By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Talk to Long Gone John about his early days as an entrepreneur, and you’re left with a single, indelible image, one that truly embodies the man’s DIY ethic: It’s of the longtime owner of the Long Beach–based record label Sympathy for the Record Industry standing beside a steaming cauldron of record vinyl. Like a silversmith plying molten metals, John used to hand-mix colors in order to create new hues for each of the 45s put out on his influential indie imprint. Bubblegum pink. Springtime green. Hearty burgundy.
“It’s like this big fucking cement mixer that you pour these colored pellets into,” says John, who looks like a character from Deadwood and tosses f-bombs with equal aplomb. “They swirl around, and then it goes to something called an extruder, which spits it all out like you’re squeezing a fucking tube of toothpaste.” The hunk of vinyl is then squished to the width of a crepe and imprinted with the grooves that hold the music. The end result, festooned with a label, is a shiny new 7-inch that looks like something Willy Wonka might have made.
“I was really into this mode of creating,” says Long Gone (real name: John Edward Mermis, but nobody calls him that), whose passions and quirks are supremely Wonkian. “It’s easy to make rare records. All you have to do is make pressings smaller than the demand.” But of course there’s more to it than that. To do things the Sympathy way, you need an exquisite eye for cover art, and a passion for American culture in all its backwater glory. You need to be an obsessive in the mold of Henry Darger, Walt Whitman, Ed Wood Jr. and that dude who rolled the boulder-size ball of twine on a farm in Kansas. And, above all, you need to be consumed by rock & roll.
Long Gone John used to be obsessed with releasing rock & roll records, and he’s got the catalog to prove it: approximately 750 releases by 550 bands, each a dirt-rock nugget from a forsaken garage somewhere on the globe. The label released the first three White Stripes albums and a couple singles, as well as early tracks from Hole, Bad Religion, Rocket From the Crypt, the Melvins, Turbonegro, the Detroit Cobras and hundreds of others. The 5,6,7,8’s from Japan. The Scientists from Australia. Tav Falco from Memphis. One of the label’s many funny slogans has rung true since the beginning: “Sympathy for the Record Industry: We just don’t know when to give up.”
At least they didn’t. A few weeks ago, however, Long Gone John, partly as a lark, partly because he was curious, but mainly because he didn’t want to do it anymore, posted a message on his MySpace page. In typically irreverent and witty script, he stuck a sign in the label’s front yard. “FOR SALE,” read the message. “Preeminent Independent Record Label.”
What followed was a sales pitch worthy of QVC. He listed the label’s heavy hitters, his exquisite taste in reissues — Roky Erikson, the New York Dolls, the Gun Club, Spacemen 3, Suicide. He continued: “[A]nd lets not forget the serious concentration on a plethora (like that word??) of bands in hot beds such as Memphis, Detroit and Montreal and also being among the first to look towards the Far East to unleash the demented and curious off-kilter sounds of those crazed ornamentals (Asians to you of a p.c. mindset).”
Then he ran through the company’s assets, which include: “questionable/nebulous rights to nearly 750 releases by over 550 bands”; all the master tapes; national and international distribution; existing stock “modestly estimated at a wholesale value of 1.8 millon dollars”; cover layouts and original artwork; an established Web site with “a vastly lucrative mail order business.” He even offered to throw in “over 30 snappy sarcastic slogans,” including, “We almost really care,” “You’ve tried the rest now go f*ck yourself” and “A name you can pronounce since 1988.”
The asking price? “$625,000.00 or $700,000.00 if i don’t like you.”
To Sympathy observers, the move was a small shock, but not an earthquake. Six months ago, the Los Angeles native decided to relocate his home and label to Olympia, Washington. That in itself was a Sisyphean undertaking, because Long Gone John isn’t just obsessive about music. He’s obsessive about an insanely wide array of things. He collects Americana figurines and comic-inspired art, and has carefully arranged it on every flat — and curvy, and angled — surface in his home. His accumulation is incredible — he owns the leather jacket Iggy Pop wore on the back of Raw Power, and an original Ed Wood script for Plan 9 From Outer Space, and Sid Vicious’s gold record from Never Mind the Bollocks — and his prescience impeccable. He started buying Robert Williams’ work when it wasn’t hip to do so, and commissioned art — both paintings and record covers — from some of the country’s foremost comic and comic-inspired artists, including Koop, Mark Ryden, Todd Schorr and Marion Peck. (His collection is highlighted in the recently released Gregg Gibbs documentary The Treasures of Long Gone John.)
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