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LEAF: The Twisty Story of a Baltimore Record

February 27, 2008
By

Editor’s note: The below first appeared in the True Vine Record Shop’s e-mail list. Reprinted here with permission of its author, local musician, True Vine co-owner, and erstwhile City Paper contributor Ian Nagoski. We liked it so much we asked Ian if we could share.

On a sweltering afternoon two summers back, a guy–white, about 50, with several gaudy rings and one ear superglued to an expensive cell—walked in with a box of records for sale. There were a dozen more boxes in his car, and I helped him load them into the shop while he told me that his uncle had died and this had been his collection. I flipped though them, found the stuff we could sell, and made an offer, based largely on the presence of a stack of local 45s that looked good. The man got his money, and I started sorting the stuff in the boxes. Most of it was shot–just in lousy shape–and a lot of it was junk, but the first thing I noticed was that the earliest stuff was hard rock, dating to the early ’70s and the last of it was pop/R&B piffle from the mid-’90s. No way this was the collection of an older family member of Mr. Fancy Cell. Whoever owned this stuff was about 15 in about 1972, making him not yet 50 years old in 2006–about the Verizonmeister’s same age. But it wasn’t his collection, since he didn’t watch me go through it. Everyone who sells their entire life’s record collection wants to see what the Record Store Guy pulls out of the boxes. Even if the decision has been made to sell everything, it still matters whether the collector’s taste is being affirmed by the buyer. This is always, always, always true. This guy’s body language gave away that he probably didn’t know or care what was in the boxes. So, it registered that I had been lied to, but whaddaya-whaddaya. People have millions of reasons for lying to strangers. You think I’m the monk in Rashomon, agonizing over the morality of mankind? Nope. I buy records, and I sell records, plain and simple, and I just notice when things are weird, and I file it away for future reference.

One weird thing about the collection was the profound predominance of two personalities: George Clinton and John Lennon. Over and over, the visionaries of P-Funk and the Fab Four looked out from the stacks. Whoever had collected these things worshiped those two to a discomforting level for an adult. But again, healthy or not, wacky hero-worship is just part of the job in the record biz. So, with the first level of sorting done, I got to the good part of any big buy: listening to the stuff I didn’t recognize. And in this case, it was a couple local 45s by a band called Leaf. Right off the bat, it’s a good name for a band, ’cause it’s clearly the name of a band that smokes weed, right? And aesthetics aside, just in terms of sheer market-demand, stoned records are salable records, because anything “psych” is in demand, because serious record-heads are, generally speaking, serious doobie monsters, or at least guy with a lot of nostalgia for their days under the old smoke tree.

So, in one hand I had a stack of about 20 copies of one seven-inch by Leaf and in the other hand, I had half a dozen of another of their releases plus a 1/4-inch mastertape reel with their name scrawled on it. Clearly, I was dealing with the collection of one of the band members. (Musicians always have odd and interesting record collections.) The title that was only the half-dozen copies strong was a four-song EP, released as a Christmas record in 1982 here in Baltimore and dedicated to John Lennon, according to its title. The music was goofy power-pop, notable only for an out-of-nowhere lyric instructing the listener to “throw your tits up and down” during one track. (Whut thuh?)

The other record, however, issued earlier the same year, felt immediately like something special. Each copy was sealed across to the top of the white paper sleeve with one sticker and had another sticker on the front, orange with a picture of a cleaver in a slab of meat that said “PRIME CUTS,” clearly taken from the meat section of a supermarket. Inside, there was a Xeroxed sheet printed with info in an awkward/awesome combination of type-writer and handwriting. Side A was labeled “Funk” (good sign!) and was titled “Food Stamps” (‘nother good sign!). I put the needle on it and smiled at the first sound of a wah-wah guitar. The recording was a crude basement affair, but the damn thing swung hard like too-fast go-go with some seriously funky in-the-pocket drums. The singing was inept, but the vibe was fun and loose. After a harmonica solo that sounded like it must have been performed after the player had first picked the instrument up about two weeks earlier, all of the instruments dropped out except for that funky drummer.

This, in record parlance, is what they call an “open break,” and on a scarce, locally produced independent record, for hip-hop heads, producers and diggers, it is pay dirt for hundreds of hours of listening. Before the track was over, my tongue was hanging out as I starting hitting all the big web sites for rare records and drum breaks looking for a trace of “Food Stamps.” And I got nada. Nothing. So, then I flip the record to the side labeled “Rock” and, lo-and-behold, it started with another giant, heavy open, midtempo drum break before descending into some oozing fuzz-guitar riffing nearly worthy of Jungle Rot-era George Brigman and what one friend described as “glazed, sub-Ozzy basement vocals.” A closer look at the credits showed that both songs were penned by a certain Billy Senger and that he played all the instruments except for the drums, which were played by Joe Senger–Billy’s brother, I guessed. I kept listening to both sides and started to really dig the good-times-in-the-basement party vibe–boys having fun, playing at being rock stars and cranking out some wicked-sounding stuff.

Within 20 minutes, I had called every psych and funk 45 collector I knew and asked them what they knew about Leaf. Again, nothing. In a few hours, several collectors had arrived to hear it. Almost everyone agreed–it was the real thing, a monster. Several people called everyone they knew. But no one had heard of it, and no copy that anyone knew of had ever sold, so there was no established price–an unknown commodity. So, over the next few weeks, I started playing it for collectors and beat diggers, and I sold about a half-dozen copies for about the cost of a dinner at the Golden West or the cost of a new CD. A few months later, I started getting phone calls saying that those copies were already changing hands for $100 a throw. We consigned a couple copies to an eBayer who posted them with soundclips of the drum breaks and sold them for more than $100 each. Here’s one of them (signup required).

Around that time, we had a visit from Joe Vaccarino, the author of Baltimore Sounds, a beautiful, labor-of-love discography of local bands from the 1950s to the early ’80s. I asked him about the Leaf record, of course, and since he didn’t know it, offered him the mastertapes–which turned out to be for the inferior EP, rather than the killer “Food Stamps” single–as a gift for his archive and asked whether he wanted to buy copies of the records. He listened carefully to the records but left quietly without even taking the tape.

A month later, though, he e-mailed me and asked if I had seen that month’s issue of the free local music rag–Maryland Musician or something, I forget the name. I hadn’t. He said there was a letter to the editor from Leaf’s drummer, saying that his brother had recently died and that his landlord had absconded with his possessions, including the only tapes of their old band, and would anyone with information on the whereabouts of documents of the band please contact him. So I sent Billy Senger an e-mail and said I had a master reel and copies of the two 7-inches, and he was welcome to them. He wrote back, very gratefully, and said that he’d be in Baltimore in a couple weeks and he’d meet me at the shop then.

Sure enough, two weeks later Joe Senger and his sister arrived mid-afternoon in business clothes. They had come to Baltimore for a court date in an attempt to sue Billy’s landlord for theft of Billy’s possessions. They’d lost the case. I gave Joe a copy of each of the seven-inches and the mastertape and, in exchange, he told me a little about his brother, the author of the records. Billy had worked for years at the Mondawmin branch of Bernie Schwartz’s 25-year record shop/institution Music Liberated. Over the course of the ’90s, he lived down by the Enoch Pratt Free Library and kept getting himself into trouble while he dealt–and failed to deal–with some serious mental health problems, and pretty well alienated everyone in the family with cockamamie middle-of-the-night calls to bail him out of some bullshit or other. So, when he finally succumbed to his demons, his family didn’t hear about it for some time afterward, in which time the landlord –apparently Mr. Cellphone–had grabbed Billy’s earthly possessions and started selling them off, partially to recoup back rent I would guess, and partially cause the landlord was a louse. Joe lives in Florida and continues to play drums and plans to reissue what he’s been able to salvage of his brother’s life’s work. Joe has a myspace page, which includes a tune called “Guardrails in Heaven,” which I take to be a tribute to Billy.

A bittersweet story, ending in resolution for the talented kid brother and the gratified record dealer who was still sitting on about 10 copies of a record that he was selling periodically for $100 a throw.

Until last week, when I got a call from a well-known DJ and record dealer in England. He asked if I was still in touch with the fella from Leaf. I said I was, why did he ask? Because “Food Stamps” had been reissued on a breaks comp. Turns out the copies we Ebayed had gone to a DJ named Mr. Thing, who had included the “Funk” side on a comp called Strange Breaks and Mr. Thing on BBE Records. The first of two discs had a bunch of profoundly obscure tracks; the second disc was a continuous mix using the breaks from those same tracks. He said that Joe Senger ought to contact the label and collect his royalties on the release.

“Gee, I feel really loyal to Joe Senger, but BBE has done a lot of great stuff, too. I hate to cause trouble for them,” I said. “No trouble,” he replied, “he writes to them, and they’ll have money for him. Simple as that.” So, I wrote to Joe, and he wrote to BBE, and he should be seeing a check from Jolly Old England in the near future.

So the music lives on. And we got in copies of the Strange Breaks two-CD set, now available for $17–the cost of dinner at the Golden West–and it’s got a bunch of nice stuff on it. They did a great job cleaning up the sound of the Leaf record. Or, for $100 you can still buy a sealed copy of the real thing and get that shitty Xerox insert and that “glazed sub-Ozzy” basement sound on the B-side.