Let It Be
Doug types too much...
December 20, 2021
I have a long association with bootlegging.
You have to picture this – it’s late 1980s. Pasadena, California. A record swap. A huge record swap. The one and only time I ever remember going to Pasadena was for this clandestine transaction. I’m accompanied by Dutch (not his real name) who is a bootleg aficionado. He walks me across the grounds and it takes a while – there are hundreds of vendors. Way at the far end on the periphery is a car parked with its front facing toward us, trunk up in the back. Standing beside the open trunk is some guy I will meet this one time and never again. As we approach, the trunk guy spots us and slams his trunk shut.
Dutch whispers to me as we narrow our approach. “He’s a little gun-shy. He’s gone to prison for this.”
Dutch waves to trunk guy and half-yells, “It’s okay, he’s with me.”
Trunk guy recognizes Dutch and pops his trunk back open, although with trepidation. Trunk guy is definitely cutting me with his eyes.
We come up to the car and step around to the back so I can see the loot.
Oh, man. The motherlode. He had the complete Back-track set, all 5 volumes. And more.
I came across my first bootleg almost by chance. I was in a record store in Denver in the early 1970s, pawing through vinyl in the Beatles section, when I flipped to a 2-record set that was clearly not an official release. The cover wasn’t anything eye-catching and it was a hodge-podge of bootlegs – everything from 1960s’ live performances to studio outtakes. There wasn’t a lot of care put into the packaging and the pressing featured an actual small bubble on one of the sides that kind of negated that track playing correctly. Still, it was a boot. I’d heard rumors about boots, but I’d never seen one in person.
I still have it.
For a long time, bootleg Beatles’ tracks were extremely hard to find. And when you did, the quality was pretty spotty, mostly more on the spotty side. Some of the creators had tried to be clever – I have an audio cassette boot with a photo on the cover of The Beatles in the Rubber Soul pose, except the creator had photoshopped Orthodox Jewish hats and beards on their heads and redubbed his collection Rabbi Saul. Had nothing to do with the contents, but it was kind of funny. That’s one I would have just bought for the cover.
I still have that one, too.
For years, I went on business trips and would often end up in Podunk towns with little hole-in-the-wall record shops. The more I shopped, the better the boots seemed to get. Bootleggers began to specialize. Live performances. Studio outtakes. Radio broadcasts recorded off the BBC. All of this was shady and totally illegal. But I read a book on boots once and they interviewed the record executives who are responsible for official content. Even though publicly they decry the bootlegging practice, they all personally have their own collections of illicit material. The big wigs like collecting it just as much as folks like me. As one exec said, “To be truthful, we know that if a fan is buying bootlegs, they’ve already purchased the official products 3 times over. We’ve gotten our money.”
Yet they pursue. And they do to this day. In addition to the ex-felon I met standing by his trunk, I also met a store owner in Norfolk who had been visited one day by the Capitol records police. Unannounced, 2 guys in black suits entered his store, walked straight back to the Beatles section, pulled out several boots he had in the bin and announced that they were taking physical custody of everything in the store. Not just the Beatles boots. Everything. His boot percentage was tiny. Most of the product they confiscated was legally owned commercial disks he was allowed to sell. Over 10,000 records and CDs. He was also threatened with 10 years in jail, but eventually they passed on that after fining him and keeping all his inventory.
Over the years, I’ve played my imperfect acquisitions fairly frequently. That can be a dangerous path to walk. You see, with Judy, I’ve come close to crossing that line with her when it comes to The Beatles. She grew up with them like I did and has loved them over the years just like me – we are compatible in that respect. But that’s where she draws her line in the sand. Doug doesn’t draw lines with the mop-tops. Doug goes down rabbit holes.
I started amassing a pretty good collection, but one I can’t advertise or sell. It is not illegal to own a boot, you just can’t buy or sell them. When I talk about boots, we’re not talking about illegal pressings of official recordings – no, that’s piracy. That’s different. I am not a pirate, but I am a bootlegger, and I maintain there is a sliver of difference. Bootlegs often contain efforts the normal public is not interested in. Judy is a good example of that.
Judy best put it into perspective once when she said, “Let’s face it, Doug. If The Beatles shit in a paper bag, you would buy it.” I don’t know. I might. I’ve been tempted before. Maybe if I actually saw the bag on the shelf.
I neither confirmed nor denied when she levied that on me.
I just continued playing my imperfect versions with guitar strings breaking and fluffed lyrics, until one day, she offered some additional wisdom. “You like it when they’re messing up and stuff. I just want to hear them when they got it right.” Followed up with, “Don’t make me hate The Beatles. If you make me hate The Beatles, I will hate you.”
Judy and I have seen Paul McCartney twice and the first time was in Southern California at The Forum in late 1989. Little did I know that going to that concert would unlock the real vault of bootlegs for me – the ultra-quality offerings.
At the time, Judy worked in the same building as Dutch. She had no idea he was a Beatles fan. He was 20 years younger than us, but we both ended up enjoying his friendship before too long. He was easy to get along with.
The night of the concert, I went to the merch table and bought Judy a little ornamental Paul McCartney Hofner violin bass pin to wear on her lapel. She wore it to work the next day and Dutch walked by her desk and stopped. “Are you a Beatles fan?”
Judy nodded yes.
“Were you at the concert last night?”
Another nod from Judy.
And that’s how our relationship started. Without meeting me, he asked if he could make us a mix tape of boots. The next day Judy brought it home and I popped it into the player. Oh, wow. No. Really. Oh. Wow. Studio-quality tunes ripped straight off the mixing console. Somewhere in the vaults of stored Beatle recordings was a rogue or two who saw an opportunity.
It wasn’t long after we saw Paul at The Forum that Dutch approached me and asked, “Did you want a copy of the concert you saw?”
“Who? Of Paul?”
“Yeah. Do you want one? It’s the same concert you heard.”
“What do you mean, the same concert?”
“The one you actually went to. I had a friend there that night who recorded it. He’s selling vinyl boots if you want one.”
Well, of course, I did. Do The Beatles shit in a bag?
I can’t remember what I paid for it. Maybe somewhere between 25 and 50 bucks, but I don’t think it was that high. But for what I got? Wow, again. When Dutch handed me the shrink-wrapped album a couple of days later, I didn’t even want to open it. It was gorgeous. Like something you’d buy commercially. Great gatefold cover with 3 albums inside – one pressed in pure white vinyl, one pressed in blue, and one pressed in red. The song line-up was in the same order as the show and the sound quality was exceptional.
I still have that, too. I even play it once in a while and chuckle to myself, “Judy and I are in that sound mix somewhere.” That’s one boot Judy doesn’t mind me playing.
Dutch sucked me into the life much more than I had been. His personal collection was astounding and I ended up buying a lot of his records when he transferred all his analog to digital. He got tired of carrying heavy vinyl around, so he was willing to sell it to me. He knew I wouldn’t turn him in. He sold them to me for pennies on the dollar.
I still have all this. And yes, they are vinyl and they are still heavy.
After my vinyl boot intro, Dutch turned me on to CDs which were rapidly becoming the main venue for boots. Dutch knew people. He knew secretive types that worked in pressing factories who would gin up the equipment after hours to press 1,000 – 2,000 copies of a vinyl LP or a CD.
In the late 1990s, the fab four put out their own version of a bootleg collection and it was pretty extensive – 6 CDs total and the studio outtakes were the same quality as any of their released recordings. But meeting Dutch preceded the anthology releases by years. By the time the anthologies came out, I already had heard a lot of it courtesy of a coveted collection called Back-track – Volumes 1 – 5.
And that’s how I ended up meeting a convicted felon at the Pasadena record swap one Saturday morning.
I don’t play my boots much anymore. Hardly at all. I guess after the thrill of the chases, I got to a point where I was okay with just hearing them getting it right.
Which leads me to watching all 8 hours of Peter Jackson’s Get Back on Disney+. It’s a documentary following The Beatles through recording an album of sorts, closed out by their final live performance rocked out on the roof of their Apple recording studio. The first iteration of this material was in the form of the movie Let It Be which came out in 1970 and was directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Mr. Hogg’s version of events runs at a cropped 88 minutes. Peter Jackson took the 60 hours of footage Hogg shot and has refashioned the storytelling somewhat. Hey, if anything, Jackson’s team did a great job enhancing the picture and sound quality. I’m just not sure that as much as I love and breathe the fab four, I could sit through it again. Yes, you are a fly on the wall, but now I see that being a fly on the wall doesn’t necessarily mean anything interesting is happening in the room.
The mere fact that I sat through 8 hours of tuning, half-assed rehearsals, and just general goofing off before they occasionally got down to brass tacks is a testament to my love for the lads. Because even for a diehard like me, it was slow going on many occasions. I was so glad I didn’t make Judy sit down and watch it with me. That could have easily turned into a “you made me hate The Beatles” moment.
I get it. If I was directing a play, my observation would be that rehearsals are interesting for the director and the actors, but paying audiences are only interested in the finished product. Watching rehearsals for the average Joe would be excruciating. I like to write, but watching me write? Oh, that’s boring as hell. I wouldn’t even want to watch me write. Although it can draw a crowd if I’m on a roll and I’m clacking away maniacally. But even then, after watching 10 seconds of clacking, the show is over for most.
You can’t buy Let It Be anymore – it was briefly put out back in the day, but was quickly pulled from shelves. But I have mine. Courtesy of one of Dutch’s friends. Fully restored, sound enhanced, includes 2 scenes not featured in the original movie. Not only that, I have a special DVD that is their last rooftop concert, restored and enhanced from actual source tapes. That was courtesy of one of Dutch’s friends who was so skittish, he refused to speak directly to me.
It’s been a while since I’ve played any boots. Maybe I should stop carrying around all the vinyl and CDs. Maybe there’s someone out there who wants what I’ve accumulated. On the vinyl side, I have albums Dutch sold me for $15 that would go for hundreds of dollars each today. There’s even one CD that has all the official takes of Strawberry Fields Forever. You get to hear the progression with each attempt. Fascinating. To some. Depends on whether you want to hear 70 minutes of Strawberry Fields.
I remember Dutch warning me never to even think about posting boots on Ebay or placing records in antique stores. No, no. Capitol trolls continue to level a watchful eye and they won’t think twice about coming for you.
Still, what am I going to do with all these beautiful covers and rare packages? Plus there are tons of tunes that will never ever be officially put out. Surely, there’s some fanatic out there like me who would want my stash. I remember having a conversation one afternoon in Dutch’s living room where I thanked him for the continued access. His reaction? “Just share them with other fans. That’s all I ask.”
So if you’d like to hear some samples, we can always set a date for you to come over. You might even be a potential buyer.
But you’ll have to contact me under the counter.
We’d have to meet.
And before anything transpired, I’d have to ask, “You’re not in law enforcement, are you?”
I have to ask and I think, legally, you have to answer.
Otherwise, it’s entrapment.
But seriously, are you a cop?