About the only time Jim Gustafson stops smiling is when he gets his hair caught in his pants. Otherwise, life is good for the self-professed "wizard of psych." His records regularly fetch $600 a pop, folks have been known to drive upwards of five hours just to get his autograph, and in the stoner-friendly psych-rock underground, his work is as beloved as the local Domino's delivery guy. Only when his three-foot-long mane gets caught in his trousers is the fun interrupted for this genial guitarist, who writes songs with titles like "I Partied With Cheech and Chong" and whose life seems to be taken from one of that duo's fancy-free films.
"Guess what?" Gustafson asked us recently, over the phone from his home in rural Vincent, Ohio. "Yesterday, Carvin Guitars told me they're giving me a free $2,000 guitar. They said they're going to put me in all their catalogs as a new endorser of the Alan Holdsworth model. The guy from the company told me that, out in California, everybody is saying that I am the godhead of the psych-guitar movement. I thought that was pretty funny."
In case you haven't picked up on it yet, Gustafson finds lots of things pretty funny. He seems to punctuate every other sentence with a hearty chuckle, and he has plenty of reasons to be in good spirits. As the driving force behind fabled Youngstown cult favorites Poobah, Gustafson is one of psychedelia's prime movers. The three albums that Poobah self-released, beginning with 1972's Let Me In, are fevered guitar workouts, equal parts bawdy jazz, esoteric blues, and molten metal. Years ahead of their time, they rank among the most prized vinyl one could ever come across.
"Their three albums that they released in the '70s -- in near-mint condition --are worth anything from $150 to $600," says Greg Loescher, editor of Goldmine, a publication for record collectors. "That's very impressive. When you get into that level of pricing, you're talking Elvis on Sun Records from the mid-'50s or rare Beatles on VP -- stuff like that. In that genre, there's kind of a limited number of bands that are really good, especially in the '70s -- that was mainly a '60s phenomenon -- that kind of helps boost up the collectability of the band."
Indeed, the website for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where Poobah will be performing on August 3 as part of the National Record Show, lists Poobah as the most collectible psych band in the world, while collector websites have elevated Poobah's third album, Steamroller, to "god" status.
By now, Gustafson is used to the acclaim. When Poobah debuted in Youngstown in the early '70s, while Gustafson was still in his teens, the band was instantly popular -- though this may have stunted Poobah's growth on a national level.
"When we became a huge hit in the Youngstown area, in our minds, we had made it," Gustafson says. "It didn't even occur to us to go to New York City to a major and tell them we were having this huge reaction, where National Record Mart sold 500 copies of our record in one day, and say, 'Hey, we got something here.' Instead, we sat around, took the money we got, and partied our butts off."
Since then, Poobah has played over 3,000 shows and toured with everybody from the Velvet Underground to Judas Priest. Still, the band has never escaped cult status and never put out a record on a real label. After inheriting some property in the early '80s, the financially secure Gustafson has never felt the need to seek out a record deal, preferring to record, produce, and release his CDs himself.
"My grandma gave me two acres of property out in the sticks," Gustafson says. "So I had a free house, and she gave me thousands of dollars and a business, too. I have a retail beer business. We've sold thousands and thousands -- probably ten thousand copies -- of Poobah CDs in that beer garden. You wouldn't believe how easy it is to sell to somebody who's had a six-pack."
In the past decade, Gustafson has put out six or seven discs -- he can't remember exactly how many -- and still plays out regularly, as his shows have become the stuff of legend among the psych-rock set.
"I had a fella tell me the other day after witnessing a show that the sounds that were coming from the stage actually made him feel like he was dreaming," Gustafson says.
With a career as fantastical as his, no doubt Gustafson can relate.