“Hey, did you get the boot off?”
“Dude, mission accomplished! Gnarly.”
Greetings exchanged, so begins “The Derek Tape,” a fascinating phone conversation between a very relaxed record store clerk (Kurt) and a full-time hesher (Derek) in Los Angeles circa 1992. If it sounds familiar, you’ve likely heard it before. Derek does most of the talking (there’s a good reason it’s not called “The Kurt Tape”), much of which concerns Derek’s reasons for wanting to put his neighbor, Terry, in the hospital, and his intention to do just that. Once the conversation turns to metal lore, though, and Derek’s enthusiasm kicks into high gear, it is hard not to get carried away with him as he talks about the important things in life: the occult significance of Morbid Angel guitarist Trey Azagthoth’s name; the distinction between “tripping” and “flipping” on acid; the relative merits of guitarists Robin Trower, David Gilmour, Jimmy Page, and Ritchie Blackmore; and the comparative belief systems of Deicide, Mercyful Fate, Morbid Angel and the Grateful Dead. If only going to the theater could be more like listening to this.
Once jealously guarded and traded among initiates, the tape has taken on a life of its own on the internet. Recently, it’s even been serialized and animated, as you can see at the bottom of this post. I had an inkling that my friend Sean Kelly—whose great old band, Tight Bro’s From Way Back When, was named after a memorable phrase of Derek’s—might be able to give me a clue to the origins of this tape. As it turns out, Sean knows more about the origins of the recording than anyone on Earth, other than Derek and Kurt themselves.
Bassist Sean Kelly, second from left
When did you first hear this tape? How did you get a copy?
I moved to LA in the early 90s chasing the obligatory teenage rock stardom dream and ended up playing in a band with a bunch of misfit weirdo drug casualties, one of whom was the now legendary “Kurt” (his name really IS Kurt, but he’s become so mythical to me at this point that quotation marks seem necessary). Shortly thereafter, and after one too many life-threateningly self-destructive episodes, I found myself transplanted to San Francisco, but still remained in contact with Kurt. On one very fateful occasion he came up from LA for a visit and happened to bring along a rare gem that will henceforth and forever be known as “The Derek Tape.”
Kurt was a great collector of the funny and absurd—weird underground art, obscure music, prank call tapes, etc.—but I don’t think he realized how special the gift he created actually was. He just offhandedly gave me the tape and said “Oh hey, I recorded this—you should listen to it sometime—it’s pretty funny.” I don’t recall how long it took me to sit down and listen to it, but suffice to say, and using Derek parlance, “I was blown away just like everyone in the whole fuckin’ place was blown away.” I promptly proceeded to play it for the friends of mine who I thought would appreciate it and only one, really, my comrade Jason Traeger, realized the brilliance of it; most people that heard it were repulsed by what at first aural glance was the insane violent rant of a lunatic, and missed the mostly unintended, but genuine genius of this epic, absurd, comic, tragedy.
I don’t remember anyone but Jason and I listening to it in SF—it was very much our own private little thing that we obsessed over—but we DID make copies of the tape and gave it to the many bands that used to crash on our floors with a “Here’s a little something for you to listen to in the van on the rest of your tour,” and no explanation other than that. I’ve oftentimes been bewildered by how many people know about this thing (I certainly thought I had been keeping it in the family), but I suppose that’s how it got disseminated—the Johnny Appleseed-ism of touring punk bands! In fact, two of my oldest and best friends, Jon Quittner and David Wilcox, who along with Jason and I are equal custodians of the tape (I’d go as far as to call us scholars at this point—ha!), met each other and forged our friendships from different parts of the country over our mutual and rabid appreciation of the tape. I suppose on a smaller level my former band’s name, which is from a line in the tape, helped spread it around too. Kurt, as far as I can tell, had nothing to do with it getting spread around other than happening to put it my filthy mitts almost 25 years ago.
What else can you tell me about the scenario? They’re talking about the LA area.
Kurt used to work in a record store somewhere in LA (can’t remember where or which one but I’m sure it’s gone now) and Derek was a frequent customer, obviously, obsessed with death, black, and Satanic metal. Kurt was a collector of the weird and absurd and realized how amazing this guy’s obsession was with the genre. He hatched a plan to get him on the phone to talk about his favorite bands and record the conversation clandestinely to add to his collection of oddities. He had no idea that he was going to get the epic tale that ended up unfolding. You can even hear him on the tape periodically trying to get Derek back on the subject of music, not being fully aware of the magically maniacal saga that that was being hurled at him on the other end of the phone. That all being said, I never got the impression, despite the questionable ethics of recording someone without their knowledge, that Kurt was taking advantage of Derek or trying to make fun of him—I think he was genuinely fascinated by Derek’s passion and certainly never intended for it to become what it has—that appears to be entirely my fault! I’ve actually been in the room where it was recorded. Kurt was living there before I moved to SF. It’s in an apartment complex near Franklin and Cahuenga—I never drive by it without thinking that it all happened there!
Can you shed any light on these two characters?
Well, as far as Derek goes, I only know as much about him as anyone who’s listened to the recording does! Total and utter enigma. Kurt told me very little about Derek, mostly because I haven’t seen him since the day he gave me the tape and I never got the chance to follow up! As far as Kurt goes, I can tell you he was a really cool, sweet guy—very talented guitar player too—who wasn’t nearly as much of a ding-dong as he appears to be on the tape. I’m pretty sure that his conversational demeanor was dictated by a combination of him consciously being a foil to Derek’s madness, and almost certainly being profoundly and epically stoned at the time of the call!
What makes this thing so fascinating?
Oh man, where do I begin? I feel like this tape could be the source of a university-level psychology, sociology, or Underground Art of the American 20th century class! I could write a fucking dissertation at this point—ha!!
To begin with, it’s an absolutely amazing voyeuristic—and maddeningly finite—slice of the life of a completely unknown, quasi-brilliant American underground character, who basically lets us in on the epic saga of his insane life and all of his passions in a mere 45 minutes. While I stated above that I know nothing about Derek, which is strictly factual, I actually feel like I know EVERYTHING about him through his willingness to reveal so much in this conversation. Hearing this for me was like discovering an unknown mean streets of Los Angeles anti-hero who is the combination of Charles Bukowski, Jeff Spicoli, and Lester Bangs on a heavy dose of PCP. A true folk art discovery in my book. His use—or, more accurately perhaps, abuse—of the English language is extraordinary too. He absolutely creates his own lexicon through the sheer passion for what he’s expressing. I can’t even begin to tell you how many Derek-isms are part of my everyday conversation.
Most people default to the brilliance of this tape being his monologues on the ultimate truths about his favorite Satanic bands and the greatest guitar performances he’s witnessed, which are undeniably and endearingly hilarious, but I think what ultimately makes this recording so fascinating and enduring is the real life tragedy, pain, and suffering of a person struggling to get by in an unforgiving environment on display here, who in the end finds reprieve in his obsessive passion for the music he loves, and thank all the evil gods of the Necronomicon, he just happens to be an unintentional comic genius while delivering this LSD-fueled slice of profane pulp non-fiction!
While this is clearly Derek’s tour de force, it’s also undeniable how perfect a foil Kurt is for the proceedings. His peaceful, stoned counterpoint to Derek’s rabid verbal violence keeps everything in order and, most significantly, probably saved the life of the severely maligned and lazy Terry! Ha!
Anton LaVey and King Diamond: “tight bros from way back when”
If they’re still among us, what do you think Derek and Kurt are doing today?
Derek, again, I know absolutely nothing about, which to me makes his enigma so fascinating. It’s like he only existed on the planet for these 45 minutes and that’s all there ever was to him. For a long time I thought I wanted the back story, but now, no way. I love not knowing what he looked like, how old he is, what happened in Oklahoma City, or how he got his head wound! I would say it’s safe to assume, based only on the 45 minutes of his life that I’m aware of, that unless Derek had some sort of serious spiritual epiphany, things most likely didn’t end up too well for him. But then again, who the fuck knows!
About eight years ago I was working at Sub Pop in Seattle and, completely randomly, I heard Derek coming through the speakers of a co-worker’s computer. I was thoroughly and utterly stunned—there was no way I was aware of that could be happening—I certainly hadn’t given him the tape or even talked to anybody at SP about it, ever. Turns out WFMU in New York had gotten ahold of the tape and was streaming the death metal parts of the conversation on its website, and my buddy was listening to it online. That was the first instance I realized that it had sprouted up out of the underground, and almost simultaneously, people started contacting me inquiring about releasing it, as the word had got out that someone in Tight Bro’s From Way Back When had something to do with it and tracked me down.
Now, I’ve always felt VERY protective of the recording—it’s like a family heirloom to my friends and me—and I never intended to, and still have not attempted to, exploit it, but at the time it seemed inevitable that it was going to happen. So through the wonders of the internet, I actually tracked down Kurt after what would have been about thirteen years since the last time I had seen him, to let him know what was happening. He was living in SF at the time and doing well (walking dogs for a living, if I remember correctly) and totally blown away, to say the least, to hear from me and also to hear this very unexpected news about the tape. He was very interested in capitalizing on it, and we had a few conversations on how that might be possible and then we promptly fell out of contact again—haven’t heard from him since.
He did reveal one gem to me, though. Apparently he recorded another short conversation with Derek that the world has yet to hear, in which Derek muses on what he would say to God regarding his life if he encountered him in the afterlife:
“Well, that sucked!”
Below, the first episode of Found Magazine’s cartoon version of “The Derek Tape”:
And for purists like me, the original audio recording: