I have a nightmare that in the future we will all only be able to buy music either online or at the mall. Deafened by stereo speakers blaring obnoxious pop, blinded by multiple screens replicating soulless videos, you will search hopelessly for real music from a collection dwindling with the passage of time like the English language in Orwell’s 1984. Why? Because enterprises like Dr. Strange Records won’t exist.
The building that is the physical representation of Dr. Strange Records was the first post office in Rancho Cucamonga 100 years ago. Located in the city’s old town, it’s a music store, punk museum, social center, clothing and accessory shop, and the very epitome of that corporate outlets like Virgin are not: a locale of wood, dust, grit, soul and history.
When you walk into the place you enter a store of wooden floors and plaster walls replete with posters and paraphernalia from punk bands both old and new. Rummaging through several used sections will reward you with solid gold: You can find crazy, obscure albums like Wakey Wakey by The Toy Dolls, Television’s Marquee Moon, and Coulda…Shoulda…Woulda by Black Market Baby.
William “Bill” Plaster is Dr. Strange, the man who runs the business that put the city of Rancho Cucamonga on the punk rock map. His office is a cold room where he runs his company, answering emails and shipping music all across the world.
I had to step over cartons of merchandise while Bill took a seat next to a computer that was probably manufactured in the mid-90’s to find a place to perform the interview. Between the posters, the cd’s, the shirts and other punk paraphenalia, it was difficult to tell which was merchandise and which was his.
“The online store keeps me busy,” he says. “It took three to four tries to get the website up. I used to do mail order with a typewriter. I’d retype it every month. Right now I’m sending a big package to a Russian embassy in Belgium. I send stuff to Tahiti, Croatia, Greece…any developed country, all over the world.”
The man who would be Dr. Strange got into new wave in the 80’s, as it bled into punk. “By my sophomore high school year I was listening to The Cars, Blondies, Devo, Oingo Boingo, then other bands like Black Flag, Stiff Little Fingers and The Circle Jerks.”
In 1988, Plaster was working his last “real” job as a waiter, going to Mt. San Antonio College and putting together a record label. “I didn’t do it for the money…I just wanted to pay rent, but I realized I had to put out a punk record before I died. I worked seven days a week, 12-16 hour days. I still wear a million hats. I’m the order guy, the label guy, the retail guy...”
1993 saw the rise of a dozen Inland Empire punk bands under the label of Dr. Strange Records. Groups such as Letseatlots, Guttermouth, Face to Face, Voodoo Glow Skulls, Golfball Liberation Front, and Mindless Thoughts were pushing the scene in a city that had never had one, playing at local venues like Spanky’s, Munchies and The Showcase Theatre. “Between 1991 and 1996, anything would sell. I fathered a lot of bands, mostly from around Rancho Cucamonga.”
Now, ten years later, Plaster has a history behind him and a future of doing what he loves ahead of him. His recent releases stand like menhirs in a punk rock Stonehenge: Coulda…Shoulda…Woulda by Black Market Baby, Killer on Craig’s List by The Texas Thieves, and The Golden Age of Piracy by The Skulls, to mention a few.
I tell Plaster about my nightmare, and how I feel the small chains are being ground under by the big ones. But even those big chains are being destroyed by the Internet in the form of Internet piracy. Virgin Megastores are going down in flames, so the smaller operations, owned by normal people who understand the art like Mr. Plaster, aren’t going to be able to take it for long.
“You’re 100% right. It’s cd burning that’s killing me.” The man known as Dr. Strange admits that it does hurt him. “Before it got big, I’d sell 10,000 copies of an album. Now, I can only sell 1,000.”
His record store is one of the many hardcore punk landmarks you can find throughout southern California. The business is more than just a place to find all things obscure (or place an order for what you want if Dr. Strange doesn’t have it), it’s also an inspiration to the future punk musicians living in the suburbs around the store that still believe in the old skool.
Because of that, Plaster is still proud to have the job he has.“I have been allowed to do what I truly love to do. I’m one of the few people who get up to go to work thinking, ‘I get to go to work!’”