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Between the Mundane and the Arcane

Jim Sullivan: lost, classic
PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS AND BARBARA SULLIVAN

Let's start this story with Jim Sullivan. In 1975, he wandered into the desert and never returned — vanished into the thin New Mexico air. But he left behind a musical legacy. Sullivan was a Malibu Beach troubadour of the late 1960s, a sad-eyed cowboy who rubbed shoulders with the likes of Dennis Hopper and sang heart-wrenching songs to lonely girls in smoky seaside nightclubs. He never quite made it, but he had enough clout among famous friends to make a record — 1969's U.F.O. — that encompassed and then memorialized his talent. When Sullivan got lost in New Mexico — some say he was swept up by extraterrestrial visitors, others claim he ran afoul of the local mob — those songs were lost as well. Until now.

Thanks to curiosity fueled by audiophile obsession, U.F.O. and Jim Sullivan have been recently resurrected with a 180-gram vinyl reissue. It's yet another example of a renewed frenzy for that rare and strange kind of record known as the "lost classic."

Los Angeles is host to several independent labels that specialize in just this sort of digging — small-time, big-hearted operations run mostly on obsession and credit cards. The mother ship, of course, is Burbank's Rhino Records. It's now an arm of the Warner Bros. empire, but in its infancy, Rhino was one of the first American labels to focus on reissue releases.

The scene Rhino was vital in birthing has grown exponentially in the last decade, in large part due to the Internet and its formidable ability to focus the fringe. Vintage-vinyl freaks and hard-core deep-cut nuts around the globe have been gathering online since the Web's inception, sharing lore, boasting of finds and spreading the good word on rare music. And in Los Angeles, the reissue scene is thriving.

The 15-year-old Stones Throw Records, founded by musician/DJ/audiophile Peanut Butter Wolf, has been resurrecting classic rap and funk since its launch, in addition to releasing new artists. Spin-off label Now-Again began in 2002, helmed by Stones Throw cohort and vinyl aficionado Eothen "Egon" Alapatt. Now-Again focuses solely on reissue archival tracks — everything from vanity-press '60s soul to obscure thrift-store finds.

Meanwhile, up in shady Hollywood Dell, Douglas McGowan recently kick-started Yoga Records, a one-man operation that works in conjunction with existing indies, such as Drag City, to reissue gems like the folk musings of Ted Lucas and the homemade psyche-rock freak-out Dwarr. And the label to thank for Sullivan's posthumous comeback, Seattle's Light in the Attic, just opened a satellite office here, headed by the company's co-founder, Matt Sullivan (no relation).

"We launched in 2002, and at the time there were far fewer music heads interested in old records and a very small number of reissue labels," Matt Sullivan explains. "The Internet has been the biggest source of change, helping to speed things up tenfold. It's far easier to locate musicians [and] copyright holders and share music, now more than ever. A number of our reissues would never have been possible without the advent of the Web and the community of the music blog."

"Ironically, the thing that ruined everything — the Internet — has led to a sort of renaissance in the world of reissues," McGowan says. "Times are changing very quickly, and sifting through old music has a real grounding quality. There's more willingness to check out the old stuff than ever before. I think everyone has figured out that there's a lot more to the story than you will ever get from mainstream pop culture, and there isn't so much stigma attached to having been a commercial failure the first time around. It's almost becoming a sort of badge of honor."

That badge of honor graces most of Yoga Records' releases, which tend to focus on the experimental and obscure — the musicians who lingered on the edges of a scene and made much of their art without an audience.

"I try to look for things that aren't obvious — that might not happen otherwise," McGowan explains. "I just go after stuff that resonates with me. It's got to have that mystique. I'm basically trying to re-create the feeling of discovery I had as a teenager for myself and anyone else who wants to listen. I'm not sure how many people out there have the conviction to hold up something like Dwarr and say, 'Shut the fuck up — this rules!' "

As part of its love affair with the once-lost, Light in the Attic also has embraced the wonderfully obvious. In recent years, it has reissued Serge Gainsbourg classics and collaborated with Kris Kristofferson, who offered the label hitherto-unreleased publishing demos from early in his legendary career.

"We're always on the lookout for records that never got their due," Matt Sullivan says. "They're artists that deserve a second chance and albums that survived financial suicide, record-label mergers and a mountain of dust."

Digging albums out of that dust is a task that combines both the mundane — such as endless Google searches — and the arcane, with licensing and detective work that Matt Sullivan describes as "a cross between Columbo and a Scooby-Doo caper."

In other words, it's a challenge that makes an L.A. office something of a necessity.

"It became clear that it would be very advantageous to open a satellite office in Los Angeles," Sullivan says. "Considering many of the copyright holders are based in Los Angeles, being here helps a great deal."

"Curation is slow work, and Los Angeles is the most chill cultural center in the world, so it's kind of ideal," McGowan adds. "Southern California has RTI, the best record plant, and Stoughton, the only press doing old-style covers. And L.A.'s probably the best place in the country to find old records — this is where most of them were made."

L.A. also is host to what Now-Again's Alapatt calls "a very supportive record-collector community," as well as being home to a long history of great musicians — like Jim Sullivan.

"There's been amazing music in L.A. since the history of recorded music," Alapatt says. "And a lot of that was music made in the shadows of the major labels. If you're doing reissues of stuff you love and no one else might know yet, L.A. is one of the most inspiring places to be."

Jim Sullivan's U.F.O. is available now from Light in the Attic; lightintheattic.net. Also visit Stones Throw Records at stonesthrow.com, Now-Again at nowagainrecords.com, and Yoga Records at yogarecords.com.

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