Crate Expectations

Hunting for Nightcrawlers: record freak Jeff Lemlich

Somewhere between the twist and the sit-in was a musical experience unlike any other. Between the first British invasion and the first rock opera was the most energetic, honest, exciting music ever created."

Those sentences, penned by South Florida record collector/historian Jeff Lemlich, are perhaps the best ever written to pinpoint that place in time we call the garage-band era. They open his out-of-print 1991 book, Savage Lost: Florida's Garage Bands, The '60s and Beyond, a 416-page tome considered a classic in the genre of record-research lit. "The author spills his blood on every page" wrote one reviewer about this labor of love, and that description could be literal, given the task of producing such a manuscript before the advent of desktop computers.

"I didn't even have a word processor! It was done on a typewriter. One mistake meant retyping the whole page," says the author, marveling at the primitive past. Sitting in his tastefully cluttered South Miami home in front of a sleek, black Dell monitor, he savors technological evolution by clicking to his webpage, Admittedly late to the Internet, Lemlich launched the site two years ago as a place to hock remaining copies of Savage Lost, list eBay auctions of those discs he's willing to sell from his collection of more than 30,000 records, and hopefully gather information for a revised edition of his book. Scrolling through the messages in Limestone Lounge, the site's massive threaded discussion area, it becomes clear that the book is not only revising itself but that it has become a community.

A few young record collectors are posting on the boards, but the heart of the Lounge beats from members of Florida's original '60s garage bands. No mere nostalgia fest, Lemlich's forum is a flowing oral history of the highest order, where aging baby boomers come to grips with their rebellious teenage years and reclaim a legacy that inspired rock from the Ramones to The Hives. Lemlich explains the initiation process: "First thing people do when they get on the Internet is surf porn. After they get tired of that, they Google their names. Suddenly they find out that there are people talking about their old garage band from high school. It's hard for them to believe at first, but soon they really get into it."

It wasn't always that easy. In the late '70s, when Lemlich first began researching what would become his book, it was virtually impossible to gather information on the hopelessly obscure bands. Most had quit their short music careers with the onset of college, marriage, the draft, or a job. Paper trails had gone cold. Letters came back "no such address," phone calls were seldom returned. Despite assurances that the one old 45 they had pressed was a collector's item, some former players evinced no interest in verifying data or telling their story. One man's history is another's old news.

Eventually Jeff met enough enthusiastic folks -- like Florida music veteran Billy DeMoya, "the type of person who would go through their closets for old pictures or records, and would phone their musician friends to try to do the same." As the years accumulated, Lemlich expanded his simple discography into a thatch of detailed chapters featuring pop cultural narratives, broad overviews, rare discoveries, arcane minutia, an anti-drug message, and only 25 photographs. The ridiculous stricture on illustration was imposed by the publisher, who also would neglect to include an index in the softbound volume.

Imperfect and incomplete as Lemlich thought his achievement was, the publication of Savage Lost (titled after a favorite slab of Florida psych-garage by The Kollektion) was an event for a few garage enthusiasts and vinyl geeks. But it was an even bigger deal for those surprised to find themselves in its pages. During its word-of-mouth dissemination through the '90s, Lemlich's book inspired many renewed friendships, fomented band reunions, and became the de facto reference work on early Florida rock music. The connections it rekindled and the sense of historicism it inspired are now coming to fruition on his website.

To click through the threads of the Limestone Lounge message boards is to be inexorably drawn into the groovy teenbeat world of South Florida in the '60s. The photographs alone prove Dad was once as cool as Jack White. One need not be steeped in the lore of Lemlich's bible to appreciate the posts. Every one recontextualizes familiar settings, like mentions of Porky Baine's club made out of boxcars sitting right on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale (yes, that Porky's). Lemlich says just look at the landscape and use your imagination: "The War Memorial Auditorium is still there." Hard to picture the hoary old structure as the scene of go-go abandon now, but to the young bands besotted with rock 'n' roll, it was a prime gig.

Native Floridian Lemlich, who acknowledges only being in his 40s, says he was too young to attend the numerous dances sponsored up and down the coast by competing radio stations WQAM and WFUN. But his tastes were formed by the airwaves of these pop-music giants. Before hippie rock and underground FM grew up to be Clear Channel, powerful local AM stations featuring teen-centric DJs (in South Florida's case, think Rick Shaw) spun play lists chock full of local releases that climbed and dropped in heavily scrutinized surveys. At the time, Lemlich didn't know that some of his favorite hits were by local bands.

"As a kid, it was all the same to me," he recalls. "They were bands on the radio. It wasn't until later I realized some of those records were made by people who had gone to the same high school as me. That's when I had to find out more."

It wasn't just a bad reaction to the Southern rock of his young adulthood that drove Lemlich to investigate the recent past. The American garage-band phenomenon was reviving and replicating itself in the wake of compilations like Nuggets and the efforts of Bomp zine founder Greg Shaw (the godfather of garage, with his copious Pebbles comps and Voxx label) who was fomenting in America a little thing called punk rock he had picked up in England. Jeff's crate-digging aspirations at the time aimed only to write a discography of Florida garage bands for eventual publication in Bomp, but his craving for live music found him witnessing landmark performances by South Florida punk rock legends The Eat and The Reactions. Soon this era would pass, too, but not before Lemlich had collected tons of records and info about this "Return to Clubland," as he dubbed Florida's 1980s era, among the multiple addendums in Savage Lost.

Lemlich gives a tour of his record vault, where his pet cat meanders respectfully around shelf upon shelf of vintage vinyl. Ancient flyers and posters curl out of every space. Here it would seem is the entirety of Florida music history, not just garage bands from the '60s to the '80s, but local rockabilly from the '50s, alternative acts from the '90s and plenty of peninsular funk and soul from the '70s. It's a significant enough resource for the Museum of Florida History to have borrowed several pieces for its "Follow That Dream: Florida's Rock And Roll Legends" exhibit in 2002, and to list Lemlich among the state legends right along with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Jim Stafford.

In his wide-ranging book, Lemlich touched upon every genre he has collected. In his website forums, he allows the old garage bands to fill in the record of their time while posting sharp informative blasts of insight on his most recent infatuation, raw Florida soul tunes beloved by England's Northern Soul scene. He has started threads on every homegrown scene, from radio stations and DJs to artists who have died. He speaks of additions and corrections as if he is writing a new edition, but it's obvious he finds the online dialogues of the Limestone Lounge superior to any static list. Books have endings, but a community is a continuum. A solitary effort won't suffice when it comes to Florida's music.

"There's a ton of room on the boards to grow, especially in the area of later bands," Lemlich says. "I could start hundreds of threads about bands I saw in the '80s and '90s, but right now I think it's more important for me to focus my research on the older artists since they're getting tougher and tougher to get information on."

Fondling a copy of the Nightcrawler's 1965 enigmatic album Little Black Egg as he squats comfortably for a portrait among his treasures, Lemlich projects a future for his work. "Ideally, I'd love to see more participants starting threads and posting more photos, as a way of having artists, producers, promoters, and fans all coming together to tell stories. It would create a bigger picture of how our various scenes have been shaped over the years."

If that picture seems pretty big already, you can thank Lemlich for the frame.

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