Some of my most treasured personal objects are punk and new wave 45s I bought at the old Wax Trax! Records in the early 80s, so reviewing Industrial Accident—The Story of Wax Trax! Records, which screens Wednesday in two sold-out shows at the 25th Chicago Underground Film Festival, may tax my powers of objectivity. Located next to the Biograph Theater in Lincoln Park, Wax Trax! was one of the first places I went in the city when I could venture in from the suburbs on my own, and along with a few other things I encountered (the elevated system, the art house cinemas, this newspaper), it suggested that adult life might have more to offer than Reaganomics and the Moral Majority. The documentary’s photos and brief video footage showing the store’s wild interior struck a powerful chord when I saw them, and made me realize how many other rock record shops in Chicago have aspired to the magic of that one, like that old saw about everyone who saw the Velvet Underground starting his or her own band.
Julia Nash, who directed the documentary, is the daughter of Jim Nash, who founded Wax Trax! in the mid-70s with his lover, Dannie Flesher, so her powers of objectivity must be taxed even more than mine. Industrial Accident opens with video footage of her and a friend arriving at a rural home in Hope, Arkansas, to reclaim the mountain of Wax Trax! memorabilia that Flesher left behind in a barn when he died of AIDS in 2010; Nash had succumbed to the same disease 15 years earlier. The movie argues that the store and the internationally beloved dance-music label it spawned were expressions of Nash and Flesher’s personal relationship, and that their own trust in personal relationships led to their commercial downfall. It’s a poignant story, though one limited by the absence of the only two people who really lived it.
The filmmaker gathers a wide range of interviewees to trace the rise and fall of her father’s business, from its origins as a glammy, proto-punk record shop in Denver, Colorado, to its big move to Chicago in 1978 to its emergence in the 80s as the boldest industrial-music label in the U.S. Musicians who released vinyl on Wax Trax! (Al Jourgensen of Ministry, Richard Jonkheere of Front 242, Sascha Konietzko of KMFD, Frankie Nardiello of My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult) remember Nash and Flesher as passionate music lovers and generous businesspeople, giving their artists everything they needed to realize their visions. Innocently, the label owners kept no contracts with their artists, who were free to take their old releases with them when they moved on to bigger and better things. As the most popular acts began to desert the label, Nash and Flesher were gradually forced into bankruptcy and sold out to the larger TVT Records. Amid the gentrification of Lincoln Park, the retail store moved to Wicker Park and languished there until Jim Nash died in 1995 and Julia finally closed it down.
The movie also includes interviews with famous rockers who patronized the original store, and their remarks are eerily similar to my own memories of first walking into the place. “It was a chaotic, overwhelming thing, but everything in it was all part of the same story,” remembers Steve Albini of Big Black. “It was really weird to see a place that was literally built for people like me.” Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters remembers visiting Chicago in the early 80s, when punk was king: “I was so blown away that this entire genre of music existed without anybody really knowing. This was underground shit and there was this network of bands and labels and fanzines that communicated with each other off the radar or any sort of commercial scene.” I recall that same shock of affirmation to realize there were other oddballs like me walking the earth, echoed by the some of the old patrons interviewed for the movie who found a rich social scene at the store.
I never met Jim Nash or Dannie Flesher except as a customer, so I have no reference point for them aside from what’s in the documentary. Julia’s mother, Jean Payne, recalls the day Jim broke down in tears, came out of the closet, and told her that he was in love with Dannie. Steve Knutson, an employee at the Chicago store, remembered Nash and Flesher as proudly gay: “They didn’t apologize for it, they didn’t hide from it, they didn’t give a shit.” Jim was the volatile one, Dannie the calming influence; they were “like an old married couple,” recalls Andy Wombwell, who worked for the record label. “What Jim had, Dannie didn’t, and what Dannie had, Jim didn’t,” explains photographer Patty Hefler, a habitue of the Lincoln Park store. Bill Mainey, a close friend of the couple, offers the most provocative take on their relationship: “You definitely got the sense that they really loved each other, but they had some amazing ways of showing it, which included beating the shit out of each other.”
Despite all these fond reminiscences, the men’s relationship remains largely hidden. Julia Nash includes a few clips from local news that show her father talking about the music business, and there are a few seconds of interview footage, shot after Jim’s death, in which Flesher dodges a question about their personal relationship. No private details emerge about how the couple managed to survive their business falling apart or whether Nash’s infection with AIDS involved a personal betrayal of trust similar to the professional ones that brought down the label. At one point Julia Nash, commenting onscreen, offers an extraordinary childhood reminiscence of the day she accidentally caught her father and Flesher kissing in a mirror’s reflection and realized they were more than just friends. Her story is moving and unimpeachably genuine, and like much of the movie, it presents an image of the couple refracted through a third party.
This sketchy treatment of Nash and Flesher’s relationship may have been unavoidable given their deaths, or perhaps Julia Nash couldn’t bring herself to invade her father’s private life (we all wonder what goes on behind mom and dad’s bedroom door, but who really wants to find out?). Industrial Accident may be opaque at its center, but that matters only because Wax Trax! Records was, in many ways, an enormous extended family—one big enough to include even me. v
Check back later this week for more coverage of the Chicago Underground Film Festival, running Wednesday, June 6, through Sunday, June 10.