Bernard Stollman captured the 60s zeitgeist before it’d even hit. His now-legendary label, ESP-Disk’, provided the means for a wealth of free jazz firewalkers (Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Frank Wright, Giuseppi Logan) and polemical folk provocateurs (The Fugs and The Holy Modal Rounders) to get their far-out sounds to a wider audience. But this tale has a less savoury side, borne out in this book’s series of interviews with Stollman (positioning him as a confused spin out from a Barry Hannah yarn) and some of those artists with a connection to the imprint.
Since its launch in 1964, ESP-Disk’ has been dogged by accusations of financial impropriety and reports of its musicians’ missing royalties. Testimonies here from Sunny Murray and Milford Graves give succour to the case against, while the recent emergence of the Brooklyn-based Northern Spy imprint, comprised of exiled employees sick of Stollman’s chicanery, does little to suggest the great avant-garde archivist has cleaned up his act since resurrecting operations in 2005.
Yet Weiss, by framing his account as an oral history, avoids taking sides. While conversations with Sonny Simmons and Alan Sondheim may help offset any analytical frustrations, Always In Trouble would have benefitted from a little less fence-sitting. The truth remains adrift, buffeted along by the errant winds of opposing nostalgias.