Wax Trax rocks 40: A new doc­u­men­tary traces the famed la­bel’s Mile High roots

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Matt Se­bas­tian

As the famed record store marks 40 years in Den­ver, a new doc­u­men­tary is spot­light­ing the Den­ver ori­gin story of Chicago’s Wax Trax! It’s play­ing at the Den­ver Film Fes­ti­val.

It’s a rain-spat­tered Satur­day af­ter­noon, and while Den­ver’s Wax Trax Records isn’t ex­actly quiet — a clerk pric­ing discs at the front counter is whistling along to the mari­achi re­frains of Calex­ico over the stereo — the cor­ner record store is nearly de­void of peo­ple.

A lone shop­per flips through 45s to­ward the back, yet the rows of waist-high bins brim­ming with shrink-wrapped CDs that fill the bulk of the shop’s floorspace draw scant at­ten­tion. When a young woman does walk in, it’s to buy an Op­er­a­tion Ivy patch for her jacket.

Walk two doors down, though, to Wax Trax’s vinyl an­nex, and it’s a dif­fer­ent scene al­to­gether. A dozen peo­ple nav­i­gate the sharp an­gles of the over­stuffed shop, paw­ing through records new and used, slid­ing 12-inch discs out of their sleeves to scan for scuffs and scratches. Some ap­proach the counter with small stacks to pur­chase. The door creaks open and closed as a few leave, and more come in.

What goes around cer­tainly has come around for Dave Stid­man and Duane Davis, a pair of for­mer so­cial work­ers who bought Wax Trax 40 years ago this week, at a time when vinyl firmly ruled the mu­sic-re­tail roost — and now is once again keep­ing

“In some ways, we’re just a record store. But back then, we were part of what helped peo­ple de­fine who they wanted to be.” Duane Davis, Wax Trax co-owner

their Capi­tol Hill store alive.

“We have a lot of in­er­tia go­ing for us,” says Davis, with a grin, of his and Stid­man’s abil­ity to weather the storms, on­line and oth­er­wise, that have bat­tered in­de­pen­dent record stores since the late 1990s.

Now, as Stid­man and Davis cel­e­brate their mile­stone, a new doc­u­men­tary is spot­light­ing the Den­ver ori­gin story of Chicago’s Wax Trax! Records, the re­tail store and genre-defin­ing record la­bel that helped pop­u­lar­ize in­dus­trial-fla­vored acts KMFDM, Min­istry, Front 242, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult and more in the 1980s and early ’90s.

“In­dus­trial Ac­ci­dent: The Story of Wax Trax! Records” screens Fri­day and Satur­day nights at the Den­ver Film Fes­ti­val.

The film traces the path of Jim Nash and Dan­nie Flesher, an openly gay cou­ple at a time that wasn’t the norm, who opened Wax Trax’s orig­i­nal Den­ver lo­ca­tion in 1975, sold it to Stid­man and Davis three years later and moved to Chicago. There, they op­er­ated the sim­i­larly named re­tail store and record la­bel into the ‘90s. (Look to the perky ex­cla­ma­tion point — Wax Trax vs. Wax Trax! — to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween the Den­ver and Chicago it­er­a­tions.)

“You prob­a­bly don’t need some­one like me to tell you that Duane and Dave have cre­ated an amaz­ing legacy of their own,” Julia Nash, Jim Nash’s daugh­ter and di­rec­tor of “In­dus­trial Ac­ci­dent,” wrote in an email. “The fact that they have been able to thrive in Den­ver for 40 years is not only a tes­ta­ment to them, but also speaks to how solid the coun­ter­cul­ture com­mu­nity re­mains in Den­ver.”

And it’s a trib­ute to Wax Trax’s lo­cal roots that the Den­ver premiere is some­thing spe­cial; in ad­di­tion to the film­mak­ers, the panel after Fri­day night’s screen­ing will fea­ture Dead Kennedys leg­end — and Boul­der na­tive — Jello Bi­afra, Groovie Mann of Thrill Kill Kult and Min­istry’s Al Jour­gensen, who chose Den­ver to make his first ap­pear­ance pro­mot­ing the film be­cause of his own deep Colorado ties.

“Defin­ing mo­ment of my life”

Jour­gensen, now 60, grad­u­ated from Frisco’s Sum­mit High School in 1976, stum­bled through a bit of col­lege in Gree­ley and Boul­der, and re­ceived his bap­tism-by-punk via an early Ra­mones per­for­mance at Den­ver’s long-gone Eb­bets Field night­club.

“I didn’t know if I was a red­neck or a punk rocker yet,” Jour­gensen says of that night in 1977. “I mean, I’d been shoot­ing pool in Sil­ver­thorne ear­lier that day. But I came away con­vinced. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. That was the defin­ing mo­ment of my life and my ca­reer, right there at Eb­bets Field.”

At that same show: Wax Trax’s Flesher and Nash, along with a young Eric Boucher, who hadn’t yet adopted his stage per­sona of Jello Bi­afra. Jour­gensen didn’t know any of them yet, and never vis­ited the Den­ver Wax Trax store un­der its orig­i­nal own­er­ship. (He says he “tries to make a pil­grim­age” to the cur­rent store when­ever he’s in town with Min­istry, which, in­ci­den­tally, plays the Fill­more Au­di­to­rium on Nov. 24.)

Bi­afra, though, was aware of the orig­i­nal store, which Nash and Flesher opened at 1409 Og­den St. un­der the still-to-be- tweaked name Wax Tracks. He’d seen an ad for the shop in Boul­der’s Colorado Daily news­pa­per that fea­tured an image of a Yard­birds record.

“I thought, ‘Well, this isn’t an­other store pump­ing Fire­fall and Scien­tol­ogy-fu­eled jazz crap. This could be good,’ ” Bi­afra re­calls.

When he started fre­quent­ing the Og­den Street store, though, Bi­afra found some­thing more ex­cit­ing than the Yard­birds: a healthy se­lec­tion of vinyl sin­gles im­ported from the U.K.’s bur­geon­ing punk scene. Plus the shop sup­ported Den­ver’s un­der­ground mu­sic scene, cater­ing to lo­cal mu­si­cians and help­ing put on live shows.

Bi­afra says Wax Trax may have been the first U.S. out­let to carry the Sex Pis­tols’ “Anar­chy in the U.K.” sin­gle, and it’s where he heard The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat” for the first time.

“Oh, my God, this is good,” Bi­afra re­calls think­ing as the 45 spun in the store. “What is this?”

“A com­mu­ni­ca­tions cen­ter”

In 1978, Nash and Flesher moved Wax Trax to the cor­ner of East 13th Av­enue and Wash­ing­ton Street, where it re­mains to this day, its win­dows dark­ened edge-to-edge by taped-up fly­ers and con­cert posters. A few months later, bet­ting that Chicago would of­fer greater op­por­tu­nity, they sold the Den­ver store to Davis and Stid­man, a pair of record col­lec­tors who, at the time, were do­ing so­cial work for Jef­fer­son County. (“Dave talked to me be­cause I was the only per­son who knew who the 13th Floor El­e­va­tors were,” Davis says.)

They paid about $20,000 for the record shop, Davis be­lieves.

“They wanted to sell to some­body who would carry on the tra­di­tion that they’d started, and they agreed that we could be those peo­ple,” Stid­man says. Davis adds: “When they sold us the busi­ness, they were sell­ing us the store’s rep­u­ta­tion. What we bought was the name.”

That deal came with just $100 in in­ven­tory, so Stid­man and Davis worked to build the store back up. Though their own tastes had cen­tered on the ’50s and ’60s rock they grew up on, they, like Flesher and Nash, were ex­cited by what they were hear­ing com­ing out of Eng­land. They scoured the weekly Bri­tish mu­sic pa­pers — the New Mu­si­cal Ex­press, Melody Maker and Sounds — for ideas, and be­gan or­der­ing punk, post-punk and new wave ti­tles.

It helped, too, that Den­ver’s Rain­bow Mu­sic Hall was bring­ing some­what edgier bands like Heads, Siouxsie and the Ban­shees, Joe Jack­son, Pre­tenders and The Cure to Den­ver.

“We were the place peo­ple al­ready associated with those bands, so their la­bels started to pay at­ten­tion,” Davis says. “One of the in­gre­di­ents in our suc­cess was that fo­cus on in­de­pen­dent mu­sic, and, in par­tic­u­lar, im­port mu­sic from Eng­land. We be­came a com­mu­ni­ca­tions cen­ter, an in­for­ma­tion cen­ter, for this kind of mu­sic, and the peo­ple that were in­ter­ested in it.”

Sk­in­heads and dive bars

Vis­it­ing Wax Trax at that time, on pre-gen­tri­fied Capi­tol Hill, was a much dicier propo­si­tion. Davis and Stid­man re­mem­ber bul­let-pierced win­dows, va­cant store­fronts and char­ac­ters fenc­ing stolen goods across the way. Then there were the sk­in­heads, who harassed peo­ple on the street — and in the store.

The blocks around Wax Trax were filled with dives like the 3.2 bar Mal­func­tion Junc­tion, liquor stores and a shop ac­tu­ally called Bad TV Re­pair. Shoot­ings were a whole lot more rou­tine.

“Capi­tol Hill was a lot tougher then,” Stid­man says.

Mar­i­lyn Me­gen­ity, owner of Den­ver’s Mercury Cafe, fondly re­calls when her venue was near Wax Trax in the ’80s, and brought in punk and hard­core acts like Hüsker Dü, Black Flag and Bad Brains.

“We had so much fun be­cause mu­sic pro­mot­ers were not re­ally hip to the great mu­sic in the ’80s,” she says. “All kinds of bands and agents were cold-call­ing me to see if they could do a show. If I didn’t know who the band was, I just called Wax Trax across the street and I’d say, ‘Should I book this band?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, my God, yes.’ ”

In the pre-in­ter­net 1980s and early ’90s, in­de­pen­dent record stores re­ally did serve a com­mu­nity func­tion, of­fer­ing sanc­tu­ary to like-minded lis­ten­ers and a place to learn about and dis­cuss the mu­sic they weren’t see­ing on MTV or hear­ing on com­mer­cial FM. This was a time when seem­ingly ba­sic in­for­ma­tion — like, say, the re­lease date of the next Min­ute­men al­bum — wasn’t just a click away.

The plas­tic di­viders in Wax Trax’s bins, still bear­ing hand­writ­ten lists of the cor­re­spond­ing artists’ discogra­phies, re­main a tes­ta­ment to that, even as shop­pers can now just hit up Discogs on their phones.

“In some ways, we’re just a record store,” Davis says. “But back then, we were part of what helped peo­ple de­fine who they wanted to be.”

“This might be it”

Wax Trax’s com­mer­cial heyday in the early-to-mid-’90s saw Stid­man and Davis op­er­at­ing three dif­fer­ent store­fronts in their build­ing on the south side of 13th and one, Across the Trax, on the north side of the street. On top of that, Wax Trax’s Boul­der out­post for a brief time con­sisted of two sep­a­rate stores on Univer­sity Hill.

By the late ‘90s, though, fi­nan­cial for­tunes be­gan to turn for Wax Trax, like so many chain and in­die stores alike, first as big-box re­tail­ers like Best Buy un­der­cut mu­sic stores by of­fer­ing below-cost CDs as loss-lead­ers to get shop­pers in their doors in hopes of sell­ing them re­frig­er­a­tors and home com­put­ers.

Then came Nap­ster. The exTalk­ing plo­sion in on­line file­shar­ing wrought by that rene­gade net­work and suc­ces­sors Kazaa and LimeWire kept more and more of Wax Trax’s CD shop­pers at bay.

The own­ers be­gan con­sol­i­dat­ing their Den­ver lo­ca­tions, ul­ti­mately squeez­ing into the two cur­rent store­fronts, and they closed shop in Boul­der. “That scared us,” Davis says of the de­ci­sion to leave Boul­der. “If you can’t have a record store in the mid­dle of the hip part of a col­lege town and not be mak­ing money, that’s bad.”

By 2003, Davis and Stid­man — who’d wisely pur­chased the build­ing that now houses the re­main­ing Wax Trax store­fronts in the mid-’80s — had to bor­row money just to cover their prop­erty tax bill.

“Down, down, down,” Stid­man says of Wax Trax’s re­tail out­look at the time. “There was a point we re­al­ized the build­ing was worth more than what we were do­ing here as a busi­ness.”

That in­er­tia, though, would save them. “Dave and I are such slow movers, by the time we de­cided this might be it, the vinyl re­vival was just start­ing to get go­ing,” Davis says.

Stid­man adds: “We were al­ways close to the bone. Keep putting money back into the busi­ness. That’s the se­cret. That, and buy­ing this build­ing.”

The life­line

Vinyl has been a life­line for stores like Wax Trax and, while sales are grow­ing na­tion­ally, the for­mat still rep­re­sents a smaller slice of the mu­sic-in­dus­try pie than CDs. But for those who col­lect vinyl al­bums and 7-inch sin­gles, Wax Trax re­mains a haven.

“This is just a tremen­dous place for Den­ver,” says Bob Sor­rentino, a West­min­ster record col­lec­tor who checks the 45 boxes and vinyl bins at Wax Trax about once week. “I’m walk­ing out empty handed to­day, but that’s not usu­ally the case.”

While ship­ments of CDs to record stores fell 6 per­cent in 2017 to $1.1 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to year-end fig­ures from the Record­ing In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica, vinyl rose 10 per­cent to $395 mil­lion. Over­all, phys­i­cal mu­sic sales fell 4 per­cent in 2017 to $1.5 bil­lion, still only a fraction of the $7 bil­lion in dig­i­tal-mu­sic rev­enue.

Vinyl’s rise re­mains dwarfed by the ex­ist­ing CD mar­ket, even if that for­mat is be­lieved to be in its death spi­ral. La­bels shipped 15.6 mil­lion vinyl records last year — but more than five times as many CDs.

At Wax Trax, vinyl now ac­counts for 85 per­cent to 90 per­cent of the store’s gross sales. That’s left Davis and Stid­man go­ing round and round about what to do with their CD-filled, but cus­tomer-light, flag­ship store. Move the new vinyl out of the an­nex into that space? Or is that too con­fus­ing, since used vinyl would still be two doors down? Just keep the sta­tus quo in the event of an un­likely CD re­vival?

They can’t de­cide. It’s the com­mon trap they fall into. And, they be­lieve, it’s a big part of why Wax Trax is still in busi­ness.

“Dave and I will get to­gether and say, ‘Let’s di­ver­sify our prod­uct line,’ ” Davis says, “and we’ll just scratch our heads and say, ‘Let’s just buy some more records.’ ”

Photos by AAron On­tiveroz, The Den­ver Post

Co-owner Dave Stid­man checks out new ar­rivals at Wax Trax on Oct. 31.

Em­ployee Gabriel Al­belo sorts al­bums.

Photos by AAron On­tiveroz, The Den­ver Post

Owner Duane Davis works among boxes of un­shelved in­ven­tory in his base­ment of­fice.

Wax Trax is at the cor­ner of East 13th Av­enue and Wash­ing­ton Street.

Customers look through the col­lec­tion at Wax Trax on Oct. 31.

A now-re­tired cash reg­is­ter in the base­ment of Wax Trax.

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