(With thanks to Rustic Goodwig for taking and hosting this photo.)
A hard post to write, especially since others knew him more and for longer, and far more profoundly, but the passing of such a good person needs the acknowledgement, however much he would protest.
On his Facebook page, he said in his little box-under-the-photo, “I’m relatively unimportant in the scheme of things,” which about sums him up both perfectly and not at all. Perfectly, because humor was always key with him, as well as self-effacement and a sense of cosmic truth, shall we say — that one person in not only the world but an entire universe is indeed relatively unimportant. Not at all, because he was important to so many others, not least of which was his loving wife Carol, with him until the end and whose loss is truly the deepest. His passing was due to a recurrence of cancer, and the bitterness of that knowledge is acknowledged and now set aside — the rage and frustration belongs elsewhere, not in this particular moment.
What to say about Tony, then, that made him someone I was pleased to call an acquaintance, though I would never be so bold as to claim a deep friendship? Simply a question of enthusiasm, but also an enthusiasm tempered by his desire to do something more with it — a love of what we as a species could do and create. I would have first heard about him at some point in the mid-nineties, as my sense of what was out there in what could be called ‘modern psychedelia,’ an approach that sought to expand and explore what had begun some decades previously, became something I found had a greater resonance with me. Friends like Chris, Chels and Matt among others had to be the key there, not to mention fellow DJs and increasingly fellow music writers, leading me to the zine Ptolemaic Terrascope, based in England but featuring Tony, thousands of miles away in Australia, as one of the regular writers.
Around that time he decided to do that kind of step that some enthusiasts do but many others don’t, myself included — he wanted to form a label, to showcase that music that he loved so much. So Camera Obscura Records came into being, and in short order I found myself owning a steady stream of releases featuring that wonderful, glorious logo of some unknown figure — a scientist, an artist, an alchemist (and how appropriate that would be) using the tool in question. As time went on the emergence of a totally unrelated band by the same name over in the UK would cause — and still causes — bouts of confusion, but to my mind there’s only one Camera Obscura, and it’s the label.
And what releases! Looking back over them all, as one can do via the catalogue link on the label page, is to be gently amazed, memory after memory crowds in. Some releases were simply pleasant, others truly awe-inspiring, none, to my knowledge, a dud, though I won’t claim to have heard them all yet. As time went on I had the chance to talk about a number of them at the All Music Guide and elsewhere — perhaps I’ll created a small bibliography at some point — but I grew to look forward to seeing what else might be released, knowing that the logo was very much a mark of quality not to be denied. Sonically they could range from engaging post-sixties guitar pop to mystic, haunted folk that could seem centuries old to blasting afterburns of noise that felt like the exhaust of whatever rockets had launched off earth over the years. There wasn’t a Camera Obscura sound but a bunch of sounds — GREAT sounds.
And, for that matter, great people, many great people. Over the years, as I attended a steady stream of Terrastock festivals, shows that grew out of Ptolemaic Terrascope’s worldwide community of bands, fans and more, I had a chance to meet, either in passing or as the beginning of longer friendships, so many of the bands and musicians that had released things on Camera Obscura. Without putting any of them on pedestals, I can’t say I recall a bad experience in the bunch — it’s a rare thing in music, in life, where so many people whose work you admire turn out to be good eggs in general. Just this year I’ve been hanging out with many of them on my journey to the East Coast — Jesse, Kris, Dan, Joe, Brendan — and been in contact with many others online.
I don’t recall meeting Tony directly at the first Terrastock festival I attended, the second, held in San Francisco — others very clearly remember him, though, his energy, his friendliness and his sheer joy to be seeing so many acts he loved. It wasn’t until the fourth festival in Seattle in 2000 that I definitely met him and Carol and hung out with him and others at many points, and while my impressions are scattershot after a decade’s passing I recall wry and witty discussions as well as being up for experimenting with the area’s cuisine. We definitely ended up at a Tibetan restaurant at the U-District where my friend Rob Morgan of the Squirrels joined us, and where he provided a tape copy of his band’s fractured take on Christmas carols. I will forever treasure the reaction of Tony to hearing what sounded like Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” turn out to be a combination of a performance of that while Rob sang “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” to it. I don’t think he stopped laughing — in shocked delight — for a while.
That was the one and only time I got to spend time with him — my visit to Australia in 2002 was for only a couple of days in Melbourne and I’ve not returned since — so every very irregular conversation that followed was at a distance and most often as part of a larger online group. He struggled, and freely admitted struggling, with the impact of what the Net meant to recording and releasing music, appreciative of the opportunities but saddened and frustrated with what it did with his business; even so he kept on, working with newer acts or established ones who knew that his label really was a sign of quality and distinction, not something to be taken lightly. Again, I speak not meaning to make him into a plaster saint, but it was hard, from my position, to see him as anything less than, truly, one of the good guys, straight up.
The shadow of death had already touched the Camera Obscura world before now — Jason DiEmilio, the powerful player behind the epic Azusa Plane, one of the most creative acts in this modern take on whatever psychedelia could come to mean, and who had put out the second ever release on the label, Tycho Magnetic Anomaly, sadly passed some years back after his battles with hearing loss had crushed his spirit, a true tragedy. But now that Tony has passed, something truly final has occurred, something that seems so strange and wrong, but something that Tony approached with his humor, his good grace.
Earlier this year, he made the decision to wrap up Camera Obscura, formally unwinding it and closing it in order for it not to be a burden on his family, to settle tax issues as well (the Australian tax year concludes on June 30) and to underscore the fact that all things must indeed pass. It must have seemed so strange to him, but he made clear in the announcement to his many friends worldwide that it was all for the best from his perspective as well as for Carol’s — not all of us get the chance to both see something in and conclude it on one’s own terms, however dictated by larger circumstance. He had fought in previous years with cancer and it had gone into remission, but when it came back, the sense that this was going to be it seemed clear. To have been able to deal with it as he did is truly a remarkable feat, and sets an example, noting how he planned on continuing to take it all in as he could — I remember he mentioned not a couple of months ago that he was looking forward to catching up with an episode of Glee. That is the voice of someone who hadn’t stopped and wasn’t going to — not until it was no longer possible.
One other thing, though, to be said, which says so much about Tony and those he inspired — something private but at the same time something that I think needs to be said, and I hope I am not breaking a trust in discussing this; I was but a silent witness to its creation. Some months ago, as things began to be clear that there simply wouldn’t be much time left, there was discussion of a possible gift for him among many of the musicians who had worked with and loved, a way to let him know, so far away from most of them as he was, just how much he was appreciated, valued, loved. That turned into one of the most selfless things I think I’ve ever been a witness to, a creation of a festival show that wasn’t a festival show as we might all know it, but a festival show by remote recording, for one audience member. Bands gathered together in preferred spots, rehearsal spaces or whatever was most handy, set up video cameras and each performed a set of whatever struck their fancy, for someone they knew would want to see them doing whatever made them happiest, performing the music that drove and inspired him and them. The recordings were collated and shipped in batches to Australia for Tony to enjoy at his leisure and as time allowed — a salute from around the world to a remarkable man.
Few would have deserved such an honor more than Tony Dale. No question that he deserved it to the full.
RIP sir. Rest well.
(Photo of Carol and Tony taken from the Perfect Sound Forever interview with Tony from 2003.)
[UPDATE: at the kind request of Windy Weber, I wrote a formal obituary for Tony for Brainwashed.com.
All of it grand.]