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Bernard Stollman: The ESP-Disk Story


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AAJ: You would have probably lost the masters too, right?

BS: Yes, we would have, the whole company would have been sold to them. Peter Edmondson and Charlie Rothschild had signed the Pearls and the Fugs to management deals, and trotted them over to sign with Reprise because none of them were under contract to me. That was the end of their anti-war production, of course. The industry effectively shut down the Fugs and the Pearls in two ways: by getting the bootlegging going and taking the artists to Warner Brothers. So I was out of business.

AAJ: What happened after ESP was shut down and the catalog was licensed? I'm curious about this sort of unfortunate part of the label's history.

BS: Well, at the age of fifty I took on my first real law job, at the attorney general of New York, a prestigious title.

AAJ: How did that come about? It seems that, with running the label for so long, you were out of the realm of law practice.

BS: I certainly was, as I hadn't done any law practice during the label period, and when the label folded in 1974, I married. My wife and I moved to the farm that I bought in '69 in the Catskill Mountains, the idea being that New York was expensive and I was turning my back on that world and that scene, and moved to the woods. I loved the country, and the two of us moved to this mountain farm. It had been a dairy farm earlier, and we had an old wood-frame two-story rooming house, which we held onto for awhile before tearing it down. Anyway, I tried to get work as a lawyer which, in these backwoods small towns is awfully hard—I had a solid background and wasn't all that enamored of it, but I tried it and didn't get very far.

I got tired and very depressed—you're out in the woods and no income. Eventually my wife said, "why don't you try the government and take the state and federal exams?" Then I could get a state job as a beginning lawyer, which was at $17,000 a year. I commuted an hour and a half each way to Albany and worked with the state government for almost two years (four in my car), and eventually I found out that the attorney general's office was down in New York City, and that the attorneys there seemed to have it pretty serene and liked their work.

So I went down to New York, to the World Trade Center, which at the time was the headquarters of the attorney general, and wandered up and down the halls and talked to various bureaus, and eventually to the mental hygiene bureau, which was run by the Republicans, who had been put there during a previous regime. They took me and decided I could work for them. The new attorney general, Bob Abrams, had just been elected, and I guess he heard from Albany that I was a diligent worker—I was already a state employee at middle age, and he said "well, I need veteran lawyers." I had almost no experience at that point, but I wasn't going to tell him that. I really didn't talk about my role in controversial music.

AAJ: Especially your ties to the Fugs...

BS: It didn't seem particularly appropriate. I passed muster, so they hired me. He said "look, I've got all these kids and I need somebody who is a mature lawyer." I wasn't about to argue, so I took on a decent salary—not for New York, but decent in terms of where I'd started—and we found a co-op loft in an industrial building with a number of co-op apartments in it, in Hell's Kitchen at 8th Street and 9th Avenue (which is now getting pretty hip). We were able to get it for relatively cheaply because I was a state employee, so I guess I was a good risk. I commuted down to the World Trade Center for about seven years, and eventually we sold it for an excellent profit.

We bought a condo in '87, which was a terrible time because it was just before the real estate crash, and we had a pleasant apartment down in the Wall Street area (which wasn't a residential area), and I could walk home for lunch because it was just a few blocks from my job. The work wasn't any strain at all, and I continued for another three-and-a-half or four years until 1991, when I retired. I had a tiny pension and a tiny social security check, and we dumped the condo and moved back up to the farm. Our marriage was breaking up too, and then a number of things happened.

First of all, I retired on my sixty-second birthday in July of 1991, and five months later there we are with my tiny pension, and suddenly we had word that a German record company [ZYX] wanted to license ESP—they wanted it out on CD of course, and they were good to their word and put out 115 titles. We did a monumental job of getting ready and spent all of our money on materials getting prepared for them, and they did a great job. They put them all out [but a few] and distributed them all over the world. [Prior to 1992] they were a dance label, and they had global distribution because dance music is very popular. That was a help to us.

AAJ: What was the deal with those Base LPs? Were those bootlegs or legitimate?

BS: Back while I was in New York, Base came to us and wanted to license them for two years, back in 1980, and they kept producing them illegally for about twelve years.


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