When is a record store not just a record store? For Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher, Wax Trax was always about something more. First in Denver (1974) and then Chicago (1978), the Wax Trax store was more like a neon-lit musical club house for a hidden community. A community that liked fringe music and transgressive humor, a community that identified as gay, trans, punk, misfit or “other,” a community that found solace in glam, dirty disco, girl groups with magnificent beehives, rockabilly of the impolitest sort (Hasil Adkins anyone?) or a Liquid Liquid 12-inch, among other esoteric pleasures.
If you were a regular, you’d keep running into people who didn’t fit in anywhere except here: “There are so many of us? Who knew?” Wax Trax not only had all the cool records no one else thought anyone would want, it became a hangout where bands formed and information about underground concerts was shared. The owners instigated parties and hosted in-store meet-and-greets with the cult acts they championed. Or they’d be working the cash register and educating anyone who walked in about their next favorite album. “Oh, you’re the guy who likes Suicide? Wait till you hear This Heat!”
Nash and Flesher, a gay couple who fled Topeka, Kansas, in the early ‘70s, didn’t set out to change the world, just tilt things a little bit in their direction. “We worked lousy jobs in construction and got tired of it,” Nash once said. “So we thought, ‘OK, now how can we retire at the tender age of 23?’”
Things are clearly looking up for Wax Trax founders Dannie Flesher and Jim Nash. Source: Wax Trax Archives
They did much better than that. They built music scenes in two cities by opening their door to all sorts of mischief, musical and otherwise. They were not businessmen, they didn’t adhere to rules that dictated what art or commerce was acceptable or tasteful, and they reveled in risk-taking. They merged their record collections — long on David Bowie, Roxy Music, T. Rex, New York Dolls, Lou Reed, girl groups, garage bands and rockabilly — to start a hip record store in two cities that weren’t, then began importing records from adventurous European labels such as 4AD, Rough Trade and Factory. After moving to Chicago, they began releasing records by artists they loved because, why not? Record by record, they built a scene for a kind of music that didn’t stand a chance of radio airplay, but appealed to listeners whose tastes veered far outside the mainstream.
The damaged music and wicked humor reflected a point of view that transcended genre boundaries.
Wax Trax Records’ emergence in the ‘80s amid the death grip of AIDs, the arrival of Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics and the specter of Cold War nuclear Armageddon wasn’t coincidental. The damaged music and wicked humor reflected a point of view that transcended genre boundaries. This was punk made with machines, noise you could dance to, violent yet absurd, catchy yet pummeling. Wax Trax was less about a unified sound than a shared vision that permeated the music, lyrics, artwork and videos.
“Our bands are generally loud, hard, uncompromising, relatively noncommercial, but to say they all sound alike is like saying William Shakespeare writes like Ogden Nash,” Nash once told me. “If they share anything, it’s an attitude.”
That attitude underpinned everything, including album covers and merch. Just the band names alone conveyed that raised-middle-finger spirit: Mussolini Headkick, the Revolting Cocks, Sister Machine Gun, 1000 Homo DJ’s.
Simultaneously, Chicago was giving birth to deep house, a grittier, soulful variation on disco, in clubs helmed by DJs such as Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy, and incubating a punk and noise scene that included pioneering bands such as Strike Under, Naked Raygun, Effigies and Big Black. Clubs such as Exit, Neo, Berlin, Medusa’s and the Music Box played a broad mix of records and hosted artists from these scenes.
In the ‘90s and beyond, house underpinned the European rave scene and EDM, which rose to a stadium-level genre in the last decade. The Chicago noise and punk bands inspired alternative rock. And Wax Trax’s body-slamming brand of electronic music led to the rise of industrial music in the ‘90s, a genre classification that usually got an eye-roll from Nash and many of the Wax Trax artists accused of inventing it. But in their wake, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, White Zombie and other Wax Trax disciples commercialized the sound and sold millions of albums.
Wax Trax planted the seeds for this movement not just in the edgier corners of big-city scenes from Chicago to Berlin, but sprinkled them across more sheltered communities via college radio and mail order.
“We had a good market in the Bible Belt,” one Wax Trax insider, Matt Adell, comments in the “Industrial Accident” documentary. “The more conservative the small town, the more you needed a Revolting Cocks record.”
An example of the mail that music listeners sent to Wax Trax. In the pre-internet era, the label received handwritten orders and requests from across the country, particularly from rural and conservative areas. Source: Wax Trax Archives
“Industrial Accident,” directed and produced with a mixture of warmth and unflinching honesty by Nash’s daughter, Julia Nash, not only describes the rise and fall of the Wax Trax label and record store, it tells the parallel story of how Nash and Flesher became soulmates. Julia saw her parents divorce as a child, and her father leave home to make a new life with a younger man. Julia and her mother, Jeanne Payne, describe a time of confusion and hurt, but empathy prevailed. Nash, says his former wife, “was truly in pain” trying to reconcile his love for his family and children with the self-realization that he was gay and that he needed to start a new life.
Payne and Nash remained friends right up until his death of AIDs at age 47 in 1995. Julia and her brother Aaron continued to work with and support their father and welcomed Flesher into the family as a third parent. Who knows if Nash could have catalyzed so much merry-prankster trouble in Chicago and then taken it worldwide had he not met Flesher, but the odds are against it. They were the yin-and-yang that made Wax Trax hum for nearly two decades, complementary personalities driven by their passion for creative mayhem.
‘I’m not a record-company guy,’ Nash once wisecracked, ‘I’m an enabler for a bunch of weirdos.’
Eventually, the full-speed-ahead pace of running a label and record store that continually ripped each other off caught up with them. Nash had hand-shake deals with his artists, and one by one they left him for major-label money when industrial turned far more lucrative than any of them initially thought possible. Wax Trax declared bankruptcy and was eventually acquired by TVT Records. That it was never the same was hardly unexpected. Nash, in addition to being a huge personality, was a brilliant talent scout, who led with his heart and backed it up with cash for his artists to go nuts, budgets and artistic restraints be damned. “I’m not a record-company guy,” Nash once wisecracked, “I’m an enabler for a bunch of weirdos.”
The weirdos made music that often mirrored Nash’s personality: “manic, bouncing off the walls, prone to hysteria,” in the words of one friend. Flesher was “the backbone, so Jim could be Jim.” When Nash died, Flesher carried on for a few years, but eventually retired from the music business. He died in 2010 at age 58.
They left behind a legacy of why-the-hell-not? music that has taken on new resonance in a tumultuous era much like the one that inspired the duo to start a label in the first place.
As chaotic as the music and the business once appeared, it was never about succeeding according to the standards of the mainstream. Instead, the luxury of time has made an overriding Wax Trax “message,” if there ever was one, more apparent. As Marston Daley, otherwise known as Buzz McCoy of Wax Trax mainstays My Life With the Thrill Kult, once said, “The message isn’t, ‘Bang your head,’ like the metal bands say, but more like, ‘Use your head.’”