How I Became a High School Dropout

(Warning: harsh language, drug use.)

Painted Black

At the end of the summer of 1980, my girlfriend Anna left for college, I turned 17, I began my junior year, got glasses, read Catcher in the Rye, assumed my post as Editorial Page Editor on the Lance, and badly sprained my ankle playing soccer. And I was at war with myself, total war.

As September cooled into October, a gloom began to settle over me that I couldn’t shake. I don’t know if it was clinical depression; it might have been. After spraining my ankle I was done with soccer, and any sports for the time being. I began to slack at school. My introspective tendencies were at their worst. As far as I could tell, it was all brought on by the pangs of Anna’s absence. I was overcome by negative feelings about myself and life in general. Smoking dope and drinking didn’t help.I was tired and, as always, walked around with a knot in stomach over school.

You know I’d give you everything I’ve got
for a little peace of mind
-John Lennon
I’m So Tired

Over the summer, my friendship with Mark and Troy grew stronger. In September, Mark, Troy and Dave Larson (my co-editor) had talked about traveling together in Europe, and as soon as they were all done with school was the perfect time for them to do it. Of course they didn’t have the money, so they would have to figure out a way to save as much money (and as quickly) as possible. One night, Dave came to my house and we walked through Bonner Park. He was very troubled. He asked if could confide in me, if I could keep a secret. Mark and Troy had come up with a scheme to make a lot of money fast: growing pot. A lot of pot. Dave found this very troubling, and needed  to get it off his chest. I suggested he decide if he was in or out, and let the other two do what they wanted. He told them he was out.

Shortly after that, about the end of the month, Mark and Troy proposed the Alliance: the three of us, backing a growing operation to fund a trip to Europe. I did not like the business plan, but the Europe trip – well, that was something I had dreamed of since I was 10 years old. I loved the idea. After arguing with them about my objections, I was in. As soon as I did, I began to mentally persecute myself over the decision. I was overcome with self-contempt for agreeing to help grow and sell drugs, mostly because I knew my motivation for opting in was easy money. In other words, I was guilty of one of the worst sins there was: greed.

I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door and it has been painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black
-Jagger & Richards
Paint It Black

That wasn’t the only problem. Mark was graduated, and Troy was going to finish early, at midyear, by taking correspondence courses. But I was not going to be done with school for 20 months. I don’t remember who first suggested it, but when I started getting F’s, not just on my work, but on my report card, I felt I had dug myself into a hole I could not dig out of. I truly believed this. And unless I gave up the parties, drugs and alcohol, I was probably right. I began to think about dropping out of school. In so short a time, my way of thinking about my future had been derailed by a half-baked pipe-dream.  No, I was not thinking clearly. And no, far from giving up drugs, I was branching out.  That fall, I took mescaline, the hallucinogen found in peyote, and tried Quaalude, the drug du jour.

Boy, did I feel rotten. I felt so damn lonesome.
-JD Salinger
Catcher in the Rye

I did this in the apartment Mark and Troy rented in Missoula. To get it they asked me for the remaining $300 I had earned in the summer. The apartment served two purposes: it allowed Mark to move out from his grandparents’ house and Troy to move out from his folks’, and it was to be the home of our growing operation, a scheme that began to fail before it ever got underway. For the few months they had it, it became my second home.

Meanwhile, my energies and creativity were focused on the Lance, where Dave and I edited the editorial page, and I continued drawing cartoons and writing my humor column, Nowhere Man. One night in early October, I worked late with other staffers on paste-up. Getting home about 11, I went up to my room and was listening to music, when the phone rang downstairs. I raced to answer it, as Dad and Jane were asleep, and It was Jeff Morgan on the other end.

“Some asshole  just murdered John Lennon,” sounding dismay mixed with anger.

“What?!”

“Some goddamn lunatic shot him on the street. He’s dead.”

“My God.”

To me and some of my friends, this was a cause of sadness and anger. Another death that waved a black flag before us. A warning, a revelation or perhaps a remembrance. I don’t know.

Bad news news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
-Don McLean
American Pie

The real fallout was a sense of disillusionment. Lennon symbolized much of what I had grown up with and had taken as my own attitudes and convictions over the last year. Within the counterculture vision I found a promise – of personal and social evolution – that I was desperately grasping for, but which I was already beginning to doubt as empty and impossible. It pointed to a deeper struggle I was lamely putting up: an illusory light, losing its struggle against a very real darkness. You might stand for such a vision, but skulking around the corner is a lunatic with a gun. There’s always one of those, isn’t there?

With my emotional and academic life in a seemingly irreversible tailspin, dropping out and moving away started looking to me to me like an escape hatch – and I wanted to escape. I was one decision away from making my problems go away.

In February I made the decision.

* * *

I realize that my problems were not very apparent to those around me. I was gregarious, always seeking the company of my friends, and never solitude. At those times, I generally aimed to be the life of the party, which often led to me just making a fool of myself without knowing it. On the outside, I was all laughs and good times. On the inside, my thoughts were serious and dark. I wondered what I really was, if my ideals meant anything, if life and the world and my dreams had any value or meaning.

In the fall I first listened to The Wall from beginning to end. It was a disturbing experience for me, a view of life as so unbearable in its losses and oppression and torments that alienation is inescapable and isolation the only recourse. At this time I first caught a glimpse of something that was just a plain horror to me: the notion that we were alone in the universe. No God, no ultimate meaning or purpose, no reality beyond the material and physical, no soul, no eternal: nothing. Just this life and then the grave, lived on whatever terms we could arrive at by our own wits.

The prospect that this was the truth, that this was the fact of our existence that science, reason, and philosophy presented us with – the fact that I must face, and must embrace –  it knotted my stomach and made my blood run cold. I did not accept it. I wasn’t ready.

If you should go skating
On the thin ice of modern life
Dragging behind you the silent reproach
Of a million tear-stained eyes
Don’t be surprised when a crack in the ice
Appears under your feet.
You slip out of your depth and out of your mind
With your fear flowing out behind you
As you claw the thin ice.
-Roger Waters
The Thin Ice

This was running silently in the background to my declining grades and plans of escape, and did so for most of the next two years.

* * *

Maybe then I’ll fade away

When Troy, Mark and I formed the Alliance, we had one aim: save enough money for a trip to Europe. When the pot-growing plan fell apart, they began to talk about moving out of Missoula to a big city where we could make more money. We talked about Boston. I had to decide if I was willing to drop out of high school half-way through my junior year. I couldn’t see myself ever getting back on a good academic footing. And if I couldn’t, why stay in school, especially if there was the prospect of adventure and travel?

Of course, this meant telling my parents. Not asking. Telling. Not letting myself be talked out of it. The memory of the upset and anxiety I caused them is something I don’t even like to recall enough to write about it. But I did tell them, Dad and Jane in person and Mom over the phone. Legally, I was old enough to leave school, but going forward in life as a dropout did not offer a lot of promise. They were worried about me and my future.

I told my teachers, too. A couple of them smiled and got a far-away look, remembering their own freedom road days of 1969, and found little to say in objection to my plan. I remember speaking to Kermit Edmonds, who was never my teacher but was greatly respected by me and most of the students. I told him I still planned on going to college some day. He said that when I got there I would have an invaluable advantage over my classmates: life experience, an education of a completely different but indispensable kind. Boy, was he right.

So I did it. On Friday, February 13, 1981, I walked out of Hellgate High School, walked away from our friends, from my classmates, from the Lance, from the great teachers I was lucky enough to have there. As we planned to leave Missoula, life seemed a little more hopeful, and I felt a little less despair. I think that is because I was switching things up, making something happen, and it didn’t seem like circumstances were running over me as much.

Of course, I didn’t realize in any meaningful way all that I was walking away from. And not the least idea of what I was walking into.

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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 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.