For me the bootleg saga was a wild ride, twisting one day toward the music, the next toward the cash. The story is full of heroes and villains, cops and crooks, idealists and shysters and the music, always the music. We did it for the music, but we spent the cash.
Clinton Heylin got some of it right in his book, Bootleg, but he missed the heart of it. The soul too. We were people bonded together by this business of being on the outside. We liked, but didn’t trust each other. We ran from the law, but our egos had us at record meets all over the world, standing in front of the crowd, showing our wares. We were complex. We were stupid. We were brave.
Someday I hope the real story gets told, because it’s so much more than a story of seedy, greedy guys robbing fists fulls of cash from rock legends. It’s a story of wonderful people who put their morals on hold, grabbed the music by the chords, put it out there and damned the consequences.
In our hearts we knew it was Stealin’, in fact that’s what we called our second Bob Dylan album, the one we put out just after “Great White Wonder”. Stealing yes, but we had the tapes and didn’t have much money, so we told ourselves we were modern day Robin Hoods, and who better to rob than Columbia Records. That we put our sub-standard stuff Mr. Dylan might have wanted forgotten never entered our minds.
We didn’t know we were spawning an underground industry that would span decades, make people rich, send some to jail, other to their graves. We didn’t know the record industry would see us as a threat, would call us everything from misguided to evil. We didn’t know they’d hire private investigators, would have process servers chasing us, would have the FBI knocking on our doors. We were kids.
It’s years later now and as I’m writing this, the winds is howling through the rigging. It’s three o’clock in the morning and Vesta and I are at anchor in rocky, roly Simpson Bay on the Dutch side of St. Marten, hunkered down on our sailing sloop aptly called, “Great White Wonder”. We named the boat after that first record and after a decade in the Caribbean, not one person has figured out where the name came from. In the weeks following our 1969 release of that unnamed double album, we got swelled heads, thought we were important. Who could blame us. Rolling Stone wrote about our record, wrote fabricated stories about us. Pretenders claimed to be us. B. Mitch Reed played it all the time. We were famous, even if nobody knew our names. But now, looking back, I see maybe we weren’t so important, after all. Sometimes we get an odd look or two from the customs officials when we check into some of these West Indian Island countries.
“Where’d you get the name, Skip, after a big shark?” They call everybody with a boat out here, Skip.
“Did you name it after yourself, Skip?” That’s one of their favorites.
If we would’ve been important, if we’d’ve been doing something that made a difference, these guys wouldn’t have to ask, they’d know.
Every time we check in they write the boat name in my passport, then stamp it. Thirty years ago I heard two customs officers talking about “Seems Like a Freeze Out” when I was clearing Customs at LAX. That was our fourth Dylan Boot, the one that had that great unfinished recording of “She’s Your Lover Now,” on it. CBS/Sony later put it on the Bootleg Series. I knew they were there for me. I knew I was going to jail, but hard as it was to believe, one of them was a collector.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In 1969 Dub and I worked at Saturn Records, my father’s one stop. In those days the record companies sold to the one stops, the one stops sold to the stores. We liked Dylan, sure, but we weren’t fans, not the kind that worshiped the ground he walked on kind of fans anyway. I owned all of his records, but I owned a lot of records. I didn’t have to pay for them. Did I think he was the second coming, no. Did I go to his shows, no. I’d never seen him live, thou Dub had. I liked his records, but I didn’t look between the lines, the man wrote good stuff. It was enough, he didn’t have to be a god.
Sitting here, listening to the wind howl, I’m trying to remember where the tapes came from for that first album and I’ll be damned, but I can’t. Except for “Living the Blues,” I recorded that. I remember critics chastising us because of the poor quality and because we didn’t release all of the Big Pink stuff, but with the exception of the other two songs done on the Johnny Cash Show, we put out everything we had.
The Johnny Cash Show, that takes me back. He had Doug Kershaw on that first show. That guy could play. I remember kicking myself for not recording him, but I didn’t. I had a big RCA color television that had no audio out plug. Could you even get a television with one of those in the ’60s? I had to take the back off and attach a wire to the speakers that I ran to the back of an old tube McIntosh amp to get the material.
It’s true we didn’t think we’d make much money, but a lot of the other stuff that was written about us is just wrong. Dub and I never went to Canada to avoid the draft, never opened up a gas station. That was a story I told a record store owner who was asking too many questions one day and damned if it didn’t appear in Rolling Stone a few weeks later. Those were crazy days. Life Magazine even did an article on one of our records, heady stuff for a couple of guys like us.
After “GWW”, Ted, who owned a store called Records and Supertape, called me at home. He didn’t know Dub and I were the guys, but he suspected we might know them. He had these amazing Dylan tapes. “Stealin’” and “Birch” were born. The outtakes from “Bringing It All Back Home” on “Stealin’” were so good they made you want to cry. And to this day CBS/Sony hasn’t released the version of “Talking John Birch Society Blues” that” appeared on “Birch”. That song was originally on “Freewheelin’ and should’ve stayed there. The guys that jerked that song, were, do I have to say it, jerks.
These records were every bit as good as anything Columbia had put out and we quickly followed them with “Seems Like a Freeze Out” and “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Massacre Picnic Blues”. Two more great albums. Good Stuff. We were proud, though we had no right to be, the stuff came right out of Columbia’s vaults. We didn’t record it, we stole it.
Now tapes were starting to come out of the woodwork. There’s some pretty screwy guys out there. Imagine having such a hard on for Dylan that you’d go through his trash, sift though his kid’s diapers. Steve Pickering was one of those, though it was A.J. Weberman, I believe, who waded thought the soiled pampers. My brother was arrested for cutting off a parking meter in broad daylight in Santa Cruz. He was on drugs, had just seen Cool Hand Luke and thought it would be a good idea. I flew up to bail him out and met Pickering at a record store there. This guy knew more about Dylan than Jimmy Swaggart knew about God, read his books if you don’t believe me. And he had tapes, the acoustic half of the 1966 Dublin Show and the Carnegie Hall Show Colombia was supposed to put out, but didn’t, so we did, and called it “While the Establishment Burns”. That title came from a poster advertising Colombia Records. It depicts three or four kids sitting in a circle. The girl is topless, I think, but we only see her back. They’ve got headphones on. Outside the window you see fire and the caption on the poster says something like, “They’re listening to Colombia Records While the Establishment Burns.” Funny thing, those folks at Columbia didn’t turn out to be so anti-establishment after all.
Sometime between “Birch” and “Freeze Out”, Dub and his friend Chris took some of the money we‘d made and went on tour with the Rolling Stones. Dub used a Nagra with a Sennhauser shotgun mike and recorded several shows from the audience and when he got back he mixed a masterpiece. Listen to “Yayas” it can’t light a candle to “Liver”. We did very well with that record and by then there were a lot of new guys out there copying it. If I remember right, and I’m writing this over three decades later, without notes, Rolling Stone even certified it gold.
Dub used the same setup to record a new band he believed in at the Forum. I didn’t like them, so I didn’t go. I thought it was a waste of effort, the band wasn’t going anywhere. A couple albums and they’d be history. But I was wrong and Led Zeppelin’s “Live on Blueberry Hill” was a great record for us. It also brought out the cops. If it happened today, we’d’ve probably quit, but you have to remember what was going on back then. The Vietnam war was raging. Dick Nixon was the enemy. The good guys had long hair, the bad guys didn’t. And God knows why, but we still thought of ourselves as modern day Robin Hoods, though we gave not a cent to the poor. Dub did however, one time drop a hundred dollar bill in a blind man’s cup outside of Licorice Pizza on Sunset Boulevard. True story, I was there.
After that record the fun sort of went out of the bootleg business. Till then the clandestine meetings in the middle of the night somewhere in Hollywood were, if not fun, exhilarating. We looked out of our rearview mirrors, gave ourselves different names, worried about our phones being tapped, but we never did anything about it. After “Blueberry Hill” I started carrying around a pocketful of dimes.
We didn’t quit. No, we didn’t do that. We soldiered on, making record after record. Dub and I split up. He made more records. I made more records. A host of others got into the act and they made records. I quit the business, moved to France, then Spain. I wanted to grow up with my kids.
I probably should’ve stayed away, but after the kids were grown, I came back. I was older now, not a kid anymore. I knew what I was doing. There was no fun in it the second time around, no illusions. It was in it for the money. I was a stealer of the music, a pirate. A record pirate.
Bootlegs were a big business now. They even had their own publication, the annual Canadian book Hot Wax. They rated and reviewed them all, year after year. Our records had full color covers now, the FBI couldn’t tell them from the real deal. How these guys got Dillinger is anybody’s guess. Luck, I believe, because they never figured out about looking up in the upper left hand corner of the record jacket for the logos for, Columbia, Capitol, or any of the other real record companies. I could bore you to tears with stories told me by record store owners, about how our federal law enforcement officials would raid a tore and take out only the white records with the rubber stamped covers or none at all when, in fact, the Dylan, Beatles, Stones and Zeppelin slots would be stuffed full of albums on Toasted, Phoenix or a host of other made up companies.
The FBI regularly checked one of the pressing plants where I made my records, but they never caught me, they couldn’t, because they don’t start work till eight. I made my daily pickup at five-thirty in the AM. For three years I dodged those guys. Imagine staking out a place form Nine to Five. How dumb. I truly believe if John D. would’ve robbed at night and slept during the day, he’d’ve died of old age.
How come the FBI couldn’t catch us. I could’ve caught us. There were only four or five places in L.A. where we could’ve been making the bloody things and we were at three of them. The pressing plants called me at home all the time. How hard would it have been to look at their phone bills, see who they called? For the longest time I had my own FBI agent, he found out about me because somebody told. We met, he told me he was going to catch me with the goods. We talked on the phone a few times, but I stayed free.
Records died, CDs were born and still I was a pirate. But finally, after years, local cops and the the FBI started catching people. A few times they got closer then I like to think about and I started having this reoccurring nightmare. There’s a knocking at my door, loud, like a cop with one of those stick things they beat up Rodney King with. I open it and there’s Bob Dylan with a couple really big bully types and he says, “That’s the guy, get him.” So I quit and moved back to Europe. We spent a couple years in Spain, then a year in New Zealand. Then we bought a boat, named it “Great White Wonder” and I started writing sailing stories and we never looked back.
I have no records now. I kept nothing from those days, save one of the original Great White Wonder rubber stamps. In the cruising world, that’s what we call ourselves, us over the hill new millennium hippies, cruisers, we stamp every book we read with our boat stamps so that when we get to a marina somewhere we can check the bookswap and see who’s been that way by going through the books. Vesta and I stamp all our paperbacks with that stamp. And still no one has figured it out.
Looking back, was what we did so wrong? Stealing, yes, but Napster made anything we did a pebble before a mountain.
Six or seven years ago my daughter mailed me the hard cover book (rare for a guy who lives on a boat) “Bootleg, the Secret History of the Other Recording Industry” by Clinton Heylin. It chased us around the Caribbean for a couple of months, finally catching us in Trinidad. It had been so long since I’d thought of those days, so I was able to read it as if I were reading about someone else. I knew all those guys who were quoted in that book. Funny how all those other bootleggers, the ones Mr. Heylin interviewed, were such good guys, only in it for the music, and the one money grabbing whore was the one guy who was unavailable. But that’s the way it goes, we all remember things in the light that shines on us best. Actually it was sort of cathartic, looking at myself through their eyes. If that’s the way they saw me, then maybe that’s the way I was. Anyway I kept the book. Maybe I’ll read it again in a few years. Maybe to my nieces and nephews if I ever get back to L.A.
And will I ever go home? In the ’60s we just knew that when we were old enough to govern, things would be better. Marijuana would be legal. They wouldn’t take a girl to jail because she took her top off at the beach. Medicine would be free. Guns would be controlled, better, gone. There would be no more war, peace would be everywhere.
But it didn’t happen. America has five percent of the world’s population but twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. One out of every eight black men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five is in prison. Our last president didn't think carbon monoxide was pollution. The DEA is looking for drugs everywhere, even here. The cost of medicine is through the roof. Every bad guy wannabe gets a gun and becomes a bad guy for real. War is everywhere. Peace is a word used only by politicians who want to get elected. Girls still gotta keep their titties covered at the beach. Christ, we couldn’t even fix that one. We should be so ashamed.