Jac Holzman: Weird scenes from inside the goldmine

The record label that gave us The Doors, Iggy Pop, Love and Tracy Chapman is 60 years old. Stephen Foley meets Elektra's founder in its New York birthplace
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The Independent Culture

Jac Holzman stops, bathed in sunlight, on the corner of Bleecker Street. "I miss him still. Jim died 40 years ago, but the band still lives, the music lives. It doesn't get better than that." We are strolling through the tree-lined streets of New York's West Village where, 60 years ago, Holzman founded Elektra Records, a little folk label that kept leapfrogging ahead of the trends of the day to sign pioneers of psychedelia and punk, most famously, The Doors and its volatile genius, Jim Morrison.

Elektra, perhaps more than any other label, tracked the evolution of folk music into the electric era. Its roster of stars reflected the emergence of the singer-songwriter, as interpretive singers Jean Ritchie and Judy Collins opened doors for the likes of Elektra discovery Carly Simon. Its heyday was a period of heightened experimentation in music, and its catalogue reflects the magpie tastes of Holzman himself, encompassing both middle-of-the-road crooners Bread and the forerunners of punk such as Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and the MC5.

Our nostalgic walking tour of a long-since gentrified neighbourhood takes us past the site of the label's earliest offices, at the back of Holzman's folk-record shop, cramped affairs where Elektra disks were stacked high in warren-like basements. These are the streets where wannabe-Dylans played and drank with Dylan himself, and where Holzman delivered Elektra's wares to the hippest local stores, boxes lashed to the side of his motor scooter.

Holzman, 79, but feeling "somewhere in my mid-thirties", is happy to play the raconteur, to trace how from these beginnings Elektra became a powerhouse of indie music-making, as folk begat rock'n'roll and as drugs begat psychedelia, and as his first major West Coast signing Arthur Lee and Love introduced Holzman to The Doors.

Recalling Morrison, Holzman is less record-label boss and more indulgent uncle, smiling as he remembers how the singer bought instruments as birthday gifts for Holzman's young son, Adam. "Jim was sensitive, and he could easily be hurt," he says. "Although he had absolutely no ability to realise when he was hurting others". Many of the stories of drug-fuelled hell-raising are over-blown, Holzman claims. He has always laughed off the notorious Miami concert, for instance, when Morrison was charged with two counts of indecent exposure. "I thought he only had one set of genitals."

Uncle Jac continues: "Jim got a little out of himself a couple of times during recordings. He nearly broke a studio window – but didn't. He did throw a television set – but it was a small one. He would fall down, as happened a couple of times, too much alcohol, too much something. He came out of the studio one night, went to sleep under a palm, was sprawled out with his nose in the gravel one morning. I bought a flag to put over him if it ever happened again." When Morrison became a danger to himself, Elektra hired a minder to drink with him – and to encourage him to stop. Ultimately, it was to no avail, and Morrison died in a Paris apartment in 1971.

There was a closer relationship between label and artists then, says Stuart Batsford, who compiled the 2008 box set Forever Changing: The Golden Age of Elektra Records 1963-1973. "Now artists often just see labels as a bank account to fund their records but that was a nurturing period. Jac knew all his artists, he gave them time to grow, to establish their style, to find their audience. And Elektra was a quality-oriented label. It didn't put out silly commercial records for the sake of it. Holzman, like Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic, could pick artists from soul, rock, psychedelia, blues or the singer-songwriter tradition, but they all had the trademark of quality. Holzman just seemed to know what authenticity was."

Holzman is the son of a New York doctor who he describes as "silent dominator" and from whose emotional cruelties he sought escape in movies and music. Elektra was conceived in his dorm room at St John's College, an unorthodox liberal-arts institution in Maryland, where he learned folk and world music by stacking records for a friend with cerebral palsy. He pinpoints its creation at the moment in October 1950, when he turned two Ms on their side to become the distinctive E of its early logos. The first record came out the next year: New Songs by John Gruen, performed by Georgiana Bannister, which received "fine reviews in little-read publications" and sold less than 50 copies.

What eventually marked Elektra out was Holzman's attention to the quality of the recording and his stickling for detail, right down to reshooting cover art and judicious interventions in the studio. The Stooges, in particular, took some hard work in 1969. "I had a reactionary wing to Elektra, a few people who worried that the magic of Elektra would be lost with this irresponsible band", he recalls. "They came to New York to record. They were strung out and they had no songs, so I sent them home."

When they did eventually come back ("Iggy came back clean. I always admired that about Iggy. The man knew when it was too much and stopped. Most of the time.") it proved hard to capture the raw madness of their live act. "The music was well-behaved, that was the problem. I went to the console, just turned up every knob until the needle was being pinned, and that was the final mix."

Elektra also signed Queen in the US, and Holzman recently sold a hand-written note from Freddie Mercury to fund a music scholarship. He had been unimpressed with the band's live show – "Brian May was just standing there, making it look like he wasn't doing anything at all" – and had written a four-page memo to the band with suggestions. "Both Brian and John have really excelled themselves in their performance and presentation and you'll be pleased to know that they don't make it look so easy any more," Mercury wrote in his thank-you reply. "We hope you like Queen II. We've worked like demons on it, with a lot of sweat and blood gone into it."

Holzman sold Elektra in 1970, fulfilling a promise he had made to himself that he wouldn't spend forever working himself to the bone. He began a second lifetime as a technologist, working with Pioneer Electronics and Atari among others, advising Warner Communications on cable television and the development of the CD. Most recently, he has been back with Warner Music, developing Cordless, a unique, digital-only label.

Elektra's fortunes ebbed gradually over the decades under the Warner Music umbrella, then absorbed into Atlantic Records and were finally left in abeyance – only to re-emerge a year ago, like the butterfly from its logo. By signing Bruno Mars and launching the UK's Little Boots in the US, its revival is firmly part of the label's singer-songwriter history.

That history is now being celebrated with a string of 60th-anniversary events, including BBC radio documentaries and a new book, Becoming Elektra. It's the future that Holzman is interested in. "I lived in Hawaii for eight years and I know something about the cycles of certain kinds of orchids," he says. "Elektra was an orchid that needed to lie dormant for a while before it could bloom again, and it's going to bloom."

Jac Holzman's 'Acoustic and Electric Samplers: The Founding Years 1950-1973' are available to download on iTunes. www.elektra60.com for details.

The video of the interview with Jac Holzman is below

Break on through: Essential Elektra

The Doors, 'The Doors' (1967) It was Jim Morrison's interpretation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's 40-year-old "Alabama Song" that got The Doors signed to Elektra.

The Stooges, 'The Stooges' (1969) Iggy Pop's band were signed as a package deal so Elektra could also land The MC5, but it was The Stooges who inspired generations of artists.

Love, 'Forever Changes' (1967) A chaotic recording process, completed in barely three days, as Arthur Lee's band fell apart, produced the quintessential psychedelic rock album.

Paul Butterfield Blues Band, 'Paul Butterfield Blues Band' (1965) One of the original jam bands, the Chicago electric-blues collective took three attempts to record an album to a standard that Elektra's producers would release.

Tracy Chapman, ' Tracy Chapman' (1988) The Grammy Award-winning album, featuring "Fast Car" and "Talkin' Bout a Revolution", evoked the power of Elektra's early singer-songwriters and its roots in folk.

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