The Tale of the Tape Box

Does the writing on a decades-old reel-to-reel container spell the end for Ian MacKaye’s reputation?

dischord mystery tape

Ian MacKaye is on the phone with his mother. His reputation is also on the line. I have come to his Arlington home to confront the well-known indie avatar about his past.

In MacKaye’s hands is a cardboard box, the type made to hold reel-to-reel recording tape. The 7-inch-square container has been packed away among my possessions since 1981 or ’82, years when MacKaye was playing with Minor Threat and starting up Dischord Records, two of the most influential punk institutions of all time.

His fingers slowly trace the words on the box. In the middle is a manual-typewriter-written Avery label. A handwritten return address sits in the upper-left corner. The addressee is “Mr. Walter Yetnikoff, CBS Records, 51 W. 52nd St. New York, N.Y. 10019.” The sender? “MacKaye, 3819 Beecher St. NW, DC 20007.”

That latter address, of course, is for MacKaye’s boyhood home and the original Dischord headquarters. It still appears on the label’s records and Web site. Clearly, I had no idea of its significance at the time, or I wouldn’t have smacked a sticker of my own over part of it so cavalierly. In 1981, I had no idea who Ian MacKaye or Minor Threat was.

So…this must be MacKaye’s box, right? But why would the fiercely independent MacKaye ever want to traffic with CBS Records? MacKaye denies having any knowledge of the answers to these questions: It’s not his handwriting, either, he says.

But he thinks it might be his mother’s. Right now, he’s trying to describe it to her: “I’m looking at it and…there’s no ‘Washington,’ and the seven is hatched—it’s got a cross through it. I called [my sister] Katy, thought maybe she might have sent a tape—it might be a demo tape—to CBS Records. I was thinking, Maybe the Tom Ladamierszky tape? Is that possible? Does this sound at all vaguely familiar to you?”

“Never?” MacKaye turns to me: “She never crosses her sevens. Wow. The mystery deepens.” He then promises to bring a copy of the box to his mom. “Maybe it will jog your memory,” he says into the phone. “It’s completely mysterious. The tape that’s in there is Dave’s tape. At some point he made a recording. The recording is a guy doing a Donald Duck impersonation.”

Let’s stop here a moment. The recording currently inside the box is not in question. The “guy” doing the very convincing Donald Duck impression is local musician Jon Carroll, who was still a member of the Grammy-winning Starland Vocal Band when he deigned to lower his standards and record with my non-Grammy-winning comedy troupe, Travesty Ltd. The recording is a sketch called “Donald Dearest.” It’s a takeoff on the infamous Joan Crawford bio, wherein a young Huey Duck dishes the dirt on his unca’s dark side. Quite droll. Dr. Demento played it.

mystery tape box

The track was recorded for Travesty’s 1982 album, Teen Comedy Party, though infighting among us comic geniuses resulted in its being left off the record in favor of a cut not written by me. So the tape—and its box—went into storage.

Two years ago, those members of Travesty still on speaking terms decided to re-release Teen Comedy Party on CD. In the search for “bonus” tracks to add to the digitized album, I went back to the dusty boxes in my archives. By this time, naturally, I was familiar with the MacKaye name.

But I had no idea of how it came to be sharing a box with that of a creature such as Walter Yetnikoff, the hard-partying pal of Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, and so many more exemplars of mainstream pop. A self-described “shmoozer, shmingler, and bingler” who was also called a “high-handed vulgarian” by critic Robert Christgau, Yetnikoff enjoyed a career that would become emblematic of the excesses of the music industry throughout the ’70s and ’80s. You can read about it in Fredric Dannen‘s well-known 1990 book Hit Men: Power Brokers & Fast Money Inside the Music Business. Here, for example, is Yetnikoff recounting his first meeting with Cyndi Lauper: “I said, ‘Are you crazy? You’re out of your mind.’ I said, ‘You see over in the corner, a pile of hay and straw? Go sit on it, have your period, and come back when you’re finished!'” Charming man.

After negotiating the disastrous sale of Columbia Pictures to Sony in 1989, Yetnikoff was shown the door. He hasn’t really been heard from since he sold his subsequent label, Velvel, to “major alternative” KOCH Entertainment in 1999.

Did an angry young Ian, like many an ambitious lad before him, desire a record deal and decide to go right to the top? And did the fact that Yetnikoff was too busy with his many “shiksa mistresses” to appreciate the cultural import of a song such as “Bottled Violence” turn the plucky kid into a DIY Scarlett O’Hara, furiously shaking his fists at the sky and screaming, “As God is my witness, I’ll never sell out again!”?

“Don’t put any speculation in there or I’ll be pissed,” MacKaye warns.

The other members of Minor Threat also deny any knowledge of the box. Jeff Nelson, Dischord co-founder and Minor Threat drummer, offers only puzzlement. Brian Baker, who played bass and guitar in the band and is currently a member of Bad Religion, offers little more: “I didn’t send it,” he e-mails. “Try Lyle.” Guitarist Lyle Preslar never responds to queries—but nobody thinks he’s a likely suspect.

“My younger brother and sister have been in bands,” MacKaye says, musing about who else might have written his surname on the box. “But anything they’ve recorded, I’ve been involved with. And they would certainly never send anything to CBS. My older sister never recorded music. I was the first one in the family to do that.

“I know I’m the most likely candidate, because it goes with your weird concept,” MacKaye eventually concedes. Then he offers up a weird concept of his own: “Tom Ladamierszky was a Hungarian guy who lived on Beecher Street two doors up. And he was the lover of Mrs. Whitley. Mrs. Whitley was a widow, and then this guy Tom Ladamierszky moved in. They were in their 50s, 60s. Tom was a piano player and a member of ASCAP and very proud of it. Matter of fact, somewhere I have his ASCAP membership certificate framed.

“And he was very old-school, a tunesmith guy. You’d hear him all summer tinkering away at the piano. But once I got involved in music, he was like, ‘Oh, you have to help me!’ ‘Cause he would send his songs off to people—but he couldn’t sell his songs. I think he sold one or two, maybe. But he was a pretty crazy guy. Definitely the neighborhood letch. Like, he would lay out naked on his front porch. Just a kook…

“Anyway, he died. Probably 1984, ’85. But toward the end of his life he really became fixated on trying to get his songs sold and published. That’s why I thought it must be Tom Ladamierszky, because he’d always bring me cassettes and want me to ‘Put out these songs on your label.’ I couldn’t explain to him—at all—that this was just two different worlds.”

We pause to consider the infinite cosmos. MacKaye looks down at the box again. “This is a really good mystery,” he says. “This is exactly the kind of thing I need in my life right now.”

mystery tape box

[NOTE: The typewritten label has faded since this article was first published in Washington City Paper. If you click the image above, you will see that I have added a typeset layer that aligns with the original text.]

MacKaye decides to go across the street to the Dischord office. “[Ladamierszky] may well have supplied [my mother] with the tape, and she may have sent the letter,” he says as we get up. “I wish there was some other clue in there….My mom played piano, but nobody recorded music, ever. We never had a reel-to-reel tape deck that I recall. Actually, I do remember that we had one that my brother and I used to do pottery on. Because it would spin, y’know?

“But I never came across such tape boxes until I was in the studio with Don [Zientara, who recorded Minor Threat]. That’s why I can’t imagine why my mom would have it. It’s totally bizarre. It’s completely bizarre. Well, let’s go copy it.”

MacKaye runs off some copies of the top of the box.

“That’s my mother’s handwriting,” he announces after a few minutes. “I’m sure of it now.” Then he eyes the unpostmarked box again: “It wasn’t mailed. That’s the thing that’s weird.”

Maybe it was mailed in another envelope?

“But why would Walter Yetnikoff send it back down?”

Dead end apparently reached, MacKaye mentions that he’s leaving for a Fugazi tour of Europe and promises to get back in touch after he returns.

When we finally hook up again, he has changed his mind about blaming his mother: “My mom looked at it and said it’s not her. She’s completely baffled by it….My mom just kept saying, ‘Well, how did he get it?'”

The short answer is I don’t know. I might have picked it up from the studio where we recorded “Donald Dearest,” a Rosslyn postproduction house called Musifex. Our producer and engineer, Rich West, was a partner in the firm, so we could sneak in nights and weekends and make duck noises into some pretty expensive microphones. Good times.

West, however, swears that he has no recollection of any young kid named Ian hanging around or recording any demo tapes. “No. To my knowledge, no,” he says without hesitation. “That’s not something that ever happened.”

And because Musifex was not a music-recording studio, there would be no reason for Minor Threat to work there. But for a handful of exceptions, MacKaye did all his work at Inner Ear with Zientara.

Another plausible explanation is that the box came from the Earle Palmer Brown advertising agency in Bethesda, where I worked in the early ’80s. Like most ad agencies, EPB championed throwaway culture, and the media department would regularly toss out the many audition tapes, focus-group recordings, and old jingles that accumulated. Being a cheap scrounge, I would collect them from the trash and reuse them.

MacKaye draws a blank at the mention of EPB, as does his mother: “We don’t know anybody in advertising at all,” he says, rather surprised at the very notion.

I haven’t kept in touch with most of the folks from EPB since I slammed my hand on the boss’s desk and shouted, “Fuck you! I quit!” And Earle Palmer Brown went out of business in October 2002. But I do manage to locate Jill Flax, who worked in the media department with me, to ask her about the MacKaye box.

“It doesn’t ring any kind of bells,” she says.

Back in MacKaye’s living room, the questions are going around in circles and the answers seem farther away. After a while, MacKaye looks for closure.

“I would say [Ladamierszky] is definitely the most plausible,” he says. “It just never occurred to us to send [Minor Threat’s music] to anybody for any reason. We were never thinking in terms of making it at all….I’ve never thought of being signed. It just never occurred to me. Ever. So I would never send a tape to Yetnikoff.”

After a moment, MacKaye adds softly, “Tom Ladamierszky, bless his heart, rest in peace, it must be on him.”

I point out that blaming it on the dead guy is the most convenient solution. Of course, in this case it’s also the only explanation that comes close to making any sense. And it’s comforting to continue believing that MacKaye was never eager to be co-opted by a major label. But he rejects my notion of selling out.

“Sending a tape does not mean selling out,” he argues. “People send me tapes, it doesn’t mean they’re selling out. The idea is, you’ve made the music, now what? Which is how Tom Ladamierszky was. He wrote songs. And he didn’t know what to do with them. He had no idea. But he had music inside of him that was coming out. So he joined ASCAP. He tried to do it proper.”

“But there’s a lesson here,” MacKaye adds with a grin. “The proper way is not usually the most effective one.”