school days with steve albini. part four.

Little things can turn out to be important. You read an article or meet someone at a party or pick up an old book or hear a song. Someone offers the merest kind word when you’re down, or an everyday encounter opens your eyes to suffering in others. You change your mind, or your major, or your priorities; open your heart, your wallet, your home; take a chance, take a look at yourself or the world differently, take a small measure of confidence or courage or new interest — and you’re not the same.

This is in part why I am writing these pieces, and many to follow. I feel considerable gratitude for a great number of small things, especially in my youth, that turned out to be gifts in one way or another – even when I didn’t see them that way at the time. They turned out to matter. This includes the little things I received from the people I see every day, as well as the people I knew growing up. It includes a guy I knew more than thirty years ago named Steve Albini.

#4 Share your talent and encourage others.

Steve was one of those people I knew from time to time growing up who completely baffled me: they were good at stuff.

I wasn’t good at stuff. Or at least I was pretty convinced I wasn’t.

But Steve. For crying out loud. Steve was good at a lot of stuff. The longer I knew him, the more stuff I realized he could do, and he acquitted himself fairly at all of them, and some of them he was, as I say, actually good at. At least in my youthful eyes he was.

The first time I saw Steve was in the fall of 1978, my freshman year. Steve played Snoopy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. His performance, energetic, gymnastic and funny, was the highlight of the show. Good at comic acting: check.

As Snoopy, 1978

The first time I spoke with Steve was at in the summer of 1979 at the Western Montana State Fair. I already knew him as the editorial page editor for the Hellgate newspaper, the Lance – and as Snoopy – but hadn’t met him. By this time Steve was the guy, more than any other, who impressed me with his obvious talent and iconoclastic attitude. I was thinking, “This guy is something else. I should meet him.”

At the fair he was manning a booth for the photo store he worked at. Among the matted prints on display were a few he had taken. At least one of them later showed up in the school literary magazine, the Troubadour. Good at photography: check.

I engaged him about music, since he wrote surprisingly strong opinions in his song reviews. I thought I’d ask about the singer who was currently my favorite.

“What do you think of Billy Joel?”

“Not bad for a barroom singer.” End of conversation. That’s the problem hanging around an iconoclast: sooner or later your icon is clast.

Good at forming strong opinions on most everything: check.

The next time I had a meaningful encounter with Steve was in the fall, after I had started Journalism 1 in the classroom adjacent to the Lance office. At that time the juniors and seniors who made up the staff were still deciding which of the J1 students they could stand being around. The jury was still out on me.

I was sitting in the cafeteria one day, when an assemblage of ruffians grabbed Steve and duct-taped him into a chair. They wrapped tape around his torso and arms and the back of the chair, and taped is legs to the legs of the chair. It was obviously a preplanned attack. They all had a good laugh and walked away. I stood up and walked toward him. He was helpless, and had been left in the middle of the walkway just inside one of the entrances. In other words, people had to walk around him, and they did. To my amazement, nobody helped him.

This was was all due to Steve’s unpopularity throughout the school. And that was due mostly to one column he wrote: a review of a Boston concert, possibly the most popular concert  among teens in Missoula the whole time we were in high school. Steve wrote that the show was was boring, which infuriated Hellgate students who had attended it, and the Lance received angry letters about it for months. Good at arousing anger in mass numbers: check. Good at self defense: no.

Troy Deckert, Lance editor and Steve’s friend, went for help or scissors or something, leaving Steve alone. I walked over to Steve and said, “Want some help?”

“Sure.” He said nothing while I untaped him.

“Thanks,” he said, and walked away.

* * *

The Lance staff, and to lesser degree, J1, were seen by outside students as something of a clique. We denied it, but it was partially true: there was a clique within the journalism classes. I perceived there was an inner circle on the staff, that Steve was in it, and I wanted in. I was hoping to make a good impression.

There was a wall between the office and the classroom. It divided J1 and J2. There were two possible ways for me to get noticed. From the start of the year, we were required to submit critiques of every issue of the Lance. We turned in each issue of the paper, marked up with our comments and corrections. I decided to announce my arrival with my first critique: I filled very bit of white space in the margins and gutters with my somewhat surreal or goofy humor, and some stream-of-consciousness ramblings mostly unrelated to the paper. I drew little cartoons. It was weird. It was me.

The second way to get noticed came later in the year, when we started submitting our assignments for possible publication. But that would have to wait. When our first critiques had been seen by the staff, they were handed back to us. Mine had a note to Mr. Seitz stapled to it.

“Of all the critiques I saw, this is the only one that showed any creativity or original thought. I look forward to seeing what he can contribute. Steve”

That was exactly what I was hoping for, but I didn’t expect to hear back. That it came from Steve elated me.

* * *

It was Steve’s senior year. In the summer he went to Boy’s State. He was on the Lance, in Drama Club, Student Senate, and Model United Nations; contributed poetry and fiction and photos to the Troubadour; scored as a National Merit Semi-Finalist and was in the Top Twenty of his class. I once saw a research paper he wrote lying around the Lance office. It looked to me like college work. On top of all this, someone in a car smashed his leg when he was on his motorcycle, and he started a punk band. Good at looking good on college applications: check. Time management: check. Making the best of what were probably the worst four years of his life: check.

Unpublished cartoon from Steve’s notebook.

Steve now had a different position on the Lance staff, that of In-Depth Editor. Karen Moulding had taken over as Editorial Page Editor. I think this was a position created for (or by) Steve to give him the latitude to use his eclectic writing and drawing talent. Seriously, Steve was good at everything he did on the paper. He wrote music reviews, in-depth reporting (I especially remember a two-page spread he did on teen suicide), a regular column, and drew cartoons. He called his column Paparazzo. While the term paparazzi had entered the English language, it was not as widely known as it became in the 80s.

“What does Paparazzo mean?” I asked.

He replied, “It’s Italian for an annoying buzzing insect.”

“Oh,” I said, “that’s you.”

I submitted some humor columns, before I had a staff position, under the title Guinea Pig Bones, which derived from a song a friend of mine made up when I was probably ten or eleven. But I decided on a self-referential name like Steve’s and changed it to Nowhere Man.

Toward the end of the school year, J1 students applied for the staff positions they wanted the following year, with a first, second and third choice. I can only remember my first: Editorial Page Editor. The graduating seniors on staff would decide in a closed meeting on staff assignments. My friend Dave Larson, a junior, and I were selected as co-editors of the editorial pages. I was interested in three things: I wanted to write lead editorials and my Nowhere Man column, and draw cartoons.

As the year progressed and I put some of my endeavors forward, my confidence as a writer was developing. But as a cartoonist, I knew I had severe limitations. Steve gave me some basic pointers. He talked to me about pens, what to use for what, how to hold them when drawing. He gave me the idea of using brushes as well. He suggested I use better paper than the typing paper from school I was using. He told me I should practice tone-building patterns (such as cross-hatching) and gave me a sheet with with different patterns to try. Last of all he gave me a couple of books on cartooning technique. One of them was excellent and I kept it for years. I wish I still had it; I’ve never found one that matched it.

I was never a great cartoonist, (in fact, if hurried, my drawing was awful) but all of these things made a noticeable improvement in my drawing and gave me confidence to try new things. I had always been a doodler, and especially liked to make my friends laugh with funny pictures. But I had never gotten more satisfaction from it than I did when I started to do it with a little more skill and assurance.

This was also the first time that I found myself getting anywhere through practice. I quit wrestling during my second season in part because I was defeated in every match but one and wasn’t improving. I started that year with next to zero self-confidence in anything I did. At the same time J1 was pointing me to some stuff I might be good at. Working at something – like drawing or writing – and getting better at it was a small revelation to me.

Steve Albini had talent. But not everyone who has talent develops it and exhibits what they can do in a way that others can see and enjoy and criticize. Some people certainly thought Steve, like a lot of us when we were young, just wanted attention, negative or otherwise. But I don’t think that’s fair. Hellgate High School, like every other, was a hive of teenagers, and who would blame anybody for just hiding out for four years, rather than expose oneself to the hormonal mob? Steve was Steve. Steve was a writer of in-depth reporting, opinion, poetry, short stories and songs. Steve was a photographer, an artist, an actor, a raconteur*, a scholar and a punk rocker. He was being himself. He didn’t hide. Me, I was going to hide, but Steve is the person who gave me the idea of not hiding out for four years, so I didn’t.

(Since then he has shown himself good at other stuff: recording records, giving interviews, poker and cooking, to name just a few.)

Understand, this is not gushing over him. He wasn’t Leonardo da Vinci. He wasn’t my hero, or even a role model. However it does help to explain why I remember so much about him, and why I still appreciate what he meant to me at the time.

* * *

There were times I was annoying or obnoxious. Steve too. There was a time or two I got mad at Steve, and I know I got on his nerves occasionally, but I did consider him a friend. We had a more than a dozen friends in common. We went to a lot of the same parties. We went to see some shows together, including Cheap Trick. I remember sitting next to him when a bunch of us went to see Quadrophenia, and Steve having to explain to me the setting of the movie. We went to The Rocky Horror Picture Show a half-dozen times. On top of that, there were the little gestures I just described. And there are a few other episodes better left unpublished.

But the real mark of friendship in my mind is the Friday night at the beginning of summer that Steve called me up to go catch a movie. He picked me up, we went and saw, from start to finish, one of the most pestilent and egregious movies of all time, and afterward he dropped me home. I suppose it was friendship, or companionship at least — or perhaps it was really just the boredom you experience living in a small Rocky Mountain town while deep in your core the Windy City and the Crash of a Thousand Guitars is calling you by name.

Maybe knowing what the movie was will provide a clue.


part one.   part two.    part three.
_______
*Steve can tell a story, and otherwise verbally engross an audience. To watch a video that perfectly captures his style, then and now, go here.

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