THE TREASURES OF LONG GONE JOHN
(Greg Gibbs, USA, 2006, DV-CAM, 95 mins.)
Todd Schorr provides the poster art
We almost really care.
-- original Sympathy for the Record Industry motto
18 years of performance anxiety, instability, and poor judgement [sic].
-- new Sympathy for the Record Industry motto
It's hard to be objective when a film features all my favorite stuff. I majored
in studio art, I've been writing about music for 20+ years (boy, do I feel old), and
cats have been a part of my life since day one. That's right, The Treasures of Long Gone John concerns art, music, and cats. Mostly, it concerns Long Gone John,
founder of inimitable indie label Sympathy for the Record Industry.
Born John Edward Mermis in 1951, Long Gone John is also an art collector
and feline fancier. And he isn't just any collector, but the rabid, obsessed kind.
He's as single-minded as the movie loonies in Cinemania (2002) or crossword crazies
in Wordplay (2006). Fans of those films will probably like, or at least appreciate,
The Treasures of Long Gone John, even if they don't share his interests. Further,
the director's freewheeling approach to fringe culture creates a link with previous
art docs, like Crumb (1994), In the Realms of the Unreal (2004), and Tales of the Rat Fink (Gibbs uses time-lapse photography to bring artworks to life).
The Sympathetic Nerve Center
To be clear, Long Gone John isn't an artist. He's just a guy who grew up in Southern California in the 1960s and 1970s, which means he was there for the advent of
So-Cal punk. Suffice to say, he loved it, and it changed his life. His childhood
was crap, and punk gave him something to believe in. He attended all the shows -- the Screamers, the Weirdos, the Germs, etc. -- and became, like many peers, a fanzine writer. Instead of picking up a guitar, however, he released bootlegs.
This led to the production of official, band-sanctioned recordings in the 1980s.
In 1988, Sympathy for the Record Industry was born. Sure, independent labels
are a dime a dozen, but Sympathy was different. Long Gone John sealed his
deals with a handshake and let artists retain the rights to their masters. It isn't a great way to get rich. But then, it was never just about the music (or the money). Sympathy's sole employee also has a keen eye for visuals and called on some of the art world's most promising painters and illustrators to design the cover images, the inserts -- the vinyl itself. He paid them next to nothing and kept the originals.
So, you could say the musicians ripped him off, while he ripped off the artists.
(When the White Stripes left for V2, they took their masters with them). It's not
that simple. Pretty much every outsider artist you can name -- Savage Pencil, Coop, Frank Kozik, Mark Ryden, Camille Rose Garcia, etc. -- is in the film, and they have nothing but nice things to say about Long Gone John. No, he didn't pay much, but he gave them a start. People bought the records, then they bought the art. And those people include the man himself, who started collecting and commissioning their work for his Spanish-style abode, which he refers to as a museum (as well he should).
In the film, he shares his entire collection. It doesn't just include paintings and drawings, but toys (Hitler in a nighty!), celebrity prescription bottles (Debbie
Harry's Prozac!), strange artifacts (a doll tricked out like a mummified baby!),
over 10,000 LPs, and other bizarre objects. Along with half a dozen cats...
Mark Ryden - "The Ecstasy of Cecilia"
Why does he do it? He admits he really doesn't know, but suggests it has something to do with growing up underprivileged. In fact, he's a little concerned about this ceaseless urge to acquire, but not so much that he intends to do anything about it.
Towards the end of the film, Long Gone John mentions that he plans to move
from Long Beach to Seattle.* The anti-mogul/art collector/crazy cat man, is now
one of us (cue the Ramones' "Pinhead"). Why he chose Washington, I couldn't
say. Except for his candid comments in the documentary, he's never been known for his love of interviews (and doesn't own an answering machine or cell phone), so I have no idea whether he'll ever reveal the reason. I just know that your chances of running into him at Roq La Rue or the Fantagraphics store are very good indeed.
The Treasures of Long Gone John is so stuffed with, well, stuff, that it may overwhelm some viewers, but I just can't get enough of this kind of thing -- and that includes
the garage-oriented tunes by Sympathy acts, like Holly Golightly and Sonic Boom --
so I was in my element the entire time. As I cautioned at the outset, I can't be completely objective, so your mileage may vary. While I'm at it, I should note that the term "lowbrow art" gets tossed around a few times. Every single artist agrees:
it sucks. My use of the words "outsider" and "alternative" is, perhaps, similarly insufficient. Most of the featured artists make a living at what they do, but they haven't come to a consensus on the best way to describe it. Gary Baseman, for instance, laments that his attempts to popularize "pervasive art" have come to nought. Call it what you will -- there's a lot of it in the film. Plus music. And cats.
* On screen, he mentions Seattle, but the official website notes
that Olympia is the new home of the Sympathetic Nerve Center.
The production team...has just learned some unfortunate news that we
deeply regret reporting to our extended family. Last week, our favorite
feline and a true star of the film--Go the Cat, left the physical world.
Those that have viewed the film never forget the lasting impression
Go leaves. In every city, at almost every screening... Go elicits howls
and hoots that represent the peak of reactions. Go will truly be missed
by us all and will live on forever in his silver screen debut.
-- From The Treasures of Long Gone John website
The Treasures of Long Gone John plays the Northwest Film Forum Jan 5-7,
Fri.-Thurs. at 7 and 9pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol
Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here. You can
also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.