatable to more people. Unit Sales is the ultimate goal of the corporate head, not integrity of artistic expression) There were (and always are) exceptions, but bottom line, to me most of it just started sounding like cheap, bad art.

My faith also began changing shape during that time as well. Christians tend to want to know whether or not someone is "saved". To those in the christian subculture, it is a black-or-white issue. But I was coming to an understanding of salvation as more of a process than as a once-for-all-time "get your golden ticket" kind of deal. I believed more in the process of "being saved" than of "having been saved". And everyone is somewhere in that process, on that journey. Some aren't at a place yet where they even consciously believe in Jesus, or God even, but many of them will get there at some point. Just because someone says they don't believe in God doesn't mean that their life isn't leading them to a place of faith. To dismiss or reject people because they aren't "one of us" saved, is to reject a potential brother or sister to be, or worse yet, is to possibly thwart that belief from ever growing or taking shape. And make no mistake about it - there is a lot of rejection of the "unsaved" among the CCM crowd, much condescension, as if unbelievers have nothing to offer in a relationship of any kind until they have said the "sinners prayer". Everything up until that point is focused on getting the unbeliever to that point. Getting them signed up for membership in the club.

Also, the silence of God was becoming more noticeable to me. And so my distrust of those who would glibly shout "thus saith the lord" in church, or talk about how "God told me..." or how God spoke something to their hearts...or those who presumed to speak for God ("God wants you to..." "God feels (x) when we..." etc..), my distrust of all of that kind of talk and those who uttered it was growing exponentially. And it's hard to build much of a successful career in the CCM world without at some point presuming to speak for God.

At some point in all of this growing restlessness I started reading John Fischer. He crystallized for me everything I was vaguely but indefinably feeling about the christian / CCM subculture. He gave articulation to what it was I was having such a problem with in this CCMworld. The book, Real Christians *Don't* Dance, was pivotal for me. I can't relate everything he said in there that opened my eyes (there's too much), but the reading of it was a moment when I realized that it was ok, even right, to have these misgivings about the little secluded world christians had created for themselves. I don't think I had even given much thought to the idea that it was wrong to live in this way, separated from any contact with the "non-christian" world that we were in fact supposed to be salt and light for.

Along with John Fischer, I read Brennan Manning's "Ragamuffin Gospel", and that too was an essential, pivotal book that crystallized my understanding of how we, as christians, are supposed to relate to the world around us. The idea that we fellowship as saints, but rarely fellowship as sinners. Which is to say we in this christian subculture world are more concerned with looking perfect before the eyes of everyone else (especially other christians) than we are with confessing our need for a saviour, our need for grace and mercy and forgiveness. We are a mess, and if we act otherwise, we end up acting unloving toward those who can't hide their messiness. We end up judging others from our false perch of "higher moral standards". John Fischer laments that there's "no graffiti" on our whitewashed walls.

Perhaps even more importantly during those years, I discovered the music of Over the Rhine and Vigilantes of Love. These two groups did more to open up my world than any others ever had, before or possibly even since. They created music that resonated with me deeply, music that was not polished pop aimed at unit sales, but rather true art, and lyrics that spoke to a deep search and struggle for truth, lyrics that were far more literate and literary than any I had previously encountered. There were layers to their music that were not easily grasped on first, second, or third listens. They were deep and rich with meaning. And even more, both of these groups (especially Bill Mallonee) talked in depth about their faith and struggles and what influenced their thought and artistic expression and approach, what fueled their search for a true and meaningful faith. These influences were more literary than musical, and included authors like Henri Nouwen, Frederick Buechner, Flannery O'Conner, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, Annie Dillard, and a bunch more that I had never heard of before then. These were authors whose books were on the shelves, not of christian bookstores, but rather places like Borders and Barnes & Noble... in other words, these were people who were expressing their faith, writing about it and working it out in the real world, where everybody lived, and not just in some secluded "christian" world. As John Fischer says, you'll find what you're looking for, and suddenly my eyes were opened to the treasury of faith-based works of literature and music that were all around me in a "secular" bookstore like Borders! I guess I previously just assumed that all these authors and musicians that weren't sold in the christian bookstores were all going to hell or something, but I suddenly came to realize that this is not so. A whole world of authors, musicians and artists whom I had previously written off as "secular" were, in fact, people of deep faith, searching, struggling for an authentic expression of that faith in the real world, in flesh and blood (far from "pie in the sky"), among the hurting, the struggling, the lost. I discovered musical artists like The Innocence Mission (whose self-titled debut I still consider one of the most important examples of how true faith and true art can come together in a way that is not trite or cliche'), Bruce Cockburn, Pierce Pettis, Patty Griffin... artists of Christian faith who yet remained apart from the CCM world and all its trappings and baggage. Many of these artists and authors were (gasp!) Catholics! (by this time I was starting to believe that Catholics were to Christianity what college graduates were to the public school system. And evangelicals of the CCMish variety were somewhere more in the lower elementary level, perhaps enjoying nap time and cookies, believing that it was bad and wrong even to get too high of an education and better to stay right there in the lower el... and let's go over our ABC's again, shall we?) I also started seeing artists I had always known now in a new light - U2, one of the biggest bands in the world, is primarily a Christian band, although they are not exclusively so... Members of Simple Minds, Violent Femmes, The Alarm, Midnight Oil, The name just a few from the alternative side of the spectrum... It turns out there are Christians all over the place! You just need to look for them, instead of looking at them as the "unsaved" other... And many of them might as well be preaching from the scriptures themselves, as blatant as some of their lyrics and actions are... I also grew to appreciate "bridge" artists, like Julie Miller or Sam Philips, who had once been CCM artists and had since left the ghetto (as we lovingly refer to the secluded and artistically impoverished part of the world that is CCM culture) and had gone on to create a deeper artistic expression of their faith without the confines imposed upon it by what is "marketable" to CCM listeners, and without leaving anything of their outspoken faith behind...

As I've said, much CCM is basically a teaching tape set to music, and that includes much of the music I enjoyed a great deal. CCM was a way of reaffirming my faith, focusing my mind and thoughts... but now, in my late-to-post-college days, books (which had always had a prominent place in my life) were becoming my primary source of spiritual nourishment. Because of this shift, the prominence of a "message" in the music was less important to me. Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton were giving me richer food for thought in one paragraph than any pop artist could ever do in the entirety of their discography, and so artistic excellence took precedence over theological instruction. Lyrics didn't ever become UNimportant to me, but they were not of primary importance, and I preferred a broader range of expression now, growing increasingly less tolerant of didacticism or condescension in christian lyrical approach.

John Fischer and Brennan Manning had articulated for me what was wrong with the christian / CCM culture (as well as provided a vision of what a real Christian culture could look like), and in Over the Rhine and Vigilantes of Love, and the world they opened my eyes to, I found an alternative way of being Christian in the world, another option than what I had previously known. The vision that John Fischer seemed to be describing was already at work in the world. There already was a truly Christian subculture interacting with the real world, already being salt and light to those who needed that presence. These people were engaged in a life of faith that was deeper and richer than anything I had ever known in the shallow waters of the CCM subculture, and so there was really very little choice to be made. I jumped ship. At that point, the more I thought about it in light of these new discoveries, the less I understood why there is even a CCM subculture in the first place. It is just odd to me, not that the marketers have created and exploited this little CCM world, but that true Christians would or could ever allow it to exist in the first place. I don't wonder why there are "christian only" bookstores (given the market there obviously is for such places, what else can a savvy business entrepreneur do but take advantage of it?), I wonder why Christians would ever feel the need to support such places. There is obviously no "Anti-christian" mentality at work in the world (as I was once made to believe). Jesus is everywhere you look (of course you have to look for him, and not for those who are against him, which you will also find). As Rich Mullins once said, "All music is Christian". The idea that only the music sold in this christian bookstore is truly christian, while appealing on some level, is also dangerous and even heretical. People want the labels so that they won't have to think about what they are listening to or reading or otherwise engaged in. They also want the world to be black and white, everything is right or wrong, no gray, no mystery, no christians who also use cuss words or smoke. But this life is not like that, nor are the people who live it. And I guess I just came to a point where I wanted to be the one doing the thinking about what I was engaging in instead of accepting what some marketing savey salesman was deciding for me, and so I dropped even the idea of labeling anything as "christian" or "not christian". It all comes from God, and it can all be used by God. To the pure, all things are pure. The problem is not in the music we're listening to or the books we read or any of that stuff, the problem is with and in us, and how we come to, what we bring to, anything we engage in - books, music, movies, other people...this life and anything in it.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

A Quote From: Flannery O' Conner

"Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it. We hear a great deal about humility being required to lower oneself, but it requires an equal humility and a real love of the truth to raise oneself and by hard labor to acquire higher standards"

And a quote from the person whose blog I lifted it from (A.M.Correa):
Obviously, literacy/education barriers do exist, but I tend to think that a lack of interest in art indicates a narrowness of mind akin to arrogance. (A word like "artsy" is rarely a compliment.)...I do tend to think that "mostpeople" have a capacity for growth that they often deny themselves. The illusion of "security" can have a lot to do with it. Mostpeople don't like being made to feel or think about things they aren't comfortable with. Anything foreign or unfamiliar to their experience is usually treated with suspicion. It is this rejection of anything "different" that reeks of elitism....a lack of willingness to submit oneself to "difficulty" can be just as snobbish as the attitude of ivory-tower types who look down on "the masses."