“D.U.I.”: L.A. artist Spike Stewart and musician Brad Laner revisit a rarely seen mid-80s art-punk-noise documentary

By on January 15, 2016

In the early 80s in Los Angeles, filmmaker and artist Spike Stewart, his wife, co-producer Cathleen Doyle, and their camera crew (which included both Stewart and Doyle) lensed some of the bands from L.A.’s experimental art-punk noise underground scene at a benefit concert at The Plant, a tiny Los Angeles club, on September 18, 1983.

The event was called “D.U.I.,” and was organized to help Jeannie Huffman, a member of one of the bands, Severed Head in a Bag, offset their legal expenses after her drunk driving arrest.

Other bands were filmed by Spike Stewart over the next few years, and Stewart’s resulting 80-minute documentary, also called D.U.I., despite being relatively unknown today, is one of the best ways to see performances by thirteen bands and artists from L.A.’s early 80s experimental art-punk noise scene, the bands that existed between 1982-1985, those being:

Debt of Nature (recorded live at Oranges/Sardines, Los Angeles, on March 30, 1985); Free Bass Ensemble (recorded live at Club Lingerie, Hollywood, on May 18, 1985); Tequila Mockinbird’s Krew Kuts Klan (recorded live at the Music Machine, Los Angeles, on October 30, 1984); Lopez Beatles (recorded live at Club Lingerie, on March 27, 1984); Severed Head in a Bag (recorded live at The Plant, on September 18, 1983, and The Anti-Club, Hollywood, on April 4, 1985); Thrash Dumbos (recorded live at Cathay de Grande, Hollywood, on November 6, 1983); Three Day Stubble (recorded live at Cathay de Grande, Hollywood, on November 6, 1983); John Trubee (recorded live at Cathay de Grande, Hollywood, November 13, 1983); Ugly Janitors of America (recorded live at The Plant, Los Angeles, on September 18, 1983); Jon Wayne (recorded live at Club Lingerie, Hollywood, on March 27, 1984; the Anti-Club, Hollywood, on November 3, 1984, and The Music Machine, Los Angeles, on January 22, 1985); Whitehouse (recorded live at Bebop Records, Reseda, on June 21, 1984),; and, WURM (recorded live at The Plant, Los Angeles, on September 18, 1983), featuring Simon Smallwood (from Dead Hippie).

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The documentary intersperses interviews with Ernest Bovine (credited in the film as “Earnest Beauvine”), David Chrisman, Chuck Dukowski, Jim Goodall, Jeanne Lind Huffman, Matt Karlson, Brad Laner, Bruce Lofgren, Mike the booking agent, Donald Reynolds, Bruce D. Rhodewalt, Spencer Savage, Simon Smallwood, John Trubee, Jon Wayne and Tequila Mockingbird, a booker and liason on “New Wave Theatre” (recorded live at The Plant, Los Angeles, on September 18, 1983).

You can get a sense of what to expect from this quote, from a member of one of those bands, who describes what typically happened at their shows: “We like to let people into our gigs for free and then charge ‘em $5 to get out.”

D.U.I.’s director, Spike Stewart, was born Charles Montgomery Stewart, and he told us he was given the nickname Spike by his father: “When I was born, and I was being breastfed by my mother, she said that my father came into the room, and he looked at me, and he said, very dramatically, ‘We shall call him Spike!’ and she says she looked down at me and then said ‘I felt a great fear.'” He’s a man with an easy laugh, and you can sense that he’s practically bursting with creative ideas of one type or another.

Night Flight recently spoke to Stewart, on the phone, and he gave us some of his recollections about the film, the bands, and other topics:

Stewart:  “My ex-wife, Cathleen, who at the time was VP of Acquisitions at Embassy Pictures, which was through Norman Lear, she and I went to see a lot of these bands, all the time, we were just fascinated with these people. I shot a lot of the bands on VHS, and the film’s inception grew out of this charity show for Jeannie, who had been arrested. It was held at The Plant, this twenty feet by eighty feet hole-in-the-wall club that had previously been the old Mona’s Purple Hag club and it had another name before that [the Pourvu], and then later of course became the Bla-Bla Café. It was the most underground of all the underground clubs, an after hours place, if you were driving fast down Ventura, you could drive right by it and not even known. You never knew who you’d see there. There’s a book about this club, by the way.”

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One of the musicians who appears in several of the bands featured in D.U.I. is Brad Laner, who also spoke to Night Flight recently.

Laner is probably best known for his 90s-era shoegaze band Medicine, who were, according to many sources, including this Pitchfork review for one of Laner’s later releases) “about as close as the U.S. got to answering My Bloody Valentine with its mix of surging noise and soft vocals. They released their 1992 debut album, Shot Forth Self Living, on Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, and two years later they appeared in the 1994 feature film The Crow, adding a song to its soundtrack.

He was also a member of Los Angeles Free Music Society and the experimental tribal post-punk outfit Savage Republic, among many, many other L.A.-based bands. More recently his main focus has been his ambient/electronic/IDM solo project, which releases recordings under the name Electric Company, releasing nine albums and five EPs by 2004. You can see fairly recent interviews with Laner in two of William Davenport’s music documentaries, The New Punks and The Great American Cassette Masters, and read a more complete bio for his musical output over at All Music Guide.

Laner founded his first band, Debt of Nature — seen in the documentary — at the age of fourteen (in 1981), and also played with several other bands during the 1980s, including Severed Head in a Bag, along with drummer Jim Goodall (he plays in several bands featured in the documentary as well — including Jon Wayne, and The Lopez Beatlesand was also a member of Medicine).

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Venues and Bands:

Laner: “It was a relatively closeknit scene, and we played as often as we could. We had an open door to play at the Anti-Club [on Melrose] any time we wanted. We played at clubs and galleries that aren’t around anymore, most of them, like Oranges/Sardines, that was downtown. It was an actual gallery like The Smell, but nicer. The Plant, where the benefit show for Jeannie was held, that’s the club that was originally called the Bla-Bla Café. It was on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. It’s where I think I did my first gigs at age eleven or twelve, something like that.”

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Laner: “The band Whitehouse, they were filmed at Bebop Records and Fine Art, which was this tiny store on Sherman Way in Reseda, owned by Rich Bruland and Rene Engel. It opened in 1982, right next door to the Reseda Country Club, which was supposed to have been a venue for country western music — that’s where it got its name — but a lot of rock bands played at that venue, experimental noise bands, and punk bands. I saw the Buzzcocks there, and Captain Beefheart, and U2 played there too. If you’ve seen the movie Boogie Nights, that opening scene with the Reseda Theater, you can see that entire block as it was supposed to have looked in the 70s, and Bebop was right next to the theater, and that’s one of the places where Whitehouse played.”

Stewart: “Whitehouse…they were so loud that the sound they made went into the circuitry of the camera, my VHS camera, and it rolled the visual, and made it all noise, but we liked the look of that and decided to keep it. They would stand in front of these amplifiers and it was quite spectacular…”

Laner: “I helped them get some of the bands from the underground music scene to play shows at the store, including Whitehouse, who shouldn’t have been in the movie because they were completely unrelated to the other bands. They were from London, and they were the kings of noise. They were a very of-the-moment cutting edge industrial band. I’d started corresponding with William Bennett for years before that — this was back before you could contact people through the internet, so we were writing them using the mail — and we ended up putting on their Los Angeles shows, and they played at Bebop but didn’t want to be included in the documentary at all. In fact, I think the version that got shown in theaters didn’t have the band in it. They wanted nothing to do with it.”

Stewart: “Jon Wayne were a phenomenon in England. John Peel, he used the play them on every show, and every country artist up to that time had a copy of the album, they all put it on when they were nice and high… and they’d quote lyrics to each other from country songs on that album, like ‘I had to jack off the dog just to feed the goddamn cat.’

Laner: “Jon Wayne was this incognito, fake country band — not a cowpunk band, or an alt-country band — that started up after this explosion of country clubs, or rather clubs that featured country music, which started to come along after the success of the movie Urban Cowboy. Now there’s a lot of blues bars and clubs, but at the time, it was country music bars and clubs, and they were always looking for bands to play, so these guys got together to play what was essentially a parody of some of the country acts they’d seen around the country, because these guys formed Jon Wayne as a reaction to having to play in cheesy country bands around town for a living.”

“The guys in Jon Wayne, they were all serious players, badass musicians. Goodall — they all had these fake names, he was called ‘Jimbo’ — had toured with The Coasters and he’d played with Roger McGuinn in some of his post-Byrds bands, and we were in bands together. Doug Livingston was ‘Ernest Bovine’, which I think was credited as ‘Earnest Beauvine’ in the credits if I recall. Bruce Rhodewalt, he was “Billy Bob,” he played with the band live but wasn’t on their famous Texas Funeral album, that was Timmy Turlock. Bruce was also in the Lopez Beatles.”

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Stewart: “And David Vaught, of course, he had been a longtime musician, and engineer, producer…he had been in The Association, in the seventies, their music director or something, but in the 80s he owned his recording studio in Thousand Oaks where a tons of bands and artists recorded. He conceived the whole thing, the whole concept of Texas Funeral and Jon Wayne, which was the band name as well as his name. The thing was, it wasn’t that big of a deal here but it caught on in England, and that album came out there and has been reissued a bunch of times. Then their song Texas Funeral‘ appeared in Robert Rodriguez’s film From Dusk Till Dawn, and another song, But I’ve Got Texas,’ is in the film American Strays. More recently the rights to the album were bought up by Third Man Records, and Jack White put it out again. Ernest Bovine, he had quite a sense of humor. He’d say things like, and this was a few years after John Lennon had been killed… he’d say ‘I sure hope the Beatles get back together’, and then he’d pause for effect, and then he’d say ‘Three more bullets would do the job.'”

Laner: “Another of the great bands was Three Day Stubble, who I sorta naively stumbled upon one time, not knowing what they were about, I was just amazed. They were the original nerd rock band. Nowadays the nerd thing is really played out, ad nauseam, but at that time you just didn’t see shit like that. This was pre-Revenge of the Nerds, and it’s hard to convey just how amazing that was. They were fun, and they were not trying to be smart computer nerds, wearing glasses, these were like nerds that had escaped from some detention center or something, but in reality they were these wild stoner kids from Texas, they were these rock ‘n’ roll dudes, really, and this was just a bit they were doing. I think maybe they thought it up after they’d all been on some kind of acid trip, this group of friends.”

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Laner: “They were very much of a piece with Butthole Surfers, but way more subtle and quiet, therfore didn’t achieve those crazy Butthole heights, but it’s just… Texas weirdness. I ended up playing with them and jamming… Their singer, Donald The Nut, that was the name he used when he’d appeared on ‘The Gong Show‘, a couple of times. I loved it when he gets up gets up on the chair and throws himself on the floor, or he’s doing that thing where he lays on the stage and he pees upward. Just amazing.”

“Donald, he lives in Japan now, and he still makes these crazy videos. They toured to Japan, all those guys, they all ended up touring all over, playing at huge festivals, like the The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in Scotland, which is the world’s largest arts festival. They’ve put out several albums. I think they still tour, they reunite and get their Kentucky Fried Chicken hats on… amazing band.”

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Stewart: “Donald the Nut… my only regret is I did not catch the show where he said, in front of the audience, ‘Would anyone like to see the pee fountain,’ and they all yelled ‘Yeah!’ and he so he lays down on his back and pulls his dick out and pees all over himself. It shot straight up, like a fountain. The place went nuts. I wish I’d had that in the film. We were privileged — you knew you were seeing something so different, the energy was so unique, that guy Donald has charisma… you get caught in the swirl of the whole thing, you can’t guess what they’re going to do next…their cover of ‘Louie Louie’ is the goofiest thing ever.”

“Free Bass Ensemble, again, another great name…at the time the term ‘freebase’ wasn’t widely known yet, I don’t think. That was Richie Haas, a really nice guy, he’d come up with the concept of having a band with nothing but bass players, and so they had a plethora of bass players. They did that Bonzo Dog Band song. Tequila’s band, Krew Kuts Klan, they did cover of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced’ on toy guitars, and we went to the Hendrix estate and they said go ahead and use it…it was genius… The Lopez Beatles, that’s one of my favorite band names of all time.”

“Severed Head… they were powerful. A real force of nature. In their souls they were artists, and were … they were emblematic of the whole thing, the genesis, like a baby being born. They were the first, emblematic of everything that were to come after. They all hid behind their instruments, like a tuba, wearing diapers, sticking a dildo into a tuba… it was really something to behold.”

Laner: “Then there’s John Trubee, he’s in the film a few times, a solo show and performances he did with his band the Ugly Janitors of America. He’s mostly known for his song ‘Blind Man’s Penis’, which was originally called ‘Stevie Wonder’s Penis.‘ It was a song that was created by this Nashville company who advertised in the back of those sleazy tabloids you find in supermarkets by the check-out stand, and I think it was the Midnight Globe, and he’s read this ad that said they would make a song out of your song lyrics, and you’d send them the lyrics and if they accept the song and decided to record it, they’d split the co-write the song with you, on a 50-50 basis, and so he sent them ‘Stevie Wonder’s Penis,’ which they changed to ‘Blind Man’s Penis.’ He was thinking he’d maybe get a funny letter back from them, but this company, called Nashville Co-Writers, they said they liked it and they would record it if he sent them some money, which he did, and then a few weeks later he got this acetate, which he wisely repressed and then Engima put it out, and it sold really well.” (Read the whole story here).

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Stewart: “I got a story for you, about John Trubee. A number of years ago, I think it was 2008, something like that, they did a Kennedy Center Honors evening, honoring George Carlin, who had recently died, and I remember somebody came out onstage, and said, we thought it would be fun to go through George’s record collection to see what he listened to, and he said they started going through the albums, and the first one he pulls out is John Trubee’s The Communists Are Coming To Kill Us!, which got a great laugh. This was in front of President of the United States. It was a wonderful theatrical hors d’oeuvre.”

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Laner: “Trubee’s one of those original guys, came out from New Jersey, ended up playing bass and guitar in Zoogz Rift and His Amazing Shitheads, recorded tons of albums. Then he’s got his own group, and I think around the time that he’d appeared in D.U.I. was when his album The Communists Are Coming To Kill Us! had come out.”

Stewart: “Trubee was a genius too, but he had no sense of marketing. I think like so many very smart people he assumed it would happen naturally, that he didn’t need to market himself, that it would just happen, which is unfortunate.”

Lasting Impressions about D.U.I.:

Stewart: “How I see it now, I think that the artists in the film were all extraordinary, it was totally naïve, and unplanned, and these guys were the genesis of everything to come after that was considered high art.D.U.I. was the feature film shot on VHS components. We screened it all over the world, really, at the Kennedy Center, and at film festivals all over the world, Venice, Montreal. The unfortunate thing for the film — we had the post-production sound done at 4MC, which was a Universal affiliate [4MC Film Sound Services] — was that they ‘Y’d’ out the sound on a stereo mix, as in stereo out to mono, and thus canceled, through phasing, a lot of the sound, so we got screwed because people weren’t able to hear the whole thing, not as it is now. We fixed it.”

Laner: “Well, the thing is, Spike wasn’t in any of the bands, he was… I guess you’d say he was just a hanger-on, a guy on the scene, and he’d been regularly filming bands, and I think he came to the D.U.I. benefit show towards the end and he had an ‘a ha’ moment and decided to put all these disparate bands together under the name, but it’s pretty unwatchable, really, and I wouldn’t advise anybody to watch the whole thing, the conceit of the whole thing is so loose and rough. It has to be removed from this context of the documentary to appreciate the good parts, which is what I’ve done with the clips I’ve put up myself, the best parts.”

Stewart: “D.U.I. was a very unique experience, and it certainly influenced me in my art… I’m a painter now… I would like to have it released on Netflix or Amazon or one of those things, ’cause they see these clips that Brad put up on Youtube…but people watching it for the first time will see that it’s something that really happened, it wasn’t manufactured, it was of the moment…”

Finding a copy of the VHS tape — released on Throne Video (1987) — presents quite a challenge today, as it is quite rare, but many of the excerpted clips can be found on Youtube, as you see here — edited courtesy of Brad Laner — or watch the whole damn thing below (it starts after a full minute’s worth of color bars and film leader, and be sure to stay through the credits at the very end for a very special message from Jon Wayne):

In early September 1986, when the film was shown at the John Doors’ EZTV  Video Gallery, the L.A. Times‘s Patrick Goldstein previewed what to expect from D.U.I. by saying that it “sort of begins where Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization left off.”

“If it doesn’t have the intensity of Spheeris’ epic, it has plenty of scope, offering a glimpse of some of L.A.’s most bizarre sonic boomers, including the good (John Trubee and the Ugly Janitors of America), the bad (the terminally obnoxious Three Day Stubble, who perform wearing Kentucky Fried Chicken chef’s caps), and the ugly (Wurm, a manic garage band who probably should’ve stayed there, with the motor running).

As with most visionary art, the ideas are often more intriguing than the execution, but D.U.I is still a fascinating avant-punk document (though we’d advise that you bring along a bottle of Excedrin if you’re planning on sitting through the whole 80-minute affair).

The video has something for everyone, ranging from Debt of Nature, who mix electronic feedback with audio tapes of commentary from Evel Knievel jumps, to the Free Bass Ensemble, which features a stage-full of bass players, who play with the thunderously mellow tone of a herd of classically trained elephants.

For us, the highlight was John Trubee, an engaging, articulate character, whose comical interview segments are matched by a batch of inspired, if somewhat perverse performances–he opens his show by donning a gorilla mask and throwing up into a bag. Some of the concert footage cries out for tougher editing, but it’s still a treat to see all these musical pranksters under one roof.

As Ernest Beauvine [Bovine], one of the members of the cow-punk ensemble Jon Wayne, puts it: “It’s better to have something unusual that a few people like a lot than something that everybody likes for 15 minutes.”

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After completing work on D.U.I., Spike Stewart then turned his focus towards directing Shakespeare’s PLAN 12 from Outer Space, a feature-length experimental film inspired by William Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night.”

Stewart: “After D.U.I. I’d started this other film, which was called Acid Superstition Outer Space, and had almost all of it done, but it just wasn’t coming together and I so stopped working on it and decided to focus on this other idea, which I’d gotten after reading Isaac Asimov’s book which was a breakdown of all the Shakespeare plays, and I’d always loved Twelfth Night, which was Shakespeare’s last comedy, and the play he wrote right before he wrote Hamlet, in 1599.”

“And I was reading it and Asimov’s idea was this wasn’t a comedy, this wasn’t the Groundlings-type guffaw comedy stuff, this was a tragedy, these characters were all tragic, and the character of Malvolio represents Oliver Cromwell, I mean, he was a very nasty guy. So I got the idea for my film, and approached it from that perspective.”

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Twelfth Night is my favorite comedy, though, and I really wanted to do something different, and around that same time had discovered the Fischer-Price camera that used these audio-cassettes, and so I said ‘let’s do something really different here….’ and I used the Pixelvision film as the anchor medium, and we shot, at the same time, on all the other available formats at the time, and I said ‘we’ll just… mix and match, whatever looks best, we’ll cut into it. And so that’s what we did and the film goes back and forth from Pixelvision to all these other formats.”

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The film (completed in 1991) was something of a filmic collage project in the end, photographed with all kinds of cameras and film and video formats available at the time, including 35mm, 16mm, Betacam, U-Matic, Hi-8 and VHS, but Stewart’s main camera was a simplistic point-and-shoot toy camera — the Fischer-Price PXL 2000 — which captures low resolution black-and-white images in “Pixelvision,” at just 120 x 90 pixels/15 frames-per-second.

Amateur-made Pixelvision films were all the rage at the time, and still are, apparently — but in the early 90s artsy experimental filmmakers were using the popular camera so frequently on their films that a film festival, PXL THIS, was quickly organized in 1990 by Pixelvision enthusiast Gerry Fialka, to showcase movies that were made with the relatively inexpensive Fischer-Price camera.

You can see examples of what Pixelvision looks like in movies like Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1990), music videos (Mote by Sonic Youth; “Black Grease” by the Black Angels) and a spate of art films, like Nadja, the 1994 film written and directed by Michael Almereyda.

Stewart’s cast on Shakespeare’s PLAN 12 from Outer Space included many recognizable names: Kay Lenz (TV’s epic mini-series “Rich Man Poor Man,” Clint Eastwood’s Breezy), Billy Hayes (Midnight Express), Frank Doubleday (Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York, Network), Grant Loud (from PBS’s An American Family), David Nigel Lloyd (who also created some of the music) Anneliese Varaldiev, Buck Henry, Maureen Sue Levin and Darlene Levin (The Addams Family), Nancye Ferguson (David Lynch’s short-lived TV show “On The Air”), Louis Lista, Richard Crowley (The Great Rock and Roll Swindle), Linda Eve Miller, Ethan James and Tracy Ray.

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Stewart: “We had just the most amazing cast. Frank Doubleday was our Malvolio, and I was fortunate enough to have Billy Hayes as Duke Orsino. Kay Lenz played the twins, male and female, just like in Shakepeare’s day, when men would play the women’s roles too. We had Mark Mothersbaugh, Buck Henry, Grant Loud… we had Louie Lista from the L.A. band Shieks of Shake. We had Anneliese, she was the voice of Filmex, which was the film festival we had here in L.A. that morphed into the AFI Fest. I always loved her voice, and she was affiliated with Filmex and would announce the films in English and then in whatever native language the film was made in, like if it was from the Netherlands, she’d say ‘We have this film from the Netherlands’ in English and then she’d say the same thing in Dutch.”

“We had a lot of articles written about the film, there was a big feature in American Film magazine, because it was the only movie to date, at the time, that was filmed with all of the available media, all formats, film and VHS and so on.”

Today, Spike Stewart is the so-called “unofficial mayor of Laurel Canyon“, having grown up in the Hollywood Hills above Sunset and made his home there for many years. His artistic interests have more recently been focused on his brightly-colored “neo-Psychedelia” large canvas paintings. Read more at that link.

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Stewart worked as a Holography (Dicromate) artist from the seventies into the early eighties, then became a filmmaker (80s into the late nineties). He has also been a writer (late 80’s’s to present), an art director (mid 90s to 2007) and artist (painter/photographer) for the past eight years, and has also been acting for the past year.

Stewart: “I’m an artist, I don’t think of myself as a filmmaker only, I delineate it…I do what I do… I’ve been painting since 2007, and after I made Plan 12, I decided that Plan 12 is a very dark film… and that from now on, I said at the time, I’m going to dedicate whatever meager talents I have to allowing the viewer to feel better about themselves and the world, and so since then, in my painting, I have done my very best to only create and illustrate with images that I think are uplifting. It’s a kind of sixties positivity thing. The world is too full of negativity. The thing is now, I’m 64, and I wanted to make it so it is possible to view life with a little levity. I want to focus on good things in the world, let’s dwell on that for awhile.”

Shit Together #5 (series)

Shit Together #5 (series)

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Michelle Klein-Hass

    Richie Hass’ widow here…I’d really like a copy of the Free Bass Ensemble footage.