In 1989 Metro owner Joe Shanahan was in a record store in Manchester, England, when he came across some live bootlegs by a few bands that had been signed to the seminal Factory label. To his surprise, the packaging claimed the shows had been recorded at his club. "I ran into [New Order bassist and Factory co-owner] Peter Hook and he was kind of upset about it," recalls Shanahan. "Like, 'I think you and your club owe me some money for these.' It was kind of embarrassing."
Shanahan thought he had a pretty good idea where the recordings had come from. At the time, 21-year-old Aadam Jacobs had been taping concerts in Chicago for about four years and was well on his way to becoming a fixture in the local scene--as he puts it, "that odd guy you see in the corner at every show." About five-eleven, with straight black hair he's often worn in pigtails, Jacobs has been known to turn up at gigs in a pink cocktail dress or a schoolgirl uniform. Sometimes he's on the guest list, and sometimes doormen just wave him in. When neither is the case, he's imperviously persistent, sending passersby in with messages for the band until someone comes out and says he's OK.
His first tape was of the legendary British experimental improv collective AMM performing at the Arts Club of Chicago in May 1984. "After that," he says, "it was a bunch of punk and rock concerts. It went pretty quickly from just being an occasional thing to something I did far too often." For the two decades since, Jacobs has been talking his way into about 15 gigs a month, setting up his microphones and deck and taping the performances for his private collection. He'd already passed 3,000 volumes when he stopped updating his show log two years ago. The living room of his Ukrainian Village condo is filled floor to ceiling with boxes and cases of tapes.
But of the thousands of hours of recordings Jacobs has made, only a small percentage have actually been heard by anyone besides him. There's a huge online tape-trading community, and in the pre-Internet era traders mailed tapes back and forth; Jacobs says he hasn't done much of that for a long time. "My passion is really to document something that's otherwise not being documented," he says. "It's more a desire to collect and archive this stuff. I'll make copies for the band if they ask for it, but a lot of the time I'll listen to something once and put it away for good."
Back when he was recording onto cassettes, Jacobs would sometimes tape on two decks simultaneously so he could give one copy straight to the band. Since the mid-90s, though, he's used a DAT recorder; he's never bought a CD burner (he says most of his money goes toward blank DATs) and has to get a friend to burn copies. But apart from the logistics, he worries that copies of his tapes will resurface as illegal bootlegs like the ones Shanahan found.
When he got back from England, Shanahan--who'd known Jacobs's family for years--lectured him, warning him always to get clearance from bands before recording them and to be careful when trading tapes. Soon after this, though, Jacobs snuck his gear into a Bob Mould solo gig at Metro--he'd been unable to get permission, Shanahan says--and was caught by venue staff. Shanahan didn't let him on the premises again for six years, relenting only after Jacobs got Flaming Lips manager Scott Booker to plead his case.
"After that kind of thing happened," Jacobs says, "I decided to keep my recordings within a very limited circle--unless it's a band who wants their stuff to be out there, like the Mekons. With them, the majority of the shows I've recorded are available to their hard-core fans."
He's provided the Mekons and other acts with material for their officially released records as well, almost always without compensation. Nearly a third of the material on the Mekons' latest disc, Punk Rock (Quarterstick), comes from Jacobs's collection, as does the entirety of Sonic Youth's Hold That Tiger, which documents their October '87 show at Metro. He's also been the source for live tracks on commercial and promo releases from Wilco, the Sea and Cake, Cap'n Jazz, and Built to Spill, among others.
"And sometimes stuff gets put out that I don't even know about," he says. "[Tacoma garage band] Girl Trouble put out a European-only live album with a bunch of my stuff on it, and Yo La Tengo has included a couple of my tracks without crediting me. But usually I get some sort of heads-up or acknowledgment."
In the early 90s Jacobs tried running his own label, Dead Bird, but gave it up after putting out just four singles (by local bands including Red Red Meat and Trenchmouth) in four years. "It gave me a good lesson--learning I wasn't a businessman," he says. "I thought by doing it maybe it would give me a reputation outside of being the guy who tapes live shows, but it never did."
Some of his more commercially viable recordings may continue to emerge in one form or another. Sonic Youth has already approached Jacobs seeking live material from the Daydream Nation tour for possible use as bonus tracks on an expanded reissue of the album.
He also says Lou Barlow has given him the green light to compile and release rare live tracks by Sebadoh, though he has no plans to do so yet. Jacobs doubts he'll ever release much of the material he's collected. "There's tons of cool stuff that'll never see the light of day," he says. "I mean, I could probably put out a three-CD set of unreleased Eleventh Dream Day songs alone. Some of the stuff may have been demoed, but most of it only exists on my live tapes."
"I have thoughts of it all going to the Smithsonian eventually. But I've done nothing to further that aim," he says, laughing.
"Look at all this," he says, making his way through a labyrinth of boxes labeled with band names. "All these great old local groups: Motorhome, Lava Sutra, the Defoliants, Joe for a Night, Friends of Betty, Toothpaste, Permabuzz, the Watchmen--bands that put out very little material in their lifetime. I think it's great that these tapes exist. Otherwise the history would be totally lost."
Last fall Jacobs approached Matt Rucins of Schubas and proposed a series of shows early this year to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his taping career; Rucins agreed and started assembling bills from a wish list Jacobs provided of bands and players he's been recording since the 80s. Experimental-metal vets Cheer-Accident played the first concert earlier this month; the second, with Califone and Rick Rizzo, goes on this Wednesday; and the Slugs will headline a final show tentatively set for May.
Jacobs, of course, is recording the shows.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.