Sunday, October 24, 2004

Greg Shaw

I got the news this week that Greg Shaw had died suddenly, and found myself transported back to the past. I hadn't seen Greg in years, but he was once a friend and neighbor.

I ran into him when I was working at Rolling Stone, and Jann Wenner assigned me a story on fanzines. I had an inkling of what fanzines were, since I'd been a science-fiction fan years ago, and knew fanzines played a part in that world, but I wasn't quite sure what a rock fanzine would be. I found out soon enough: I went up to Greg and Suzie Shaw's house in San Anselmo and spent the afternoon talking with them about Who Put The Bomp, Greg's current one. Some years earlier, he'd edited Mojo Navigator, the Bay Area's first rock magazine of any note, which dared to cover not only the rise of the ballroom bands like the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, but also the teen-club scene, where garage bands were purveying a far simpler and more direct kind of rock and roll. He was also lucky to have started the magazine in August, 1966, right as it was all taking off. As for Who Put the Bomp, it was similarly concerned with good old pop music as much as the sensations of the day.

This may have been why Wenner was so contemptuous of him when I came back to the office and announced that I'd gotten the story. "He's a pimply-faced nerd with an amateurish magazine, right? It ought to make a funny story." But I didn't play it that way. (Somewhere there seems to be a cache of Rollng Stone articles of mine, since I've had others throw them back in my face, but they're apparently not on the Rolling Stone site, at least as far as I can determine; I was hoping to have a link to the story I did on Greg). This didn't improve relations with Wenner.

After I was fired, of course, I had a lot more time to hang out, and I'd see Greg and Suzie every so often, either at shows or sometimes just hanging out at his house, as we played old records and talked about stuff. The article -- and Greg's own skills -- had brought the magazine a degree of fame, and it began to do very well. At one point before he moved to Michigan to hook up with Creem, Lester Bangs came up from Southern California for a rampage of drug-taking, writing, and, I believe, a liaison with Suzie (with Greg's blessing), and the result was a nearly issue-long screed entitled "James Taylor Marked For Death." I was part of the collating party for that one (man, the things computers have made obsolete!) as we walked around the room in a circle, pulling one sheet from a pile and one from the next, until we had the whole issue in our hands, at which point it got dropped onto a desk and stapled. Yes, it was mimeographed. You young people should probably Google that word.

Still, this was no way to make a living, and, like many rock writers of the time, Greg finally took a job with a record company. United Artists had a low, one-story building with mirror windows across the street from Hollywood High School, and their head of publicity, Marty Cerf, hired Greg to co-edit with him a UA-funded rock mag called Phonograph Record Magazine, which was distributed free to record stores. It paid well, reviewed records besides UA ones, and gave a start to many a young journalist, as well as providing a place for some of us older ones to earn a few bucks. Given that it was a major record label, UA was a pretty screwy place in those days. I mean, would anyone attempt something like Phonograph Record these days? Or hire Greg Shaw to run it? (Or, for that matter, hire Marty Cerf, one of the weirdest publicists I ever knew?) Because she came with the package, Suzie Shaw had a job there, too, and one of the great tragedies of my life then was that when UA acquired the Blue Note Records catalog, Suzie mailed a few of us a checklist of Blue Notes, and she just tossed the ones we checked into boxes and sent them to us. Unfortunately, she lost my list and my education in Blue Note's wonders was delayed by years. But that was the kind of thing people routinely got away with back then.

At one point, Greg found out that one of our favorite bands, the Flamin Groovies (a band I'd been forbidden to write about at Rolling Stone for some reason), had recorded a killer record but didn't have a deal. Greg founded Bomp Records to press it up: "You Tore Me Down" was a magnificent change of direction for the Groovies, who went on to record a bunch of superlative, but out-of-time records which did a lot better in England than America (where they were more interested in Yes than three-minute pop masterpieces) and helped lay the foundation for a lot of the new wave stuff that came out later in the decade. Greg then quit UA to become the Groovies' manager.

With Bomp Records a reality, Greg was able to latch on to a lot of new sounds that were just beginning to surface in the mid-'70s, and released some of the first stuff by Devo and the Dead Boys and (for some reason this sticks in my head, although I can't verify it) Blondie. I'd already lost touch with Greg by this time, although I watched as Bomp became a thriving business concern. Greg and Suzie separated, and I'd occasionally run into her at music biz events.

But the main thing knowing Greg Shaw did for me was to make me aware very early on that the model of major-label record label wasn't for everyone, and that it was possible to make your own records and distribute them yourself, which, of course, the punk and new wave kids made a central part of their scene. Greg was in the right place at the right time twice in his life, which is something not a lot of people get to do, and was apparently a happily-married father when, last Tuesday, his blood sugar rose alarmingly (he had always been a diabetic) and he was rushed to the hospital, where he apparently just fell apart.

If you want to read his official biography, you can get more detail about all of this than the jumbled, half-remembered stuff above. Or you can go play the Groovies' immortal "Shake Some Action." That's what I'd do.

No comments: