During my last semester as an audio production major at Cal State Northridge, we went on a field trip to Skywalker Sound, where much movie audio magic gets made. Everyone there was sitting at a computer, which meant we were all screwed after three years of cutting and splicing tape on ancient equipment. Lacking any modern audio skills, I headed to the Bay Area for something new and different right after graduating. I stayed at my uncle Avram’s house in Berkeley for a couple of weeks while my friends and I found a place to live. While I was there, I watched O.J.’s Ford Bronco getaway and he hooked me up with a job at the Berkeley Stamp Company.
A neighborhood fixture since 1929, the shop was a time capsule of a bygone era. The owner was an 80 year old second generation stamp know-it-all curmudgeon who hired me without a word to avoid actual discussion. $8.00 an hour (it might’ve been nine) sounded like a fortune after getting minimum wage at Wherehouse Records all through college. I became the neutral middleman of an odd family business. The owner’s wife had recently passed away but her sassy granddaughter Suzy and great-grandson (and fellow music-head) John still worked there. It was awkward at times with their open disdain for the old guy and he for them but it was an interesting craft, lots of artists & Berkeley characters came in and I could put my my radio degree to good use listening to Live 105 FM.
More importantly, everyone I knew had a cool address stamp and the band enormous came in to get a stamp made. We hit it off and they ended up hiring John to put together their cd artwork before they moved away. While on tour opening for Tommy Stinson’s new band Perfect, they called, claiming that they were telling “everyone” about me and I HAD to be in the music business and how some record company really wanted to meet me and blah blah blah. Yeah, right. Well, I’ll be damned if they didn’t hook me up a front-office job at their management company in LA. The last thing I wanted to do leave the beautiful Bay Area and move back to the city I was so glad to escape. But a new girlfriend in San Diego and the prospect of hanging gold records on the wall in between transferring calls from the B-52’s, David Geffen and Jody Stephens proved too tempting. It only took them three months to figure out that I was a horrible secretary. Hell, I could’ve told them that on day one.
Anyways, Suzy’s been a little under the weather lately, so I scanned in some fave stamps and photos as visual medicine. If you want me to get back to talking about pop music, just ignore these but note that La’s shirt popdorks!
Another great thing about working there was that it was close to a ton of great restaurants and shops. Berkeley Square, where I saw Morphine and Blink 182 (before they screwed my friend) was right up the street. Primus recorded the live album Suck On This there and the Gigolo Aunts played a free daytime show to me and ten other people there one day after work. While there were a few huge record shops further up on Telegraph Avenue, one of my favorites was just a short walk up the block.
Mod Lang Records was only a year old when I moved to the Bay Area. Run as a successful mail order business for years, the record store, run by Englishman Paul Bradshaw, opened its doors in 1993. Although Britpop didn’t cross over in a huge way in America, the Bay Area was a great place to live for an Anglophile like myself in 1994 and I knew I could go to Mod Lang for any scraps of information on the new Stone Roses record. In the year and a half that I lived there, I saw Primal Scream, Chpaterhouse, James, the Wonder Stuff, the Boo Radleys and even the Roses finally got Stateside.
The ultimate American Britpop doubleheader occurred In September of 1994 when Blur and Pulp played an amazing show at the Fillmore and, the next night, both bands squeezed into the tiny Bottom of the Hill to see up-and-comers Oasis. Live 105 even managed to get them both in their studio at the same time, much to bands’ annoyance. Oasis bored me to tears but the opening band argued with each other for 20 hilarious minutes while the guitarist tried to get his rig to work. They finally played one song and it was mind blowingly good. Later, the singer poked George Harrison on my “First Kids On The Block” Beatles shirt and said “HE was the man.” I agreed and while I’m not a big Paul fan, he hilariously said that McCartney never did ANYTHING good in the Beatles. Before I could say “Helter Skelter”, he thought about it and said, “Well…except the bassline in ‘Rain’.” Brian Jonestown Massacre, I hope to hear from you again.
Mod Lang Records chose to name their shop after an obscure Big Star song right as the 70s band’s legacy was being celebrated by a new generation of pop lovers worldwide. The honor of becoming full fledged replacement members of the newly reunited band went to Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer from the Seattle band the Posies who played with Jellyfish a few times while Jason was in the band. In 1996, I saw Ken and Jason do solo sets at an LA Spaceland Poptopia show and in Seattle, I went with the Posies to EMP to see Jason while he was on tour with AIr. Earlier that day at an instore at Orpheum Records, Jason was tuning and said “When I do drop-D tuning in Seattle I feel like I have to sing Jon Auer.” Then he played and sang a few seconds of “Definite Door” to everyone’s shock.
As luck would have it, less than three weeks after I saw Big Star at the Fillmore (their first real US show after reuniting), the Grays played there, opening for the Smithereens. I didn’t go to the show, but I did walk up the street from work that day to see them play an instore for a few folks at Mod Lang. It seemed fitting to have a group of English-loving Americans play at a store named after a band so famous for trying to bring back the sound of the British Invasion. The Grays were brought together by a mixtape full of Kinks and Zombies songs and they’d covered UK acts the Monochrome Set, the Move, the Stones & Wire. Jon Brion has done studio work with Keane, Robyn Hitchcock, Badly Drawn Boy and Peter Gabriel while Jason ended up playing and touring with Travis, was the first act Nigel Godrich produced after OK Computer, recorded with one Paul McCartney and what is this photo of him with Rowan Bolan and Liam Gallawanker at Coachella!?
I brought along my cheap tape player though I’d never really been a bootlegger. It was still a couple of years before I knew anything about taping or the trading world. I just thought it’d be cool to have a recording of the show. It turns out that only a handful of people ever did the same thing and shared. With this instore, the Cal Berkeley show I taped a few months before and a video of the band playing outside of Tower Sunset in Hollywood given to me by the girl that shot it, I guess I helped distribute, oh, around 37.5% of the live stuff that ever got spread around.
The other taped shows I know of are from the 40 Watt Club in Athens, the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor, Michigan, CBGB’s in NYC (where the last tale’s recording of “Blackberry Way” comes from) and the video that’s up on Youtube of their show in Denver (here’s a review of that show from The Denver Post). There are also some radio shows floating around plus Buddy and Jason’s demos for a few of their Ro Sham Bo songs and an early live show I’ve never heard, probably recorded at Largo when the band was still called Me that includes them doing Jason’s song “I Go Astray“. I’m not savvy enough to find it but it goes by the name “Somewhere Somewhen”.
After a brief traditional Jewish microphone check on my walk up, the band opened with “Nothing.”
“Are requests that easy?” I ask. Yes is the reply so I ask for “Is It Now Yet?” which they do immediately, followed by “Same Thing” and “Very Best Years”. Not surprisingly, the band’s harmonies really shined acoustically. They performed this way at a few radio stations and record stores including Groovacious Platters in Oregon (now in Utah) where this photo was taken.
After they played, I remember someone giving them a great historic photo of a Grays baseball team from the old Negro leagues. We talked for a bit and then it was time for them to cross the bridge, play the Fillmore with the Smithereens and continue on tour. In July, they played a series of dates with Toad The Wet Sprocket, ending with two nights at the Metro in Chicago. At some point in those two days, Jason chose my Windy City birthplace to write me a postcard. Then there’s this….
After the show, Jon told the band he was leaving. By all accounts, the democracy the band hoped to have was simply not working out. To hear Jason tell it, the other members simply said “Oh cool. No worries.” The man who signed them to Epic Records was in town for the show and asked Jason if he would lead the band without Jon and the answer was no. Just five months after releasing their debut album, the band was over.
Six years later, I finally got to see a Gray play a Big Star song. On a night at Largo where Jon Brion just couldn’t get excited about any ideas, my requests seemed to be getting big laughs. Finally, I yelled out for Falkner’s “Both Belong”. He paused and said “This is for the gentleman who wanted to hear ‘Both Belong'” and started to play Big Star’s “Holocaust”, which gave me chills like I’ve never had before at a show. “There’s nothing to bring you down like a dirge,” said he. After a few minutes of playing one of the darkest songs ever, drenched in reverb, someone yelled out for Willy Wonka in a quiet moment and he immediately changed it into the happiest song ever.
Of course, there’s no recording of it, so here’s Jon doing “Round Midnight” in the style of “September Gurls”.
RIP Grays 1994-1994