Happiness Is a Slab of Vinyl 

East Bay foursome presses small-time reissues that Rhino won't touch.

Record geeks are a lot of things: obsessive, semi-broke, pedantic, and prone to fits of matching secondhand flannel shirts with argyle sweater-vests. But one thing they ain't is female. No one has ever come up with a good explanation for this. After all, women collect stuff like the bejesus -- Beanie Babies, Gone With the Wind decorative plates, foreskins -- and we also apparently like music, or Fiona Apple wouldn't have a career. But most gals don't have that curious record-collector mentality, which falls into several distinct pathologies:

The Jazz Bachelor: A polite way of saying "Not getting any, so filling the void with Herbie Mann." Artifacts: Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

The "Let's Do the Time Warp" Dude: This underweight, ill-fitting Hal Blaine T-shirt-wearing dandy is often spotted in the Oldies aisle. Artifacts: The Seeds, rare Seeds, the Seeds 7-inches, and Seeds bootlegs.

The Weirdo: Nondescript borderline personality who usually latches on to one or two long-suffering record-store employees while the rest of them debate whether or not he's insane/retarded/autistic/French. Artifacts run the gamut: The Lettermen, Morton Feldman, Nurse with Wound, Jan and Dean.

All serious record collectors invariably are interested in the original pressings of whatever they are into. But for those who aren't so taken with the idea of spending $90 on a Thelonious Monk record, CDs do just fine. And for those kinds of enthusiasts, it's just a matter of working their way through every genre and band until they've heard it all. After that, anything new sounds derivative. At this lonely stage, only one thing can bring back that excited pitter-patter of the heart that comes with finding something good: Reissues.

Right now Rhino has the lock on reissues, but there are several other specialty labels, including a new one in the East Bay called 4 Men with Beards, run by Russ Tolman, Filippo Salvadori, and Pat Thomas (two have beards, one is a Jazz Bachelor, and the fourth is a mystery). Their specialty is vinyl, and they've just reissued Dusty in Memphis along with some titles by Aretha Franklin, Nico, and Otis Redding, with jazz artists including Les McCann and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Yes, they know they are geeks. "Our name comes from two places," says Thomas. "There's a local band called Mushroom that has a song titled 'For Men with Beards.' But it's really mocking ourselves and other record-collecting geeks, guys in their thirties and forties with beards and sweaters. So even though the name of the label is the number 4, we really mean 'for.' I think you know the kind of guys we mean ... "

Yes, yes, we do.

The foursome has also started another imprint (spin-off label) called Water, which promises to release Television's Marquee Moon and The Saints' I'm Stranded, and put PIL's Metal Box in a metal box again. All the records are gatefolds (they open like a book) with 180-gram audiophile-quality vinyl.

The amazing thing about 4 Men with Beards is how much access they have to great titles. But really, anyone with enough capital could have his own cool reissue label. While Rhino is only putting out stuff that will sell more than fifty thousand units, little guys like 4 Men are scooping up licensing for weird '60s psychedelia (look for an upcoming Pearls Before Swine box set and the obscure Signs of the Zodiac CD) that will probably only sell about five thousand copies -- a business strategy that'd kill Rhino, but is profitable for a smaller upstart. "Another thing we're doing that I don't think the others are doing so much," says Thomas, "is we actually track down the original artist and get them to give us different liner notes and rare photos, that kind of thing." They went so far as to track down the main musician behind Pearls Before Swine, who is now a successful lawyer in Florida. They also found one of the singers from the Zodiac record, which contains a musical salute to each astrological sign. The original record was a tribute that, if done today, would have to be the conscious effort of some entrepreneur to produce the corniest flower-child hoo-ha possible. "He's living in Hawaii," says Thomas with a laugh. "He was totally shocked and amazed that anyone cared." (Or maybe he was just embarrassed.)

Considering that they're peddling their wares to a neurotic segment of society, have 4 Men with Beards ever encountered irate listeners who are angry that they lowered the bassoon on side two, track seven? "I get weird e-mails from guys who want to know how come song three is twenty seconds shorter than the original, and can you please explain," says Thomas, who actually does nothing to change the songs. "There are a lot of weird guys out there. ... Trainspotter types."

And look where they ended up.


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