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.)
When he announced his move, Long Gone John assured the curious that Sympathy for the Record Industry would continue to operate. But he admits now that he’d been quietly considering the auction block. “This isn’t a new thought. I’ve thought about it for a while. I just never made a move.” He composed his sales pitch about six months ago, he says, as “a tongue-in-cheek thing that I thought I’d toss up on eBay for fun. But I never did. And then the other day I discovered it again, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll put it on my MySpace page.’ ”
Within hours of posting it, the information had wended its way around the Internet, and the phone calls started coming. He says that so far he’s received many queries, a few of which he considers “serious,” though he declines to provide names.
One man who is very interested is John Reis, a.k.a. Speedo, the former lead singer of, among other bands, Rocket From the Crypt and Hot Snakes. Reis’ label, Swami Records, trades in a similar aesthetic as Sympathy; and Rocket From the Crypt released a handful of records on Long Gone John’s label.
Reis confirms that he’s made an offer. “We’re talking about some noncash reimbursements — trade — and he’s entertaining my offer right now.” And, in typical Sympathy fashion, the offer at first ?glance sounds too ridiculous to take seriously. Reis elaborates: “I have a pack of llamas. It’s a really special breed: They’re the Chacoan llamas, which were llamas for the royalty of Peru. I have about 30 of them, and I was going to trade him those. He has tons of room, and each of these are worth about $30,000 a piece.” Reis’ family breeds llamas, he explains, and enters them in competitions. “It’s kinda like the 4H Club of the international aristocracy and elite.” Combined, the value of the llamas he’s offering for the label is $600,000. But, explains Reis, “the one concern is just keeping these things alive in the climate of the Northwest,” and acknowledges that John might have to have some sort of “biodome thing built.”
Such is the world that Long Gone John occupies. But this whimsical land has a few very unwhimsical problems as well. For anyone who has ever been in a band or in the biz, Long Gone John’s list of assets contains one gigantic red flag: “questionable/nebulous rights to nearly 750 releases by over 550 bands.” Translated: Sympathy has operated for the past 19 years without signing those pesky things called contracts. Any new owner potentially would have to negotiate with 550 different bands in order to keep the catalog intact.
The owner acknowledges these concerns even as he brushes them aside. “I’m being completely up-front,” he insists. “Anybody that really knows anything about Sympathy knows that 90 percent of the time everything was done on a handshake deal. That doesn’t fucking nullify everything that I’ve done. I have no contracts. I continue to function every day and nobody gives a shit. So if it changes hands, why do people expect that it means that immediately the whole thing falls apart? I don’t get it.”
Long Gone says that the label “brings in a shitload of money consistently every month,” but that individually, none of his releases are hot sellers. It’s the body of work as a whole that is valuable. “Individually nobody is really generating enough money to even talk about. But altogether it amounts to something.”
Assesses Reis, who did sign a contract with Sympathy before the label put out the Rocket From the Crypt titles: “I think it’s the finest record label in existence, and I think that although its value might not be right now what it once was — just in terms of CD and record sales in general — I think it’s just a matter of time before Sympathy will find an audience. I think a lot of those are classic records and artifacts from a time and place that can never be re-created.”
Reis isn’t concerned with the rights to the music, and thinks that if a kindred spirit — like himself — buys the label, bands will come out on top. “And maybe if bands see that there’s no big money changing hands — just livestock — and it’s someone basically from that same subculture that’s taking the reins, maybe they won’t come to me saying, ‘You’re this guy with this suit that has a lot of money and we want our cut if we’re going to stay on Sympathy.’?”
Realistically, Reis harbors little hope that John will accept his offer, though John does like the llamas. And as far as compensating the bands after a sale, Reis says he’s got a plan for that too: He’d offer bands part ownership of a llama. “Maybe [approach], like, the Red Aunts, the Child Molesters or Clawhammer and say, ‘You guys get this llama, and any of the revenues that it generates will end up split between the three bands.’?”
“I guess I’m considering it,” confirms Long Gone John, adding that he’d prefer trading for miniature horses. So far, he says, “I’ve been offered kidneys, lungs and a lifetime live-in French-maid service. I’d probably trade for a massive Victorian pump organ or a habitable castle overlooking the coast in Swansea, Wales. I’d also consider a real shrunken head and an unending supply of gummi bears and A-1 sauce. I’m a simple man.”?