Friday, October 25, 2019

The Most Expensive Album I've Ever Bought

I've written a few entries where I expressed my feelings about why original copies of albums can have convey more excitement than a reissue. It has nothing to do with monetary value (well, not primarily) or CD vs. vinyl.  The first copies of an album can get you closer to what a musician was hoping to convey to listeners, not withstanding the possible overbearing influence of a producer or the brass at the record label. There is also a fleeting idea that the copy of a record that came out several decades ago also had some sort of impact on a listener at that time - maybe blowing their mind, maybe puzzling them, maybe infuriating them because they didn't understand what was going on. We've all heard stories about opening used double albums and finding the remains of pot in the center where joints were rolled many moons ago. There are all kind of scenarios that could have unfolded while that record was playing.

Back when I was in high school, I used to frequent a local used record store and became friends with the owner. (I even worked there, under the table, one summer.) Among the albums he told me about was one on ESP-Disk' by Erica Pomerance, who he compared to Lydia Lunch, in her less shrieky moments. When he told me this, the CD reissue boom was a good decade away. Some ESP albums might pop up that way occasionally, like the Fugs or Pearls Before Swine and maybe some Albert Ayler if you're lucky. At that time the Base label was reissuing a lot of the more popular items on that imprint as well. Pomerance was not one of them. The only way to hear old, out of print albums like hers was to find them in a used record store, thrift store, flea market or some other place that might qualify as a fluke.

By the early '90s, the ZYX label began issuing CDs of virtually everything on the label (except the Fugs, who owned the rights to their music following a bad break up with ESP founder Bernard Stollman). I found a copy of Pomerance's You Used to Think on disc, excited to finally hear one of the strange albums about which I had heard only a few choice words. (Skip Spence's Oar kind of falls into the same category of Unheard Music). 

Like many ESP releases, You Used to Think made me wonder what the hell Stollman was thinking when he decided to release it. The music is ragged folk, with some jazz influences (meandering saxophone and way-busy flute noodling), and some doodly sitar thrown in for good measure. While a new band can convey a certain enthusiasm that outweighs their tentative sound, the players on this record just sound like musicians who are meeting for the first time and can't quite figure out how to work together. 

And there on top of all of it is Pomerance herself, wailing her lyrics like a stereotypical beatnik gal, albeit an articulate one. Two lines into one song ("Julius") she hits an extremely bad note, but continues unabated. When she coughs during another song, she quips, "That's from smoking too much."

The notes in the ZYX release featured interview excerpts with Pomerance, who had moved back to Canada where she was born and became a documentary filmmaker. She admits that prior to catching the subway to one of the album's recording session, she - and her bandmates, presumably - took a hit of LSD. This led to such golden tracks as "Anything Goes," which includes her chanting, "Hello, tello-visssss/ jello...mellovissss-." When someone picks up a pair of bongos (because what's an acid trip without them), she begins sing/chanting like she's evoking a Native American ceremony. 

But that's not the best moment of that track. Acting as the guru of the performance, which falls into silence several times, Erica picks it with the invocation: "Take us to a new site.... with trees."

"Oh, and water," Gail Pollard adds enthusiastically, revealing a New York accent on the second word. "And sand."

"Have you noticed the grains," Pomerance asks, sounding very serious. "They're so immaculate."

Not all of the album sounds that loose. "Burn Baby Burn" puts a poem by Lee N. Bridges to some acoustic folk. It might not be "Subterranean Homesick Blues" but it flows much better than the Fugs' attempt to do the same for Allen Ginsburg's "Howl" on their Virgin Fugs album. The best part of this track comes when a break in the music coincides with Pomerance belting out the line, "And the raaaaaaaaaaaats ate up the pussy cat."

My wife has always been very cool and tolerant with the wild free jazz albums that I've listened to over the years. She admits that in all the time we've been together, she's only asked me to turn off a few things. One was a bad Monkees song. One was Patty Waters. The third was Waters' labelmate Erica Pomerance. I'm pretty sure the request came following the aforementioned golden line from "Burn Baby Burn."

I eventually dubbed "Burn Baby Burn" and the title track of You Used to Think onto a cassette and traded the CD in at the place where I bought it. I finally heard the whole thing and didn't think I'd want to hear it again or keep around for those moments when I'd want to amuse and shock houseguests.

Fast forward to the new millennium, when eBay and Discogs popped up and it was easy to track original copies of old albums. You Used to Think, which I found out was originally credited to just "Erica" on the cover and spine, was a high ticket item, if it could be found at all. It became such a frequent object of my search that the eBay algorithm eventually searched for it down for me with a few keystrokes.

As much as I've mocked it - and made it a running joke in the house, as a purchase that would drive my wife crazy and put us in the poor house - there were things about the album that I did like, in spite of its raggedness. The vocals on the title track, double tracks of Pomerance singing an octave apart, were kind of catchy. Lyrically, the song seems to have a proto-feminist stance in the face of dealing with the free lovin' dudes of the day. "To Leonard From the Hospital" was actually based on a letter to her friend from back home, Leonard Cohen. It would be cool to have the original record someday, I thought, as long as it wouldn't break the bank.

Maybe it would sound better on vinyl anyway.

Back in this last summer, I received a bonus from my place of work, which meant I had a little bit of scratch to do something stupid with. I had gone back and forth in my mind about this album. It seemed ridiculous to buy it if - considering how many things I listen to for work and pleasure -  I would just shelve it after a couple spins. On the other hand, it's such a unique artifact. It's been years since I heard all of it. My tastes have changed so maybe I'll like it.

About two weeks ago, the decision was made for me. A copy of the album that appeared to be in good shape had popped up on Discogs. The price was less than three figures, which made it about $40 less than the one I had been wishing on for a long time. I don't need my used records to be pristine. In fact I like when they feel lived in and loved, as long as that doesn't result in serious scratches or skips on the vinyl or heavy shelfware on the cover. This one seemed to have neither, so I jumped.

Last Friday, after a particularly frustrating day at work (for reasons that escape me now), I came home and my wife said there was a record mailer waiting for me. It was a surprise because the tracking info said it wouldn't show up until the following Monday. But there it was in all its splendor.

The ZYX reissue had reversed the black and white colors on the front cover of You Used to Think, for reasons that were never made clear. Maybe it downplayed the fornication happening in the dead center of the photo (go ahead, look at it). The CD had also added the artist's (full) name and the album title to the cover, which sullied the artistic intent of the cover. As you can see from the photos here, the artwork didn't end with the cover. It continued on the labels, which poked a spindle through Pomerance's eye on Side One and popped through her painted face on the other side. I don't think any of this design was recreated in the ZYX booklet, including the dramatic back cover pic. But if I'm simply forgetting it, that means it didn't do her justice.

But how does it sound, one might wonder? Well... it's still pretty shambolic. I'm still puzzled because Trevor Koehler is credited with playing alto sax, but the horn throughout side two sounds a lot more like a baritone, or at least a tenor. Maybe Pomerance should be considered under the same banner as outside musicians like Jandek or Jad Fair. Or maybe she was just a diamond in the rough who could have sounded a little more cohesive if her band had practiced a little more. In some ways, listening to You Used to Think might be the equivalent to eavesdropping on a flock of 1968 Lower East Side musicians who are messing around with song ideas and don't care about cleaning up for major label big wig. Which explains a large part of the beauty of the ESP catalog.

You Used to Think is now the most expensive used album I've ever purchased. (New box sets have been more expensive, for obvious reasons.) One of the most expensive albums in my collection, until now, was another ESP classic, The East Village Other compilation. A few years ago, I received a copy of the reissue, which I reviewed here. It was a fine package (in part because it restored the entire original album unlike other reissues) but it doesn't have half the charm of the original. You can really sense the statement the label was trying to make with it.

The most expensive album I ever bought prior to You Used to Think was a copy of the Pop Group's Y, complete with the lyric sheet. I used to have that during high school but somewhere along the way it got sold to make some grocery money or bill money. Part of the reason it was so expensive was because the seller was in the UK and on top of the cost of the record there was $15 shipping. Oddly enough, within days of purchasing Erica, I received an email that talked about a deluxe reissue plan for Y. Oh if only I had waited 12 years.

Just kidding.

Now I have Erica. It was an investment but it makes me happy.

If you've read this far and are curious about what became of Pomerance, I found a few articles online about her. There aren't many, but this one offer some insight into her connection to Leonard Cohen.
This one talks about the creation of the album.


Unknown said...

Glad to hear someone's made a few dollars from sales from my one and only album. I never touched a cent of royalties. Sorry you had to pay so much for it, especially since it is so hard on your wife"s ears. Glad you sort of appreciate it. We had fun doing it so many years ago.

shanleymusic said...

Erica, is that you? WOW. I just saw this comment now. Thanks for writing. Sorry to hear about the royalty situation. I'm actually writing a story now on ESP for JazzTimes. I've spent a lot of the day on it. This record was expensive but I had to have it. Something about hearing it in its original form does me some good. Not sure if you'll get a note that I posted this, but thanks again for writing.