Left and Leaving: Larry Livermore Looks Back

“If there’s one thing I hate about memoirs or documentaries, it’s that they all end up being some version of ‘We did this amazing thing, it was awesome, and then it ended. Too bad you weren’t there, because you’ll never see anything like it again.’”

We didn’t know that Larry Livermore existed before this year. Then, CBC broadcaster and author Grant Lawrence posted on Facebook about Livermore’s second book, How to Ru(i)n a Record Label: The Story of Lookout Records. What does the label that launched Green Day have to do with Canadian indie? Lookout Records, and in some ways Livermore himself, was born at 924 Gilman, the legendary punk venue and social experiment of California’s East Bay. Canadian punk bands Nomeansno, The Smugglers, The Hextalls and Fucked Up have played on the Gilman stage. Livermore also has ties to Mint Records and is friends with The Weakerthans’ John K. Sampson.

Larry Livermore

But Livermore and How to Ru(i)n a Record Label begin in Detroit. That’s where he learned from Motown’s DIY script to “make your own scene, make your own records” and where his stories began during a book signing at Dearborn Music. Before sharing local memories like watching the MC5 lose a battle of the bands in Allen Park and getting in a car chase with Mayor Orville Hubbard’s goons, he prefaced his monologue with this disclaimer: “I can’t get away with bullshitting. People around here have a real ear for bullshit. It’s too hard to believe in anything. We’re too cynical.” Cynical maybe, but Livermore doesn’t come off as a bullshitter. Unlike his incendiary writing that established the Livermore brand, in person and on the pages of his books, he’s straightforward, unpretentious and observant.

Fast forward to the 80s. Livermore was living his first book, Spy Rock Memories, set in a rugged marijuana-growing haven of the Northern California mountains. A mostly fish-out-of-water prequel to How to Ru(i)n a Record Label with some chronological overlap, it lays the groundwork for everything Lookout, Livermore’s development as a writer, musician and purveyor of punk.

Although its subtitle is The Story of Lookout Records, How to Ru(i)n a Record Label is very much the story of the Gilman too. In 1987 a band called Operation Ivy played there, and as Livermore told the rapt audience at Dearborn Music, “It was like the gates of something had opened up to a parallel universe.” But for most people, that universe doesn’t spawn a record label. A year later Op Ivy had signed with the fledgling Lookout Records, followed by a band called Green Day.

Ten years later in 1998, Grant Lawrence penned this write-up of the label’s 10-year anniversary party. A disillusioned Livermore had already walked away from millions of dollars and the label he co-founded.

You’ll have to read the book to find out what happened, and we can recommend that you do. We loved Spy Rock, too. But you had to be at the book signing to hear Livermore share insights and timeless advice for any band trying to make it in music.

“A label doesn’t have magic powers. It’s not like you go into studio and here’s a hit.”
“The philosophy was you shouldn’t make money on music. The minute you did, you were kicked out of the scene, you were commercial.”
“Write good songs and you’ll always be able to make a good living.”
“Do your own thing, not somebody else’s.”
“Nirvana tried to play the Gilman, by the way. They were told no one would come.”

“If you lived in a different part of the world, if you were too young or too old to be there, if perhaps you weren’t even born yet, never let anyone tell you that you missed out or that you couldn’t possibly understand what it was like… We all get our moments, and where they begin or how they end is less important than how we experience them, what we do with them, and how they transform us.”

Photos: Russ Gordon/N2D Images