The Handmades Tale
Enjoy the Experience: Homemade Records, 1958–1992
The used-record store in my college town knew to keep an eye out for one particular album for me. We all knew it was unlikely that this self-released record of lesbian folk-punk and sound collage would make its way from Texas to central Illinois, but if it did, they’d set it aside for me. Or if three copies found their way, that is. My roommate and another friend each owned the Meat Joy record, but I needed my own. Needed.
Part of my obsession for possession was that each copy of the record had a different handmade cover. My roommate’s simply said “Meat Joy” in silver spray paint. But our friend’s copy had a big goofy face proclaiming “Meat Joy—A Band Everyone Should Like!” Getting another copy would mean adding another piece of cover art to our communal collection.
One day I walked into the store and the hippie clerk pulled a copy out from behind the counter. I saw that familiar Magic Marker face on the cover and knew something was wrong. My friend, it turned out, had found religion and thrown away all his records. His collection—including that slab of black gold from Texas—had been fished out of the trash and sold. I loved the record for the music, of course, but I’d already taped that off my roommate. I wanted the physical record because it was an artifact. Unlike my Butthole Surfers and Meat Puppets records, this very much was touched by human hands.
When the sole Meat Joy release came out in 1984, it was far from the first homemade record, of course. People who existed outside the fringes—who were too weird, too local, too religious, or just too untalented to get the attention of recording corporations—had been releasing albums on their own for decades. That proud history is documented in Enjoy the Experience: Homemade Records, 1958–1992, a lush tribute to the artifacts of outsider music. Weighing in at just over 500 pages, the tome is primarily a picture book reproducing hundreds of odd and ill-conceived album covers. And while the book does include a number of short essays on these outsider records and the obsessives who collect them, it’s the artists who are the real attraction: the public face of their album covers—which are also scheduled to be on display at Milk in Chelsea this July—and the music. Some of the latter is included in an MP3 download that comes with the book, and on a separate double CD (or LP) on Now-Again Records showcasing 24 of the finest cuts from the dubious collection.
Through the course of the book, we meet Leon Ashley, considered to be the first country artist to write, record, produce, and distribute his own record, and Von R. Saum, who fronted the Christian pirate/ventriloquist family act Captain Hook and his Pirate Crew. We’re introduced to the Christian rock band 33 1/3 a k a Lightstorm a k a Teeth, led by Jonema Wintergate a k a Johnn a k a Johnima a k a Hawk a k a Peter Baahlu and his wife Kalassu a k a Kalassu Kay, who together wrote and produced the horror movie Boardinghouse. And we learn the story of the Rhodes Kids, whose records became a front for laundering porn profits without their knowledge. We also, in one of the book’s funnier sections, bear witness to multiple album covers that used the same stock images.
Enjoy the Experience walks a fine line between fascination and mockery, which makes for some compelling discomfort. The editors don’t set out to make fun, but it’s hard not to think “Who could have done something like that?” while flipping through the pages. For editor and collector Paul Major, that question is a big part of the motivation for collecting.
“What I like about some of these private pressings, and why I’m so personality-driven with them, is that you start imagining what these people’s lives are like,” Major says in a Q&A included in the book. “You extend out and you make a little movie in your mind about these people that you get really from just the sound and the few images or the look of the cover.”
Unfortunately, the book defines its misfits fairly narrowly. While doing-it-yourself is the guiding principle, the editors ignore those times when D.I.Y. became a credo. There are no punk records to be found in the pages, much less artist’s edition or anything from the cassette-underground days. Making fun might not have been the goal, but it’s often the result—at least until stumbling upon some secret love. I was nothing but happy to spot the cover of the campy 1968 swamp rock record Underground by Satan and his Deciples (sic), feeling vindicated to find that this album I love, despite its mediocrity, was deemed worthy of space in the gallery.
Still, one can’t help wondering whether the stories that fill much of the book needed to be told. “Little is known of organ wizard Marty Sabell,” begins one of the many short artist bios. “The obscure facts that exist can be extricated from liner notes and gig announcements in the back pages of regional newspapers.” How much do we really need to know about Marty Sabell? Not much, maybe, but it seems likely enough that if it isn’t told here it isn’t going to be. The obsessives live on long after the artists are gone.