Dark and Disrespectful: A Conversation with Greg Wooten
You’ve probably seen them too, while flipping through bins at the library sale or the Salvation Army: album covers that have been altered in some way. For one reason or another, there are a lot of them out there: whether it’s a singer’s face, or an illustrator’s concept, or some other carefully-chosen design that has been scribbled on, augmented, obscured, or otherwise defaced.
The artwork ranges from crude to expert; the writing tends toward lovers’ initials, song lyrics, slogans, and opinions as to the quality of the music inside the sleeve. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ve happened across an unusual one: painted, or collaged, or highlighted with an eraser, or simply executed with a little extra dose of wit or artistic skill; and you may have paused to wonder why someone took the time.
Whatever the reason, they are out there, and we tend to flip past them without a second look. A few years back, Greg Wooten started noticing them too -- and proceeded to amass a vast collection of them, numbering in the hundreds. Then, he published them in a book.
The resulting book is called Marred for Life! (J & L Books), and to really appreciate it, it’s worth digging a little deeper into the life of the man who has become known -- in Los Angeles, on Instagram, and in certain other circles -- as The Defaced Guy. Wooten’s interest in defaced album covers arose from a lifelong interest in music; he’s an avid collector of records, an occasional DJ, and a musician himself. But perhaps more importantly, he’s spent much of his life, in his own words, “looking for stuff.” Wooten worked for many years as a picker – a job that entered the public imagination with shows like American Pickers and books like Killer Stuff and Tons of Money, but that has existed, in one form or another, since long before that. He’s currently a partner in a vintage store -- The Window LA – as well as at Billings Auction House, so looking for stuff is still very much a part of his day-to-day existence.
It’s a line of work – some would say a way of life -- that calls for certain skills and abilities, and tends to hone them. An eye for quality is key; but so is the patience to keep pawing through stuff that isn’t high quality, or isn’t of any particular quality at all. A gift for spotting something where others might miss it – digging through that last neglected bin or bending down to the shelf at ankle height, in the hundredth cluttered booth of a long day at a flea market – is a must. Some level of aesthetic sensibility is essential, up to and including a connoisseur’s eye. Finally, it helps to be obsessive, observant, good at haggling and bargaining, and willing to wake up early and travel far.
When obsessions intersect in such a serendipitous way, the result is predictably magic; Marred for Life! has already sold out its first printing. Wooten was kind enough to speak to me by phone from Los Angeles about – among other things -- the Defaced Project, the shortcomings of streaming music, and Anne Bancroft’s leg.
LKH: So, what we’re calling the Defaced Project – that is, the book, Marred for Life!, plus the collection of defaced album covers itself -- it seems like those things came together over the course of decades.
GW: You could say that because it’s kind of been this unexpected side spinoff of what I’ve been doing my whole life, which is looking for stuff.
LKH: Because finding stuff for the vintage shop and the auction house -- that takes you to flea markets and estate sales and so on anyway.
GW: Yeah. And I’ve always been interested in music. It’s funny, I remembered the other day that as early as age 17, I was collecting records; I remember setting up at a booth at a record fair, too, trying to sell some records. So I’ve been digging in the bins for a long time.
When I was living in New York for a number of years, I kind of gave it a break and didn’t collect much vinyl. But since I’ve been in LA, which is about eight years, I got really back into records. Not, in the beginning, anything to do with defaced album covers, but just collecting music I loved. Los Angeles is a great town for records. There are so many shops; and with all the labels based here, so many collections come out [in estate sales or auctions]. And I made friends with a lot of people who owned record shops, so I got into the scene.
LKH: Do you remember how you found the first cover?
GW: Yeah! It was about five years ago. I remember specifically the first one I found, and it was so cool. I was so excited. I’ve always had a penchant for folk art anyhow, and this was this nice amalgam of so many things that I liked. And it happened to be weed-related (laughs). It was at Amoeba, where I go pretty much daily – have you ever been to Amoeba in LA?
LKH: Never been, but I’ve heard!
GW: It’s incredible. Anyhow, they have a little bin at the beginning, before you get to “A--Rock,” you know, as you go through the alphabet. They have a bin that’s employee picks like you often see in a record store, and in there was this Jefferson Airplane record called Bark, which comes in this brown bag, like a brown shopping bag. Someone had drawn these beautiful pot leaves and rows of joints on that brown-bag cover with an ink pen. And there was a little Post-It note on it, like, it was even personalized by the staffer who had put it in. They wrote, “Of all the years of looking at records, this must be the coolest altered cover I’ve ever seen.” It was like $7.99, so I bought it, and that was it, that just kind of somehow that opened some window of seeing altered covers, and I started to spot them everywhere.
LKH: It’s funny. I’ve seen them too, in bins at tag sales and things like that. Once you start looking, they’re everywhere.
GW: There are a lot out there. You know what’s crazy? For the books, they photographed my whole collection – it was 600 and some records at that time. From that, they distilled it down to 250, editing some out to get the flow we wanted. But the crazy thing is that my collection has easily doubled since they came and shot it. This crazy exponential network has blown up.
LKH: So from 600 to about 1200? You have 1200 defaced covers now?
GW: Maybe more! It’s cool because the word spread. A handful of good friends have been finding them for a while. Now, all these people I don’t even know will come up to me. In LA, I’m known as ‘the defaced guy.’ Every record fair I go to, it’s crazy, I’ll go in, and sometimes there are guys I’ve never met, and they’re like, “Oh man, you’re the defaced guy – I got a great one out in the car for you that I just found.” And they’ll say, “Yeah, this was in the guy’s records that he was gonna throw out,” or “It was in the dollar bin!” I don’t know how to describe what’s happening. Is it that I’m changing the awareness of how cool this strange category of records is? It’s possible! A lot of record store owners have told me, when they found out that I was working on the book and the collection, they’ve said things like, “Oh, man, we’ve had some incredible ones, like we had them up on the wall in our office, but most of the time we just throw them out. Because we can’t sell them.”
LKH: No! That’s terrible.
GW: Yeah. I’ve had people ‘at’ me on Instagram with an incredible, real messed-up, awesome defaced cover, and I’ll direct-message the person, like, “Hi, I’m really interested in this. If it’s available, how much would it be to ship to LA? Please let me know, I’ll PayPal you immediately!” And they’ll respond back, “Oh, we saw that at the Salvation Army, we just took a photo of it, we thought it was funny. We didn’t even buy it. It was a dollar.”
GW: I know. I know.
LKH: It’s like when you started this collection, and people started finding out about it, it gave these records someplace to go. Before, you’d just see them, and you’re like, Oh yeah, funny. But now it’s like, Hey, there’s a home for that!
GW: I got an incredible one today. Someone tagged me on Instagram, somewhere on the East Coast, and it was an amazing Led Zeppelin one. Beautifully done. On the blimp, they drew in all this tight geometric stuff. But before I even DM’d the guy, I saw on the header of his Instagram, “no online sales, no shipping.” And I’m like, “Oh, here we go, classic curmudgeonly record guy. He’s gonna want nothing to do with this.” But I thought, “Man, I have to get it.” So I sent the guy a little DM that said, “I noticed your defaced Led Zeppelin cover, truly awesome. I collect these, and respectfully, I know you generally don’t ship or do online sales; however, would you please consider a price that might make it worth you making an exception.” And the guy’s like, “Well, what are you thinking?” And I get so many of them for free, and for a dollar, so once in a while, I have to step up. I said, “How ‘bout 50 bucks, shipping included?” And he goes, “Deal.” And so, I paid a little for that one. I’ve paid that and a little more for a handful of great ones, but you average it out and they’ve been really cheap.
LKH: Most of them just kind of flow to you. They find their way to you.
GW: Yeah. A lot of them flow to me. I think every day I get offered defaced covers now. And that’s only in the last six months. It’s definitely an exponential thing going on.
LKH: For Cover Our Tracks we always end up talking about cover art as a great thing about vinyl, but it’s more than just the visual aspect of it. A thumbnail image is so unsatisfying, and it’s analogous to the experience of listening while distracted, like, you’re thumbing through your phone or whatever. As opposed to when you’d just put the record on, sit down, and listen to the music, look at the cover, and read the liner notes. It’s this physical thing that you fully engage with, you sit there with it. It’s a whole experience, and you focus on it.
GW: Well, absolutely. There are a couple of layers of response to that thought, and the first one is, defaced or not, you’re so on the money about that experience of holding a record. It’s why records always spoke to me in a way that CDs or mp3s or the iPod didn’t. And maybe I’m a dinosaur, but I don’t have Spotify or whatever. That’s just too weird to me. I play records at home. Every day. And I love pulling out the inner sleeve and opening up the gatefold, and this sort of tactile, full-experience thing that happens with a cover is a very real thing that’s always been important to me. That’s not even talking about the defaced part of it. But then, sliding into that angle, I think you hit it on the head: it’s if you can almost think of these altered covers as being the byproduct of this interactive experience that someone had – and we’ll never know who; I mean, I love the anonymity of it!
GW: I always picture like – you’ll see in the book there’s a multitude of Beatles White Albums. Which for whatever reason seems to be – well, for an obvious reason: talk about a blank canvas, you know? So many of those that get drawn on. And I love it, the sort of like fantasy part for me, each time I find one, of imagining some kid maybe in his parent’s basement, maybe smoking some weed. Or maybe on acid. There’s definitely a clear drug influence, there are historical references --
LKH: Also, some of them are so funny because you can tell it’s somebody sitting there with a friend, passing it back and forth: “Oh, draw something on his forehead!” Or both adding to a cartoon.
GW: Right! When there’s penises drawn all over a cover, you can imagine that scene – like, two friends cracking each other up. There are a million scenarios we can imagine, but we’ll never know. But each one is like an artifact of an experience that someone, or some group of people, had. That’s pretty cool to me. It’s mysterious and kind of beautiful.
But there are times – to be honest – that it’s also kind of awful. Because there is this strange dichotomy. I collect really rare jazz records, too, where I’m looking for the most perfect version. You want the jacket perfect and so on, and because I do kind of objectify and, in a fetishistic way, think of records as beautiful objects -- because still, I’m always connected to my whole design trip – well, records are beautiful things. And so there are times that I’m a little conflicted. I get how fun and funny it must have been for these kids to be drawing whatever on whatever record. But then sometimes I think it’s a little disrespectful.
LKH: It’s almost shocking. Defaced is not a positive or even a neutral word, if you think about it.
GW: And there’s anger in some of it. It’ll bum me out a little bit sometimes if it’s really disrespectful. A lot of them are funny, and that’s great, but then, these records are incredible, final works of art by someone, you know? And to think that some kid just picked up a pen and like scribbled all over it… it’s like, “Aw man.” But again, that range, from disrespectful to artful, you know, it’s all there. Each one is a story that we’ll never really be able to see the front end of. We just see the product, but it’s cool.
LKH: Are there any motifs that you’ve noticed that you want to talk about, other than scribbled penises and weed?
GW: I think we tried, in the book, to be representative of all the subcategories. Which are pretty incredible -- it’s a big range. In the liner notes, I list them all, but the most obvious ones are mustaches and beards drawn on people. Because you got John Denver’s face there, just this mug that you’re dying to mess with, you know?
LKH: He does have that kind of face.
GW: And so there’s a lot of that. But I think what makes the book special are the transitions and connections, and I have to give Jason [Fulford], my publisher and editor, so much credit. I could not have found somebody else who understood this project to the degree that he does. I’m so grateful for his contribution. I feel like he hit so many beautiful transitions. The transitions and the grouping … there are so many subtleties and funny aspects of it that tie things together. Some are so deeply allusive; some are really dark. Like the ones that just say “suck” – there’s a Bee Gees one and it just says SUCK after the band name, Bee Gees SUCK. You know it was just some kid that was like, cranking Sabbath, and his sister had the Bee Gees record, and you can imagine him adding the “suck” on there to mess with her. Some are just, they’re beautiful. Like the Jimi Hendrix one where somebody took like a pencil eraser and added all this really artful erased-line technique to it.
Oh, the one that just popped into my head -- this is less about a category and more about something that l love in Jason’s editing. Simon and Garfunkel got hit a lot, for whatever reason.
LKH: Something about them – well, like we were saying about John Denver, I guess.
GW: Exactly, yeah. So Simon and Garfunkel, and there’s one left side page of the book that’s an Art Garfunkel solo record where they drew a giant penis through his head, and it’s really nasty, and then there’s Paul Simon, and I forget what they did to him -- or maybe it’s two Art Garfunkels – anyway, and then there’s Simon and Garfunkel together, both with heavily added beards and stuff, and so you see these in the double page spread, and it’s messed up.
Then you flip over the page. Someone had taken that Johnny Cash record, I think it’s called The Holy Land, and it’s one of a few records that has a lenticular cover, you know the weird little flickering photo image – and someone had ripped off the lenticular photo so that it left a blank rectangle. And they just drew in a leg, like a woman’s leg. And it’s the leg imagery from The Graduate, you know how the cover, or the movie poster, is like the woman’s leg?
LKH: Oh, I see. Right, Anne Bancroft's leg.
GW: They just drew that in, and they wrote, “The Graduate” by hand. So you’ve got this defaced Johnny Cash, that somebody actually put their copy of The Graduate soundtrack LP into. Then on the right-side page of the book is another Simon and Garfunkel cover. It’s just such a nice, weird tie-in because "The Sounds of Silence" is used in The Graduate. It’s such a great, smart, heady musical reference. It’s one of my favorite transition gestures, if you will. (laughs) How many people have said “transition gestures” in the last 24 hours in the world?
LKH (laughs): Or “deeply allusive.”
GW: I’m gonna say seven. Seven other people. One in DesMoines, one in Miramar… I don’t know. I’m out of my mind. I gotta be out of my mind, right? I have like 1300 albums that people drew on sitting in my house (laughs).
LKH: It’s crazy. I think if people are the right age they remember doing that – drawing on album covers.
GW: I’m trying to think if I did it. I mean, I was so into music --
LKH: I don’t think that I ever defaced a record cover, but I do remember sitting around doodling while listening to records. It’s crossing a line to draw on the cover. It’s kind of like how some people will dog-ear a book, and some people won’t; some people will take notes in the margin, but some people like the book to stay pristine and perfect.
GW: Exactly. I usually wouldn’t mark up books, but I started to – like, not in a morbid way, but I started to feel like, “All right, I’m 58, how many more times am I ever gonna read Henry Miller’s Stand Still Like the Hummingbird? And I’m like, “Fuck it, I’m reading it now, and I’m gonna get out the yellow highlighter and underline everything that really matters to me because it may be the last time I read it.” But then, I’m so into Henry Miller – I needed like a paint roller of the yellow highlighter stuff, ‘cause I was circling whole pages. I was like, “All right, I just need to remember the whole book.”
LKH: You know the Billy May one on the cover of the book? Looking at it, can you tell how it was done? Is it White-Out, or gouache, or what?
GW: I think it’s oil paint. The person who did it really had chops. I remember exactly where I found that one. I go up to Ventura -- kind of a weird little old surf town -- and hit the thrift shops. There are four or five great thrift shops right in downtown together, and we always score, like, incredible T-shirts and weird spiritual jazz smocks. And the records are usually really crappy; they’re like dollar records. They’re kind of what you’d expect: just bad easy listening. But it was maybe a year or two ago, as we were heading out, I was like, “Yeah, I’m gonna run back to the records,” and I was pawing through there really fast and then Billy May just popped out. I was like, “Oh my god, it’s painted.” I think it’s either oil or acrylic. It could be gouache. But the fact that it’s so skillfully and tightly and beautifully painted, and that the guy really put some effort into it and nailed it, and then it’s just sitting in the middle of the dollar bin? It was an incredibly exciting moment.
LKH: That’s wild. It was a good one for the cover.
GW: Jason picked it, and a couple of people have said to me that it’s a great one for the cover, and I get it: it’s kind of like a little riff on the title: Marred for Life!, and here’s like this skeleton. But it’s also a couple, and some people see that and misread the title as Married For Life. I don’t know how much of that was intentional – he’s such a deep, incredibly subtle, smart person that there’s probably some layers even I don’t understand about this book. But I know that he knows how excited I was about that particular cover.
LKH: ‘Till death us do part’ – it has a creepy undertone if you really think about it! Have you discovered any new music from this that you didn’t know about before?
GW: I tend not to listen to them, to be honest, because for the most part they’re pretty beat up. Like, anybody who’s so disrespectful to their Led Zeppelin record that they’d draw all over it probably wasn’t really careful with how they handled the vinyl. And I have expensive needles and cartridges, and it’s bad to play beat up records. Most of the records – like, of course, all the Led Zeppelin records -- I have perfect first pressings of those, so I do listen to those. To the nicer copies!
But I’m having so much fun, and it’s so fun to have these guys come up to me. These two guys from Bakersfield in particular, they’re really sweet guys and I never knew ‘em before, and they came up to me the other day with had a couple great ones. And they said, “Man, you don’t even know. We go out digging trying to find some of what we’re into,” – they collect punk 45s – and they go, “We couldn’t find anything, but we got in this guy’s back room, and we found these two defaced covers, and we just lit up, and it made our whole day of digging, even though we didn’t find shit for ourselves. We were so psyched, we couldn’t wait to see you. We’re gonna go worst to best, and we’ll get to the unveiling!” and they hit, like, the gem at the end. And they were so stoked! It’s this real – it’s become a genuine collective experience.
LKH: When tag sale season starts, you know I’m gonna be out there too.
GW: I hope you find some and hook me up.
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