Ken in his own words – part 4

It Coulda Happened this Way — Bookies & Crooks

Vesta and I were watching this program on Television with Gene Barry and Susan St. James called ‘The Name of the Game,’ sort of a liberal leaning Friday night series about the newspaper business when Ted from Records and Supertape called me up. He had these soundboard Dylan tapes I just had to hear.

“When?” I said.

“How do I get to your place?” He was excited and I gave him directions. He was living in the back of his Record Store on Pico off Robertson in Santa Monica and I lived in Lakewood, a long way to go on a Friday night just to play someone a tape, but his obvious excitement told me there was something about these tapes that couldn’t wait till daylight. Besides, if he was going to drive all the way to my place, then I was going to stay up and listen.

It was almost midnight when he showed up. He was a stocky guy, about five-six or seven, with hair to his shoulders, who didn’t know how to frown. In my life I’ve never met a guy so up. Even when he was down his smile told the world life was great. That night he was higher than you could ever get on drugs and he was juggling a reel of tape back and forth in his hands like it was white hot.

“Put this on.” He handed the tape over.

“I’m all set up.” I took it and felt an electric energy ripple from my fingers to the back of my neck. His mood was infectious and I quickly caught it.

“What do you think?” he said after about a minute of ‘Killing Me Alive,’ an electric outtake from Highway 61.

What I thought was, “How in the world did he get this tape and why wasn’t this song on the album?”, but what I said was, “Let me hear a little more.” Dub was going to have a cow when he got to hear this. Two more songs into the tape and the mask started to slip off the Lone Ranger. “This stuff has gotta get on vinyl,” I said. Up until then, I’d been pretty low key. Nobody in the record business, except my father and Pete at the pressing plant, knew of my involvement with the Dylan bootleg. I wanted to keep it that way, but if I wanted those tapes, I was going to have to decide pretty quick about telling Ted.

“We need to find the Great White Wonder guys.” Ted bounced on the balls of his feet as he paced my living room.

“You found ’em, Kimosabe.” The mask had been whisked away, the decision not hard to make at all, the desire to have the tapes greater than my desire for secrecy.

“You?” He turned, stared at me through the dark. Vesta and the kids were asleep. I had a green lava lamp on. Ted looked ghostly.

“Ya wanna master it right now?” I was good with a splicing bar, fast and accurate.

“Yeah.”

A couple hours later and after a lot of wrangling about which songs were going to go on the record, we finally finished and took off the headphones. Now it was time to see how well we’d done. We sat back to smoke a joint and listen to our effort. We played the tape low, so as not to wake anyone, each lost in our own thoughts when ‘Stealin’’ came on.

“I didn’t say to put that on there,” Ted said.

“I didn’t want it on there either,” I said.

“Let’s take it off,” he said.

“Okay.” I got off the couch to get the splicing bar.

“Wait!”

I stopped.

“What a great title. Stealin’. It’s fate,” he said. And the song stayed on.

The next day Ted and I met with Dub and played the tape. There were some songs left over that Ted let us have and Dub had managed to get ‘Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues’ and ‘Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie’ which were taken off Freewheelin’ and a couple other songs, so Birch must have already been percolating in his brain when he agreed to take Ted on for a third of Stealin’.

So now we’ve got this great tape, mastered and ready to go. But we needed somewhere new to get it pressed. Pete never seemed to have more than two presses working at any one time, despite the massive amount of machinery he had in his plant, and oftentimes only one was in production, plus he had regular customers. We needed to go elsewhere.

I knew Jack Brown at Rainbow, but was reluctant to go there, as he’d been involved in a court case with my father, the two of them against a record company that accused Jack Brown of over pressing and selling the illegal over runs to Jack Douglas at Saturn. Go figure. The last thing I wanted to do was get caught at his plant and bring them both more grief.

Then I remember this black guy named Harry. He was a heavy set man who used to come into Saturn all the time looking for that pot of gold with a new single he’d just recorded, usually black acts, but the last time he’d been in he had a white girl from USC in tow and she’d done a cover of ‘Proud Mary.’ She was pretty good, but nobody’s as good as Tina, so I knew right away that song wasn’t ever going anywhere. What stuck out about Harry was that in addition to being able to get records pressed, he ran an illegal sport’s book. No way would a bookie turn us in. So we decided to give him a call.

Harry was almost as excited as Ted when we met at his apartment. Yes, he could get them pressed, for an equal share. So now, like with Great White Wonder, we were four, Harry, Ken, Dub and Ted. Four didn’t work out so well the first time and Dub didn’t think it was going to work this time either. There was a prickly sensation in the air when he and Ted were together and an icy chill when he and Harry met. Dub could be stubborn, Ted unpredictable and Harry, well Dub and Ted had no experience dealing with a smooth talking hustler like him. Dub wanted Stealin’ to come out and he wanted the extra songs, so we agreed that I’d deal with Harry and Ted. Ted and Harry didn’t like each other from the get go. Harry ignored Ted, pretending there were only three partners. Ted thought Harry was a crook. He was, but weren’t we all?

Ted and I got the acetate for Stealin’ cut at Goldstar Studios in Hollywood. We just went in one day with the tape, asked if we could master a record and this guy took us back into the studio, put on a blank acetate, qued it up, put on the tape for a sound check and Bob Dylan’s voice blasted through the studio. Everything else that was going on there stopped and people started to crowd around as this guy started to work.

“Sounds like Bob Dylan,” someone said.

“It is Bob Dylan,” someone else said.

There must’ve been fifteen or twenty musicians and engineers enjoying themselves as we made that record. Listening to the tape loud through their sound system sent chills up my back. I was on edge. Of course, thinking the cops were gonna come busting in and cart us away at any second might’ve had something to do with that. But the cops didn’t come and that night I met Harry and gave him the acetates. It was going to happen. We were doing another record, Dub and me.

A couple weeks later Harry showed up with records.

“What’s this?” I took the first record out of a box and held it up for Harry to see, pointed at the fictitious record company name on the label.

“HarKub,” Harry said. “It stands for Harry, Ken and Dub.”

“Christ, Harry, it’s supposed to be a secret. We don’t want anybody connecting us to this.”

“Relax,” he said, but I couldn’t. I suppose if you’re a bookie and used to dodging the law, making a few thousand copies of an underground record wasn’t a big deal.

Ted’s perennial grin slipped when he saw the labels. I didn’t have to tell him what HarKub stood for, he wasn’t stupid. No part of his name was in there and he wasn’t too happy about that. And he was less happy when he figured out that Harry was pressing extra copies for himself and underselling us all over L.A. My father was still struggling along with Saturn and Ted had arranged a meeting with Harry in the alley that dead-ended behind the one-stop. He’d told Harry that he needed several hundred records and he was going to meet him with a gun and just take them.

“Bad idea,” I said.

“Bad Karma,” Ted said. “Just give me some records and I’m out of the deal.”

“I’ll do what I can.” And I did. I met Harry, paid him for the records, gave them to Ted and now there were three of us.

But Dub too had learned of Harry’s stupid double-cross and didn’t want anything more to do with the man. Harry denied it, but how many fast taking, chunky black guys could’ve been out there selling Bob Dylan bootlegs to the hippy record stores. While I was telling Harry the partnership was over, Dub was remastering Stealin’ along with our next offering, John Birch Society Blues. Harry kept on selling the HarKub Stealin’ for awhile, but eventually he gave up and Dub and I were back on our own with three titles now and we were keeping Pete’s antiquated pressing plant very busy.

Soon after Birch came out we were approached by this guy named Joe who claimed to manage someone called Alice Cooper. He wanted us to do a half Alice, half Dylan Bootleg to help kick off Alice’s career.

“Come to the Ice House,” he said. “Alice is going to kill a live chicken on stage. It’ll really be something to see.”

We declined, both the offer to see Alice live and the bootleg deal, but I’ve often wondered what would have happened if we’d done the record. Alice Cooper undoubtedly would still have gone on to become what he turned out to be, but he’d’ve forever been associated with bootleg records. Would other acts have gone that route? It certainly wasn’t the last time we were approached by a budding rock star or even the real deal and asked to bootleg them.

Joe wasn’t dismayed that we’d turned him down, on the contrary, he turned out to be our biggest customer to date. He bought records in the hundreds, paid cash and did business like a businessman. No clandestine meetings somewhere on Sunset in the middle of the night, he had us deliver the goods up to his apartment in Hollywood, had us up for cokes, a joint (not for Dub) and television. I remember one night when we were up there they had a Holocaust documentary on. We’re sitting around stoned, counting the cash, pigging out on cardboard snacks as we’re watching these Nazi films. It didn’t seem right somehow, but nobody turned the channel. I think it might have been the first time some of that stuff was aired. After a bit we put the cash away, the dope too. We couldn’t eat anymore, not and watch that.

It makes you wonder, the Holocaust, what it’s all about. At the time the war in Vietnam was getting hotter as the months dragged on. Billions in bombs, young lives on both sides. How could we have come through Hitler and the Holocaust and not learned anything at all? I suppose that’s one for the politicians and not us mere mortals.

About this time someone stole that tape from John Lennon in Canada and put out a Beatles bootleg. Someone else put out a Dylan/Band thing called Troubled Troubadour and Dub and I weren’t alone anymore.

[The first ever Beatles bootleg, released in the fall of 1969]

[“Troubled Troubadour” originally started out under this title seen below]

Norty and Ben had been captured and were out of business, but they weren’t tuned in to the counter culture, didn’t know how to hide in plain sight.

Joe didn’t seem to be hiding either. He was buying more records from us than ever and taking them to his apartment was starting to be a hassle, so he had us deliver them to the airport. Not the freight dock, but the passenger terminal. We’d drive up with three carloads of records, the skycap would ask to see a ticket and Joe would hand him a hundred dollar bill, then we’d load the boxes onto the curb as the skycap made out a baggage claim for each and every one. Joe would put a black X on the last box, put the claim tickets in it, tape it up and we’d be off. His customer in New York would meet the plane with a hand truck or two, load them up, open the Xed box for his claim checks, thus saving hundreds of dollars in freight bills, not to mention that there were no records of the shipments.

I remember one night, this young skycap refused Joe’s ticket.

“Get your boss out here,” Joe said. Not angry, but in a way that let the skycap know he meant business.

“What seems to be the problem?” this old black guy in a skycap uniform said.

“Your man here doesn’t like my ticket,” Joe handed him the hundred.

“He’s a fool.” The old guy snatched the money and we unloaded the records.

This went on for quite awhile. We were eating out every night. Dub got a new orange Camero, I got a blue Firebird 400. We were stylin’. We bought hundred dollar leather jackets with lots of fringe that the rock stars were wearing. We looked like Davy Crocket and Daniel Boone.

Then Joe came to us with an offer from some guys in Toronto to buy a set of the Stealin’ and Birch stampers for twenty thousand dollars. This was serious money. Real serious money. The deal was, we’d make them a set of stampers and we got to keep making the records ourselves. These guys, whoever they were, were gonna make the records in Canada, not interfere with us at all. We told Joe we’d think about it. Joe left, we talked it over, but not for long.

“Free money,” Dub said.

“Free money,” I agreed, “let’s do it.”

So we got in Dub’s Camero that night, went to Joe’s, told him the deal was on.

“Great,” he said. “Now all you have to do is fly to Toronto, deliver the stampers and collect the money.”

“What?” I said.

“They want to meet you,” Joe said.

“But we don’t wanna meet anybody,” Dub said.

“That’s right,” I said. “We’re anonymous.”

“We’ll think about it,” Dub said and we left.

“How come they’re paying us twenty grand when all they have to do is copy the records like Norty and Ben did?” I said as soon as we got into Dub’s car.

“I was wondering the same thing.” Dub keyed the ignition and we drove around in silence for awhile.

“Think it’s a setup?” Dub said.

“Nobody’s gonna pay that kind of money for a couple sets of stampers.”

“How come we didn’t see it before?”

“We were stupid.”

“Stupid.” Dub pounded the steering wheel.

“We gotta be more careful,” I said.

“You’re not kidding about that.”

So there we were, Davy and Daniel sans coonskin caps, driving around Hollywood in the middle of the night in a bright orange Camero, wondering what our next move was going to be. We must’ve looked like a couple white pimps, but we were cool, oh so cool.

Meanwhile the Rolling Stones were getting ready to go on tour.

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