It's late '94 and Poncho, a music bootlegger for more than a decade, is cashing in his chips. A cautious man by nature, Poncho isn't your typical bootlegger. But as Poncho would often tell close friends, "There is no such thing as a 'typical' bootlegger." With the GATT agreement slated to go into affect in January of '95, and with it a whole new standard of international copyright law, Poncho insisted he would be one of the few to walk away from the bootlegging profession unscathed. At least he had tried to convince himself of that. "But you never know. Bootlegging gets in your blood."
Poncho swears that he remembers hearing Bill Haley's Rock Around The Clock playing on the radio as he was exiting his mother's birth canal. He can't remember a time when rock 'n' roll wasn't one of the most important facets of his life. If only he had been blessed with some sort of rhythm or musical talent. But he wasn't, so growing up to be a musician was out of the question. Still, Poncho never let that stop him from clapping out of time at a Rolling Stones concert or gleefully singing way off-key at the top of his lungs while a Bo Diddley song blasted out of his car stereo. "Whoooooo dooo you loveaaahh? Yeah, who doooo yew lovvve?" His chosen profession as a music shop owner was a natural.
Poncho opened the doors to his shop in the mid-'70s. But even then, profit margins on new records were slim. Poncho got by much the same way independent music shops do it today, by stocking a music connoisseur's inventory of the obscure and a healthy supply of used product. With his wife working a full-time job that provided benefits, Poncho could eke out a modest living. In 1979, though, when his wife became pregnant, the stakes increased. The family income now rested solely on Poncho's ability to turn a buck at his record shop. Poncho began looking for ways to add income.
Like many record collectors and used record vendors, the hugely successful Rock Ages record convention in New York was on Poncho's list of "must go" events in 1979. He made the trek to New York with a competing record shop owner.
Rock Ages was a collector's wet dream. With hundreds of rare record dealers from around the US (and some international dealers as well), you could find virtually anything of merit that had ever been committed to vinyl. Rare blues 78s. Early Yardbirds pressings. Rolling Stones singles with picture sleeves from around the globe. And mixed in among all the "legitimate" rarities, there were bootlegs, unauthorized live recordings. Sometimes discreetly tucked behind the vendor's tables. Sometimes a little more obvious. It wasn't long before Poncho came across Piece De Resistance, a three-LP boxed set containing a Bruce Springsteen live performance recorded in Passaic, New Jersey during the same tour that Poncho had witnessed the year before. It didn't have Summertime Blues on it, but it did have the inviting Detroit Medley.
When Poncho reached for his wallet, his travelling companion stopped him. "It's a great set, but I know where you can get it wholesale." Arrangements were made and that night Poncho found himself in the hotel room of one Vicky Vinyl. Box lots of bootlegs littered the room. Most of them contained a black label that featured a skeleton and the words "Slipped Discs." Poncho had not only found one of the best recordings from his beloved '78 Bruce tour. He had also found a future for his record shop.
Of course, also being the cautious sort, Poncho never entertained any thoughts of aspiring to the level of bootleg distribution as Vicky Vinyl. Being able to buy diapers, three square meals a day, and health insurance for his children was all Poncho ever wanted. Leave the big bucks and legal hassles to the Vicky Vinyls and John Wizardos of the world. Stay under the radar. So for all future bootleg dealings, Poncho made it a point to deal only with small-time distributors with reputations for being trustworthy. For Poncho, an amiable sort who made friends easily, it wasn't a hard task to find such wholesalers. It was a system that served him well.
Poncho noticed immediately that the arm under which the box was being carried was one of only a few small portions of the man's anatomy that wasn't covered with tattoos. It was a prosthetic. In a rare and spontaneous moment of bravado, Poncho offered, "Your Mama named you right." Then he swallowed hard when he realized what he had said and hoped Lefty didn't kill hem. But Lefty just roared with laughter. Five minutes hadn't passed before Poncho realized that he and Lefty shared more than just a sense of humor. Lefty was an avid fan of live recordings and every tape in the box contained rare and unissued concert recordings dating back to the late '60s. Previously unbootlegged recordings. Some from radio broadcasts. Most recorded from the audience, obviously using high tech equipment.
The subject of a business transaction didn't come up for hours. Poncho and Lefty were too busy conversing about music. Trading information on obscure artists. Relating stories about their favorite concert moments. Wondering what ever happened to radio. As closing time approached, Poncho finally asked Lefty what he wanted for his untapped goldmine of recordings. "I want people to hear them. If you can get them pressed onto vinyl and give me a few copies for my friends, that is payment enough." Poncho explained that he did not manufacture the bootleg records that he sold in his store but agreed with Lefty that the music on the tapes was too good to be kept in a closet. He would see what he could do.
It wasn't too long after that that Poncho found a connection that would press up 200-300 copies of a recording with attractive full-color covers. Poncho had moved a step up in the bootlegging chain. But more important, he had developed a lifetime friend and trusted partner. Usually, if you ran into Poncho, Lefty wasn't far behind. Poncho suggested that "a few copies for friends" wasn't enough compensation for the tapes and suggested a 50/50 split of profits. Lefty declined and suggested, "You don't want to argue with a 300 pound man with a punishing left hook." Poncho had already discovered that, despite his brutish appearance, Lefty was really a teddy-bear. But he still wasn't about to argue with him.
Lefty was a little reluctant. "If you need protection, maybe you shouldn't make the deal with this guy."
"I don't need that kind of protection," said Poncho. "This guy won't try to kill me for my CDs. He's not that kind of criminal. But he may try to short me on the payment. All I need to do is tell him that you are going to count the money. That should be enough to dissuade him from pinching me out of a couple g's."
And it was. The 6,000 discs headed north into New York while Poncho and Lefty headed south with US$24,000 in the glove box. When they got back to Poncho's shop, Poncho handed Lefty US$4,000. "You may have a mean left hook, but your right cross sucks wind. No arguments this time. Take it."
Poncho declared that his bootlegging days were over. And he declared it with full honestly. In some ways it was a good move for him. It wasn't all that long after the GATT agreement was passed that the largest international bootleg bust in history took place in Florida, putting virtually every major bootleg manufacturer out of business. Poncho had survived his career as a bandit unscathed, quitting in the proverbial "nick of time." But he always said that "bootlegging gets in your blood." Could Poncho really feel content without experiencing the glee of watching some kid walk out of his store with a bootleg from the latest and greatest concert tour by one of this generations top guns? But I guess the point is moot. Three years after he quit the bootlegging trade, Poncho's store went out of business. I wondered how long it would be before Poncho died of grief.
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