In Conversation: Paul Major on Pre-Internet Record Collecting, Outsider Lounge Music, and Dodging Needles
One of the world's preeminent record collectors talks shop on the occasion of his new comp for Mexican Summer/Anthology, Feel the Music Vol. 1.
In the uncomfortably narrow, crate-festooned corridors of record collecting, few trawlers are acknowledged with the same hushed reverence as Paul Major. Years before he started fronting the deep-fried trance rock unit Endless Boogie, who come with a heavy rep all their own, Major was known among heads as one of the world’s foremost collectors of wild private-press vinyl oddities, from the cosmic biker-folk of Matchez to the low-rent/high-occupancy lounge rock of The Yays & Nays. In the glory days of pre-Internet record collecting, Major’s self-published rarities catalog Sound Effects spewed its information in a gushing stream of stoned consciousness, like a version of New Journalism for an alternate world where all human experience had been trapped in LP grooves.
Earlier this year, Major released a memoir/scrapbook about his salad days as a weirdo music archaeologist, Feel The Music: The Psychedelic Worlds of Paul Major, on Mexican Summer’s Anthology Editions imprint. The book is packed with stories both funny and harrowing, and plenty of curios and ephemera to boot. Even more recently (October 27), Major teamed with Anthology yet again to release a companion LP, Feel the Music Vol. 1. We managed to get him on the horn to shoot myriad shit, and to hear him acknowledge out loud that he got cut by a low-level New York gangster hood while someone else’s hair was set on fire.
The new Feel the Music LP is great, but I notice that you left out some of the stuff that you’ve been holding up for the longest, and which you discuss at greatest length in the book: Jr. and his Soulettes, Kenneth Higney, Peter Grudzien. I could guess why you’d make that choice, but I’d rather hear the reasoning straight from the horse’s mouth.
I think one of the reasons is that all the people you mentioned specifically have been reissued on vinyl before, and the Peter Grudzien one multiple times. They have a little higher visibility than the ones I picked, which are mostly further-buried tracks from records that haven’t been reissued, or are just generally more obscure.
I was also trying to pick some of my all-time favorite songs from these obscure records, and ones which would also make one nice program when they were put together, like a “meeting all these strange characters along the way” kind of situation. I picked a few dozen we could possibly use, then we had to figure out who we could get in touch with, get clearance—all that—and it came down to those twelve tracks. A couple of the tracks are a little better known than others, but they’re definitely more under the radar.
The full title is Feel the Music Vol. 1. Are there plans for multiple volumes?
It’s possible. There was some talk of it possibly becoming a series, and certainly there’s no shortage of great tracks… It’s like a bottomless pit! So I’m hoping. It seems like the response to the book and everything has been good so far, so we’ll see. I’m very curious to see people’s reactions: “What the heck is that song? Where did that come from?” And I’ll be able to tell them that it’s even stranger than they think!
Right. Once you start getting into the personal stories, it might just be a normal person with a strange sense of how to make music, but that’s often not the case. What is the rarest record you’ve ever broken or warped?
“I’m very curious to see people’s reactions: ‘What the heck is that song? Where did that come from?’ And I’ll be able to tell them that it’s even stranger than they think!”
I think I’ve been pretty good about not messing up the rare ones. When I used to deal in records a lot and mail them out, it wasn’t me [that messed them up]—it was the post office! I used to have several original copies of the Marcus From the House of Trax album, and I sent one to somebody in Texas, and when they got it they said it was melted. I know it wasn’t melted when I sent it…
I used to get really paranoid, especially if I had to send a really rare record which I might never find again to somewhere in Europe or something. I’d always have to get confirmation that it had arrived OK.
One of the less fashionable sub-genres that you favor is private-press lounge music. When I worked at a used record store, about 90 percent of the lounge records that came in would be autographed by the performer. Does that square with your own figures?
Pretty much. Every once in awhile, what’s written on the record is astonishing. I remember one—I can’t remember the band now—had an autograph with a little note along the lines of: “To Cindy—we’ll be back in town soon, and you’ll be eighteen, so let’s get together.”
Oh, my Lord.
The wording was actually more sleazy than that, but that’s the gist of it. The kind of stories that all these traveling lounge bands touring around the country must have! Sleazy motels, one night stands, just a whole seedy underground of these somewhat-professional lounge bands. These guys weren’t playing Vegas—they were playing, like, the Rooster Tail Cocktail Lounge in Nebraska or whatever.
Some of my favorite stories in Feel the Music focus on your days working at [legendary New York record store] Village Oldies. On a scale of one to ten, how lucky would you say you were to make it out of there alive?
Pretty lucky, considering the overall survival rate isn’t so good. Seven or eight, I guess? Mainly because of this dog that bit me and ran away when I was three years old. I had to have rabies shots in my stomach just in case, because they weren’t able test to see if the dog was diseased or not. This gave me a lifelong fear of needles, so even when I was constantly surrounded by all the junkies around Village Oldies, I was never tempted to shoot anything. Most of the people around there that didn’t make it out alive didn’t because of drugs—either overdoses or dirty needles. So, that dog gave me a little bit of a better chance, I guess!
It sounds like it was a crazy, dicey scene. At one point, you got cut by a street kid?
Yeah, a kid whose uncle was in the Genovese family. One night, they cornered me at this little steakhouse in Greenwich Village. They cut my hand, and then set the other guy’s hair on fire. That was dicey. That’s about when I was thinking that maybe I should go work someplace else. It was a lot of fun, but it was getting too dark.
No kidding. What’s the worst pre-CD format?
“If your 78s know you’re even thinking of moving, they’ll break themselves.”
I’d say 8-track tapes. They were divided up in four sections, so sometimes a really long song would have to be divided between two sections… Like, you’d listen to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and it would stop in the middle, and then part two would start. They were pretty horrendous. People collect them now, but I think they don’t play them—they just look for ones that are hard to find.
I have a vendetta against 78s, because I’m always terrified of dropping them.
Yeah, especially if you’re moving. If your 78s know you’re even thinking of moving, they’ll break themselves. I remember once buying some 78s on a road trip, and I wrapped them in towels and stuff to try and keep them from breaking, but sure enough, as soon as I unwrapped them, they were broke.
They snap like a saltine. Still, a clean one sounds really good, if you can ever find a clean one. You’ve been collecting a long time. What’s the closest you’ve ever come to the kind of crisis of conscience that might lead you to cease collecting?
I don’t know if I’ve had one. The obsessiveness of some of the people I’ve dealt with would drive me crazy sometimes… I’ve known some mentally imbalanced people along the way, who’d call me every hour for days until I finally had to tell them to stop. I’m pretty easygoing, so I’d really have to be pushed to the limit to tell someone I can’t handle them anymore.
When I first started getting into private-press records, it was before anyone was really looking for them, so I was a kid in a candy store. It became my way of making money and surviving. Between that and my enjoyment of it, I was covered. What got me is when the Internet got going, and Discogs and things like that got all the information out there. Now, used record stores check everything obscure on the Internet, so you can’t find the same stuff anymore. It’s not fun like it used to be, where I’d go to the section where they keep all their cheapest junk and find all the best records in there! Back in those days—at least in New York back when I wasn’t driving—I’d have to stop for the day when I’d find more records than I could carry. FL