Third Man Records, CASS Records and The Dirtbombs’ Ben Blackwell: “When you see a live show that you really connect with it blows your mind and changes the way you feel, there’s no substitute for that”

Handmade collage by B.

Recently Gimmie caught up with co-founder and co-owner of Third Man Records, founder of CASS Records and The Dirtbombs’ drummer Ben Blackwell to chat about new TMR release The Stooges’ Live At Goose Lake, August 8th, 1970. The record is a high-quality soundboard recording of the original Stooges line-up’s final performance; the 1/4” stereo two-track tape sat unheard in the basement of a Michigan farmhouse for decades until now. We also chat about The Dirtbombs, of things Ben’s learnt from his uncle Jack White, upcoming TMR releases and more.

What do The Stooges mean to you?

BEN BLACKWELL: The Stooges symbolize – whether they knew it or not at the time – the shift of standard “classic rock” to something more confrontational, a little more challenging and clearing the way for punk rock, which in turn cleared the way for do-it-yourself, self-starter ideas… in that, The Stooges were simplified and the people that were looking to The Stooges were like, “Shit, we can do that, that’s three chords!” I think it’s a shift in influence on a larger portion of the public, knowing full well The Stooges were not hugely popular, but popular just enough they influenced people like Ramones and the Sex Pistols, the Germs, all of that stuff. The through line from The Stooges to Nirvana to The White Stripes in my mind is super clear and super transparent; if not for that, we would not have this.

It’s funny how a lot of bands like The Stooges or even Black Flag or Ramones for example weren’t so popular when they were first around but have gone on to be more so and have a cult-like status now.

BB: Yeah, that’s the only benefit of being ahead of your time [laughs], it somewhat seems to pause it, that you will have a somewhat longer shelf-life.

How did you first come to The Stooges’ music?

BB: It would have been around May of 1996. Jack [White] had played me something off the first album maybe “1969” or “I Wanna Be Your Dog” which are probably the easiest ways of entry to that band, they’re pretty digestible in the grand scheme of things. You don’t play someone “Fun House” the song to start out. “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is pretty undeniably great across the board.

Can you remember what you felt when you first heard it?

BB: I had a general liking of it. I don’t think I had heard Sonic Youth doing it yet. In hindsight, I feel like I remember more listening to Fun House which was: it’s not as good as the first Stooges album. You have to absorb the self-titled album before Fun House really makes sense, at least at age… I’m presupposing lots of deep mental notes and calculations in a sixteen-year-old brain!

When you first listened to The Stooges Live At Goose Lake recording; what was the initial thing you noticed about it?

BB: There’s three to four immediate observations kind of happening in real time on top of each other. The first one is, Dave Alexander is playing bass; which I had been told or read or had heard for the previous two decades at least that, that was not the case at the show.

Secondly is, the recording quality is respectable. Having been a Stooges fan for many years I have paid accumulative of hundreds of dollars on really, really bad sounding Stooges recordings, and not really had too much to gripe about because you’re just happy to get anything with this band. On top of hearing Dave play, just the quality, to my ears, in my opinion is the best sounding Stooges recording from that era and line-up.

There’s some conversation to be have about a live recording called Georgia Peaches that’s the Raw Power era of the band, which is a good recording but I don’t like that version of the band as much—I’m more of a Fun House guy.

The third thing while listening to it is, the bemusement of, holy shit, this exists! It took me months to realise that. Only once the release was imminent did I think back and realise; oh wow! I was the first person to be able to fully refute that theory that Dave didn’t play bass that night. Anyone I’m talking to afterwards, if I share them the recording before it’s come out or doing a press release or sharing with you, it’s shared with the story that Dave did play bass! The question is answered for you. I sat there and was like; wow! That’s kind of all the weight of Stooges fans in the world sitting right there–holy shit, it’s there! Amazing!

What’s one of the most interesting things about the recording for you?

BB: The performance speaks for itself. The most interesting thing for me about the recording, having jumped so deep into all aspects of it, is the only real question we don’t have an answer to; why it was recorded? The engineer James [Jim] Cassily was a local audio engineer in Detroit, he wasn’t hired by the festival, wasn’t doing sound for the bands so… why was he recording this? It’s not too much to imagine that he had connections that could patch him right into the board. He didn’t record everything, he recorded little bits here and there. Of all of the people involved, Iggy Pop is pretty much the only person that’s still alive, in the immediate of it. Richard Songer the promoter is still alive but in terms of the band, Iggy Pop is the only one still alive. I wonder how it came to be! Why did it just sit there? Why was it recorded? What was the purpose for it?

I’ve seen people on message boards say that they heard this show happen in August of 1970 and people saying in September and October that they had recorded the show and that they were going to bootleg it on LP. This guy that talked about it said he lived in St. Louis or something at the time. He was like, he kept hearing it was going to come out in ’71, then a couple of months later they died and blah blah blah blah. It’s like, does that have any connection to this? It doesn’t make sense though because James Cassily didn’t pass away until 2005.

I was talking to a buddy of mine from Detroit that had sent me a congratulatory email saying he couldn’t believe I put it out. He said he remembers talking to Ron Asheton about this show. He said it was in ’78 or ’79 and my friend said to Ron that he thought the show had been recorded. Ron’s response to him was, “Yeah, but where the fuck are the tapes?” That whole chain of possession or the purpose behind it all, that’s what at this point would truly open my eyes wider.

Maybe the guy that recorded it just liked The Stooges and wanted a copy for himself.

BB: It could very well be. He recorded maybe ten other bands at Goose Lake. To me that almost signifies something larger, had he just recorded The Stooges it could be it was a more targeted, direct effort. When you’re recording a larger swath of bands it probably means you’re not recording it just for your own enjoyment. Who knows?

I know you’ve spent a lot of time listening to the studio version on Fun House, I read that the show at Goose Lake was the first time people got to hear that album’s songs in full before the its release, is that right?

BB: Probably not. There’s a rough recording of The Stooges in Chicago from a month prior in July 1970 and they play pretty much the album. The Stooges had a routine of anytime they had new music they basically stopped playing old music. By the time they had recorded Fun House they seemed to have ceased playing the first record. They recorded Fun House in May of 1970 and by June and July, we only have evidence of them playing songs off of Fun House, which didn’t come out until August. They may have not played any local Detroit shows in that intervening time in June or July, so it might have been the first time it was “unveiled” in Detroit. They played the Grand Circus Theatre in April of 1970 I believe, they were maybe playing “Loose” around then, if not more of the Fun House stuff. I’m still waiting for someone to find those tapes and bring them into Third Man.

Does hearing the live record change the way you hear the studio version of Fun House?

BB: Yeah, I think the live record makes the studio record seem polished. Fun House the studio recording is something that I never thought I’d say is polished anywhere. Steven Mackay’s saxophone comes out as really savage, I think it’s the unheralded star of this recording, and he only plays on two songs. Myself being a drummer, I think of all of the times I started playing in a band where I was severely under-qualified to play in. I played in this band when I was seventeen called The Dirtbombs.

I know, I love The Dirtbombs!

BB: We’re an OK band [laughs]. Listening to this live record reminded me of how I used to play drums in the studio, we would play songs we hadn’t rehearsed or toured out live, it was, here’s a new song we’re gonna do it… at that point my mind was like, I just don’t want to fuck this up! I don’t want to be the one to blow a take. You’ve got four other guys there with you.

I’m not saying that’s what Scott Asheton the drummer’s perspective would have been playing drums on Fun House – granted we have every take of every song on Fun House to go against—he really seems to hold his own. But, from the recording to the live performance, what I really hear in the live performance is that Scott has really found his place in the band. He’s way more freewheeling in where he lays out fills and really, really inhabit the entirety of the song. I would say the drumming on Fun House seems a lot more laid back comparatively from the live recordings of Fun House where Scott is just a maniac. I feel like it’s the best drumming ever captured of his.

Who or what inspired you to play drums?

BB: I remember saying in passing that I wanted to play guitar when I was twelve or thirteen and my uncle Jack said, “You don’t want to play guitar, there’s five guitar players on your block already. You should play drums!” I was like, ahhh OK! He walked me through it and showed me the basics. I goofed around on drums maybe seven years earlier when I was six or seven, I never had a kit or anything; there were drums at grandma’s house. Jack styled me with some drums, “Here’s some stuff you can have, here’s some stuff you can borrow. Go figure it out!” Immediately me and my best friend started jamming in the basement, largely inspired by our love of Nirvana at the time.

It seems like Jack has been a really inspiring person in your life; what’s one of the best things you’ve learnt for him?

BB: Oh, shit! [pauses and thinks]. It’s been a fortunate perspective just to witness his career from the perspective that I’ve had, let alone participate in it. What I would say that I’ve learnt form him is, it’s OK to say, no! It might sound funny but as you get further on and do more things, people ask more of you. Saying no is the hardest thing to do in human existence; you want to say yes and you want to please other people, you want to be liked and all that stuff. Sometimes you just say no though for your own sanity. It’s hard for people to say that. It’s nice to be empowered to say, no.

Is there anything happening on The Dirtbombs front?

BB: No, not really. Patrick the other drummer lives in Melbourne actually, he did a move from Brooklyn. I’m here in Nashville. Mick is in New York. Ko and Troy are in Detroit. We only get together on rare occasions. It’s been a little over a year ago, we played a show here in Nashville in April 2019, it was a nice little family reunion; it was the Third Man 10-Year Anniversary. A great reason to bring everyone down here. Now we need another reason to meet up somewhere. Before that we all met up in Belgium and before that Detroit; we get a weird fly-out every once in a while, someone will offer us an obscene amount of money that we can’t in good conscience say no to. That’s all we’re waiting on!

The last Dirtbombs release was a split 7” on your own label, CASS?

BB: [Laughs] Kind of. We played a New Year’s Eve show in Detroit with the Soledad Brothers, the drummer of the Soledad Brother’s is Ben Swank, who’s the co-founder and co-owner here at Third man along with myself and Jack. I had pressed a 7” single by them not too long before this show and I had a different Dirtbombs single I had pressed prior… I paired those two together and pressed 100 copies to have something to sell at the show. I rubber stamped them and put them on a random colour vinyl and numbered them. They weren’t new recordings, I guess a commemorative recording release would be the right term [laughs].

Is there any releases coming up on CASS that you’re really excited about?

BB: There’s stuff coming up that I’m excited about but it’s too early to talk about it [laughs].

Awww. Then is there anything on Third Man coming up you’re excited about?

BB: I’m excited about everything we do on Third Man! [laughs]. We’ve got a live recording by Johnny Cash that should be out in a month or so, that went to our fan club subscribers, The Vault. Then we have a live Hives record. We have some Screamin’ Jay Hawkins re-issues. Always working on finding those overlooked gems in our world or other people’s catalogues. Constantly doing archival White Stripes releases, studio recordings or live shows… we’ve being doing a live show a month essentially through this platform called Nugs, which is streaming and CD’s on demand printed, cool downloads like that for hardcore fans; that’s where we put the live recordings that have piled up over the years.

You sound like you have the best job. I know how I feel when someone sends me through something that’s not released yet and it’s so exciting to hear…

BB: [Laughs] Yeah. It comes with responsibility, there’s about ten things I could tell you that are coming out on Third Man that we haven’t announced yet. I have to sit on these things and put them under my hat and not tell you about them! It’s a bittersweet thing. It’s a singular enjoyment that you can’t share with many people. My wife and Ben Swank are the ones that I talk to about these things [laughs].

Where does your hard work ethic come from?

BB: It’s probably a lot from Jack, on top of learning to say, no. Being around him makes you want to do stuff. You always feel like you’re not doing enough [laughs]. Here in the States they talk about the Midwestern work ethic, which I didn’t really know about prior to leaving the Midwest. People work hard everywhere don’t they? In the Midwest it’s like everyone has a job and does that but, then everyone you know and that are in bands and at the bar, they also do their other thing; they run a label or paint or do acting. It seems like you do the thing to pay the bills and then part of the bills is your creative endeavour. That’s just what I was exposed to.

The minute I saw Dave Buick running a record label [Italy Records]] out of the front room of his house in 1998, that blew my mind open! I realise you didn’t have to have an office, you didn’t have to have employees… the idea of doing-it-yourself on whatever scale you can. I remember someone once saying on a message board, that you can’t make money if you only press 200 copies of a single, the best you can do is break even. I remember thinking that that was such a defeatist attitude! You absolutely can make money from that, you just don’t need to be locked into some predetermined “you can’t charge more than $5 for a single” mindset. Make it cool, make it badass, and charge $7 for it. Doing it yourself and not wanting to entrust… I’m OK if I fuck something up but if someone else fucks it up I get pissed! That’s a great motivator for doing a lot of things myself.

You don’t go into music or writing or making fanzines expecting to make money, if you do you’re in the wrong business, go be a banker or trade stocks.

Why is music important to you?

BB: Music via records is a way to tell stories and hear stories, it’s kind of the same thing. What I get out of it, I like the historical aspect of it; I like finding an old record and putting the needle on and trying to figure out both literally and metaphorically where it came from and what inspired people to make music like this? Whether it’s really bad [laughs] or really good or terribly unique or terribly rehashed… to extrapolate further, the live experience of music it dwindles as I’ve gotten older and priorities change and you’ve got more responsibilities. When you see a live show that you really connect with – for me that was once a month – it blows your mind and changes the way you feel, there’s no substitute for that.

Please check out THE STOOGES Live at Goose Lake: August 8th 1970. THIRD MAN RECORDS. CASS Records. Ben’s writing/thoughts: TREMBLE UNDER THE BOOM LIGHTS.

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