Vintage Rock t-shirts have always been a part of author and collector Stephen Voland’s life. From pouring over old pictures of his super cool rock and roll parents to fighting over first dibs on the black shirt section with his thrifting friends in Jr. High, it’s been Stephen’s passion for music history, foresight, and commitment to the hunt that has led to an insane amassment of vintage music t-shirts. I sat down with Stephen to talk about what gets him out there hunting, how vintage shirt popularity has changed the way he shops, and of course what’s the worst shirt stink he’s ever smelled.
So, Stephen, lockdown had everybody baking bread and making babies, you did something way harder than any of those things; you created a book about your amazing vintage music T-shirt collection. What was the inspiration behind that?
(at the start of Covid) I got let go from work, put on leave or whatever you want to call it and I couldn’t do anything and I couldn’t leave the house. I always had wanted to do a book and thought that’d be a great time to catalog my collection.
Over the years I’ve collected a lot of vintage t-shirt books. My mom, Donna, gave me my first (Rock Tease: The Golden Years of Rock T-shirts by Ed Chalfa) and it had all rock shirts, early rap, and hip hop. That was the real inspiration. Looking at the books I had in my collection thinking, that’d be cool to do one day- when would I ever have time to do that again? It took nearly 4 months working on it just about every day. It’s been printed and sold out twice already but I’ll probably print it again at some point.
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Oh, cool. I got an air fryer. So how did you even get interested in vintage t-shirts?
I’d be looking at pictures of my parents and seeing my dad and my mom wearing old rock shirts that had been gotten rid of over the years and I wanted to wear them and collect them.
I went to thrift stores a lot as a kid, as most broke families do. That’s really how it started. As I got older, I got more interested in music and I”d see things I was interested in on the shirt rack. My friends were into punk rock and hard rock so I’d see their cool shirts and bands they liked so I’d look for them at the thrift store. Most everything was about 1.67 so I just kept shopping and if I’d heard of the band, especially if it was bands I liked, I’d buy the shirt. I didn’t know what was vintage and actually old or really cared, this was the mid-2000’s so some of the shirts weren’t even that old at that point. It’d be a sprint with my friends to the black shirt section. I was the first of my friends to look at the ENTIRE rack, like the red section; oh that’s a Rage Against the Machine Shirt. I kept thrift store shirt shopping, old/new, and just kept stockpiling music shirts. By the time I moved out of my parents’ house in Maryland to NY my closet was full. I didn’t have a job yet so I figured, well not all these shirts I’ve collected fit me and I didn’t care about some of them so maybe they have some value and I can pay bills. The first shirts I sold off; 1987 Madonna shirt and a Nirvana Sliver from 91-92. I sold both of those for 40 bucks apiece. I thought, Oh yeah. I’m rich. I’m raking it in. I couldn’t believe I just sold those for 40 bucks! I started selling stuff like that and as I got to the end of my closet, I started going to thrift stores again and finding things to sell. When I first got to the city in 2012 I remember going to thrift stores and I found a Wutang shirt, a Cramps shirt, you could really find stuff. Then by 2015, I’d been going to so many vintage shops to sell one of them offered me a job and I went to work for them. That was my first real job in the city, working at Metropolis.
Your collection covers a lot of music genres, what’s the favorite wing of your closet?
Well, I don’t keep my shirts in a closet. I have the biggest Ikea record shelf you can find with my shirts neatly stacked. The rock stuff I love, the metal stuff, that’s what I liked first. But the things that mean the most to me are the blues shirts, the country, the things that there are less of out there tend to be something I go for more.
When you’re buying what do you think the hardest genre is to come by?
Funk, James Brown, Funkadelic, a Bootsy Collins shirt, Gap Band, I always think that stuff is super cool and so hard to find. You don’t see old Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, very often so I have less of those. I only have a few cubes of that on my shelf and the rest are metal and rock shirts. You see Rollings Stones shirts every day. Shirts you see less often are more impactful.
I have a personal list of the hardest band shirts to search for online, what’s yours and we both know it’s Japan. This isn’t a question.
Gap (the clothing store) has made “band” shirts over the years so The Gap Band, that’s a stupid shirt to search for but I finally recently found one. America is pretty hard and X. X didn’t always have the same imagery and sometimes used a lot of colors but nothing telling you it’s the band. Especially in the 90s, you’re looking at it thinking is this even the band?
I know you wear your shirts, what are the favorites in the rotation right now?
So many I’ve gotten recently! It comes in waves. I have a really nice faded-out 78 Kiss bootleg. I’m loving. I’ve gotten so many Grateful Dead shirts recently. I can’t fit into every tiny 70s shirt. I get a lot of new shirts too because it’s fun, Hey! A good shirt is a good shirt! I’m wearing an 89-90 King Diamond shirt today to hang around the house.
With t-shirts in general really overwhelming and taking center stage in the vintage community has that changed the way you shop? What about the way you sell?
There used to be a few young people and mostly older folks in the thrift store- now it seems like a lot of young women digging around the men’s section. So I do the women’s section first if I see them. You gotta look at every corner of every rack. We all have our systems. The biggest change is the way I shop is no longer leisurely. There really isn’t a lot of vintage clothing anymore. For the most part for my reselling, I keep the actual vintage shirts for my collection and I sell the newer band shirts. You’re not going to find a Poison shirt on the racks anymore. It’s different. It used to be more fun but now it’s competition and all that fast fashion stuff is filling up the racks. I buy pretty much all my real vintage shirts online from the usual avenues and also trading with other collectors.
Here it’s a lot of young guys or just young people, in general, trying to avoid “Fast Fashion.”
It’s still all the same fast fashion, they are just buying it now second-hand. Other than that you’ll see someone leaving behind a 90s band shirt that’s double-stitched just because it’s double stitched. Ok, fine for me. It’s turned into if it’s a single stitch shirt, good print, good tag the value is more. Same graphic, same shirt, double stitching not worth as much. Or like if a rarer band, like an old rockabilly artist people aren’t always looking for, if it’s for auction it won’t go for much, sometimes only a few bucks, but if a buyer puts it at a buy it now because it’s so rare they’ll get 150 for it. There just isn’t always enough people looking for the same items to bid it up to its actual value so the prices are arbitrary.
You are out there, hunting. Without giving too much away, what’s the greatest length you’ve gone for a shirt?
I don’t pester people or be like I need that right now. If I’m going to get one, I’ll get one one day. Probably the biggest risk I’ve taken is I sent a check for $500.00 to a guy on Craigslist. I called him, it was out of Craigslist Manhattan, I talked to the guy on the phone. He had some great stories and he said send me a $500 check and I’ll send you the shirt in the mail. I sent the check right away then it hit me, what have I done? It was a scary few
days but I did get the shirt in the mail but that was probably the biggest risk I’ve taken.
I’m a little removed from his story but I was the middle man for a pretty extreme t-shirt deal. Someone called the vintage store I was working at and I answered the phone and a guy said he had 1,000 music shirts. He had been walking by a house they had been clearing out and got into a dumpster that was about 6-700 really good thrash, punk and crossover bands. Ramones, Death, Cro-Mags. Other crazy shirts too, and even some country ones that I ended up buying. The house owner had also owned a venue where these bands played and just had shirts from pretty much every band that came through that venue. Records too but they had been rained on. The length this finder went of dragging all the bags home, cleaning the shirts, hanging them up in his basement. It was crazy! I wish there was documentation of him finding and saving all these great shirts.
I know whatever we can picture in our heads isn’t nearly as good as what it actually looked like. That’s like a once find, not even once in a lifetime, it’s in all our lifetimes.
It was nearly a thousand shirts. I wish I had pictures of it and with it, I mean that’s never going to happen again. Just envisioning the dumpster with just bags and bags of band shirts and here comes some junker peeking in the garbage can. This guy struck gold.
So besides a dumpster full of shirts, what’s at the top of your wishlist right now?
I’m always looking for Grateful Dead, Grateful Dead shirts are often passed on or given to younger people in the scene and some of the older people are figuring out the value of them now and are less apt to donate. One of the best thrift stories I have is in the mid-2000’s me and my friends racing to the rack, and we see a rack being pushed out. All tie-dye. All late 80s, early 90s Dead shirts. Me and my friends bought like 25-30. Those shirts were maybe only 10 years old at that point but now to find something like that some thrift kid would be laying on the ground in front of the rack posing for photos and it would be Instagram stories for months. I’m really into classic metal stuff too, they are just expensive. I’m pretty thrifty with shirts and I’m willing to wait for a deal or a good trade. Other than that I can’t really tell you, I know it when I see it.
We all have a story, what is the worst smelling shirt you’ve ever found?
Sometimes you get the body odor ones, the ones that are worn out, or the ones that feel strange and it’s a saturated dirt feeling. They are really heavy, they hold water a different way and you have to soak them. Sometimes you get a new old one and it’s off-gassing all these chemicals from the ink and they can smell even worse. I had a cat food shirt from the 80s, it was brand new and I washed it and all the laundry smelled like it. It had like a mothball smell plus it wasn’t worn and the ink smelled so bad. The magic of Oxyclean.
And finally Stephen, just thanks so much for sharing with us! Your collection and shirt knowledge is just incredible. I love following you on Instagram because you just continually show off that cream of the crop stuff and you have such a passion for the history of these shirts. You have a really great eye and then some. Speaking of having a great eye, let’s wrap up with you telling us about Silver Machine Vintage;
I’m selling out of the Newburgh Vintage Emporium Ware-House in Newburgh, NY. You can follow @silvermachinevintageco on Instagram to get a better feel but it’s a lot of shirts, other clothing, collectibles, records, housewares all curated by me. I also sell online and often do Instagram story sales for my followers.
Here are some other relics of rock n roll Stephen has stashed:
Vintage 1956 Elvis T-Shirt
I purchased this from a person who sold antique furniture. Somehow they had this mixed in!
Vintage 1969 Woodstock Crew T-Shirt
I worked out a deal with a favorite collector of mine so I could add this one to my collection. I happily wore it to the 50th-anniversary concerts on the original Woodstock grounds in 2019.
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Vintage 1960s Murray the K Submarine Race Watchers T-Shirt
Murray was a popular DJ in NYC and put on lots of rock n roll shows in Brooklyn. This one was originally owned by Ozzie Ahlers who was a part of the Shirell touring band and went on the join the Jerry Garcia Band in 1979.
Vintage 1969 Ten Years After T-Shirt
Another one from a favorite collector. Originally owned by TYA bassist Leo Lyons.
Vintage 1973 Bob Dylan T-Shirt
A local NYC homie hooked it up after he found this at a Long Island estate sale. Forever grateful!
Vintage 1968/69 Fillmore East Jersey
I was at work and this one came in right off the street. The owner (not originally owned by him) was working in a book about NYC and had bought it just to take photos of it. I happily bought it right on the spot!
Vintage 1989 Ramones Brain Drain Euro Tour T-Shirt
Gifted to me from a Ramones roadie. Legends tell that Johnny Ramone himself cut the sleeves off this shirt from him. He apparently was really good at it
Amy Scott lives in Portland Oregon with her lifelong T-shirt collection and will never go thrifting with you so don’t ask. Her hobbies include embarrassing her family and wishing a person/people would. She is a certified Haiku Master with her Dragnet and Adam-12 themed poetry being published domestically.