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Bernard Stollman: The ESP-Disk Story


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AAJ: Well, at least for the improvisational spectrum of the catalog, you never referenced the term 'jazz' on any of them.

BS: There is a reason for that. It's because the musicians, at least the ones I knew, more than one, expressed a great disgust at the use of the term 'jazz' as a racist thing. It's not a music thing—if you play the sax and you're black, the word itself is so imprecise and racist in general. Duke Ellington, as you know from his autobiography Music Is My Mistress, he detested the word 'jazz.' He did string quartets, symphonies, musicals, and here they're summing him up as a 'jazz' artist, which is a profound insult because the word does not describe what he is doing. He was not alone; I found this thread among many of the musicians I knew who opened up to me and said they detested the word. I constantly tried not to use the word.

AAJ: As far as the—well, I would hesitate to use the term 'rock'—but the folk and protest music, and more singer-songwriter oriented projects that you began releasing, how did that come about? The Fugs were first, right?

BS: Yes, The Fugs were first.

AAJ: Did you have to approach them in necessarily a different manner than the improvisers?

BS: It was identical. I saw no reason to put my hands in the clay, and as far as I was concerned, they were poets and they were on their own trip. Why should I interfere? What they were doing was wonderful. They were already a hit on Moe Asch's label [the Folkways subsidiary Broadside]—The Village Fugs was selling like mad. I went back to Moe at the same time I released them [on ESP 1028] and said "Moe, will you license that record to me? It's selling very well." He said "Yeah, you take it, you license it. I don't want anything to do with those filthy Fugs." [AAJ laughs] He had no feeling for them at all, which was generational, and that surprised me because of all the remarkable people he recorded. He just couldn't relate to the whole generation and what they were doing.

AAJ: What were the circumstances that they got on Broadside in the first place?

BS: It was Harry Smith.

AAJ: Oh yes, right, because Ed Sanders and he were buddies.

BS: I didn't know that, but I'm not surprised. In any case, the Holy Modal Rounders [ESP 1068, Indian War Whoop] were around, and Tuli [Kupferberg] and Sanders decided they needed music—but they weren't musicians, they were poets, so they simply borrowed [Steve] Weber and [Pete] Stampfel, and the musical side was essentially the Rounders.

AAJ: How did you meet them?

BS: Jordan Matthews, our new art director, came to me one day and I was in a very depressed state. I had shipped off these initial releases and they weren't selling. Despite the critical acclaim, and interest from Europe and Japan in licensing our titles, we were struggling to survive. Money was disappearing, and I was feeling pretty low. He showed up and asked what I was depressed about, and I said "you'd be depressed too if you saw what was going on. My company's not happening. The American public is not interested in this music." He said "you've got no problems. You've got the Fugs." I said "what do you mean?" He said "I've talked with them. They're very impressed with what you're doing. They want to be on the label." I said "how is that possible? They've got a hit record on Folkways. Why would they come to us?" He said "don't ask any questions. I've already talked to them, they'll meet with you and you'll set something up."

There was a club on Bleecker Street called the Café Au-Go-Go, and 'The Fugs' was displayed on the marquee, and I had remembered seeing this and thinking "wow, what an audacious group to call themselves the Fugs." I was very impressed then, and my mood improved with Jordan's news, so I went to hear what these guys are all about. They were playing at a place called the Bridge Theater, a tiny place with maybe 45 or 50 steeply sloped seats above a store on St. Marks Place. I went to hear them and the mikes and amplifier were so terrible that they emitted a blaring distorted sound. You couldn't make out any of the words—it was a roar, just indecipherable! They were singing and pounding away on the drums.

The place was full and the people around me were jumping up and down, joyously. They knew the songs and could fill in the words. While I hadn't a clue as to what they were singing, they had an audience for sure, and an enraptured one. These were robust people—this wasn't the tea set, they were rough and rowdy in appearance. I listened to their Broadside album, and then agreed to have dinner with Ed Sanders at The Paradox, a macrobiotic restaurant on East Seventh Street that we both frequented. He was terse and laconic. He didn't behave the way one would think one might when sitting with a record company mogul [laughs]; he was pretty uptight.

I said "look, we're glad you guys are coming aboard. You guys can even have your own label—we'll create a label for you." What's pop music doing with free improvisation, right? "Oh no, no, that's out of the question. We have to be on ESP." That was essentially what Jordan had said, they wanted to be identified with this whole ESP phenomenon. I invited them to my apartment on Riverside Drive, the group came up and we had a buffet, a signing ceremony, and we signed them to one record. That was my mindset—we wouldn't sign anybody to a term agreement. I think the reason was fairly sound—we were a tiny company and if the music came out and people liked it, let them sign to larger labels. We were the farm team—that was the reasoning in my mind anyway.

So they made one record, The Fugs, and it started selling. So I went back to Moe Asch and said "will you license this record [Village Fugs, Broadside 304], or will you sell me the masters to this?" He agreed and we agreed on a price and I paid him. He couldn't care less whether they sold 100,000 or 1,000 copies—he wasn't willing to be identified with them. I was ecstatic—I loved the stuff. When I got the tapes, I issued it as The Fugs' Broadside Record [ESP 1018], and there was enough material for a third record.


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