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An indie to the core

Long Gone John's obsession with music compels him to collect all things rock 'n' roll -- and to run a record label with nary a contract signed.

January 19, 2003|Dean Kuipers | Special to The Times

Fourteen years of rumor and legend could not have prepared a visitor for this. Long Gone John, the famously reclusive owner of independent record label Sympathy for the Record Industry, lingers for a moment before a collection of rare books gathering dust in the dark-wood interior of his Long Beach home.

To step inside the two-story 1930s Spanish-style house is to begin a kind of descent into hell. Or, perhaps, an alternative-music heaven. Huge, nightmarish paintings by Robert Williams, Todd Schorr and Mark Ryden are dwarfed by their massive, baroque frames. Demons leap out of a custom-made wood mantelpiece. A giant mahogany chair is carved with skulls.

The windows are mostly covered, and in the gloom it is vaguely apparent that every square inch of the house is heaped and hung with stuff. Incredible stuff, as it turns out, each piece as irreverent and punk and valuable as the music that has made Long Gone the industry's newest hit maker.

John was the first to recognize the now-hot Detroit garage-rock scene, putting out the first three albums by the White Stripes, who had been passed over even by other independent labels. Detroit scene mates Von Bondies have recently been snatched off Sympathy by legendary Sire Records head Seymour Stein for a rumored $1 million. The Detroit Cobras, the Dirtbombs, Ko & the Knockouts, Slumber Party and Outrageous Cherry -- as well as a Boston duo named Mr. Airplane Man -- may be next in line.

He'd like to say that he saw the commercial potential of these bands. But Long Gone John has put out more than 700 other releases in 14 years that he also believes in. The truth is that he can't help himself. He is utterly, totally obsessed with music. As evidence, there's this house.

Sensory overload

"This is where I listen to music," John says in his nasal, deadpan voice. He's a big man with a gentle, worried expression, about 6 foot 1, maybe 220 pounds, with frizzy blond hair cascading over a worn denim shirt. He pushes on the bookcase with hands loaded with heavy silver skull rings and it swings inward, a hidden door.

The room behind it is a music nut's dream. Lighted only by a single, foot-square window high in a corner, the deep crimson chamber is completely encased by custom shelves holding thousands of artifacts. CDs, LPs, vinyl picture discs and original album artwork cover every available wall space, and there are hundreds of rock-star and Japanese Sailor Moon-type figurines and action figures.

Dozens of big-eyed "Little Miss No Name" dolls patterned after Margaret Keane paintings ring the top shelf. There is Sid Vicious' gold record for "Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols." There are framed blank checks from John Sinclair's early-'70s White Panther Party. Wooden shrines and sculptures crowd a coffee table. The entire room is built around a stereo system, and directly in front of it is a sunken-in loveseat, the only visible place to sit.

"I'm a big record collector. I'm a big book collector. I'm a big toy collector. I'm a collector of everything. Art," he rattles along, the slow cadence of his speech hiding the furious march of his mind. "I want to really be bombarded with sensory overload."

But the house is not the product of random choices. It reflects the discriminating tastes of a likable man who is private to the point of eccentricity. He has no answering machine, no cell phone or pager, and hasn't used his last name in 25 years -- but he knows what kinds of art and collectibles will hold their value. Including music.

With the garage-rock sound that characterizes a lot of Sympathy releases threatening to become the next grunge, and with Detroit as its axis, Long Gone John is utterly unimpressed. His only concern is to keep in contact with visionary art.

"Look at that disc behind you," he says. It's a double set of 7-inch picture discs called "The Little Record That Wished It Could," whose four sides, with art drawn by English lowbrow artist Savage Pencil, function like a book. The discs no music, recorded on them, and are meant to be appreciated as artwork.

"I see this as art," he says with a sigh, tossing it down. "And nobody understands it, nobody wants it. And I've done things consistently like that, that I can't give away. That's the kind of passion that I have for music and art. That's why I got into this."

Business on a handshake

"It's a weird time right now, with bands like the White Stripes being successful," says Larry Hardy, owner of another indie, In the Red Records, which has releases by some of the same bands as Sympathy, such as the Dirtbombs, Reigning Sound and Knoxville Girls. "A friend who works at [major label] Hollywood Records phoned me and said, 'Do you get contracts with your bands? You should, because a lot of bands on your label could potentially be snapped up.' "

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