Laugh Your Life | Part One

Dear Steve, Happy Valentine's Day! I couldn't resist this card! Just want you to know that I love you even though I think you're taking the steps too soon. And - there is a safety net, don't forget. Much love from all of us - Mom

Dear Steve, Happy Valentine’s Day! I couldn’t resist this card! Just want you to know that I love you even though I think you’re taking the steps too soon. And – there is a safety net, don’t forget. Much love from all of us – Mom

Living in Seattle is like being in love with a beautiful woman who’s sick all the time.
-Anonymous

But oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
Nowhere to go
-Lennon & McCartney

In mid-February, 1981, I dropped out of high school. The plan my friends and I had hatched was this: move from Missoula to a big city, make a lot of money, then travel around  Europe until it ran out. Pure genius, right? A high school dropout like me would find it a cinch to make and save loads of money in a short time. The only puzzle is why others don’t follow this simple sure-fire plan.
Cosmo Motel SeattleAt first we thought we would move to Boston – I don’t remember why. But we settled on Seattle, in part because Troy’s mom lived there. None of us knew much about Seattle, but that only added to the sense of adventure we had about the move. It was anticipation that distracted me from the consideration that at only 17, I was leaving a place I loved more than I realized, for a place I didn’t know, away from parents and friends.

Cosmo - 1976 map

Before shouting, “Hi, Seattle,” make sure you’re in Seattle. -Mick Jagger

We drove the 480 miles to Seattle on February 19. None of us had a car, so a fourth friend drove us. Between us we had $400. We stayed 3 nights at the Cosmopolitan, at that time a cheap downtown motel situated along the Monorail line on 5th Avenue. (It’s a King’s Inn now, and not to be confused with the condo tower on Virginia Street.) We took acid and walked around downtown, then back to the Cosmo where we passed several hours that swirled with hallucinations, buffoonery and maniacal laughter. My only previous visit of note to the city was in 1978 for the King Tut exhibit that was confined to the Seattle Center. Thus my first look at my new home was through a kaleidoscopic window of imaginary color and light, melting, erupting and shimmering in the cold winter night.

* * *
After the Cosmo, we stayed in the apartment of Troy’s mom, Sharon,  and his younger sister. We were there about five weeks. It was crowded. Sharon was gracious, but it must have grown annoying having us at such close quarters for so long.Troy was first to land a job, and I was second. The difference between the job he was able to land and mine ought to have glared at me as the obvious first clue to the consequences of quitting school. Troy began work proofreading multimillion-dollar contracts for a re-insurance company. It paid an excellent hourly wage for an 18-year-old just out of high school. I went to work at the Ballard McDonald’s. A couple of weeks before that I had been hired to call people while they were eating dinner, try to sell them frozen meat and fish, get yelled at and hung up on. I was humiliated and relieved when I was fired after my first shift.

Mark got a job at a downtown movie theatre. Once one of us had a job and a paycheck, we got our own place. We rented a 3-bedroom walk-up in a four-plex in Ballard, on 20th Ave NW near 58th Street. At $345, the rent was on the steep side, but it was spacious and we each had our own room. Our landlord, whose name was Wen Lee, spoke little English and would come to regret renting to us, we dubbed Obi-Wen, the Jedi Landlord.

Thurs. Feb. 19 – Missoula-Seattle/Cosmo Motel
Fri.              20 – Cosmo Motel
Sat.             21 – Cosmo Motel
Sun             22 – Sharon’s – Dave (our driver) left
Mon            23 – Job hunting begins – slowly.
Fri               27 – Hired – Pacific Meat Co.
Mon  March 2 – First nite – fired
Mon             9 – Troy started work/ my interviews
Thurs         12 – McDonald’s – orientation meeting
Fri              13 – First day. Grueling and grubby.
Sat             21 – Mark starts work at theatre selling concessions.
- my notebook, 1981
* * *
I found Seattle in 1981 glittering and gritty, grass-green and pavement-gray. I saw similarities to my hometown of Portland, but it was bigger and in some ways better: It rained less, at least in that year. It was circled by water and mountains, and I was intoxicated when I caught the salt-sea air. Downtown clubs like Wrex and the Gorilla Room shook with local bands like Student Nurse, the Refuzors and the Fartz. There was so much more than we were used to, especially for Mark and Troy, who hadn’t lived in towns bigger than Missoula, MT or Corvallis, OR. There were art-house movie theatres, restaurants of every kind, music stores that blew our minds with thousands of records. There were Broadway shows, big rock concerts, under-21 clubs and bookstores I could lose a day in.
Seattle Ent 75
But we were broke. So, living in Seattle, for me at least, was like being invited to a banquet but not permitted to eat. I remember standing around outside the clubs, but I don’t recall ever going in. There was a cover charge, and I wasn’t about to pay money to get slam-danced.  I probably missed some good music; mostly I missed the early 80′s Seattle pre-grunge punk scene. Almost any of the interesting things we would’ve wanted to do cost money and we didn’t have much of that.

Theatres & the Absurd
I hated working at McDonald’s. Mark told me I could get on at the theatre, so in May, I applied there and quit McDonald’s after five weeks, when I was hired by the King Cinema. It was a single, 900-seat movie house, supposedly the biggest in Seattle, at 6th & Blanchard (currently the King Cat Theater). I worked concessions mostly, sometimes tearing tickets and cleaning the lobby. We were open all day, opening around noon, and usually not busy until Friday and Saturday nights. The rest of the week, it was very slow.
The Way We Were: the King when it opened in 1974.

The Way We Were: the King when it opened in 1974. It’s the laughter we will remember.

When I started, we were showing Roman Polanski’s Tess, certainly one of the most visually beautiful movies I have ever seen. Two, three, maybe half a dozen patrons would come in, and once the concession counter and lobby were clean, we kicked back until they emerged 3 hours later. It’s good thing we liked movies, because it was the one form of entertainment that was wide open to us, any time we weren’t working. It was at least one table at the banquet we could eat from. All we had to do was have Gigi, our manager, call the manager of most any theater in town, and ask them if we could have a pass into their show. We could see about anything we wanted. Good and bad, we saw dozens of movies. I saw more new movies that year than any other in  my life: Reds, Gallipoli, Prince of the City, Body Heat, Blow Out, An American Werewolf in London, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Time Bandits, True Confessions, Pennies from Heaven, American Pop, Excalibur, Whose Life is it Anyway?, Ragtime, The Hand, Wolfen, Eyewitness, Fort Apache the Bronx, Taps, They All Laughed, Arthur, The Border, Cannery Row and more. If we really liked a movie, we went back and watched it again. We must have seen Breaker Morant five times. (I saw the big summer movies when I was back in Missoula.) And the ones that showed at the King Cinema Mark and I saw over and over, until we could recite large sections of dialog: Tess, Absence of Malice, On Golden Pond, Bustin’ Loose.

We also made it to art houses like the Harvard Exit where we were dazzled by stunning and strange foreign films, including some foreign and Hollywood classics. The two that stand out in my memory: Lawrence of Arabia, and a truly bizarre, wonderful and labyrinthine 1965 movie from Poland, The Saragossa Manuscript. (For a great slide show of Seattle cinemas, go here.) We saw some lesser known films, like Breaking Glass and McVicar. I saw a great documentary on James Agee.Nineteen Eighty-One, in my mind, was and remains the year of the movie. In the year and a half after I left the King, I saw only two movies.

* * *
I’m a little lost lamb
in the heart of the city

-Nick Lowe

At the outset we had no friends in Seattle. The only people we met were those Mark I worked with at the theatre, and they became our new friends. It was a diverse group of people who ranged from about age 17 to their mid-twenties. We had the good fortune of meeting some excellent people who made our lives richer than they would have otherwise have been. Some of them we only saw at work, but at least half-dozen we saw after hours all the time. We went out to shows, and sometimes partied together. Interestingly, of our dozen or so co-workers, three or four identified as Christians,  a young married couple were LDS, and another contingent hailed from the Church of Scientology, including a guy who taught Scientology classes. There was no shortage of lively and stimulating discussions about religion and the meaning of human existence.

In fact, I was thinking about these things all the time. For that, I needed some mental space – a lot of space – and time alone with the these thoughts I was wrestling with. I would not happen upon that kind of space until a year later, but as long as I kept these thoughts to myself, I could manage some reflection.

But Mark, well, he crowded me. He didn’t mean to. He would draw me into long debates that lasted into early morning hours in which I would put up lame defenses of things I may have wanted to believe, but which crumbled under his persistent and unrelenting arguments. When we first arrived in Seattle, Mark had given me Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which I read the first week at Sharon’s. This essay was nothing less than a blitzkrieg against my liberal idealism and fuzzy agnosticism. I came face to face with the flat-out assertion that our existence is absurd, a result of the collision of our desire for reason with an unquestionably unreasonable world. In a godless and absurd universe, the only real question is suicide. Life, death and everything in between leave us without any claim on hope. But suicide is not an option: paradoxically, the absurd man must reject the “invitation to death” in favor of a life lived on his own terms.The only thing to do is rebel against the absurdity of the world, and live life to the fullest, in “my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.”

Of course I could not begin to accept the premise, even if his solution sounded fine. The world is insane and nonsensical on its face, but that does not force upon me a surrender to this fact as the ultimate and defining truth of my existence. Not everything is absurd. Some things do make sense. Many things are beautiful and good, and if nothing else, as rational beings we have survived by constructing a reasonable reality – if even in our minds – that we can cope with.

If I were certain there was no God, then this premise of the absurd might make sense. But if I am not certain, I cannot choose to live as if this absurdity were inescapable: it might be have an escape. I just don’t know what it is. Knowing about God, if that were possible, would sure help.

Despite my rejection of Camus’ statement of the human problem; despite the apparent seriousness of my thoughts; despite the high unlikelihood of success in Seattle; despite my occasional loneliness and fairly constant confusion, I was, in my day-to-day life, taking Camus’ advice: I was kicking at the wall, I wanted to kick it down, I was taking everything life had to offer, I was trying new things, I was looking for a girl to keep me company, I was feeling my passion and letting it rise, I was drinking whiskey and smoking the herb, I was laughing, laughing every day, laughing down the dead-end street, laughing my life.

We all were laughing, that’s just how we were, how we are, the three of us. We looked at the situation we had put ourselves in, saw the absurdity of our own mistakes and missteps, and we thought it was funny. We laughed our lives.

Down? No, not yet, anyway.

sisyphus-1549 titian

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
-Albert Camus

Crazy Little Thing | Part One

I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know

-Velvet Underground

Wayfarers

One of the sadder truths of this life is how little we know of love, real, selfless love, rooted in trust and resulting in intimacy. We know little of what it is, how to receive or how to give it. We yearn for it most powerfully, but are so often deceived by its counterfeits into mistaking for them the real thing. Our fears and selfishness are its constant enemies.

As I approach 50, I realize how little I yet understand of real love: the saving, healing, and life-giving love – the real thing. This piece is mostly a confession of my confusion as a boy who wanted it in his deepest heart’s core but had only a meager notion of what it actually was. Perhaps ‘meager’ is too generous.

The first time I fell in love happened the summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school. I had never had anything close to a girlfriend, and had only one or two dates. I was terrified of the opposite sex, mostly because I figured females were pretty much the opposite sex from me. If I ever liked a girl, I was always afraid to ask her out. The one time I did, it was extremely uncomfortable; I didn’t know how to talk to her and couldn’t bring myself to continue seeing her. I thought it must have been the worst couple of hours of her freshman year.

The previous summer had been whiled away on my odd personal pursuits, virtually friendless and alone. Dad insisted this year that I get a summer job, and told me about the Youth Conservation Corps. I applied early in the year and was accepted. Though it was not all work (we got paid for class time as well), it was my first real job. It turned out to be a fantastic experience. The YCC was a federal youth work-educational program modeled after the Civil Conservation Corps of the 1930s. We spent one half of the week in Missoula, where our time was spent in the classroom and on public improvement projects, such as building and repairing playground equipment, or grounds keeping. In the classroom we learned about various subjects like first-aid and forest ecology. We spent the other half of the week at ‘spike camp.’ There we worked our way through acres of recently logged forest, gathering and making enormous piles of slash. It was hard work on rugged terrain. When we broke for the day, we swam in a cool mountain lake, and spent the evening and night in a tent camp.

The job began on  June 16, 1980.  On the third day of work, I joined some other workers loading a pickup before heading to a work site. As I introduced myself to the others, a girl named Anna told me we had met before.  Earlier in the year I had helped start a left-wing student group, USA, at Hellgate (see Waiting for the End of the World). Audrey, a friend from Sentinel High, came to a few of our meetings, and once she brought her friend Anna. Audrey had talked me up to her, and she already held me in esteem on account of my civil-disobedience arrest on Easter Sunday.

I fumbled a little, trying to remember where we had met, and she told me. That was the beginning of our friendship. We began working together when we could, eating lunch together, and before long our feelings went beyond friendship.

Anna had just graduated from Sentinel High, Hellgate’s cross-town rival. A National Merit Scholar, she would be attending Cornell in the fall. She was bright, soft-spoken, friendly to everyone and cute as a button. To me, however, the most remarkable thing about Anna  was: she was interested in me. No person I had ever known was as interested in me – other than me – and it just astonished me. It seemed we could talk about anything, and that neither of us – me at 16, her at 18 – had known someone like that. The overwhelming thing about falling in love is not just the feelings you have for the other person, it’s that they return them. When another person reflects backs to you a better self than the one you know, a smarter, more interesting, more treasured person – well, they are a mirror, with an image you haven’t known. If your self-image is marred by a mix of vanity and self-loathing, as mine was, then you will become transfixed by this mirror. Someone outside my own self-obsessed mind wants to be with me. She must be awesome!

As it would turn out, Anna was, in practically every respect, a far better person than I was. But I couldn’t see that, and what it might mean for us, and – at first, anyway – neither could she.

I began having the typical first-love feelings. I thought of her all the time, and time away from work – and thus from Anna  - became far too long.  One day at spike camp, Anna suggested we go see a movie she had heard about.  Seeing John Sayles’ The Return of the Secaucus Seven at the Crystal Theater was our first date.

One memory from that night has stayed with me. We came before they had begun seating, the first to arrive, so we sat on a love seat in the small lobby. As we sat, a man and a woman walked in from the street, both clothed in long white robes. He had hair down to his elbows and a long beard. Right away I knew they were Children of God. They greeted us warmly and then the man proceeded to the box office. From inside, the owner asked what he could do for them.

“We are traveling Christians and we carry no coin.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I wonder if you might have two seats in your house for two weary wayfarers.”

All our eyes were on the owner.

“Well, this is a movie theater, a business, and I do carry coin.”

“I understand.”

“Mm. Wait until the film is started and everyone is seated inside, and the lobby is clear. You can sit in the back.”

“God bless you, brother!”

After this we began to see each other on the weekends and evenings. We saw some more movies, “Annie Hall,” “The Elephant Man.” We rode our bikes up Pattee Canyon,  stopping along the way to pick huckleberries and eat lunch. Anna met Dad & Jane when we rode with them to Stevensville for the July 4th parade. I knew they would love her and they did.

I wanted her to meet my friends…sort of. The problem was, Anna and I ran in different circles – rather, different kinds of circles – and the differences between my world and hers, between the darkest pathways my mind had begun to take, the whole drift of my life in the last year – it was all highlighted by my relationship with someone whose path was in stark contrast. It was uncomfortable. I should have been traveling her way, but I wasn’t. Anna had a goodness and wholesomeness to her that did not characterize my life, to say nothing of my heart. In spite of beginning to awaken, I was basically self-seeking, and she, to a much greater extent, looked out for others. In many ways I was closed and narrow in my thinking, but her world had a lot more room. She had worked hard in school. I would soon be slacking off. She had steered clear of trouble. But the masthead over me and my friends was Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll.  In fact, it was my interests and aims around these three things (which were not shared by Anna, it should go without saying), that most obviously marked the real content of my character compared to Anna’s. I was torn, because it felt a little like it wasn’t  the real me, but I was going that way nonetheless. Anna as a mirror showed me what she saw, but not the hidden me that only I could see, wounded and a little desperate.

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. She wasn’t going for it, at least not the first two. I was crazy enough about her to settle for one out of three. And she liked me well enough to listen to my rock ‘n’ roll. But did we hear the same songs?

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.

school days with steve albini. part three.

#3: Do it Yourself, Why Don’t You – Part 2

Last post I talked about visiting Steve Albini a few months after he had produced Lungs, and how the do-it-yourself project influenced my thinking about media access and, in a broader sense, making your own way by making it your own.

Just Ducky

That really started back in high school, when Steve put together his first band, Just Ducky. I don’t have a lot of details about the band, and my chronology is pretty fuzzy. What I do have is a few memories, and some artifacts. They might be the only ones still in existence, and I have the pleasure of sharing them with you here. It includes a steno pad of Steve’s that I used after he did, and then kept all these years. In August I showed it to him, offered to give it back, and asked if I could keep it and use it for these posts. He said, Sure. Again, thanks, Steve.

As I said before, I read that Steve taught himself electric bass while laid up with his broken pretzel. I believe that was in the fall of 1979, because he has the cast on in the Lance staff yearbook photo, and I believe that was taken in the fall. My recollection of going to parties through the winter, that were played by Just Ducky, indicates the band was put together in the late fall or early1980. The line-up I remember is: Steve on bass and vocals, Jon Rose on guitar, Heather Gonsior on keyboards. If the Wikipedia article is to be believed, the drummer was Joey Cregg, whose name is familiar, but whom I don’t remember. However, in his notebook, Steve noted on one of his songs (Sounds Like This) parts for “Randy, Dave, Me, Heather.” I have a guess who Dave is, but I don’t for Randy. I wonder if this is the original line-up, and it changed. (Perhaps someone reading this remembers.) Another note seems to list outstanding debts of band members for expenses: “Dave, Steve, Heather, Jon, Randy.”

(Update: Members referred to are Dave Peterman, and Randy Pepprock. See Comments.)

They were a garage band, but they were the first band I knew, and I got a huge kick out of them. Hearing them play – at parties, at local clubs or just rehearsing – coincided with my first exposure to punk and New Wave music, and with having joined a new circle of friends. In fact, the songs I remember were their covers, and some of them I heard for the first time performed by Just Ducky, not the original artist: Blitzkrieg Bop, Psycho Killer, etc. They played with lots of energy and a really big beat. For the most part, they chose infectious and accessible songs. They also put a punk twist on some classics. They made me want to dance, however embarrassingly.

My copy of the band’s song list. I put a star next to my favorites.

I remember them playing a party in the apartment of Steve’s sister Mona, when the band took up half the living room. I remember going to a club (Yes, I was 16, but what can I say? They were lax.) and sitting in the front. They were poorly received and someone lobbed an ashtray at Steve. (Who else? Not Jon or Heather – they were so nice! Just playing their instruments for world peace. But not Steve.). I was worried that Steve might get hurt. To my alarm, he was not worried: he urged the crowd to throw more things at him. I suppose he was also not worried about playing that venue again.

I also remember the end-of-the-world party. Well, I remember we had one. I don’t  specifically recall the event. In the spring there was a small cult in Missoula that predicted the world would end in a nuclear holocaust at 5:55 pm on April 29th, 1980,  so Steve decided we should throw a party that day and call it the Doomsday Party. Musical Apocalypse provided by Just Ducky.

Steve made this flyer.

The band was short-lived. If it began in the fall, it was over no later than the summer. They lasted maybe eight or nine months. Even so, I think it was important to Steve, and he took it seriously. His notebook has some calculations about the purchase of gear and how much it was going to cost, that show he’d done done his homework and thought through their options. I don’t know why he started a band, knowing that it would cease in less than a year. My guess is that everything Steve did was to teach himself how things worked out. The only way to know, to really learn, is to do it yourself. Other people’s experience can be helpful, but it tends to offer lessons rather than the personal skills and know-how you must have. Eventually, you have to move beyond dreaming and planning to actually doing it.

“Glaucoma” by Steve Albini. The thought of someone publishing some of the stuff I wrote when I was 17 mortifies me. That’s why I got Steve’s blanket verbal permission after he looked at the notebook. Even so, I have no desire to embarrass him (Is that possible?), and in my amateur opinion there is nothing embarrassing about these songs. If you were writing rock ‘n’ roll songs when you were 17, then you can criticize, I suppose.

I should say something about Steve’s original songs. I have absolutely no recollection of them. I know they played a song called Glaucoma, and I marked another, Electric Guitar, as a favorite on their song list, but I can’t remember any of them. Glaucoma and Sounds Like This are the two songs preserved in the notebook. To my knowledge, they never recorded anything. It wasn’t that kind of band. For Steve, I think it had mostly to do with learning how and having some fun.

“Sounds Like This” by Steve Albini. Sounds like fun.

Even though some people hated every note they played, a lot of us – mostly friends of the band, and people who knew each other – got a big kick out of them and appreciated Steve’s homegrown punk persona. I never got to see the Ramones live, but Just Ducky, with the 17-year-old pretzel Steve Albini, barking out some of our favorite punk and new wave tunes, was a pretty good stand-in.

Kchinga ting!

Next: #4 Small Gestures.
part one.   part two.    part four.

school days with steve albini. part one.

Back in January of 2007, almost two years before I did it, I was planning to start a blog. I wrote a few things, and one of them I thought I would make my first post was entitled, “Thank Steve Albini for This Blog,” a stupid title on multiple levels. What I wrote there was a few things for which I was grateful to Steve having taught me by word and deed.

I went to high school with Steve, and he was the most interesting and certainly one of the most talented people to walk the halls of Hellgate High School. In fact, Steve is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known, and that would be true even if he’d been washing windows for the last thirty years. I saw him on a visit to Chicago in 1983, and I did not see or talk to him again until a friend reunion in August of this year.

At one point, at our Friday night party, I told Steve about the unpublished article I wrote. “Since I knew I was going to see you, I decided I would just tell what it said, by way of thanks.”

“For what?”

“That’s what I’m going to tell you.” I explained to him that there were four things I had learned, mostly by his example, that they had stayed with me, and he was the person I had to thank for them.

  1. Maybe you should try something new for a change.
  2. Motorcycles = broken body parts.
  3. Do it yourself, why don’t you.
  4. Share your talent and encourage others.

(In the article there were actually five, but the fifth was more or less an excuse to tell the John Lennon Story, which will have to come later, and it was not something I was thankful for.)

I was glad to be telling this to Steve. Many people help us to grow and change in various ways, and being able to thank someone for it, even when they seem like small things, I think is worthwhile. For his part, Steve Aged 50  was a little surprised I had some nice things to say about Steve Aged 17. Why is that? Well, remember that bit about Steve being the most interesting person, the most talented person? He was also the most hated person.

This was not an accident. In my freshman year, before I met him, I avidly read his columns in the Lance. He wrote music reviews and other articles, but my favorite was his humor column. He also did cartoons and illustrations. He did it a lot. In fact, he made me want to write for the paper. For that, I would have to take Journalism 1 my sophomore year, then I could be on staff my junior and senior years. In his writing Steve was funny, outrageous, and knew how to antagonize people. He also talked about stuff that was not mainstream in Missoula, Montana in 1978. Like punk rock.

Steve could make people mad, and did make people mad, but why did he make people mad? I couldn’t say it was his aim to do it. It was probably closer to the truth that he aimed to say what he pleased, and if that angered his readers, tough. And when it came to saying what he pleased, he was like no other person I had met. Wicked smart and verbally well-armed, he could perforate people or things he didn’t like with his words. But of course, that is one of the few defenses available to scrawny kids who act and draw and write and make music in a setting dominated by conformity to a teenstream culture that didn’t always value someone like Steve.

#1: Maybe you should try something new for a change.

Not caring what other people think was required of someone in a fierce struggle to find and be themselves as a teenager who does not and will not fit in. Pushing back on the pressures we were under to not be ourselves – or at least insisting on being able to explore the possibilities -  took some resolve, and sometimes there was anger or resentment lying beneath the surface. That may have been some of the appeal of punk rock: the ragged edge of anger over the pressure that bore down on young people: you can’t do this, you must do that, and stop complaining because there’s nothing you can do about it. Instead of the Boomers’ demand for a better world, many had the Gen-X resentment at the empty promise of one. Might as well blow off a little steam about it.

Another angle is looking around, like many teenagers, and finding plenty to be disgusted, dismayed and angry at. There was some of that for me. Maybe for Steve, too. I think it’s in his songs.

Of course nothing like this occurred to me at the time. On the contrary, I had been sleep-walking most of my life. And I was much more of a boomer in my general outlook – more hippie than punk – so I found Steve’s recommendation of punk rock hard to grasp. After I met him in the fall of 1979, I would rib him about it, as if he should be embarrassed to embrace and promote music – and the attitude that went with it – that was so far out of the mainstream, that people (like me) were so unlikely to accept.

Steve was annoyed but put up with my pestering. On the one hand, he managed to make me feel like a dork for having such narrow taste in music: I had grown up listening to the Beatles, Elton John and whoever else was played on MOR radio, and didn’t know about much else. I had read about punk rock, but I had never heard it – until I met Steve and the other friends I made on the Lance.

On the other hand, Steve did not just make me feel stupid, he made suggestions to me about music he thought I should listen to. My response was skeptical and dismissive at first. That changed after I had ignored his positive review of Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes, and subsequently heard it. After that, I realized I should reconsider blowing off Steve’s musical opinions. The fact that he put down music I liked (On CSN&Y: “They’re fat and old,” which I later realized he probably got from a line in Remote Control by The Clash.), didn’t mean he couldn’t point me to something great, which is exactly what Torpedoes was: freakin’ great.

From Steve’s notebook.

In December or January, Steve included in his song reviews two songs from The Clash’s London Calling. Around the Lance office he was talking up the album. I was skeptical until I heard the title track on a surprisingly eclectic AOR station. I remember today the very time and place that song came booming and screeching through the speakers in our living room.

London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared – and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard all you boys and girls

The Clash interrupted my regular programming with a report of nuclear apocalypse, of the world ending with a whimper – a variation on the scenario that had visited me in nightmares since I was ten.

It blew my mind. Then I heard it again. Then Troy Deckert, the editor of the Lance, got the album, and I heard the whole thing. That changed everything. After that, I wanted to hear new things, and what a time for hearing new things that was! The Ramones, Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon, The Pretenders, The Talking Heads, The Police – all putting out music that spun my head. Much of the real excitement I felt at this time in my life was the discovery of new and old music  that I never would have heard if it wasn’t for Steve, and later my other friends (Troy, Jeff Morgan, Matt Crowley, Mark Hayes), who stuck it in front of me.

How the combination of new friends, new music and drugs altered my path is more than I’ll go into here, and it wasn’t all helpful, but having my mind and ears and eyes opened to a wider world of music and ideas was a gift. It was Steve who first put his shoulder to the door and gave a good shove.

Next: Motorcycles and Music.

part two.   part three.   part four.

school days with steve albini. part two.

#2: Motorcycles = Broken Body Parts.

Continuing my account of four things I learned through my short high school friendship with Steve Albini, I come to #2, which does not require much explanation. Steve rode a motorcycle. During his senior year (’79 -’80), Steve got creamed on his motorcycle by a larger motor vehicle. Steve’s leg got snapped like a pretzel. Come to think of it, his legs were pretzels. The straight kind, you know, like Mr. Salty.

Never, since I saw him in his hip-to-heel cast, and heard his account of the accident, have I wanted to own a motorcycle or ride on one going more than 15 miles per hour. That’s just how it is.

Lesson learned. Thanks, Steve.

It actually may have not been his only injury-accident on a bike, but my memory of that is fuzzy now. At least one account of Steve’s high school days says that he taught himself the bass guitar while he was incapacitated. I don’t recall that myself, but it does make a nice segue into #3, which is all about music and life.

#3: Do it Yourself, Why Don’t You.

In Dallas, 1983

In March of 1983, I was living in Oklahoma City, and took a bus up to Chicago. I went up because Troy Deckert was getting married. Mark Hayes was living in Chicago as well, and at the time was staying with Steve. I don’t remember where I slept at night, but it seems we spent considerable time at Steve’s apartment. Steve was in his third year at Northwestern. I recall that when I first got there Steve was out of town.

When he returned he breezed into the apartment, explaining that he, “Just came from Madison, where I got my hair cut by a Neo-Nazi.”

I hadn’t seen him in two and a half years.Time was flying. Steve was flying. He was energetic, enthusiastic, apparently happier than he had been in Missoula. He seemed to have a lot of irons in the fire.

When he got there it was the first time the four of us had been together since December of 1980 in Missoula. That, I may as well add here, is when and where The John Lennon Story fits in.

It was my junior year at Hellgate High School, and I was struggling, academically and personally. One of the things I felt I had going for me was my work on the Lance, where I had Steve’s old position of Editorials Editor. In December, the murder of John Lennon was a real blow to me and several of my friends. We did not talk about it much, mostly I suppose, because we didn’t know what to say. I know I didn’t. It just sucked.

Steve came home to Missoula that week. I ran into him Saturday night at a “New Wave Festival” at the University, and asked him if he would write a guest column for the Lance. I thought it would be funny to see people’s reaction to its appearance when they thought they were finally rid of him for good. He balked at the idea. I pressed him and he relented.

The piece he turned in I felt compelled to publish, but I was the one who was cheesed off by it. There were two reasons. One: the thrust of the column was, “John Lennon is dead and I don’t care.” Two: he included an account of me asking him to write it that had me sounding like a complete dork. If Steve truly did not care what people thought of him, then I was his total opposite. I cared desperately what people thought, and I had pretty thin skin, too. I didn’t stop to think that nobody’s opinion of me would be formed by what he wrote. Some people would have considered it an honor to be called a “notorious hippie” in the same piece that said John Lennon was better off dead. But I felt the column had made of a fool of me, and it hurt my feelings because, even though we weren’t close, I considered Steve a friend – with good reason. At the same time I realized how ridiculous it would seem for me to vent my anger for the same period of time I felt it. I expressed my anger to my friends, who laughed it off, then kept it to myself. It seems to me now that it was Steve’s last chance to give high school the finger. I just happened to be standing in view.

There’s a story our friend Deb Scherer tells, who also served on the Lance. She had a distinctive way of dressing. It was eclectic, it was funky, it was her own. Steve was giving her a hard time about it. This from the guy who came to school in his deliberately shredded pretzel-pants and similarly abused t-shirt on which he had painted in fire-engine red: “DIE!” Deb finally said to him, “I don’t care what you think of the way I dress!,” to which he replied, “Good, you shouldn’t!” Some of the things Steve did and said were undoubtedly expressed with this conviction in mind. Considerable vexation throughout the English-speaking world over the last 30 years could certainly have been avoided if others had shared it.

Matter Magazine, 1983

So, in 1983, that had been the last time I had seen or spoken with Steve. I was over it, but in the intervening years a lot had happened. Steve had heard that I had gone off into the Weirdlands and become a born-again Christian. Even more disconcerting, Troy, who was a closer friend to Steve, had come to Chicago the previous summer and done the same. I suppose you can imagine how completely insane some of our friends thought it was that we would both, at the same time, hundreds of miles apart, come to Jesus. Every time I saw one of my old friends, I expected to be “dealt a ration,” as we used to say. I expected the biggest ration of all to be dealt by Steve. I was waiting for it.

Steve showed me his apartment. The highlight of the tour, from Steve’s viewpoint, was in the kitchen, where he showed me Archie, a really huge and thankfully deceased cockroach. I’ve got to hand it to Steve Albini. Not only did he afford Archie the respect and honor he deserved, but he had enough taste and culture to preserve him for others to enjoy. As I admired the enormous blattoid, Steve said,”So Dehner, why Jesus?”

I was expecting something quite different, so the question caught me off guard, and I fumbled for something to say that would make sense. Actually, it was great question. It was perfectly respectful, and I should have been able to give a coherent answer. But what can I say? It had been nine months. I was nineteen years old. So I said something like, “Because He’s real. I have no doubt that He is…” Something like that.

Historic Reenactment: Not actually Archie.

“Huh.” He shrugged. And that was it. People who don’t know Steve might think, on account of his sometimes, um, forthright way of expressing his views in public, that he’d have given me or Troy a hard time. But regardless of what he might have thought, he had nothing mean or derogatory to say to me. Live and let live seemed more his style. He let a Nazi cut his hair. He let a Jesus freak see his cockroach.

Then Steve showed me a unfurnished bedroom, that had only some musical gear, his electric bass, his drummer Roland, and a box or two of 45rpm EPs.

“This is our record,” he said, pulling one out. “Here, have one.”

It was Big Black’s first record, Lungs. And it wasn’t really “our record,” it was his record. He made it.

No, I mean: he made the record.

He wrote, played and sang (“i’m a steelworker, i kill what I eat”). He engineered, recorded and mixed. He took the photos and created the cover artwork and logo. Wrote the liner notes. Polymerized the vinyl compound with his own chemistry set and hand-etched the grooves in the disk (Actually, I think he might have hired this part out.). Packaged and delivered the records to local stores — with party favors enclosed for the lucky customers, so that opening your Big Black LP was the musical equivalent of Cracker Jacks (if you wouldn’t mind finding a bloody kleenex as your ‘toy surprise’).

The point, that I’ve taken so long to get to, is that he didn’t ask anyone’s permission to make a record, and he didn’t wait for – or even pursue, as far as I know – a recording contract, either. He didn’t have someone looking over his shoulder telling him what he could or couldn’t say. He just made the thing himself. And he told anyone reading the insert to go make their own record, too. It was simply unacceptable to him that he would relinquish the control and freedom to make the music he wanted, and get ripped off in the process.

Using this approach, Steve pretty much made his musical career on his own terms. Further, he inspired others to do the same. This same spirit came to drive not only independent music, but indy film making as well, and made the Internet the ultimate democratized medium.

When I was struggling to make films in the 80s and 90s Steve’s literally homemade record pointed to the possibility of not only by-passing media gate-keepers, but also kicking down the gates. One of the things we talked about in August was the collapse of the recording industry as we’ve known it, and something much better (in Steve’s view) replacing it.

On Lungs, Steve had a friend named John Bohnen play the sax on one of the songs, and gave Mark credit for “more yells on dead billy.” He did everything else. Big Black was about to become a band, and this record helped put it together. But before Big Black was a band, even before Big Black was just Steve and some instruments – there was Just Ducky.

Next: #3 Part 2 – Just Ducky 
part one.   part three.   part four.

From the ‘liner notes’ insert. For the record, ‘Lungs’ was made in 1982, not ’81, as has been mistakenly reported.