Saturday, July 30, 2011

Long Gone John: Patron of the Arts

Long Gone John (born John Edward Mermis) is an American entrepreneur who is best known for his record label Sympathy for the Record Industry and his vinyl toy company Necessaries Toy Foundation. He lived in Long Beach, California for 30 years, but relocated to Olympia, Washington in 2007.

Long Gone John was born in 1951 in Whittier, California. John's passion for rock and roll began when he was five years old and discovered radio.

When his friends, The Lazy Cowgirls couldn't find a label for their live album, John volunteered to put out the record himself. After he thought of the name for the label he started doing a bunch of 7-inch singles. Before he knew it, Sympathy for the Record Industry was a real label. A real label, but one in which the proprietor's personality was very much ingrained. A tone of irreverence was immediately set by the label's moniker, by its Margaret Keane-style, sad-eyed waif logo, and by its motto: "We almost really care." By 2006 he had released the recordings of over 550 bands from all over the world.
Some of John’s celebrity Sympathy alumni are Courtney Love and her band Hole, The White Stripes, and The Donnas first incarnation The Electrocutes. Some of John’s less famous but yet still very notable Sympathy acts over the years have been, The Muffs, The Von Bondies, Rocket From the Crypt, The Mumps, April March, The (International) Noise Conspiracy, The Dwarves, Buck, Suicide, The Gun Club, Billy Childish, Turbonegro, Man or Astro-man?, Scarling., Inger Lorre and Motel Shootout, and Redd Kross.

Sympathy Records continues to be one of the more successful indie labels in the US. Many of his releases also involve commissioned artwork from well- known artists such as, Mark Ryden, Todd Schorr, Chris "Coop" Cooper) and Robert Williams, often involving subversive riffs on other famous works, like the album cover of The Rolling Stones, "Their Satanic Majesties Request."

Along the way, John has compulsively amassed a vast collection of art and pop ephemera. After seeing an inferior version of the character Enid from Daniel Clowes' Ghost World comic, John was motivated to enter the collectible toy game. His new company, Necessaries Toy Foundation started in 2003. It allowed John to finally slow down his label in order to work and focus on manufacturing a new line of toys and publishing art-related books.

In 2006 a feature-length documentary titled "The Treasures of Long Gone John" was released. The film chronicles John's eccentric art and musical obsessions. It also explores the work of several of the artists he collects and collaborates with, including Todd Schorr, Mark Ryden, Marion Peck, Camille Rose Garcia and Robert Williams. It features a wall-to-wall soundtrack of over 40 Sympathy artists, original animation and time-lapse photography.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 11, 2007

Long Gone John, founder of the Sympathy for the Record Industry label, is shuttering the business and moving to Olympia, Wash. John says he will continue to operate his company from his new location.

Artists and fans lined up to give thanks to a music mogul for years of support and cherished records upon his retirement from the business. No, Clive Davis is not packing it in. If he ever does, the send-off will be a huge gala with the biggest names in the pop world paying tribute.

This event was at the tiny Silver Lake club Spaceland the musicians on hand last Friday for the most part hardly known outside of indie-hipster circles. The mogul-in-question -- or anti-mogul, as he's often called -- was Long Gone John, the sole proprietor of the Long Beach-based Sympathy for the Record Industry label, which he is shuttering so he can move to a forested stretch of beach near Olympia, Wash. Sympathy, despite an astonishing 750 releases by 550 acts in the course of 18 years -- including early albums from the White Stripes and Courtney Love's Hole -- racked up cumulative sales in its entire history that would barely make a slow week for Davis.

Oh, and unlike a Davis event, this night was long on humility and short on hype. The guest of honor didn't even make a speech and only reluctantly came on stage to accept a cake presented by organizers. In fact, he even forbade the night's five bands from mentioning him from the stage -- though that edict was broken right off the bat.

"If it wasn't for Daddy Long Gone, a lot of us wouldn't have records out," said Lisa Marr, fronting a one-night reunion of her '90s power-punk trio Buck. "No one would even know we existed."

The sentiment was echoed throughout the night, from sunshine-pop revivalists Candypants, girl-group/countrybilly noir merchant Miss Derringer, fuzzed-up garage-rock band the Ettes and unruly rebel-rockers the Willowz, as well as musicians and fans in the audience who'd merely come to pay their respects.

"The thing about John is every record he puts out, all he cares about is making it a fabulous work of art," said Kristian Hoffman, who put out a collection of his old punk band the Mumps on Sympathy and who joined Candypants on stage for a couple of songs.

He certainly didn't seem to care about sales totals or profit. Other than the White Stripes -- whose first three albums were on Sympathy but who left non-amicably for greener pastures -- Hole and perhaps Japan's the's (featured in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill, Vol. 1," odds are pretty good that you've never heard of, let alone heard, much of anything from the label.

"If I sold between 1,200 and 1,500 of anything, I considered that a success," explained John (whose real name is John Mermis), perched on a barstool near the stage, where a steady stream of friends and well-wishers came to pay their respects throughout the evening.

But the business has slowed to the extent that reaching even that modest goal became a constant struggle. Citing a need for fresh air (literally and figuratively), he says it's time to move north -- lock, stock and the massive collection of toys (an obsession surpassing even his music passion) that fill his Long Beach home.

So what does it all add up to, legacy-wise? The music this night was threaded by an overall retro feel and the presence of at least one woman in each band (both common among Sympathy acts), but showed a wide range of approach.

Opening act Candypants, a quintet fronted by art-kewpie singer-flutist Lisa Jenio, could easily have fallen on the wrong side of the Ironic Curtain with its version of the Monkees' "Star Collector" and such originals as "I Want a Pony" but showed enough sincerity to be more Archies than arch. (That's good.)

Buck's melodic, smart and muscular approach could have come from Madame Wong's circa 1980. (That's also good.) Miss Derringer, with singer Liz McGrath's prom-night hairdo evoking a small-town Reese Witherspoon, mixed Ronnie Spector with Loretta Lynn. (More good.) The Ettes, another trio, followed the garage-\o7classique\f7 model of such Sympathy-related acts as England's Billy Childish and Holly Golightly and Motor City notables the Detroit Cobras and, yes, the White Stripes. (Uh-huh, quite good.) And the Willowz finished on a very loud note, finding the common ground between the Stooges and Lynyrd Skynyrd. (Deafeningly good.)

But for all that, no one on the scene seemed able to put a finger on just what musical legacy Long Gone John is leaving behind. Most commented on his methods and passion, but ultimately said they had no answer.

John gave it a go, in a manner of speaking: "Eighteen years of performance anxiety, instability and poor judgment. That pretty much sums up my story."

Note, though, that he was smiling broadly as he said this. And despite a reputation for being prickly at times, as well as his insistence that he did not want to be the center of attention, he spent pretty much the whole night beaming through his shaggy curls.

"Maybe from seeing that all these people like him he'll change his mind about leaving," said Falling James; the Leaving Trains singer has been a longtime friend of the label. "Though he doesn't like people liking him."

It did seem he could only take so much of it. Or maybe he wanted to avoid maudlin goodbyes: Before the Willowz were far into their set, and without any fuss or ceremony, John was long gone.


Published December, 2004

Read the rest at Vice Magazine: LONG GONE JOHN - And His Long Gone Home - Vice Magazine

I love waking up every day and being hit with sensory overload. I treasure everything—art, artifacts, junk—it's all the same. I go out every weekend to swap meets looking for more stuff to bring home. That's what I work for and what makes me happy.

As a child, I collected matchbook covers and discarded bus tickets I found on the ground, but I've been seriously collecting and acquiring since I was about 17. My first apartment was decorated with stuff from people's trash.

I was in Japan one time and saw these statues in a store window in Shinjuku. I was in awe. I've collected figures of anime girls for years, so these were the Holy Grail. I took photos of them, and when I got back home it took over a year to finally get them.

When I moved in, the fireplace was a big, flat, nasty beige slab with no mantel. It was very modern. A friend and I designed the mantel and I had it carved, then I changed the opening and put in Italian marble.

The big yellow guy is Eugene the Jeep. He was created by E.C. Segar, the guy who made Popeye and Betty Boop. He's my favorite cartoon character of all time. He is a good little guy with a happy-go-lucky demeanor. He lives on a diet consisting entirely of orchids, and he has the power to disappear and re-appear in a different location. That makes him one of the earlier comic-strip advocates of teleportation. My version of him was made in 1951. It was based on a toy from the 30s made for the president of Colorforms, and it stood in their showroom window until he retired and took it home with him. I guess he finally died and it ended up at an antique toy show. I paid a fortune for it and have never regretted it.

That painting is by Mark Ryden. He's my best friend and coincidentally my favorite artist. The painting is six feet by eight feet and called Snow White.


It's only recently we learned that the Raw Power jacket had been acquired 12 years ago by Long Gone John. John is an extraordinary character who's notoriety is celebrated by the Rock 'n' Roll and "Art" underground from Long Beach to the East Coast. On YouTube, there is a movie by Gregg Gibbs called "The Treasures of Long Gone John" which explores John's world - ceiling to floor with obscure art pieces, kool kitsch and pop art fashion.... His reputation for attracting some of the most unique Rock'n'Roll talent in the USA without any of the music establishment formalities such as contracts, shows just how close his entrepreneurial spirit comes to that of the creative musicians who surround him. His record label, SYMPATHY FOR THE RECORD INDUSTRY is almost into it's 21st year and has released over 750 records. SYMPATHY has helped launch the careers of the WHITE STRIPES, HOLE, THE DWARVES, BILLY CHILDISH and ROCKET FROM THE CRYPT. John's rostra also included tracks from Electronic genius SUICIDE and 60's Punk phenomena ROKY ERIKSON. To sustain his compulsive collecting of surreal kitsch obscurities, he formed the Necessaries Toy Foundation.

Long Gone John wrote to us about how he came to own Iggy Pop's Jacket...

'The Turin Shroud Of Rock 'n' Roll'

John and Molly

I wrote this for you while flying home from no. California... let me know if you need anything else ... want an updated photo of the jacket ?? all the best as that, john xx

"I remember Stan Lee from the Dickies wearing the Iggy jacket every time I saw him and remember thinking he's gonna wear it till it falls apart...he was obviously really really proud of owning it...when you see photos of him wearing it you can see it was still in very good condition at the time...about 5 years before I bought it from Stan, a friend of mine, Tim Warren who ran the label Crypt Records who was living in Germany came to LA. and apart from whatever else he had to do he had intentions of buying the jacket from Stan for his cute french girlfriend ...Tim offered Stan $5000.00 which seemed an enormous amount of money...seems Stan was pretty flush at the time or at least he didn't currently have a severe drug habit which he often did have throughout the years...anyway, Tim's offer was turned down and his girlfriend was considerably heartbroken, but still very cute...

I didn't think about the jacket for a long time until one day a friend called and said Stan wanted to sell the jacket and asked if I was interested...he said he thought Stan wanted $3000.00...I thought that the jacket was so important and would one day belong in a museum and figured it was well worth the money...I drove out to the Valley to meet him at the converted garage he lived in...the jacket was pretty worn, but it was also obvious it was made out of really cheap fake leather material to begin with...the cheetah head on the back was a bit rubbed off, but to me that was inevitable with age and gave it a air of authenticity considering it was at least 25 years old at the as I can remember this was about 1998...being the bargaining fool that I am I offered stan $2000.00 and after considerable haggling he finally agreed to accept it...the jacket was tiny Iggy is 5' 1" as documented in the song with the same name Stan was also short, but not that short...i'm 5' 11" so of course it didn't fit me, but my interest in it wasn't to wear it me that jacket was so iconic I thought of it as The Shroud of Turin of Rock 'n' Roll...

I was about 21 yrs old when Raw Power came out and very was one of my favourite albums and I was completely mesmerized by both the front and back cover photos...that record was amazing and I never got tired of listening to it and never got the image of the jacket out of my mind...I have always felt extremely honored to own the jacket and will protect it's legacy until the next caretaker happens along..."

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