That Which Does Not Kill a Barbarian
The life, collection and strange art of Jim Blake
By Robert Gordon
Reading time 55 Minutes
Jim Blake has collected a lot of things
Jim Blake has collected a lot of things, and job descriptions is one: record producer, label owner, comic book artist, wrestling script writer, underground newspaper publisher, painter, school teacher. But perhaps more than anything else, collecting is his metier. He is an amasser, curating Jim Blake’s cosmos of art. In addition to avocations, his repositories include records, books, comics, rare photographs, original art, master tapes, cardboard standups, toys and other pop culture iconography and detritus.
“I've got seven storerooms at an undisclosed storage place, and each is 10 feet wide by 20 feet deep and 9 feet tall,” says Blake. “And they're packed, to use an old radio expression, like Fibber McGee’s closet. And then I've still got a storage unit in Los Angeles with about 4000 albums that I need to scale back, and there’s comics and other things there too.”
On the day I visit his rural home, atop a hill in a southern state he’s asked me not to identify, Blake has cancelled his doctor’s appointment. His day is clear, allowing us time to visit the storage units, to get a sense of what’s made the cut in Blake’s world. I ask where to park when I arrive. He says, “When you turn in the driveway, you’ll see three trailers. Well, four – actually, five, trailers. I’ll be in the middle one.” His five trailers on his acreage are in addition to the aforementioned storage.
He’s approaching 75 years old and he’s in pretty good shape. His ponytail expresses the hippie demeanor of his youth, and his acerbic wit has a punk rock edge. He still works five days a week, smokes cigs and reefer, and still, always, collects.
He lives in one trailer, we’re sitting in another and “in the other three I’ve built ten shelves that are 4 feet wide and 8 feet long, with three quarter inch plywood. I mounted them on 2x4s and I can hold about 50,000 albums. I don’t know where I’ll put the rest of them.”
This outbuilding functions as Blake’s office, a place he can read and listen to the radio. Just inside this trailer’s front door, there are two chairs, one with a folding TV tray next to it, and most everywhere else there’s boxes. Many boxes are stacked only two high – albums shouldn’t stack higher, he notes. Next to the chairs there’s a newspaper, an ashtray, and a smattering of recent album and toy purchases. Other boxes are stacked higher – four high, some five high. But they’re neatly arranged, like the cans of soup, beans and Pringles that line the kitchen countertops. Most boxes are labeled: “LPs”. “HB” for hardbacks, “PB” for paperbacks. One says “Pluto toys.” Some say ”DD” for Donald Duck, “WW” for Wonder Woman. Visible above and around the boxes, there’s a refrigerator, a stove, a radio, and a space heater that looks like, were it to fall crossways, could set a fire. The chair with the TV tray appears regularly used but the cluster of items on the floor near where I’m sitting suggests arrangements have been made for company.
Blake surveys the area, and I’m not sure if his look suggests satisfaction or bewilderment.
“I’ve got,” he says, “a lot of shit.”
Jim Blake came to prominence in 1974 when he founded Barbarian Records and, over the next decade, released some of Memphis, Tennessee’s greatest and strangest recordings. That you’ve never heard the take on the instrumental classic “Rumble” by JD and the Hoods, or heard Lesa Aldridge destroy the Velvet Underground’s “That’s the Story of My Life” doesn’t diminish the freedom that Blake inspired and, more notably, grappled to the grooves.
Barbarian Records released only eight singles. Among those, Blake recorded giants and midgets, world famous wrestlers and the “first gay disco record.” Many of his legendarily obscure Barbarian 45s had to be hand-packaged; the “Rumble” gatefold features angel wings that embrace the cover’s supine biker chick atop a chopper; he attached each set of wings manually. The Aldridge single includes a paper doll insert with paper doll clothes; lift the insert – the top of her doll head peaks invitingly – to reveal the naked photo of the beautiful chanteuse. A separate insert includes cut-out clothes to apply – a cheerleading uniform, swimsuits, a bustier, jewelry and masks. Needless to say – and stated only because you are just getting to know Jim Blake – the Barbarian vault is deep with unreleased material. “Oh look,” he says, “I’ve probably got tapes for another 20 albums worth of releases.”
Those tapes are safely stored among his possessions. Somewhere.
“It started with collecting comics when I was a kid,” says Blake, who was born in 1945. “I used to take a bike downtown to get comics that weren’t delivered in my neighborhood. I’d buy an extra and there was always a kid who had a bunch of comics but didn’t have this one, and I would get his bunch. I learned that I could bilk every kid in the neighborhood into swapping me a bunch of comics for that extra .” A born horse trader, he was always improving his stable.
Comics grabbed him for two reasons: the art, and the stories, both of which are Blake passions. “I used to buy Walt Disney's Comics and Stories every month,” he says. “It was a ten-page collection – had a Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, maybe a Pluto, maybe Chip and Dale. There was an issue that had ‘Christmas on Bear Mountain’ and that was the first appearance by Uncle Scrooge.”
Uncle Scrooge McDuck is where Blake’s two passions merged strongest. “He's a miser,” says Blake, “but at the end he's the soft hearted, old fuddy-duddy. He later got his own series, and I became very aware of Carl Barks, who drew all those great Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories. It pretty much shaped my life.”
The more comics the young Blake collected, the more he understood about himself. But his fortress of solitude was short-lived. “My mother ruined me for life. By junior high, I had a closet full of comics stacked as tall as I am now, a couple stacks. Valuable. Like the [first two issues of] Superman, which are worth countless amounts of money now.” “Countless amounts” was defined in 2014 when Action Comics #1 – the first appearance of Superman – sold for over three million dollars. “Mother was a pretty religious woman and she saw the comics as a devil's tool. She said to me, ‘You let the comics take over your life.’ I said, ‘Mother, these are going to be worth something.’ She said, ‘You've got to get rid of them.’”
Dragging his feet, the young man did as mother told. History affirms Blake’s discernment. “I went to a place called Tide Sundries. I sold enough comics at two cents apiece to get $20.” His pause suggests that 50 or 60 years after the fact, he’s still adjusting to the transaction, to the injustice. “Pissed me off,” he says.
Comics have defined Blake’s life. They led him to professional wrestling, and, in turn, the grapplers led him to wrangling record production. Comics even influenced his time in the military. When he joined the Marine Reserves in 1968 – just after the Tet Offensive and when the US and North Korea were rattling sabers over the USS Pueblo crisis – he was the rebellious character who flouted authority with authority. Scoring quite high on the IQ test, he received certain privileges.
“Being smart,” he recalls, “got you out of running around and screaming and yelling.” In passing, he mentions advising a friend traveling to Afghanistan: “I told him to smuggle hash, you buy a car and put the bricks in the tires, then stop along the road and get some repair work done. That way you could blame somebody else if you got caught with it.”
But the Marines was stifling. A lance corporal on his way up, Blake “read the rule book and when they would try some shit with me, I’d tell them it wasn’t in the rule book – and it would fluster them.” He wrote his superior that the only thing he’d like less than being a Marine grunt was being a Marine officer. That landed him in motivation school. Before his full term was served, he and the Marines came to a mutual understanding and he was honorably discharged.
By then, reefer had docked itself in middle America. He’d been teaching junior high but he quit and opened a record store inside Pop-I’s, a pinball palace near Memphis’s largest university. Blake’s taste in music established him among the burgeoning FM disc jockeys of the mid-1970s. They followed him to Atlantis, one of Memphis’s first hippie stores. It was home to his first two (of four) underground newspapers, Atlantisand Strawberry Fields, and it sold clothes, strobe lights, smoke supplies, second-hand curios and, most importantly, records. He ran a regional record store chain in Nashville, but that staid town was too corporate for a renegade and Blake returned to Memphis around 1971, where for nearly four years he ran another head shop, poster den, and record haven named Yellow Submarine – also the first place in Memphis to sell waterbeds.
While Blake had Pop-I’s, a clean-cut Joe College kid was hanging around, trying to belong. Chatting up the manager, talk turned to art and illustrators. Now an international star in professional wrestling, Jerry Lawler was then on an art scholarship to Memphis State University.
“My interest in Jerry Lawler was as an artist,” says Blake, “and that was long before he became a wrestler. That’s our tie, the art.” Their shared interest in fantasy/sci-fi illustrator Frank Frazetta got them talking. Lawler, like Blake, had grown up on Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian, preferring editions illustrated by Frazetta. (Blake has boxes of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, hard and softbacks.) Lawler, not bragging but stating a fact, told Blake he could paint exact replicas of Frazetta’s work. Blake was dubious and said he’d buy one if Lawler could prove it. Blake was quiet the next day as he pulled the cash from his pocket. “Frazetta, Vargas, Neal Adams,” he says, “you name the great artist and Lawler can do it just like them.”
Blake is himself an applied artist. Facile with a pen and paper – writing or illustrating – he also paints. “I do superhero characters as ducks. That’s my thing. Jim Dickinson collected my work. There’s a Wonder Duck – Wonder Woman but with a duck bill – that hangs in his studio now. I do all kinds of different media. I do dayglow, and phosphorescent paint, and I use garish colors. I did Duck Savage. I’ve done Conan as a duck. Ming the Merciless, Vampirella – as ducks. When you look at my paintings, a smile will come to your face and that’s all that I ask for.
Blake had a few years on Lawler, enough when they were young to be older and wiser. Lawler’s dream was to become a radio disc jockey. Blake loaded up his new friend with new records and took him to record an audition tape. Then Lawler gave the tape to local music entrepreneur and rockabilly star Eddie Bond, who had a small country music station. Lawler’s dream was realized. But the station’s library hadn’t been updated in years, maybe decades. To keep from being bored one night, Blake brought Lawler a bunch of folk and progressive country records. Just as the shift got interesting, Eddie Bond cut Lawler off the air – at the transmitter. Dead air was better than that new-fangled shit.
But all was not lost. Bond also co-owned a sign painting company. His partner was a local wrestler, Fabulous Jackie Fargo. Jerry painted signs but found his calling in the ring – another place to run his patter – and Blake had made the connections. When his last head shop folded, Blake became Lawler’s manager.
Professional wrestling was the nearest thing to living comic books
Professional wrestling was the nearest thing to living comic books. Blake had been a fan all his life, and comic books had trained him for the kayfabe – the web of wrestling characters and weekly plots, which he became a big part of as Lawler’s popularity boomed.
Lawler also swung the program concession to Blake; the underground newspaper experience paid off. “I made the program 10 pages, the length that Carl Barks told all his stuff in Disney’s Comics and Stories. It had been a piece of shit four-page thing that used the same pictures every week, and some were of the wrestlers when they were teenagers. I was shooting new photographs every week, and we sold the programs for 50 cents. I have all the original photos and a huge stack of programs. I see them on the internet now for $30 each.”
Enter pianist and producer James Luther Dickinson, a wrestling fanatic who became Blake’s musical mentor. Dickinson had been part of Atlantic Records’ house band named The Dixie Flyers; had recorded “Wild Horses” with the Rolling Stones; and produced notable albums by Ry Cooder and Big Star. Dickinson and Blake had first crossed paths in a creative writing class at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis). The only art that Dickinson held in a regard as high as rock and roll was professional wrestling.
“Jim Dickinson said to me, ‘Why don't you make a record on Lawler? People hate him, you could get a lot of attention.’ [Photographer and recording engineer] Pat Rainer said that she could see a light bulb over my head.”
Though he knew nothing about producing, Blake has always known what he wants. Dickinson agreed to help in the studio, and Blake found a song that Lawler loved – and that would rile the fans. Written by John D. Loudermilk, “Bad News” goes:
Bad news travels like wildfire
Good news travels slow
They just call me a wildfire
Because everywhere I goI’m bad news
They tried to hang me in Tupelo
They did down in Little Rock
But I wouldn’t choke, I broke the rope
And they had to let me go
Because I’m bad news
At that time, Blake was seeking the film rights to the old pulp character Conan the Barbarian so he named the label Barbarian. “I wanted Lawler as the villain, not as Conan. The other day I found the original logo that Lawler drew for the label. I've still got all of that original art.”
“Bad News” got play on Memphis’s weekly TV wrestling program, which consistently carried the city’s highest local TV ratings through the 1970s. The 45 was available at the matches the next Monday. With Lawler at the booth, fans broke a new record. “They’d buy his single and then break it in half in front of his face,” laughs Blake, “They thought it would make him mad.” It was marketing genius. “I had to have kids come break them for the little old ladies because they weren't strong enough. But they’d get right in Lawler’s face and then I would sell them another. ‘If you break two, you'll feel twice as good!’”
Those who bothered to play the record were impressed. Dickinson had assembled an all-star Memphis band for the recording. He played a rollicking piano, and Lee Baker from Mud Boy and the Neutrons kept it funky with his tight guitar comps; instead of playing bass, Jim Lancaster plays tuba. Blake was so impressed by the results that, as an ode to the musicians, he made the B-side an instrumental version, and intended to do similarly with future B-sides.
“We sold 20,000 of those at the matches,” says Blake, “and never got a moment of radio play.” If you’re asking, "How can that be?" then you were not in Memphis, Tennessee in 1975. There were two kings in Memphis then. You may have heard of Elvis Presley, the King of Rock n Roll. He held the record for six consecutive sellouts at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, the largest performance arena in the region. But that heel Jerry Lawler was drawing big crowds every Monday night and it reached a frenzy around ’74. Lawler antagonized the Memphis audience by crowning himself king. He adopted a cape and crown, sometimes carried a royal scepter. (In a few years, Lawler would capture the nation through his wrestling feud with Andy Kaufman.)
“There were seven straight Monday nights that they were turning people away at the coliseum,” says Blake. “Lawler broke Elvis's record. And we played ‘Bad News’ over the system in the coliseum. He couldn’t sing but it didn't make any difference to me, and it didn't make any difference to the audience! As long as he stayed in character, they would buy it – just like they did Elvis.” (Elvis later reclaimed the consecutive sellout record.)
The success of “Bad News” established Barbarian as a label. Rumors about the sessions attracted Memphis’s A-list players. “I always had the best dope,” says Blake. “I never had any money, not a fucking dime. John Fry, who owned Ardent Studios and had produced Big Star was so fascinated by what I was doing that he’d give me studio time when it wasn’t being used. But I had to buy my own tapes. And when you don’t have any money, that $125 was tough. The musicians never got paid – but because the cool people were there, the drug dealers wanted in. And their entry fee was dope. I always had marijuana. I had hash, cocaine, speed if we wanted, but speed interfered. I’d bring a clock that had no hands and set it up on the console. I wanted there to be no time in the studio, to feed a creativity. There's no time like no time.”
Blake had become a record producer.
Blake and Lawler, equally amazed at their success, were eager to record again. “Lawler wanted to be Tommy Roe, the clean-cut college kid. He wanted to record all this awful shit. But to his everlasting credit he continued to listen to me and we cut ‘Cadillac Man.’”
Dickinson – Blake has enough tape for “a couple albums” on him – brought them the rocking story of a reckless (wreck-ful) speedster, a song he’d recorded on the original Sun Records with the Jesters. Dickinson – yeah yeah the Stones, yeah yeah Big Star – was genuinely impressed by Lawler and wanted the honor of one of his records being associated with the King.
“It was important that we cut it at Sam Phillips Recording Service,” says Blake, referring to the studio Elvis’s producer built after he left Sun, “because I was trying to parallel Lawler’s career with Elvis: Poor white boy makes good, becomes the King. Jerry talked out of the side of his mouth like Elvis and he had a great sneer. And he had the charisma. So there were two kings. And Jerry wore the crown.” But Elvis wore the belt. “I always wanted to get Elvis and Lawler together, and get the picture – the two kings meet.”
With word out about Barbarian’s recording sessions, Dickinson could add more star power to the band. “The wrestling people thought the first record was a fluke, they kind of laughed up their sleeves,” says Blake. “Then I made this second record and it knocked the wrestling people on their ass.”
At the same time, Lawler got his own ass-knocking. The ownership of the wrestling territory was shifting and Lawler, in a play for power and remuneration, was exercising his popularity. When push came, shove won and Jerry Jarrett, who owned the territory, wrote Lawler out of the script. Excommunicado. Off the island. “Lawler had gotten bigger than Jarrett and bigger than Memphis wrestling,” says Blake, “and when they wouldn’t pay him what he wanted, Lawler went to Atlanta. I had no place to sell the record.”
Crowds at the matches bottomed out. Direct correlation: No Lawler, no crowds. The heel didn’t time the wound, but after a few weeks, Lawler got what he wanted. The King was re-coronated, but the single was old news. Still, Blake’s record fever raged. “The wrasslin’ records gave me the hunger for making the other records,” he says. “I realized I was good at it.”
Blake wasn’t exactly looking for a gimmick, but he was friends with a flamboyant schoolteacher who did occasional studio work singing background vocals. His voice was high and full of yearning, like Darlene Love’s. Blake imagined updating the 1963 girl group hit “He’s So Fine” – really updating it. Times then being not much like now, the pal took a nomme de groove, Saboo La Teuse (sometimes joined by the Tuleuse Sisters). ” Blake also captured the Motown classic “This Ole Heart of Mine” (not every B-side was an instrumental). A male singer singing to men – “It was just an idea I had: the first gay disco record.”
Blake got Al Green’s band, the Hi Records Rhythm Section, and paired them with the Memphis underground rockers like Dickinson, Sid Selvidge, Lee Baker and Roland Robinson. He was engineering his own train and reaching for the spirit of Casey Jones.
“The cocaine was stacked up this high and the dealer opened a deck of cards, dealt everybody in, and it was dip and sniff. Alex Chilton heard about the party and wandered in.”
Then in his bad boy phase, Chilton – the former Box Tops and Big Star singer – had peed inside one of Ardent’s studios and owner John Fry had formally banned him. “Alex was already a little drunk,” says Blake. “I pinned him against the wall and told him, ‘Alex, you're not supposed to be here. John Fry doesn't want you here. John Fry's allowing me here and if you do the slightest thing wrong, I will kill you.’ I told him I'd kill him. And I said, ‘You can be here, but you keep your mouth shut and stay in the corner.’
Blake continues. “Producing is a very narcissistic endeavor, because you're making other people do what you want them to do. And I understood that you can't talk to all people the same. I talked to Jerry as an equal because I am. I talked to Dickinson with respect because he was my mentor. Alex was a little shit at that time, so I talked to Alex like he was a little shit. And that’s how I got those great tracks from him that night. I don't like to intimidate people. I will if I have to.”
When Saboo was finished and there was some tape left, Blake turned to Chilton. “I told Alex, ‘You do things my way or I’ll come down like hell on you.’ He wanted to be on Barbarian.” Blake got a loose Chilton romping through hits like “Surfer Girl,” “Not Fade Away” and “Do You Love Me.” It’s a lot of fun, and has more Alex personality than Bach’s Bottom and other contemporary efforts.
Blake never pressed the Chilton songs, but Saboo was hot and he took it directly to the city’s leading radio station. The music director flipped and said, “That’s the greatest cover record I’ve ever heard. Who is that chick?” Blake leaned back in the chair, pride beaming from his face as he announced that Saboo was no chick. The air in the room emptied, the MD blanched, then said, “I can’t play the record. He’s a queer."
Undeterred – well, deterred but still determined – Blake took a calculated commercial step for his next session. In the mid-1960s, a local group named Tommy Burk and the Counts released a swinging version of “Stormy Weather,” loose and danceable. It swept the city, one of the greatest local hits of Blake’s generation. In 1976, about a decade after the original, Blake put Burk back in the studio with an all-star band (dubbed the Noe Counts) and captured all the pleasure of the original, with the added bonus of a sax solo from Jerry McKinney – known for his work with Elvin Bishop, Jackie Wilson and others. McKinney, overdubbing on a soprano, tenor and baritone sax, seized the song’s melancholy heart and its joyous body, incorporating “Blue Moon” into the swinging solo. It always prompts a smile.
The fifth Barbarian release was another wrestling record, though Plowboy Frazier didn’t have the same built-in audience as Lawler. But he stood 7’2” tall and weighed over 400 pounds and Blake couldn’t deny what the giant requested. “He worried the pee out of me, he wanted to make a record so bad,” says Blake. “He wanted to sell them to the juke joints and bars that he went in. He had a deep voice, and he knew all this old blues and country blues shit.” Plowboy’s record wasn’t going to crossover like Lawler’s, but it was popular at the matches and kept Barbarian viable.
The Plowboy session was one for the books. “I made this quart of orange juice with about 25 hits of acid, no more than 4 of the same kind. So it was a real mind-fuck. Plowboy took a little bit, and he had his shirt off, sweating like a pig. The air was on the fritz. And he was huge! I mean, you could put a baby sheep in his one of his lungs, he was that big. He paced the studio floor like a huge bear, sweating like he was in the wrestling ring.
“When the record came out, he saw that I spelled his name ‘Ploughboy’ and he asked why. I told him that’s the way the British spell it and it added class. He liked that.”
In 1977, Blake was ready to ramp up the pressure on Elvis
In 1977, Blake was ready to ramp up the pressure on Elvis. He wrote Lawler’s next track, “The Ballad of Jerry Lawler.” At the chorus, the ladies all chime, “Jerry Lawler he’s the king/ And he can do anything.” Then Blake added this boast:
Elvis thinks he's the king
Ask the little girl
She'll tell you
I'm the real thing
“It became the most requested song on the market,” Blake remembers.” But when radio started playing it, they got so many calls threatening to burn down the station that they wanted to take it off the air. I told them, ‘You can tell people are listening because they're responding!’”
Blake raised the royal stakes. “Getting Jerry and Elvis together would take Lawler to the next level. I'd done posters and handbills about Lawler being the real king of Memphis. He called Elvis the fake king. Both of them were bad boys when the public first discovered them, but both became good guys.
“Then Jerry and I were at my house working on a poster saying, ‘The king is dead, long live the king!’ – when the radio announced that Elvis had died.” The hard silence that follows expresses the absence that’s still felt. “My heart went out of the project. I'd worked so long and so hard to get the two of them together. And I didn't want to make money off of a dead man, it was bad luck.”
Blake continued amassing tracks from a variety of artists, but he didn’t release anything for more than two years. One session was a cowboy who sang an old Jim Reeves tune, “That’s My Desire.” He’d never been in a recording studio so Blake calmed his nerves with half a Quaalude. The man sang a cappella, keeping such perfect time that when he pauses for a solo you still feel the beat. The track was complete, one voice only and the space between the notes. In keeping with his musician tributes, the B-side would have been the silence of studio air. (And Blake has continued accumulating tracks – Wrestling’s Nate the Rat, Memphis underground chanteuse Sassafrass Hendrix cooing a very comely “Baby Scratch My Back,” an LA band DFX doing Stones-like recordings with just enough punk rock edge.)
He came back to market in 1980 with his final two releases, both of them embracing the gritty Memphis rock and roll that punk was trying to get back to. And both were artisan products, requiring hand assembly – inserts and attachments. Jim Dickinson’s recording of “Rumble” was an amassment of its own. Blake gave him the tape in 1974, and it came to every Barbarian session that was, overdubbing til it was full, then mixing down to create space so he could keep adding and keep mixing. When the motorcycle solo was recorded, the engine shot blue flame, the studio filled with smoke and then with carbon monoxide.
By 1980, after more than 70 overdubs, they had enough for a final mix – it includes audio from a skin flick Dickinson had scored and crescendos with an atom bomb explosion that Blake added. The New York Times picked it as a top ten single for 1980. The original “Rumble” by Link Wray is the only instrumental record even banned from radio in the US; its sound, though slow and restrained, was that demonic and that inviting. Dickinson’s homage drags it through a midnight juke joint, the back seat of a car at a drive in movie, and the screaming vortex in your teen-aged cortex.
Barbarian’s final release was the Lesa Aldridge EP – a 7” with three songs. Lesa was Alex Chilton’s girlfriend and muse during Big Star 3rd and Like Flies on Sherbert, and she fronted the all-girl band the Klitz, whose performance for Michael O’Donoghue’s Mondo Video release party got mentioned in Rolling Stone. Alex woke her one morning, had her sing breathy vocals over his rocking version of the Kinks’ “Till the End of the Day.” He told her he wasn’t happy enough to sing it. John Fry loved her delivery so much he mixed it himself, but it fell too far outside the scope of 3rd. He gave it to Blake, who loved it, loved her, and had a vision / an x-ray vision for her on the Barbarian roster.
“I always thought that I could make a record on anybody if they’d listen to me,” says Blake. “And Lesa would do what I asked.”
Blake returned to Sun Studio for Lesa. It was then an automobile warehouse with no power. He brought an electrician to splice them into the neighboring used car lot’s juice. “As Snoopy would say, it was one dark and gloomy night,” says Blake. “Nothing but old wrecked cars in there. It was raining like hell. I'd mixed an orange juice bottle of about 12 different kinds of acid – orange barrel and God knows what all.”
Lesa was backed by the other three Klitz. Blake realized the secret to the group: “None of them could play except Marcia, the drummer. But what they did is, when they didn't play, they didn't play together. It's the weirdest thing you've ever heard.” He coaxed it to tape with “Twist and Shout.” Dickinson wanted to record with them but he knew his experience would intimidate them. So Blake gave him a wrestling mask, and with it, a new identity: Captain Memphis. Captain Memphis had no history, and now he had a gig, something to suggest the song’s melody.
“[Bassist] Amy Gassner got so wrapped up in her bass cord that she was literally tied up. It was like a bondage scene, she was helpless, and we had to go out and free her.” On the other two tracks, the sonic mix is pushed to extremes, to synesthesia, bold and brave and demented.
“After we’d cut about ten or twelve songs, me and [illustrator/collaborator] Tom Foster had to go in the rain to this guy’s house to get some cocaine so we could come down – it's God's truth. Had to clear our heads. To pay for it, I had to swap him the first Grateful Dead [album].”
Barbarian might have been Blake’s greatest public achievement, but his curated amassment, his “stuff,” is his life’s work. The collection is Blake’s art. Every piece meets his approval; if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be in his collection.
“I’m real big on cover art,” he says. “There's a lot of albums I've got just for the cover.” And he means albums. Cassette and CD covers aren’t art. They’re too small. Jim’s got oodles of Beatles picture sleeves and Rolling Stones picture sleeves. “They're nice,” he says, “but they're singles, seven-inch squares. To be a piece of art, to me it has to be 12” x 12”.” He makes an exception for extraordinary efforts, like Barbarian’s best packages. “My inclination is images of women. Jim Silke worked for Capitol Records for years and he drew covers of good looking women lounging in lingerie listening to a record. I love those.” Silke went on to publish books of his pin-up drawings; there’s a burrow in Blake’s collection of Jim Silke’s books. “There's a lot of pin-up artists that I really love. Gil Elvgren, I’ve got about all of his stuff.”
His preferences are specific, but his approach is broad. “I look for stuff that amuses me. And then after it amuses me for a while, I put it away to be amused by later. I’ve been buying comics all my life. I’ve got thousands of them. All kinds of art books, I’ve got a lot of toys, hundreds of ducks. Stuffed ducks, little ducks, toy ducks, big ducks. And action figures – Wonder Woman, Star Wars. One day I bought six hundred 45s. They were all from a radio station and the lady said, ‘Oh, $15.’ There was about 20 in there from Al Hibbler, who did ‘Unchained Melody.’ I'd sell the 45s in a minute – they're little and for a lot of them, I've got stereo and mono copies.
“I haunt thrift stores. Recently I found a 3D Yellow Submarine ad, plastic. I’ve got all kinds of Beatles stuff, but I’d never seen one of these. I bought it and three Beatles albums for about $25. And two of them are mono, Hard Day’s Night and Sgt. Pepper.”
For a long time, he maintained a handwritten list of his collection; that list now fills a box itself. Artists, alphabetically, spill over pages and pages and pages, and there’s notations for picture discs, imports, colored vinyl and other notable traits. The list is still a pleasure for Blake to peruse, a tactile reminder of his empire, a proxy for the unapproximatable. But keeping the completist’s list complete is untenable, though he’s often updating it. “I could smoke a joint and log this stuff and I’m never lonely.”
As orderly as the list is, it’s missing one key element: correlation. It tells him what he has, but it does not indicate wherehe has it. There is no order to the storage units, no defined order to the boxes in the trailer where we sit, nor to any boxes anywhere. Over the years, sure, he’s come to recognize that some items can be found in a particular spot, but that’s through a combination of chance and memory. The order in his baker’s dozen collection of storage locations is random.
When we go to visit the units, beginning onsite, the sea of boxes is initially overwhelming, but then I notice the labeling, a touch of order. Damaged Playboys are boxed together. Posters. Lawler videos. Art books. It’s not completely haphazard. Inside each door, the extent of the treasure grows as does the cushion of the mundane that surrounds it. There’s so much of everything. Paperbacks, because the whole box cost a dollar, are stored next to a wooden rack built to hold large flat boxes of posters and photographs. One box is marked “B.E photos,” indicating materials from world-renowned Memphis photographer William Eggleston.
Blake’s collection may be an unbridled mass of stuff, and it may be a mess, but it’s not a cocoon of fast food wrappers or stacks of infested newspapers. Yes, there are aisles created by stacked boxes, but it’s done for efficiency, done with intent. When I questioned a box of plastic sunglasses, he explained that when he has enough he takes them to a kids center that uses them for toys.
“I made a point of not labeling the boxes,” he says, “so if anyone ever broke in, they wouldn’t know what was in them unless they opened them. Besides, nobody wants to pick up records and carry them out. They’re too damn heavy. In fact, I don’t want to do it.”
There have been times when Blake could have used some cash and Lawler would suggest he “go grab something out of the room and sell it.” Blake gets exasperated. “You can't do that. I've got complete collections of Allman Brothers, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Sinatra. Dupes and multiples. You don't go to the trouble of collecting everything to sell it off piecemeal.”
Over the years, Blake has done much more saving than selling. “I’ve still got about twenty Woodstock programs somewhere in there. When Elvis died, they reissued his whole catalog and they made all these square books with all the album covers on it. I’ve got a box of those, unopened. And I need to find the damned Barry Smith original page of art from Conan the Barbarian #14. It’s a page where he and Elric, the Michael Moorcock character, are both on it. If I could get my hands on that, I’d sell it in a minute.
“I’ve got a signed Richard Avedon poster, I've got some of those big Kiss posters that are close to 4 foot by 4 foot, large Queen posters, the complete collection of Sgt. Rocks by Joe Kubert, I’ve got three or four big Madonna stand-ups. Cher stand-ups, lots like that. I’ve got probably a couple thousand movie posters and video posters. I’ve gotDisney stand-ups that are six or seven feet tall, a whole bunch of those.”
Blake is not alone in his collecting. His longtime friend Milton Pond is a veteran employee of Memphis record stores and distributors. Theirs is not a competition, more like a convivial two-man tradeshow. Milton knows the catalog numbers for more LPs than I’ve ever owned. He can recite arcana, but his passion makes it interesting. They don’t live close to each other – different cities, different states – but every few months, one will visit the other. Whatever Blake has bought since Milton last visited, he boxes but doesn’t seal; Milton does the same. That’s so they can both review the purchases when the other visits. “He knows a lot about records, and we can swap stories and talk about them, certain cuts, certain musicians, cover artists,” says Blake. “Those eight boxes in the hallway are what I've accumulated since Milton was over. He gets to see them, which means we get to look at them together.” Amusement, then storage.
But what, ultimately, will become of Blake’s collection? He pays on his storage units every month. Though he gets a break in the price for quantity, it’s not an insignificant part of his monthly income. Barbarian singles have sold for hundreds of times their original prices. Blake has some mint 45s, and all the original art, and all the outtakes and all the unreleased masters, and plans for a website.
One thing he knows: he won’t donate it to a university or museum. “Hell no!” he says. “I know that stuff gets sold out the back door. If I thought the collection could be kept and cataloged and properly used, I wouldn't mind doing that but, for example, the guy I used to get cocaine from in the ‘70s would buy it from someone selling it out the back of St. Jude Hospital. St. Jude is one of the greatest institutions in the world. So if that was going on there then, you know it can go on everywhere anytime."
The amassing can be mistaken for a madness, but Blake’s daughter, Mesmery, learned discernment from her dad. She’s a sommelier on the west coast, and the number one fan of Barbarian Records. But still, Blake’s got a mountain, and Barbarian is just one of the boulders. “I worry that she doesn't care about it,” he says. “All that artwork, it could mean nothing to her. I’m sure she would be more than happy to just have the money for it. But I worry that she's not going to know enough to get the right amount of money for it. Hell, the damn Barbarian records are collectible – it awes me that they're worth that much money.”
Money is only what we trade for commodities and experiences that we want. Other than for its sheer physicality, money would not make the cut for Blake’s collection; an example of each bill is more likely than a big stack of new crispy Benjamins. Money is a symbol, not an object. And for Blake, “It’s about the physical object. If it’s not valuable to someone else it may still be valuable to me. And if I think it’s valuable, someone else does too.”
The physical object – to so many it no longer holds meaning. Personal libraries have been replaced by internet searches. When Bill Gates built his bajillion dollar hi-tech house, the artwork was digital scans of the world’s iconographic paintings through the centuries; Da Vinci dissolves to Dali to Diebenkorn, but if a tree falls on a power line, they’re all gone. Collections that once demonstrated personal passions have dissolved into Google and eBay; who needs the stuff anymore? The current trend in tidying is led by Marie Kondo, who recommends keeping only items that “spark joy” and displaying them such that the joy continues. But who would want a life of only joy? A life of only one value – any value – is going to be repetitive, boring and quickly lose meaning. A scar may not spark joy, but it reminds us to use pot-holders. A remnant from a house fire may remind of us good times, but not without an overlay of sadness. Our memories, like our mementos, are chaotic, unmeasured, sometimes irretrievable, but always present and always shaping us. They may spark pleasure or maybe bitterness, but they create the dark, the dank, the power and the powerlessness of our irredeemable selves. Life is complex. We apply order enough to live, and we don’t kill the joy by seeking it only.
And so the collection grows. (Hey Marie Kondo, what’s the solution when the joy is sparked by the collecting?!) “I get stuff weekly,” Blake continues. Some thrift store booths phone him when they purchase record collections, before they put them out. He just bought a bunch of mint Dylan, Beatles and Led Zeppelin for a buck a piece. “If I didn’t box it up and put it away, the shit would be falling on me.”
And the collection entices. “I'd like to put all my 200 or 300 Beatles albums together in one place just to see what variations I've got. My 300 or 400 Sinatra albums, I'd like to see them all in one grouping. But there is no end goal. What is the end goal in breathing but to stop breathing? A lot of this stuff is put away and I may never see it again, but I've seen it, I've held it, it's mine.”
There’s something Caesarean in that: I’ve seen it, I’ve held it, it’s mine. But there is no conquering. The possibility of more is always greater. There’s always another storage space to rent, another box to put in it, another album or duck or Star Wars cutout to put in a box.
One recurring fantasy about the collection is inspired by comic books. “With the 80,000 plus records I've got, my dream was always to be like Scrooge McDuck, to put them out in the field, and dive in them and surface like a porpoise. Let them rain down on my head – like Scrooge did in his money bin. Which, to me, is the only reasonable reason to have that much money. You know, what good is it to you? Or that much stuff – you can't take it with you. And, there's a lot more variety in the stuff than in coins and dollars. And there's the art involved.”
The art. The quality of the thing-in-itself. Like the beauty of an old car – or a collection of them: When Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld have warehouses full of automobiles, and Bob Dylan and Prince and Elvis Presley Enterprises have warehouses full of their favorite thrifting, no one says they’re crazy, it’s that they have eclectic taste. And they have money to keep everything polished.
Blake’s sense of possessions is also motivated by the conversation an object might provoke. And if that conversation is only with the lone, unknown other person who sees the value Blake sees, who may for now live only in Jim’s head, then that dialogue runs unfettered.
The massiveness of the collection itself, its unwieldiness, demands a metaphoric interpretation. And it comes from the contrast with Blake’s career as a record producer, the scenario in which he wields all the control. In this final production, this lifelong effort, the control is with the amassment, its demand for more. The maw is more powerful than he is, ultimately inexplicable, beyond our – his – understanding. Blake is the artist and the collection produces him. What he’s creating has a life of its own, an ongoing chaos, barely controlled, not really regulated. The collection is its own bit of immortality.
“I did it because I wanted to.” Blake takes a satisfied look around. “I do have my own artistic vision.”
Barbarian Studios Playlist
Barbarian Studios Playlist:
JD and the Hoods: Rumble
JD and the Hoods: House of Blue Lights
Jerry Lawler: 90 Pound Weakling
Jerry Lawler: Bad News
Jerry Lawler: Ballad of Jerry Lawler
Jerry Lawler: Cadillac Man
Jerry Lawler: Memphis
Lesa Aldridge: Till the End of the Day
Lesa Aldridge: Story of My Life
Ploughboy Frazier: For Your Love
Ploughboy Frazier: Four Walls
Saboo Lateuse: He’s So Fine
Saboo Lateuse: This Old Heart of Mine
Tommy Burk and the No Counts: Stormy Weather Part 1
Tommy Burk and the No Counts: Stormy Weather Part 2
Thanks to Tara McAdams, Mesmery Blake, Mark James, Pat Rainer and Frank Bruno.
Robert Gordon is a Grammy winner and an Emmy winner. He’s a writer and a filmmaker. He’s a native Memphian who has been exporting the city’s authentic weirdness since long before his first book, It Came From Memphis (1995). He’s been nominated for six Grammys; his win was for the liner notes to the Big Star box set Keep an Eye on the Sky. His Emmy was for Best of Enemies, the 2015 documentary about Gore Vidal, William Buckley, and the demise of civil discourse in America. He’s not the rockabilly singer, he’s not author of Deep Blues, and he’s not the university in Scotland. He lives in Memphis. www.TheRobertGordon.com