Saturday, June 29, 2024

Steve Albini and I

This is not another one of my profiles of Christians. Indeed, the final song on his Shellac album that was released just after he died on May 7 was titled “I Don’t Fear Hell.” Nevertheless, he was a compelling person.  

After Steve Albini died, I wanted to share my experiences with him, mostly from 40 years ago. Looking back, he seems so different than the Steve of recent years. What I did begin to see was that, in contrast to the attitudes of many today, people can be redeemed. I don’t mean in the Christian sense, but who am I to judge? 

I’m not qualified to write an obituary of Steve, nor can I claim him as a true friend. Many people who only superficially encountered him or his music tended to avoid him back in the day. He could be abrasive. And offensive. And not just to afflict the powerful. Punching up, but also down and sideways. Back then, I had tried to understand how deep that abrasive front was. And now I want to understand how that changed.

Why did I befriend such a person? My wife might say that I want everyone to like me, so I was working on getting him to like me. Neil Steinberg says he felt that Steve wanted people to hate him, so, he wouldn’t give Steve that pleasure, and instead was nice to him.

Steve Albini is very important to a certain group of hardcore punk fans. I had some experience with the punk movement back in the late 1970s and early 80s. My brother Nathan started one of the first punk bands in my hometown, Washington, DC. Ian MacKaye went to my high school, and Henry Rollins (né Garfield) was also around. (For my recollections of that time, see “Punk Turns 60” in Related Links below.) At Northwestern University, I was in a band (The Front Lines) that covered some punk songs, but many other songs as well.

When I first met Steve at Northwestern, I was working at The Comp Shop in the Norris University Center (student union), where The Daily Northwestern was composed. We also did other work for students, such as resume typesetting and photo enlarging. I was a junior in the fall of 1980, and Steve was a freshman. He wanted a reduction of a drawing he had done, and I happened to be the one to interact with him. He found our prices somewhat too high, and we debated the finer points of non-profit versus not-for-profit enterprises. Nevertheless, I didn't set the prices. His drawing was leaning to the style of Ralph Steadman if I recall correctly. He was definitely talented, and I would see more of his work later, as would readers of the Daily Northwestern.  

The next time I remember seeing him, he was playing a bass, which was duct-taped to his belt (or where a belt would be) instead of using a strap, outside on the Northwestern University lakefront, northeast of Norris Center. He was playing with a band which included Bob Orlowsky (a WNUR DJ) and the band’s name was - I would only recently find out - Small Irregular Pieces of Aluminum. They played a song I knew by The Stranglers, “Hanging Around,” and Bob would mime being crucified. I thought, is that what this song is about? 

Meanwhile, there was another NU band whose bass player liked to wear a “Punk Rock Sucks” T-shirt with a cartoonish screaming punk singer on it. I, on the other hand, appreciated punk as a musical genre or defiant statement, but it never became a way of life for me.

Sometime later, at an NU off-campus party, we discussed music. He said he wasn't a Beatles fan (maybe he said he hated them), but I listed some songs I thought he might like, given his taste. He admitted that he did like "I'm Down." I already knew he didn't like The Front Lines (“unoriginal” he wrote in the Daily Northwestern), but he said Sam Fishkin played him our first demo tape, which he did like. Sam had engineered our first demo, our 4-song E.P. and our single. Indeed, Sam had toured with The Front Lines as sound engineer in July of 1981, for seven dates out east. In 1982, Sam helped Steve record Lungs as Big Black by lending him a 4-track tape deck. 

I only vaguely remember Steve’s Big Black gig at the Paradise shack at Northwestern. I think he was playing loud distorted electric guitar by himself with a drum machine or tapes. Steve asked me after performing whether a certain young woman had shown up, but I didn’t know her, nor did I see any likely candidate. I vaguely remember him smoking Kretek “clove” cigarettes. Maybe not, but there was a subculture at NU that smoked them.

I would run across Steve from time to time in Norris. In May of 1982, he handed me an invitation that said “Throw Things at Steve Albini.” He said it was for an art class “performance art” assignment, and that he hated performance art.  

Invitation as it appeared in The Daily Northwestern on May 4, 1982

I had an idea almost immediately. Earlier that year, wandering home through an alley near the Evanston duplex I shared, I found a decrepit classical guitar sticking out of a trash can. Finders, keepers! I took it in hopes that I would find a use for it, maybe smash it on stage someday.

That Friday (May 7), I brought it to work at the Comp Shop. From some of the windows there on the 3rd floor, I could see Steve and some buddies out back, setting up the acrylic “glass” framed like a door with 2x4s, based on perpendicular boards. The next time I looked though, there was a hole in the acrylic, and it wasn’t even time to start. I went out to ask what happened. Someone told me the first test was a grapefruit and it went right through the acrylic sheet. (I recently read Steve’s Daily Northwestern article of May 12, which stated that the first object was a bowling pin, which did indeed make a hole.)

I went back upstairs and got the guitar, which was still in one piece but not playable. Back on the lawn, I waited in line for my turn. Someone threw a baby chick, which someone else rescued. When my turn came, I hurled the guitar which, not having the heft of a solid-body electric, didn’t even make it to the base of the structure. I ran up, grabbed the guitar by the neck like an axe (like Townsend, Hendrix, and Simonon before me), and smashed it on the base of the structure, and tossed it through the already gaping hole in the acrylic. As I did this, Steve says “No cheating!” Cheating? What are rules to you, Steve? Anyway, I had no effect on the structure.

All in all, it was the best performance art piece I have ever seen or heard of.

Aftermath of the art. It's not quite a Christ-like pose. You can see my guitar neck in the lower right.  Photo courtesy Lori Montgomery.

In my senior year, I took two consecutive art classes with Ed Paschke. The first was Intermediate Painting, for which I had no collegiate experience, just high school art class. But I had a desire to learn from Ed Paschke, whose art I was familiar with, and an elective to fill. The second was Advanced Drawing, which I did better in than the painting class. Steve (then a sophomore) was in both classes.

Both classes were in studios, not classrooms. A lot of time in each class was devoted to discussion about art while sitting or working in front of our easels: creativity, styles of painting or drawing, improvisation or inspiration versus planning or purpose. Paschke led the class like a Socratic Mister Rogers, asking questions, gently guiding discussion, but not dictating or demanding assent. Sometimes it seemed like it was a friendly debate between Steve and me (the biggest mouths in the class) with Paschke moderating.

The Advanced Drawing class was more active. For example, there were a couple of assignments involving random chance. One involved starting with something random, then building upon it. I shook a can of Coke and let it spray on some drawing paper. After it dried, I used that as a basis for an alien planet landscape, in pencil.

Later in the quarter, Paschke invited the class down to his art studio in Chicago, on Howard Street. Sitting around with refreshments, we discussed planning versus improvising in art. Steve took up the improvised side. Paschke asked Steve if he preferred films directed by Robert Altman or Alfred Hitchcock. Steve said he hated Altman and loved Hitchcock. Paschke said that Altman was known for encouraging actors to improvise, while Hitchcock was known for storyboarding every shot. I think Steve was speechless. He may have been reassessing his opinion.

At one off-campus party we were both at – I think it was June 1982 because I remember Joe Jackson’s Night and Day album was playing – we discussed his unrequited affection for a female classmate. It was a remarkably normal conversation. 

Though I graduated shortly thereafter, I didn’t go far from NU. I continued living in Evanston until moving to Chicago in 1984 and worked in Evanston even longer. Still there in the summer of 1982, Steve asked to borrow $20 from me, partially to see The Gang of Four, which I was also going to, at Stages (a.k.a. Metro) in Chicago, on July 23, 1982. Sara Lee played bass and they had a back-up singer, touring to support the album Songs of the Free. Steve repaid the loan and gave me two cassette tapes: “Big Black songs 3-82/5-82” and The Cure, Pornography b/w "Dance or Die" mix. He wrote a long positive review of the concert for The Summer Northwestern on July 30, 1982.

In 1983 and 1984, we were both writing for the indie fanzine Matter: a music magazine, so I have some copies of it. Among the many harsh criticisms of bands, fans, and music scenes you might expect, there are occasional “homo” insults in his column, Tired of Ugly Fat? For example, “The Cure gave us Pornography [album] and a lovely live single, then went homo in a big way with the abysmal single ‘Let’s Go to Bed.’” (Matter No. 2). In Matter No. 5, he defended some transgressive bands:

“a joke’s a joke and nobody – not the anti-obscenity league, and certainly not some weekend punk philosopher – is going to call some of them off bounds. No rules means no rules.
     “That’s not to say that disgusto humor is the only answer, or that all disgusto humor is cool. In fact, I’m not crazy about a good deal of it, but if it’s funny or makes a point, it would be stupid to write it off because it doesn’t conform to somebody’s idea of acceptability.”

Around this time, I ran into Steve in Norris Center and he told me his second Big Black record would be titled “Hey N*gg*r.” Are you serious?!  He says “It’s not me saying it. It’s Bob and Billy Six-Pack.” So it’s supposed to be social commentary, not racist? I say, “Well, I wouldn’t blame some black guy for punching you in the face.” He considered it, and said, “I can see that.” Well, he didn’t title it that, but according to Wikipedia, his bandmates convinced him not to. The title became “Bulldozer” instead. I didn’t think he was serious, but thought he was just testing me: Would I be offended, or would I agree, or what would I say?

But Steve was beginning to listen to his critics. In Matter No. 8, in response to a letter to the editor criticizing his “hetero-white-boy smug bullshit”, Albini responds, “Several people have brought to my attention how much overt fag baiting I’ve been doing. Having re-read much of what I’ve written, I have to agree. That’s not why I do this, and I don’t want it to appear that way. It takes letters like yours to make people like me rethink old habits.”

I’m reminded of a discussion I had with someone else about a work colleague at that time. We mused over how much intolerance we should tolerate. How intolerant should we be of the intolerant? Today, many people act as though the answers are easy, but in the early 1980s it wasn’t that way. Reagan was president, the Moral Majority was ascendant, hardcore punk was still underground, and rap had only begun to take shape.

Steve in the 1984 Syllabus NU yearbook.
Before selfies, the yearbook had a wired remote camera feature called "Shoot Yourself."  

In the same yearbook, some 1984 Comp Shop staff: Kier, Lucille, Melanie, and Sheena.

I had not thought of Steve for some years, and not spoken to him in decades, then watched Sonic Highways, the 2015 HBO series featuring Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters in eight different cities (primarily because my brother was in the DC episode). In the Chicago episode, we find Steve, now married, somewhat mellower, running a beautiful recording studio that he built, and making money playing competitive poker. Albini had recorded In Utero with Nirvana (which included Dave Grohl as drummer) in 1993, famously forgoing producer royalties as he always did, charging a flat fee as an engineer. I already knew that. It showed him to be iconoclastic, serious, and principled, as well as famous. In 1995, Steve bought the building that would become Electrical Audio, which opened for business in 1997.

In the Sonic Highways episode, a couple of people recall the earlier Steve as a “cynical prick.” Former Big Black member and Naked Raygun singer Jeff Pezatti said, especially regarding Steve’s non-producer ethics, that Steve was “very righteous… to a fault.” LCD Soundsystem singer James Murphy tells how when he started in Brooklyn, no recording studio wanted to help him, so he wrote a letter to Albini asking how to create a recording studio. Steve responded with detailed instructions including diagrams of room acoustics, the generosity of which surprised Murphy, then an unknown. Another musician says that everything used to be black and white with Steve; now there’s some gray. Yet another says, “Now Steve can say ‘love.’”

By this time, I had become a Christian. I got the idea that it would be ironic to have a song I wrote recorded at Electrical Sound as performed by a gospel band. What I didn’t yet know is that Christian punk bands had already been recorded by Steve.

In March of 2021, I read a piece in Rolling Stone about a cat that Steve had taken a liking to. He wrote the introduction to a book about Lil Bub the cat (see Related Links, below). Reading that introduction and trying to ascribe it to the Steve of the 1980s is impossible. He had certainly matured. (Watching the Sonic Highways segment again, I noticed that he has Lil Bub with him in one shot.)

His wife, Heather Whinna, co-directed a documentary about Christian punk music, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? She started the Letters to Santa program for Poverty Alleviation Chicago and in 2002 organized an annual 24-hour marathon Christmas benefit music and improv comedy concert with Steve, featuring the likes of Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. She had to have been part of his evolution.

In September of 2021, Neil Steinberg (my roommate freshman and sophomore year and friend ever since) called me from his car. He now writes for the Chicago Sun-Times (not to mention a daily blog and nine books). He just had to tell me what Steve had said about me in an interview he had just finished. After Neil told Steve he was my roommate at NU… here’s the transcript:

Steve: Kier Strejcek is actually an important musical figure. His brother, Nathan Strejcek was in The Teen Idles with Ian MacKaye who later started Minor Threat and Fugazi.

Neil: Can I tell him you said that?

Steve: He knows that. It’s his brother.

Neil: No, that he’s an important musical figure.

Steve: He was revered. He was the big brother, well literally, to the hardcore punks in Washington, DC who started a movement. He was sort of seen as the older brother who knew... he learned to play guitar before everybody else. He was in bands before everybody else. He moved away, he had a band when he moved out here. He’s a seminal though not necessarily critical figure."

Neil: He’s a nice guy.

Steve: A super nice guy. He worked at the print shop as well.

Okay, I believe that he said I was a nice guy. I did lend him money. But I seriously doubt that anyone was or is revering me back in DC. I was there in April and not one person showed me reverence. I would think Glenn Kowalski (in the band White Boy) might have been more “seminal.” At least I was in a band with him. Actually, if you ask me, The Razz and The Slickee Boys were proto-punk in DC. Steve did not get this idea from me. Maybe from Ian MacKaye? I doubt it. From some of the multitude of punk and other musicians who he has recorded? Maybe he connected the dots himself. When I first met him, The Teen Idles didn’t yet exist. It is true that The Front Lines, the band to which Steve referred, had already been covering some punk songs in our repertoire. I decided to call Steve. 

I called him after first looking at the Electrical Audio website and the whole studio environment which is beautiful. I told him I didn’t think of myself as the older brother of DC punk. He said he thought I was “patient zero” for punk in DC. I decided not to strenuously argue the point. If he wanted to believe that, it was all right by me. We chatted about ancient history briefly. I asked about the studios. He said he would only record in the analog studio, but there is also a digital studio. I asked about timing, both how far into the future they were booked, and how the days went there (from 10 or noon up to 10 hours), and they charge per day (not hourly). We both had to get back to work, and we never spoke again.

I had hoped to record at least one specific song there (not the aforementioned gospel song), maybe next year. Now it would have to be without him, unfortunately. Writing this piece, I kept wishing he was around to verify my recollections.

I see in Steve Albini artistic self-reliance and self-confidence, even in the face of daunting opposition. I see success as defined by the person, even in the face of social and economic pressure. He was a standard-bearer for DIY bands and the rights of musicians against record companies. We also see someone whose words (and some actions) needlessly antagonized, offended, or hurt people. Yet he seemed to have confessed and repented of many of the hurtful things. Some of us need more of that courage, and yet more of us need that humility.

Related Links

My blog about my brother Nathan: Punk Turns 60:

The Guardian, Aug 15, 2023: The evolution of Steve Albini: ‘If the dumbest person is on your side, you’re on the wrong side’

Neil Steinberg, Chicago Sun-Times on Steve Albini:

·       ‘I want the music to survive’ Sept 6, 2021

·       ‘Success means I get to do it again tomorrow’ Sept 8, 2021

·       Steve Albini: The last genuine punk rocker May 9, 2024

·       “I’m a weirdo; all my friends are weirdos” — more from Steve Albini May 14, 2024

Rolling Stone, Mar 23, 2021: Read Steve Albini’s Tribute to Lil Bub in New Book, Lil Bub: The Earth Years

Chicago Magazine, 1994: Steve Albini and the Life of the Iconoclast

Matthew Smith-Lahrman interview of Steve, 1993

New York Times, May 8, 2024: Steve Albini, Studio Master of ’90s Rock and Beyond, Dies at 61

The Front Lines: For details, see

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