In 1993, visitors to Midtown's Shangri-La Records could have found, among the independent label vinyl and CDs, older LPs, and other subcultural artifacts, a cheaply made cassette introducing two brand-new local bands. On one side of this white cassette in a photocopied sleeve was instrumental surf-rock fused with the indigenous sounds of soul rhythm sections. On the flipside, a trio bashed out brutally raw yet soulful punk-fueled garage rock.
This tape is a rarity now. Approximately 30 copies were made and most were sold through Shangri-La. It's a seminal document, the first recorded release of two bands -- surf-rock Impala and garage-rock Oblivians -- that, along with the Grifters, would define the Memphis rock scene of the '90s. But Impala and the Oblivians weren't the only soon-to-be-notable names the tape introduced.
The cassette also bore the name of a new local record label, Goner Records. There was no reason to expect it at the time, but a dozen years later, Goner has evolved -- like institutions such as Easley-McCain Studio, the Antenna club, and Shangri-La Records -- into a key force in the city's underground music scene. Now Goner, once a tiny indie label, is something of a multimedia mini-empire, with a record label, a record distribution branch, a heavily trafficked Web site, and a Cooper-Young store. But even more, Goner is an aesthetic, a mindset of sorts, one that unites like-minded "Goners" from around the country. It's also the host to a multi-venue garage/punk-oriented music festival -- Goner Fest II: Electric Goneroo -- that will be held this weekend.
Goner is the brainchild of Eric Friedl, otherwise known as Eric Oblivian from his tenure with the Oblivians alongside bandmates Greg Cartwright and Jack Yarber. The store, label, Web site, and festivities are now co-operated and owned by Friedl and friend Zac Ives, a copywriter at Archer-Malmo who's also the lead singer in local punk band the Final Solutions.
Friedl was born in San Diego and lived in Hawaii from age 12 until attending college at Claremont University, about 40 miles outside of Los Angeles. At Claremont, Friedl met fellow student and future Shangri-La Records founder Sherman Willmott, a native Memphian whose passion for music mirrored Friedl's.
Friedl was living in Boston after graduation, doing sound for the indie-rock band the Dambuilders, when his old college friend called him with an offer. Willmott was back in Memphis and wanted Friedl to help him convert his business into something a little more in line with their musical interests.
"Sherman had done his floatation-tank thing and decided that records were more interesting and got more people into the store," Friedl remembers. "He asked if I wanted to move down and help with the store, which at the time consisted of a box of LPs."
"Eric was always into music that was further out there than anyone else was into," Willmott says. "He constantly [introduced] me to great, esoteric music that I was inevitably listening to six months or a year later."
Friedl had relocated to Memphis by late 1990, and Shangri-La soon morphed into something more than a record store. Cartwright and Yarber, then in the band the Compulsive Gamblers, were Shangri-La regulars.
"[The Compulsive Gamblers] used to let me get on stage and sing a '60s cover or something, and the shows ended up being wild and long, with people piling on top of one another in front of the stage, people passing out," Friedl remembers.
The Gamblers lost a member or two to other cities, dissolved (for the first time), and Cartwright briefly went to New York. By the time he got back, Friedl and Yarber had written some songs together. Cartwright agreed to play drums and the Oblivians were born. It was 1993, and the cassette debut with Impala would be followed quickly by two more releases bearing the Goner imprint: an Oblivians single ("Vietnam War Blues") and Wolf Rock, the full-length debut of a then unknown Tokyo threesome called Guitar Wolf.
For the next five years, the Oblivians were prolific, building up a considerable fan base nationally, in Europe, and especially in Japan. During this mid-'90s period, garage rock was flourishing. The movement included countless notable bands and several distinctive specialty labels, such as Crypt, In the Red, and Sympathy for the Record Industry, labels which were home to many of the Oblivians' releases. Like many influential bands, the Oblivians were underappreciated in their own time but are exponentially more popular today, as evidenced by a sold-out Halloween 2003 reunion show at the Hi-Tone.
The Oblivians called it quits in 1998. Yarber formed the Tearjerkers and Cool Jerks, and Cartwright reached new heights of popularity with the Reigning Sound.
"By that point, we felt like we had done what we were going to do. It was basically a fun band to start out with that went way further than we had ever imagined," says Friedl. "We were getting on each other's nerves. We're all friends, then and now, but we were having to come up with stuff and not really feeling like it anymore. It turned into a job."
Throughout the band's existence and Friedl's five-year involvement with Shangri-La, Goner released seven-inch singles for bands such as New Orleans' Royal Pendletons, Japanese firebrands the Magnitude 3 and Gasoline, the named-for-the-ages Johnny Vomit & the Dry Heaves (Jack Yarber and future Squirrel Nut Zipper Jimbo Mathus' high school band), and the debut single by the Reatards, a teen band led by Memphian Jay Lindsey, who would go on to form the Lost Sounds.
At the same time, Friedl was publishing an informative, caustic, and hilarious fanzine called Wipeout! Financial considerations forced Friedl to take a short hiatus from releasing records, but he started the Goner Records Web site in 1998, transferring his writing drive to an online format, selling his own releases by mail order, distributing records -- and birthing the now-infamous Goner message board.
"He sort of turned Wipeout! into the site. Our thing with the site and bulletin board is that we try to be inclusive rather than exclusive," Ives says. "No one is really moderating or editing the message board."
Broken up into four forums -- "Goner Records," "Memphis," "Upcoming Shows for Goners Everywhere," and the most popular, "????" -- the Goner board has grown into an on-line collective of the brilliant, idiotic, and ridiculous. It would be difficult to name a subject that hasn't been broached, usually in an irreverent manner. Threads about local and national politics, books, movies, comedy, sports, hangovers, food, restaurants, bowel movements, great television, horrible television, fashion or lack thereof, general bad behavior, and the occasional incendiary and cruel insult can all be found. As you read this, it's a safe wager that someone has just started a thread about what is right or wrong with this article.
"The good thing is that a thread will start about the best fried chicken in town and end up talking about the history of water management in Memphis," Friedl says. The ensemble cast of regular and semi-regular posters, some clearly addicted to the board (on a naive employer's dime, in many cases; one thread was about how the number of posts drops off after 5 p.m.) runs the full sweep of gifted wit and pop-cultural literacy to insufferable inanity.
"The message board developed its own culture. It runs itself. If it's going in a bad way, someone can put one post up that kind of rights it," says Friedl. "We're really lucky to have some smart and funny people who post things, and they riff off of one another. If we didn't have a few people like that on there, it would just devolve into something you wouldn't want to read. People love to see what they type on the computer show up on the screen. I guess that's it."
Another more recent demonstration of fanaticism is getting a Goner tattoo. The idea was half-jokingly volunteered that "free Goner releases for life" would be awarded to anyone who inked themselves with the label name. Now, take two clicks into the Goner site and you're greeted with the current lineup of those who've made a permanent commitment, including a bottom-lip tattoo and one on a left (male) butt cheek.
Sherry Cardino, of Austin, Texas, proudly displays the word "Goner" outlined by the border of her home state. "Definitely the most appealing part of Goner is the sense of community that surrounds all aspects of it," Cardino says. "When the idea was proposed, it was just too funny to pass up."
"When I saw the first Goner tattoo, it really was ... weird," Friedl says. "I don't want my cousins to see that and start getting Goner tattoos. My family would never talk to me again."
Ives thinks there are good things and bad things about the tattoo phenomenon. "Anytime you have people that are going to go that far, it's a little surprising," he says. "You don't really know why it's happening. You'd like to think that it's all because you're doing a great thing."
Between 1998 and 2003, Goner releases slowed but included full-length LPs by the Reatards (Teenage Hate) and the Bad Times, a misanthropic, true-to-its-name group featuring Jay Lindsey, King Louie Bankston, and Friedl.
Friedl worked several jobs, formed a new combo (The Dutch Masters, with the Cool Jerks' Scott Rogers), and planned the Oblivians reunion -- another festival of sorts, with shows booked around the Halloween night blowout. Ives' Final Solutions released a single and a full-length LP (on Nashville's Misprint Records) and gained popularity through reliably chaotic live shows.
In 2004, when Cartwright vacated his Legba Records location at 2157 Cooper and moved to Ashville, North Carolina, Ives and Friedl promptly acquired the spot for the Goner shop.
"Eric and I had talked for a couple of years about opening a more general retail store of some type, some place to show movies, maybe, things that you wouldn't see elsewhere in town," Ives says.
"We decided that, since it was already established as a record store, we would do the label out of the store and see what happened," Friedl says. "Having the store is great, because we get to meet a lot more people, people that we had previously only known on-line, for instance. But on the other hand, you have property taxes and all kinds of brick-and-mortar restrictions that don't exist on the Internet."
The label resumed a healthy release schedule with full-lengths by Harlan T. Bobo, King Khan & the BBQ Show, and King Louie's One Man Band (Chinese Crawfish), all of which avoid an easy fit into a garage-rock agenda.
Another release was the curious Goner Cookbook, a literal and figurative gut-buster full of recipes and amusing Goner bulletin board threads about food. "If we do anything wrong, it's because we might spread ourselves too thin, and that's because we find all of these things interesting," Ives says. "That's why we did a cookbook. Eric killed himself to get that cookbook done. We went through crazy printing issues just to get a 500-press silly little spiral notebook."
Goner claims devotees across the country and even overseas, including a large contingent from New Orleans, and so the build-up to this week's Goner Fest II has been more hectic that expected, with many of the Goner label's musicians and several other self-appointed Goners displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
"We only had one real cancellation because of the hurricane, the Detonations, who are now split up all over the country," Ives says. "Some of the people who were going to come to or play the festival are unfortunately already here."
"With the first Goner Fest, we booked it around the fact that King Khan & the BBQ Show were going to be here. Louie was going to be around, we were going to do records by these guys, then everyone wanted to play the festival. Two days turned into three and a half days," Friedl says.
After the catastrophe on the Gulf Coast, planning for Goner Fest has taken a back seat. The Goner message board contributed to first-hand hurricane coverage and the location of missing friends. Goner has set up a hurricane relief fund through the Trinity Parish Episcopal Church in Searcy, Arkansas, and the money is being dispersed through Goner to those in need. Clothing and everyday items have been donated to the store, and a computer center has been set up so that evacuated Goners can check e-mail.
"We didn't want to do it the wrong way. It's a very serious thing, getting money to people, handling people's money," says Friedl. "We had some advice from people who do fund-raising for a living on how to not involve our taxes, so we have a nonprofit church taking the money, and the recipients directly get the funds."
All of which could make Goner Fest II a bittersweet affair, a gathering space for this community of fans, record collectors, and musicians. The festival is still approximately three and a half days, but it has graduated to a bigger space for most of the performances, with the Hi-Tone replacing the Buccaneer Lounge as primary venue. More bands will be showcased (including another anticipated Reigning Sound homecoming and a performance by a revamped Reatards before they leave on a European tour in October). Other festival events include a hot dog cookout, and a Sunday Bloody Mary party at the Goner shop. The store will also host an exhibit by punk-rock photographer Theresa Kereakes.
Given what happened in New Orleans and its impact on the Goner community, the name Goner might imply too fatalistic an attitude to outsiders, but understood correctly, the moniker has more poetic resonance. "Calling yourself a 'goner' sounds negative," Friedl told the Flyer earlier this year, "but it's not meant that way. It's about being an underdog and forging ahead however you can."
But even as Goner provides a real and virtual community for local hipsters and garage-rock fans nationwide, it has the potential to be even more.
Willmott, for one, thinks bigger things are soon to come. "I expect Eric will bust out of the garage/Goner niche in a big way with a very non-garage sound," he says. "The garage scene has natural limits in terms of numbers. There is a far greater demand for great music like the Bobo album than there is for your basic garage band. I expect Eric will take Goner to a level never before seen for an underground label in Memphis."