Q&A with ESP-Disk Founder Bernard Stolllman

| 16 Feb 2015 | 05:38

    In the annals of underground legend, no record label lives in infamy more than ESP-Disk. Founded by Bernard Stollman in New York City in 1964, just as the fuse for the 60s radical movement was being lit, the label was dedicated to a pioneering spirit of musicmaking. ESP's motto was: "The artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk," and judging by who recorded for the label?Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Charles Tyler, the New York Art Quartet, the Fugs, the Godz, Pearls Before Swine, Patty Waters?that was some of the most unhinged wail ever unleashed on an unsuspecting public.

    While practicing law in Manhattan in the early 60s, Stollman met many r&b artists and songwriters who congregated in the bars on 52nd St. and sought his help in resolving copyright and publishing issues. He learned the ins and outs of the record business, and of the bizarre practices that were commonplace. ESP was launched as an alternative to the kind of corrupt system in which the artist was merely a pawn in the whole process. The name actually stemmed from a one-off album Stollman had produced, called Let's Sing in Esperanto, which eventually became ESP-1001.

    Esperanto is a cause that Stollman still supports: one of his current projects is Unikom, a form of communication software that uses an intermediate language?not coincidentally derived from Esperanto?to translate from one language to another . A massive ESP reissues campaign is now underway, eventually to result in the reappearance of most of the label's original 125 albums. Although ESP undertook a similar project on ZYX Music approximately a decade ago, Stollman claims that a stash of original masters recently discovered in Holland, where they'd languished for 30 years, ensures that the new series?being pressed in Italy and distributed by Abraxas?will be far superior. He says he's still practicing intellectual property law and that ESP is also working with a few contemporary artists including Janice Dempsey, whom he refers to as "a charismatic singer/songwriter," and Phoebe Legere. There's also Dufus, a 12-piece collective led by Seth Faergolzia, whom Stollman describes as looking like "El Greco's version of Jesus." In other words, Stollman has not lost his taste for exotica. I spoke with him recently at his law office about ESP as well as his associations with such luminaries as Cecil Taylor, Ed Sanders, Yoko Ono and John Lennon.

    How did you get into the jazz "new thing" in the 60s? We call it free form or free improvisation. I began to practice law in 1960 by working for the late Florynce Kennedy, who championed feminist causes, as a gofer. She had two major accounts: the estates of Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. I gradually became aware of what is called jazz, and it got to me. Most of what I had done before that was conduct litigation for r&b artists, who included David Curlee Williams ["Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On"], filing copyrights for them, forming publishing companies, generally watching out for them, although they were quite streetwise in their own way.

    In 1964, a choreographer I knew came to me and said, "I hear you're helping musicians. Why aren't you helping Ornette or Cecil? I told them about you and they want you to manage them..." I guess I had acquired a reputation by then as someone who would help musicians. I met Cecil and he had two or three grand pianos in his loft, and I enlisted Steinway in repairing them for him.

    How did ESP come about? In 1963 I pressed an independent record called Let's Sing in Esperanto. I'd become interested in the Esperanto movement, and I was going to call the label Esperanto Disk, but that seemed too long. "Espo" was the authorized abbreviation of Esperanto, so I took off the "o" and that became "ESP"... In the mid-60s, pressing plants were making available millions of dollars of equipment that you could just go in and use for a relatively small amount of money. The same rule applied to the plants that fabricated [record] jackets. Meanwhile, the war in Vietnam was heating up. Our youth sensed that something terrible was going on. There was huge unrest. This was the backdrop of the new music. The Fugs and Tom Rapp's Pearls Before Swine were writing protest music. Their LPs made the pop charts through word of mouth.

    How did you happen to sign the Fugs? Jordan Matthews was the art director for ESP in 1966. I had seen a sign on the marquee of the Cafe Au Go Go on Bleecker St. that said "Fugs" and I thought it was an outrageously wonderful name for a group. The new music, which was all we had at that time in our catalog, wasn't selling. Matthews came by, and as I described our situation, he smiled. "You don't have a problem. You've got the Fugs. They have an underground hit album on Folkways, and they want to record for ESP." He described them as beatnik poets who had found their music style in the Holy Modal Rounders, who accompanied them and already had a following and several records.

    Matthews arranged for Ed Sanders, the leader of the group, to have dinner with me in the local macrobiotic restaurant, which we both liked. I found Sanders a quiet and terse individual. I offered to give the group their own label, but he replied, "No, we want to be on ESP with your artists," meaning the freeform improvisational artists. We signed a one-album deal. I later personally bought the masters of their underground hit album, Village Fugs, from Moe Asch of Folkways and ESP reissued it, as well as unreleased material from the same session, which became Virgin Fugs...

    ESP's antiwar stance, in songs by the Fugs and the Pearls, brought the label to the attention of our government. A CIA COINTELPRO operative was actually employed briefly in the ESP office, where he thoroughly wrecked the company... The FBI bugged our phones, and the IRS audited our books and found nothing improper. Federal laws had not yet been enacted to stamp out bootlegging, so the industry went into business on our hit records, ignoring us, pressing and shipping the Fugs and the Pearls Before Swine to distributors and stores. They put us out of business...

    What about the Godz, the other notable "rock" band on ESP? The genius of the Godz was that they were all individual artists, each of whom was on his own trip and who reluctantly formed a group... They were fresh and innovative and created the first punk records. Lester Bangs heralded them in Creem in a long article, which was later reprinted in his book.

    Who else was on the scene back in ESP's heyday? I encountered Yoko Ono and John Lennon in London when they'd just gotten together. I knew Yoko from her work in the Fluxus movement, of which she was one of the founders. I would go to Cannes every January for the international music industry convention, and then stop in London on the way home. That was how I wandered into a gallery and they were there, having just completed mounting their own exhibition... She introduced me to Lennon, and he said laconically, "Ah, yes, Paul has the Sun Ras." I asked Lennon whether their label, Apple, would be willing to distribute ESP. He drew himself up in mock horror. "What? Us distribute you?" Then he quietly explained that Apple had so many problems with Capitol that they couldn't take on anything new, and we parted.

    About three months later, I'd been up all night at a loft jam in Rivbea, Sam Rivers' space on Bond St., when I got a phone call from my secretary at 9 a.m. The president of Capitol Records, Stan Gortikov, was waiting for me at my office, which was nearby. So I rushed over. He stood there, ramrod straight and with a crewcut, looking like a Marine officer in civvies, with an LP wrapped in kraft paper: "John and Yoko asked me to give you this. They want to know whether you want to distribute it." It was the Two Virgins LP, with a front cover that featured a photographic full-frontal nude shot of the pair. I said, "I'll consider it. I'd like to hear it first." He left, and then Ron Kass called from London. An ex-editor of Billboard, he had become the manager of the Beatles. "Do you want the record?" I replied that I had great respect for Yoko as an artist. There was a pause. "Well, John's a pretty good musician too, you know." I acknowledged the truth of that comment.

    It was a Friday, and I offered to drop in at Abbey Road on Monday morning to discuss the matter. He agreed. I flew to London on the weekend. On arriving at their office, it was clear to me something was wrong. Lennon and Yoko weren't there, and Kass was nowhere to be seen, nor would any employee answer my questions. Producer Peter Asher invited me into the studio where the Beatles had created their songs, to listen to his new production. I liked the song but thought it was overproduced and said so. Then he played me a simpler version and I praised it. The artist was a newcomer, James Taylor, and the song was "Fire & Rain."

    Distressed, I flew back to New York. A few months later, the New York newspapers had a front-page story. The CBS pressing plant in Pitman, NJ, had been raided by Hoover's FBI agents, accompanied by state and local police, and they'd confiscated all the copies of Two Virgins, on charges of obscenity. I realized that, after Kass called me, and while I was waiting in London for a response from his office, they were engaged in signing a deal with Bill Cosby and his label, Tetragrammaton, to distribute the album. In view of all the problems confronting ESP, the raid would almost certainly have dealt a death blow to the label.

    What happened in the 70s? Charles Manson had been convicted of complicity in the massacre in Beverly Hills. I believed that the media treatment of the case was intended by our government to discredit the hippie movement and in that manner counteract the growing antiwar climate in the United States. I came across an LP on Awareness Records by Manson, produced by one of the Beach Boys, and I was impressed by his songs and delivery. Phil Kaufman, road manager for Etta James and Emmylou Harris, is the author of an autobiography, Road Mangler Deluxe, in which he describes how he met Manson while both were in prison. Manson asked him to put the record out. Kaufman released it, and then freaked because his house had been surrounded by Manson followers with knives. So he brought it to me at my invitation, and ESP reissued it. Our distributors and dealers then refused to handle it. ESP folded in 1974, paid off its creditors, and the record masters were placed in safe deposit boxes, where they remained for 17 years. I got married and moved to the Catskills. In 1980, I became an assistant attorney general of the state of New York, where I stayed for the next 10 years...

    What's the future of the record industry? It will continue to grow, and coexist with downloading. Small independent labels will flourish while the giants merge and shift to more profitable undertakings.

    Do you think an ESP could survive nowadays and get a record on the charts?like you did with the Fugs? Outrage is still selling. Look at Eminem.