“He was so intense,” says Julia Nash, daughter of the late Jim Nash, one of the architects of Wax Trax records. “Even in the hospital that night, he was just–I don’t know, there was this power. I don’t know the word for it, but it was amazing. Me and Dannie were there for his last breath, we were holding his hand, and something crazy came over the whole room.” Nash, a wisecracking entrepreneur, and his partner, Dannie Flesher, founded first a store and then a record label based on a mutual commitment to harsh music and blithe business practices. Their record label became the progenitor of industrial music before going bankrupt and being reborn in 1993. Nash died October 10 at 47, of symptoms brought on by AIDS.
Flesher was Nash’s partner, professionally and personally, for almost 25 years; Nash’s daughter, Julia, was the manager of the Wax Trax record store, which recently moved to Wicker Park. The intersection of Nash’s relationship with each is a tale worthy of a movie.
Flesher grew up in Hope, Arkansas, the youngest of 13 kids; he fled to Topeka (“the big city, wow!”) after graduating from high school. He and Jim met “almost accidentally,” he recalls. “It was a nice warm February evening. I had a Mustang convertible. I’d never met anyone like Jim; he’d never met anyone like me. We hit it off the minute we started talking to each other.” Topeka in the 1970s was a wild town, and Flesher and Nash contributed their share to the ambience. “I didn’t know he was gay, he didn’t know I was gay. We were chasing girls, having guns pulled on us, raising hell,” Flesher says. “It was two weeks before we realized we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together.”
And the pair lived happily ever after? Not quite.
A variant on the venerable “there’s something I have to tell you” scene produced the news that Nash had a wife–and a three-year-old daughter and an infant boy to boot. “I left for California,” says Flesher. “I didn’t want anything to do with breaking up a family.”
Flesher swears that the cinematic swell of the next part of the story is true.
“Two weeks later I finally called his house. His wife answered and said, ‘It’s funny that you called.’ Jim had talked to her. She said, ‘He’s flying into Los Angeles on American Airlines.’ I headed for the airport and went to the American Airlines terminal and bumped into him coming out.”
The pair looked for work in LA, then San Francisco, then Denver, where they fell into carpentry. An accident–Nash mangled his finger–got them thinking about another line of work. By then the pair’s apartment looked like a record store, so they figured they’d open one. They relocated to Chicago and by 1980 had started a label. Their fourth release was from the Belgian group Front 242, a watershed in the development of industrial music. Over the next 15 years Wax Trax would sell well over a million records by Ministry, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, Revolting Cocks, and KMFDM. But by Nash’s own admission too many handshake deals and other management inattention nearly sank the label in the 1990s. New York’s TVT records now has a controlling financial interest, though Flesher retains the creative reins.
Flesher said they’d learned that Nash had had the AIDS virus since the 1980s. “If we’d known it then we might not have done what we did,” he says now. “When we found out we didn’t leave the apartment for quite a while. We were a mess. We wanted to run away, but there’s no way to run away from something like this. We just got ourselves together and kept going.”
Nash had always remained on good terms with his wife and family. “She never said one bad thing about my dad,” Julia says of her mother. His daughter moved to Chicago in 1986 and took over the retail arm of the business the next year.
His family thought they’d lost him last May. “We lost an entire month,” Julia says. “He pulled out of it, though. The big thing for him was that he wanted to see [his granddaughter] Olivia grow up. That was the only time he really got sad.”
Both say Nash’s last months were marked with laughter and happiness.
“We had great insurance,” Flesher reflects. “Jim could stay at home and I could take care of him. He was very upbeat. He had a great sense of humor. He would never let himself be a burden to any of the family.”
“At the end he opened up,” says Julia Nash. “We had better communication in the last few months than ever before. It wasn’t rough, it was beautiful. It was amazing all the way to the end.”
Now Flesher concentrates on work. “It hits me when I sit down to think,” he says. The 25th anniversary of that warm February evening was just months away. “Half of me is gone, literally,” Flesher says. “I’m just lost sometimes.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.