By Bill Wyman
Every few years, it comes back.
Back in 1994, I had a weekly music column called “Hitsville” in The Chicago Reader. In early January of that year, I put together a top-ten list of albums from 1993 with an accompanying essay. It was all maybe 700 words. Strikingly, two entries by Chicago acts—Liz Phair’s debut, “Exile in Guyville,” and Urge Overkill’s first record for Geffen, “Saturation”—topped my list.
Steve Albini, then as now, was an iconoclastic music producer on the underground rock scene. He was pissed off by the piece; and in full dyspeptic mode he sent a letter to the paper. It was printed under the headline, “Three Pandering Sluts and their Music Press Stooge.”
The pandering sluts—his words—were the two acts I just mentioned and another Chicago outfit, the Smashing Pumpkins.
I was the stooge!
The letter was long and vituperative and hilarious: “You only think they are noteworthy now because some paid publicist has told you they are, and you, fulfilling your obligation as part of the publicity engine that drives the music industry, spurt about them on cue.”
Back then, the Reader was a huge institution. The paper came out on Thursday, stacked like bricks in walls three-feet high in stores and cafes. “Hitsville” was on the front page of Section Three. Albini’s little missive set off a letters war of seemingly unending scorn and heat that played out week after week in the paper, with rafts of responses, insults, counter-responses and counter-counter-responses.
In later years, after the Internet took hold, the letter was endlessly cited in adoring profiles of Albini, or histories of the Chicago music scene of the time. Ten years later, Ana Marie Cox wrote a hefty piece about it for the Reader itself, and just a few weeks ago—twenty-two years later!—the Reader’s music editor, Philip Montoro, brought it all up again amid news that the Pumpkins and Phair were going out on the road together. (They’re playing the Civic Opera House April 14.). Albini’s letter, he said, had torn me a new orifice. And he concurred with Albini’s judgment that I was there to promote popular bands: “Like many music writers, Wyman clearly considered the size of his potential audience when deciding which artists to cover.”
On examination, I was grateful to se that I had the requisite number of orifices, but even so, Montoro’s column got me feeling all misty. I started to remember what the scene was like back then.
As Montoro and many others have noted, I never responded to Albini’s billet-doux. Why? Because the Reader’s general policy was that writers shouldn’t respond to letters. The writers had had their say; it wasn’t fair for them to jump in after and claim the last word.
On the other hand, if there was an actual, factual dispute, the writer did have to respond, and clear the matter up one way or the other. Indeed, long after I’d left the paper, an editor called to ask about a letter that had just come in, for some insane reason, challenging something I’d written nearly a decade before. I looked it up. The writer was correct! I duly responded with a correction.
Anyway, the real reason was that we knew that readers were smart enough to make up their own minds. I also trusted that they could see that Albini’s letter for what it was.
But now, with a new generation of writers weighing in, there’s a new audience, too, who can’t know the context of the controversy.
It got me thinking: Maybe it was finally time to tell the true story of what happened in 1993, the greatest goddamn year in Chicago rock history.
If you care, here’s how it all went down.
Our story begins on a cold and snowy Chicago night, almost exactly a year to the day before the publication of the column that got Albini’s spectacles foggy. I was at Lounge Ax, one of the coolest clubs in the city. (In August 1995, co-owner Sue Miller would marry Jeff Tweedy there at a wedding attended by many of the characters in this story.)
It was late; shows started at midnight or after. Sipping my Coke at the bar—I didn’t drink—I met a tiny singer-songwriter. She was a friend of friends. She gave me an unmarked cassette—a collection of songs she’d been working on—jabbering all the while.
Her talk was something: fast, slightly nutty, kind of winning. There was a lot of TMI, incessant and creative profanity, combative observations on the music scene and more. Some of her opinions about music cracked me up, particularly what she said about her tape. It was, she said, “a song-by-song refutation of ‘Exile on Main Street.’”
“Mm-hmm,” I thought, and put the tape in my coat pocket.
It was a crazy time in music. This was January 1993, remember, the morning after a crazy music year. Nineteen ninety-two was when the full force of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” had basically blown up the music industry.
Before Nirvana, pressure had been building a long time. Back in the 1980s, there were all these cool bands—the Pixies, Sonic Youth, the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Black Flag, Fugazi—and gazillions more lost to history. Some of the music was tuneful, a subspecies of mainstream rock or even pop; some was harsher, with subject matter to match.
Here’s the thing, though. Whatever the sound, none of this stuff got played on commercial radio. Period. This was the era of a shitty soundscape of Live Aid geezers—Clapton, Petty, Mellencamp, you know the type—amid a new age of neo-hard rock, epitomized by onetime Sunset Strip gutter denizens like Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses.
There was no YouTube or Facebook or Twitter or Spotify to take refuge in. There was word of mouth, a few battered photocopied fanzines, maybe a show or two on a local college station and, once in a while, some airplay on MTV’s weekly “120 Minutes.”
Otherwise you (a) looked for a friend who had a particular record or (b) bought it.
Hard to believe—people actually had to pay for music.
I was a critic, and we were ahead of this game; we got our records for free. It was a nice racket, sure, and it was nice work if you could get it, but it was also a responsibility. A lot of the listening was what Robert Christgau called “processing”: putting on unmarked advance cassettes or pulling a vinyl platter by a band you’d never heard of out of a sleeve and looking for a new sound—or just a great song.
It was your job to find it. Those generic cassettes were a job, but also receptacles of danger and promise. You were alone and confronted with a record that might or might not be something special. Once in a while something hit hard. (One I remember turned out to be PJ Harvey’s first album, “Dry,” which I gave an A+ in Entertainment Weekly.)
Forgive me if I provide a little more background, but some of this will have relevance later on.
One of the Reader organization’s philosophical precepts was that you didn’t write about stuff to “cover” it, and you didn’t make sure things “got covered.” You wrote about things because you had something interesting to say about them. Editors didn’t make assignments. I can’t underscore enough how outlandish this approach to journalism was back then, even in the alternative world. We tried to imagine a “curious and intelligent but disinterested reader”—someone who didn’t have any stake in the discussion, but who might be interested in a reasonably intelligent and coherent take on it and maybe the chops to express it.
When I came on board I was the Reader’s youngest staff writer, and I was proud to be there. I looked for things that captured my imagination or spoke to me in an unexpected way. I wrote pieces about some crappy bands I now think were mistakes, but I remember most the unusual ones that demanded more listening, and eventually made me write about them. The Vulgar Boatmen is a good example—a debut record on an unknown label that came in the mail. I ended up writing about it incessantly. (I just did a twenty-fifth-anniversary piece about the band for The New Yorker’s website.)
Since I worked at the Reader, my gig was much different than a lot of critics’ jobs. Back then there were only two ways for an artist to sell records. You had to get radio airplay, and you had to tour. The touring had a tangential effect: the articles about the band written in the local papers in the towns they traveled through. Over time, it could create national awareness for an act. (Consider: Back then the L.A. Times, say, might have had a circulation of a million, which translated into three or four million potential readers. A story there was a big deal, far more than the 400 people who might come out to see a club act—or even 15,000 who might see a big show at the L.A. Forum.) So most music critics faced a weekly grind of “phoner” interviews for previews of bands coming through town. Key point: These interviews—and hence the coverage—were initiated by the labels. Their press people were on the phones constantly, doling out slots. Artists would spend a few days before the tour got under way—and then during off hours as the tour went on—yakking on the phone in twenty-minute segments, just to get some upbeat advance coverage.
I rarely did those. (I want to say “never” but won’t in case I’m forgetting something.) When I did interview someone, it was because I had heard the record and wanted to talk to the artist. I’d call up the record company and try to set up a talk, but this would almost always be difficult, because it wasn’t part of their PR plan.
I had the quaint notion that they were there to help me out in my work, rather than vice versa. That didn’t make me too popular with label types; but over the years I developed a reputation, partly because I did a lot of “critic’s choices” for shows and other more substantive pieces, and partly from being on panels at SXSW and elsewhere. (One of them, held in the biggest convention room in Austin, was entitled “Were The Grateful Dead Really Any Good?” and nearly provoked a riot.) Record labels were a big deal back then, and I have to say that most of the folks who worked for them were, in the end, professional. Sometimes I’d get yelled at (a lot of my Critic’s Choices were perversely negative), but I wasn’t shunned. Mostly I was tolerated as an amiable if slightly challenged child.
The other regular duty of the typical local critic at the time was to crank out friendly profiles about popular or promising bands on the local scene. I didn’t do those, either. A test I had: I was looking for a track on a demo tape that I might play for a friend and say, “Listen—this is a great song!” There weren’t too many of those. (It still makes me sad to hear “Renee Remains the Same.”) I didn’t think groups should get brownie points for being local. Music was music, and I held local acts to the same standard I did national ones.
One last thing, to finish setting the scene: Jim DeRogatis had moved to town to be the pop music critic at the Sun-Times. The first few times we met he wouldn’t talk to me. After the third time he blew me off at the Metro my girlfriend had had enough: “What is up his butt?” she asked.
It transpired that Jim had been offended by a SXSW panel I’d done on the writer Lester Bangs, his hero. (I hadn’t been sufficiently adulatory.) Jim was and is a tremendous person, one with a bedrock and fearless humanity marred only by a critical apparatus that is virtually always wrong.
A prime example of this was that he thought the exact same thing about mine.
We eventually took our arguing onto the radio, and started “Sound Opinions,” a Siskel-and-Ebert-style music talk show, on The Loop, then one of the biggest rock stations in the country.
As I said, the industry was just dealing with the big “Nevermind” hangover. The Loop, for example, was finding the idea of FM rock radio shift beneath its feet. Here’s an example of how different the time was: The show Jim and I did after Kurt Cobain’s suicide—a memorable program in which we opened the phones to listeners to talk about his music—was greeted with eye-rolls at the station. But in the end, to the station’s credit, there and later on Q101, we talked about, and played, all sorts of genres you wouldn’t expect, from country to hip hop to doo-wop. Now of course the show is a powerhouse public radio staple with Jim and the Trib’s Greg Kot.
All of this is to say that I basically wrote about, and talked about, stuff I thought I had something intelligent to say about, and that readers might find interesting. I’m not saying any or all of it actually was intelligent, just that that’s what guided my approach to writing.
With a few exceptions, generally involving record deals and such—Eleventh Dream Day, Material Issue, and R. Kelly come to mind—I hadn’t written much about local groups.
And in my weekly “Hitsville” column, unless I’m forgetting someone, I don’t think I ever did just a straight-up profile of the “Here’s this person on the local scene who recorded a good album” variety…
… Until the night I met Liz Phair at Lounge Ax.
I forgot about the cassette the woman at the bar had given me until the next day. The first song (“6’1″”) was pretty good, but all bands put their best song first on their tapes. The second song was more difficult, but I noticed the phrase “weave my disgust into fame.” The fourth song was delivered in an unsteady but riveting soprano, and the fifth (“Never Said”) was better than the first one. I started to realize that everything, from the lyrics to the musical styles to her voice, was not only different on every song, but different in a lulling and sometimes thrilling way. That’s when the babbling at Lounge Ax began to make sense. I called Phair and we had breakfast at the original Wishbone on Grand the next morning, still snowy.
I was the first person ever to interview her, and it was a lot of fun. By that time the album was basically done and Matador was making plans to release it. She wasn’t known as a local club act, and getting signed this way was an end run around the local scene, which I think in retrospect laid the foundation for some of the skepticism and disdain for her that evinced itself later.
My talk with her was the next week’s “Hitsville” column, which came out that Thursday. I wanted to call it “Straight Outta Guyville.” (N.W.A. reference.) The Reader went with “Greetings from Guyville.” (Bruce Springsteen reference.) Here’s what I wrote:
While no one knows what Exile on Main St. is really about, I’d venture to say that it has something to do with the addictive, debilitating toxicity of things like sex, love, and rock ‘n’ roll. Those are Phair’s subjects as well, but while she acknowledges the dark side of the equation, she runs it all through a giddy, girl-o-centric grinder. Exile in Guyville’s epic contextualization is leavened by an unshakable pop-rock sensibility (“You can say I like classic rock”) that ties irresistible melodies and friendly, sometimes anthemic guitar riffs to recurring themes of lovesickness, carnality, emotional laceration, and the inter- and intramural gender wars. Her theses are sweeping and cheerfully kaleidoscopic, from postfeminist mournfulness (“Whatever happened to a boyfriend / The kind of guy who makes love ’cause he’s in it?”) to post-postfeminist horniness (“I want to be your blowjob queen”), from dissections of the male psyche (“I bet you fall in bed too easily”) to her own (“I get away / Almost every day / With what the girls call murder”)…
It’s a bit lo-fi, but utterly convincing as it wildly dispenses bits of Big Star pop deliciousness (“Never Said”), effortless tune making (“Help Me, Mary”), irreproachable alternative rock (“6’1″, “Fuck and Run”), Joni Mitchell-y balladry (“Dance of the Seven Veils,” though Joni Mitchell never used the word “cunt” in a song), occasional nods to guitar dissonance à la Pavement or Sonic Youth (“Johnny Sunshine”), and even Fleetwood Mac-ish atmospherics (“Explain It to Me”).
Every time I listened to the album over the next year I found new things to be impressed by. More than once I talked to colleagues in other cities—one I remember was Tim White at Billboard—and together we’d enthusiastically unpack some of the record’s secrets, from Phair’s songs to the massive sonic coup that was Brad Wood’s production.
The next six months or so, as expectations grew for the release of the album, were delightful. I had the tape and could lord my possession of it over everyone else. I tracked Phair’s every local appearance and delighted in the exasperation I sometimes heard. Phair and I kept talking, always as reporter and subject, and all of the conversations were taped. I knew the record would be a critic’s darling, but in Phair herself you could see the makings of an actual star. She was disturbingly, instinctively talented and poised; extremely good-looking and seemingly intent on sexualizing her persona; and sparklingly intelligent.
Somewhere I still have the napkin on which she sketched out her plans for the cover. This was the now iconic “blowjob queen” photobooth shot, done under the direction of Urge Overkill’s National Kato, with careful attention paid to the just-right cropping of her left nipple—accompanied by a rapid exposition of the signifiers of each piece of the shot: that nipple, the hood, the hair, the open mouth, the lipstick and so on.
Phair could take care of herself, of course. She’d opened up the debate, after all, with the title of the album. “Guyville” was a reference to the Urge Overkill song “Goodbye to Guyville,” and in Phair’s hands it became the title of the boy-dominated local rock scene. That said, very early on the background noise on her became elevated. She was fairly privileged, having grown up in Winnetka with a prominent doctor father. So you could say, as many did, that she was a rich kid. But she was adopted too, about which you could say, though few did, that her life could have ended up much differently. Her having signed to Matador, a cool label at the time but a blip on the cultural landscape, was seen as selling out. Her halting first performances were laughed at. And her personal life was talked about endlessly.
I like gossip; the free flow of information is great for journalists, particularly back then, when I was one of the few people who had a public outlet for it. But I gotta say a lot of it was heavily sexualized and felt hostile. One letter-to-the-editor slamming Phair said I was trying to get “a whiff of Winnetka pussy”; that was typical of the tone. The Chicago Headline Club at its annual comedy show at the Park West did a weird skit that implied we were sleeping together. (This was a little uncalled for; it wasn’t like we were sashaying around town together.) Tension built. Meanwhile, Newcity’s Ben Kim trashed Phair’s live shows; Phair petulantly canceled an interview with Ray Pride, who was working on a proper cover story.
But I still knew what I’d known that Saturday morning: that it was the album of the year, and was, and still is, one of the best records I’ve ever heard. Phair’s trenchant delivery, unflinching flaying of her own peccadilloes, and deceptively high musicality combined for a lethal dose of female power rock.
As the year went on and excitement built, her life got better, though she still didn’t have much money and still was just a person living in a not-particularly swellegant corner of pre-gentrification Wicker Park. Increasingly people recognized her on the street, in stores or in restaurants. Her phone—we all had landlines back then—rang incessantly. (Literally incessantly.)
A lot of the people she talked to seemed to consider her a star already, with some odd ability to do some career-defining, society-changing thing. I remember her saying that a lot of people were telling her, “You know what you should do? You should…” and then being a bit put out when she demurred.
Phair dominated the year, but other things were going on as well. The most flamboyant involved Urge Overkill. Urge was a joke band—they dressed in matching suits, spoke in a hip, neo-Rat Pack patois, adopted the stage names of National Kato, King Roeser and Blackie Onassis—but the joke was that they really weren’t a joke.
Under the tutelage of producer Steve Albini, first on his own ultra-indie label and then Touch and Go, they had recorded a few albums of very rough underground rock, filled with dread and menace. But each release had something new—dynamics, maybe, in “The Supersonic Storybook”; emotion and singing, perhaps, in “Stull.” I saw them a lot and once in a while—I’m thinking of a night at Czar Bar—they were simply awesome. “Storybook” had ended up on my top-ten list a couple of years earlier. (Again, this was a list of national albums, not one of just Chicago acts.) “Urge Overkill are believers in the aesthetic of ugly,” I had written. “The band members are ugly, their name is ugly, their albums are ugly, and their music and lyrics are ugly as well.” This was long before they were the idiot princelings of the scene. They were heavy and smart, and also had songs. You could feel their evolution.
But they’d become estranged from their onetime pal Albini and onetime benefactor Corey Rusk at the label, and were now in the midst of a range war with them. I was happy to be in the middle, collecting quotes like this one from Albini: “I have to admit that my hatred of them is slightly irrational, in that special way that you feel hatred when people who were once good friends turn into pieces of shit.” Among other Algonquin-like mots, Albini called Urge’s “Stull,” “Stool.” Urge called Albini’s “Budd,” “Pud.”
Urge had been signed to Geffen, and were running around opening for Pearl Jam and Nirvana, who liked them a lot. They were going to be on the cover of Spin, then they weren’t, then they were. They were under a lot of pressure. For their new album, they’d worked with a pair of Philadelphia producers who called themselves the Butcher Brothers. The pair had delivered an implacable foundation for the band to expand its attack on top of. “Sister Havana” had one of the great killer choruses of the era; “Back on Me” captured persuasively the band’s talent for making traditional pop sentiments sound vaguely threatening; and “Positive Bleeding,” the band’s best song, was little more than a set of signifiers (that word again) setting hippie and new age positivity against being positive in the age of AIDS—and the video was smart enough to match. The group summed up its smirky politesse in a legend displayed at the start of the clip: May We Rock You?
I was a huge fan, and hanging out listening to their shtick in their Humboldt Park HQ—it was called “the Bank”—was highly entertaining, but I was always viewed with a bit of suspicion, maybe because of the “ugly” riff from a few years before. Some of the coverage of the Albini wars pissed the group off, I think because it embarrassed them when they were trying to keep their press coverage consistent as the album was being released.
Then I did a piece on the Stalkers, a delightful pair of local women who had taken to dressing up as members of Urge and wandering through Rainbo and other clubs mocking them.
“My new record is like the White Album,” the fake Kato would say. “We’re white, and it’s an album.”
There was a slight edge to the scene at the time, much of it brought on by heavy drinking, and here and there drugs. Once in a while, you’d hear about a fight in a bar. One voluble, somewhat overheated scenester, who knew a lot of the people I’m writing about in one way or another, wrote me an agitated, three-page, single-spaced polemic along the lines of Albini’s letter to the editor, except this one had vague references to cracking me with a pool cue at the Empty Bottle—and dropped the news that he owned a gun.
One night at Metro, the band Red Red Meat was playing one of those very late Metro shows. Material Issue’s Jim Ellison, a friend of Kato’s, ran up to the front of the stage with a guy from the band My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult. They doused the band onstage with cups of beer and ran off.
Red Red Meat came to a slow stop, their noses twitching.
“It’s urine all right,” someone eventually said.
So when, around this time, I kept hearing that the Urge boys, Kato in particular, were saying they were going to kick my ass, I took it under advisement. In the early morning hours at Wrigleyville Tap, I sat discussing it with a couple of friends. “Nate’s a pussy,” someone said. “He’s not a threat.” My friend Pat Daly, who published the ‘zine Empire Monthly, looking me up and down, disagreed. “No, we want to keep Billy safe.”
Courtney Love called me late one night. I was one of her (many) AOL IM buddies. (“I love the internet,” Love said. “It’s like a video game about me.“) She was in town. Did I want to come out for a drink at such-and-such a bar? “It’s in Humboldt Park,” she said brightly.
Love went way back with Urge, and Humboldt Park was Urge territory. She didn’t mention the band, and for all I know the call was innocent. (Later on, she denied it wasn’t.) But I wasn’t going to take a chance on winding up the inhabitant of a makeshift torture room in the Bank at the hands of a drunk and pissed-off National Kato. And if she weren’t calling on behalf of Urge, the next question was, what in the hell was she doing in Humboldt Park at 2am? I didn’t see a way this experience would work out well for me.
Nah, I said.
And finally there were the Smashing Pumpkins. Industry word had been growing on them for years. Billy Corgan, talented and pugnacious, was always sort of a head case. Joe Shanahan, who ran Metro, believed in him—and boy, every time you saw them, they got better and better. But I really didn’t get the band. They were one of the groups I simply had nothing to say about. Corgan was interesting—he had a big birthmark running up one arm, which must have been a challenge to deal with as a kid—and grew up with issues. He was fiercely anti-macho but at the same time brooked no one when it came to shaping the band. “I’m not going to apologize for wanting to be great,” he said to me once.
For the first single off “Siamese Dream” he chose “Cherub Rock,” a snarl at the indie scene that hadn’t given him the time of day.
So I always thought Corgan was a smart and classy guy, even though his music didn’t speak to me. He knew I wasn’t into the band but he was never anything but professional and forthcoming when I talked to him. My sense was that he tacitly understood what the Reader did. He co-hosted “Sound Opinions” with me a couple of times when Jimmy was out of town, which he didn’t have to do, and when “Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness” came out—a big deal at the time, after “Siamese Dream” went multiplatinum, with a ballyhooed worldwide radio broadcast of a live show from the Riviera with Cheap Trick—he asked me to do the accompanying interview with the band beforehand. He certainly could have used any MTV VJ or any other star he wanted. I thought it was an example of how he would stick with Chicago people even if they weren’t sycophantic.
And finally that year, with this confluence of bands, the Chicago rock scene drew national attention. White, the editor of Billboard, wrote a rave column on “Exile in Guyville” a few months before it came out. The magazine followed up with a slate of stories on its front page, all headlined CHICAGO: THE NEW CUTTING EDGE CAPITAL or some such. Record-company weasels were camped in town, and bands were getting signed right and left. Chicago was Uncle Tupelo’s second home; after the band split up, Tweedy settled here and started his plans for Wilco. Industrial rockers Ministry became the unlikely co-headliners of the second Lollapalooza tour. R. Kelly was in the process of going multiplatinum too. (I watched him film the “Bump N’ Grind” video at the Vic, across the street from my house in Lakeview.) Veruca Salt and Loud Lucy were picked up by Geffen. Jon Langford and Sally Timms from the Mekons came to town. Bloodshot Records became an important alt-country label, and Wax Trax was selling boatloads of industrial albums by groups with names like the Revolting Cocks. (A Wax Trax-related story is one “Hitsville” column that has always stayed with me.)
And this was just part of the city’s cultural scene. Milly’s Orchid Show was in full-swing; it was so good that folks like (then unknown) David Sedaris were the third- or fourth-best thing on the bill. Even a benighted non-sports fan like me could appreciate the sight of Michael Jordan standing rampant, like Zeus. Steppenwolf and the Goodman were famous, of course, but a woman named Mary Zimmerman was just getting started at a (literally) underground theater troupe called Lookingglass. (Zimmerman’s “Arabian Nights” remains the greatest work of art I’ve seen in any medium.) You could go see a play at Oobleck, bomb over to Wicker Park to see something at Czar Bar, and then go back to the North Side to see a late show at Metro or Lounge Ax; too many nights like this you could find me in the early hours of the morning at Peters near Lincoln eating French toast with Sheila Boo Sachs, the Reader’s art director. If the Replacements, say, were pretty great at the Aragon, ‘XRT’s Johnny Mars and Marty Lennartz and I might jump into a car and run up to see them in Milwaukee the next night.
A few years ago I was flipping through an old-fashioned paper datebook before throwing it out; I noticed one weekend, which included the following among a bunch of local shows: the Flaming Lips, at their psychedelic height, was on Thursday; on Friday Courtney Love utterly destroyed at Metro, ending the show by jumping into the audience, having her clothes ripped off, getting back to the stage, turning to face the audience nude, and flipping them off; Saturday night was Sinatra at the World; Sunday night the Lips guested on Sound Opinions.
And on Monday Prince played at Metro.
I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff I’m forgetting. In any case, in late December I started doing my top-ten list. (Back then, the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop critic’s poll was a big deal—to us critics at least—so you worked on the list with an eye toward sending it off there as well.) I was going to do a little essay for the Reader, to accompany the list.
“What a year,” I thought, and started writing. I knew exactly what I was going to say.
The Pumpkins didn’t speak to me, but even in a year of amazing records, from Dre’s “The Chronic” to Nirvana’s “In Utero,” I had to be honest, even if it seemed like I was boosting hometown bands: “Guyville” and “Saturation” were the records I’d listened to, and enjoyed, the most. They were patently the two loamiest, more enjoyable, most rockin’ records of the year.
Beyond that, I’d noticed something else. I’d been watching how artists become successful. You can be a hack, surely, but all three of these, while they certainly wanted to be successful, weren’t doing it by way of imitation, or by something philosophically or aesthetically awkward or forced. To the contrary, they’d all just led with their unique vision; in each case, it was driven by an inchoate sense, something along the lines of, “I’m going to do this and”—here came a statement of ineffable optimism—”people are going to hear it and like it.”
It is a personal aesthetic vision of belief, not supplication; a shout of confidence, not fear.
Back then, in the wake of “Nevermind,” “alternative music” was all the rage, and it was often used by labels to promote utterly conventional bar bands. I tried to be careful with my language and to explain to readers what the terms I was using meant. (This is the time, remember, when a lot of critics were into casually tossing off vague terms like “electronica” or—my favorite—”postrock.”) In the piece, I was careful to define the terms as I saw them.
Underground music was deliberately non-pop. Alternative? “Relatively personal music that doesn’t necessarily exclude pop.” I thought that was something that could include both Soundgarden and, say, Morrissey, Dinosaur Jr. or the Breeders. Philip Montoro thought this was “tortured,” but that’s okay. Art is complicated sometimes.
Being a rock star or a wannabe rock star looks great from afar, but in real life it’s hard. I exist on the far marginal edges of what you’d call the creative world, and let me tell you, when it’s just you and a blank, glowing, implacable computer screen, it gets lonely. How musical artists do it—creating words, melodies, verses, choruses, having first the nerve to play it for bandmates, playing it over and over just to get it to the point where it doesn’t totally suck—is beyond me. For the visionary ones, it gets worse, as they push things to the brink of absurdity, just to come to some feeble approximation of what they heard in their head, when what they’re hearing had never been heard before. How do you convey that?
Then you get to engage in the highly enjoyable process of managing your band. Here is one of Johnny Rotten’s most profound observations: “[You] must eat shit in the rehearsal room. The histrionics of the lead guitar, the excesses of the drummer, and the stupidity of the bass player have to meet on equal footing.”
And on top of all that there was this keening bank of criticism from the cheap seats, about selling out, being “careerist” (another frequent Albini slur) and the like. But here’s the thing: All those cool indie bands from the 1980s? They’d all gone to major labels: Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Camper Van Beethoven, the Pixies and more, like R.E.M. before them, were all signed to major labels. Nirvana of course was as well. Cobain didn’t like hearing from fans that they couldn’t get his records.
Albini is known for an article that, in withering detail, explained how major-label contracts could end up screwing bands over. The implication of his attacks on me was that I was setting the bands up to be put into the major-label woodchipper.
My readers at the time were aware of this, but since time has passed and the audience has changed let me say that, if there was a pop writer in America in the 1990s who wrote more about major-label sleaziness in general, rising album- and concert-ticket prices, and ancillary consumer issues like scalping than me, I wasn’t aware of him or her. (Joe Kvidera, the manager of Tower on Clark, would let me know whenever some price increases hit.) I wrote so much about crowd safety that Eddie Vedder called to yell at me. These didn’t get mentioned in Albini’s broadside.
Some bands got screwed over by labels, true; they’d signed bad deals and Albini’s article was exactly the sort of corrective the young and naïve needed to be aware of. That said, being on a major could work out if you had some leverage (say, if they were in the midst of an alternative-rock signing spree and competing with each other for bands) and a good lawyer; and if you were careful, and didn’t run up too much in expenses against your advance. You could learn how to make records in a professional studio; you could make connections in the industry that over time could help you go off into a productive and even remunerative career if that rock ‘n’ roll stardom thing didn’t work out. (This is a whole other story, but it’s also true that there is a lot of dubious behavior by indie labels as well.)
Albini’s relationship to the underground always struck me as a bit paternal. He was like a scoutmaster with his wide-eyed charges, out on their first overnight campout. Sitting around the fire, he’d deliver a time-tested ghost story. “And then, out in the middle of the woods, I turned around and saw that… [hushed voice] I was being followed by a major label! They had Billy Corgan… and he was down on the ground and Bill Wyman was helping them. They were forcing him to… sell out! ”
Another thing: “Exile” and “Saturation” (and “Siamese Dream,” for that matter), are spectacularly and adventuresomely produced, each in its own way—highly emotional and evocative for Phair, overseen by Brad Wood; adamantine brilliance by the Butcher Brothers, for Urge; and sometimes dense soundscapes by Butch Vig, for the Pumpkins. (The hit “Disarm”—as different from the reigning Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses stuff as you could imagine—sounded great on the radio in a new and different way.) Each in its own way demonstrated production extremes at the time that were understandably deliberately not given credence by a didact like Albini.
At the time, when the country still had powerful stations like the Loop freezing out the new sounds, these were not considered highly radio- or commercial-friendly. If these three artists didn’t have their own sound in their heads, they would have all behaved much differently and recorded much different albums. Urge wasn’t pretending to be grunge; Phair wasn’t pretending to be Madonna; Corgan wasn’t pretending to be the Cure. What I said in the essay was incontrovertible: Here were three artists who had some semblance of artistic integrity, who were trying to make their way in a complex world and displayed the neuroses to prove it.
The cleverest thing in his letter is a mischievous bit of rhetorical legerdemain. Albini has it that I was an indiscriminate promoter of all three: the Pumpkins, Phair and Urge. But of course I had had nothing to say about the Pumpkins from a critical standpoint and mentioned them only when, say, “Siamese Dream” went platinum. They were by far the most commercially successful band of the three; a casual reader would have thought I’d been salivating about the band all year.
Actually, in the essay I went out of my way to point out that Billy Corgan didn’t get much critical love in Chicago:
Corgan, whose teen-friendly guitar-rock seems a likely foundation for a Depeche Mode- or Cure-sized career, had the best ’93, finding the critical respect denied him in his hometown from the likes of the L.A. Times’s Robert Hilburn and the New York Times’s Jon Pareles (who named Siamese Dream their number-two and number-three albums of the year, respectively).
(My memory could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure neither DeRo at the Sun-Times nor Greg Kot at the Trib had the Pumpkins on their year-end lists.)
Then he went after the bands:
They are by, of and for the mainstream. Liz Phair is Rickie Lee Jones (more talked about than heard, a persona completely unrooted in substance, and a fucking chore to listen to), Smashing Pumpkins are REO Speedwagon (stylistically appropriate for the current college party scene, but ultimately insignificant) and Urge Overkill are Oingo Boingo (Weiners in suits playing frat party rock, trying to tap a goofy trend that doesn’t even exist).
Rickie Lee Jones was a star from 1979. She was a friend of Tom Waits, who’d been a respected recording artist for nearly a decade; her debut record was produced and overseen by Russ Titelman and Lenny Waronker, two of the most powerful producers in the record business at the time. (Waronker was president of Warner Bros. Records.) Her sound, though flecked with jazz, fit in well with the singer-songwriter work of the decade, and indeed was a bit retro, since by that time New Wave and disco were flourishing. Her record became an immediate sensation and she had a long and respected career.
Phair, by contrast, had crafted a lo-fi girldungsroman that, pace Steve, had no commercial precursor I was aware of. Her big industry friend was a guy in a band called Come (I’m not making this up), which no one had ever heard of. She had a one-album deal with a label that, while très hep in indie circles, didn’t move as many records in a year as Warner Brothers did to the cutout bins in a given month, and was produced by a guy best known as a drummer for another band no one had ever heard of.
Besides being women, I can’t think of a way in which Phair and Jones are alike. Other than that, though, it was a very trenchant observation.
As for Urge, I hate to undermine such a great line, but for the record Oingo Boingo was a dreadful faux ska outfit with a dedicated following in L.A. and a few other places; how Urge, who were slowly evolving out of an unhappy sludge-like sound, had staked their career on a confusing double-reverse ironic palette of image-making, and generally came across as malevolent, is related to this I don’t know.
I know a secret about Steve Albini.
He’s a nice guy. He was very friendly to me when I came to Chicago (this is long before “Hitsville”) and I remember a terrific conversation about music over flan at that Mexican restaurant a few doors up from (then) Cabaret Metro. We drifted apart; he probably thought I was an idiot, and I had nothing to say about the records he worked on. A friend who’d known him at Northwestern—he’d been a journalism major—recalled a drawing Albini had done: A human head with a buzzsaw or something going through it, accompanied by the caption, “How it feels sometimes.” The ferocious and admirable guitar sounds of his Big Black albums aside, a reductive “Oh the horrors of life” shtick comes through most of his work: The title song of “Budd” was about the Pennsylvania politician who blew his head off on live TV; there was also the cover of the “Headache” album, which had a gruesome photo of an autopsy-room shot of someone who’d lost half his head in a car accident or something. (Note recurrent theme.) His second group was called Rapeman. (Kurt Cobain’s first band was called Fecal Matter but, in an early example of his being a commercial sellout, he changed it to Nirvana.) Albini is a good writer, though, and to this day remains reflexively unobsequious. (There’s a great scene in Dave Grohl’s “Sonic Highways” episode on Chicago where Albini is showing him around his Electrical Audio complex. “There’s another studio next door you guys don’t get to see, because fuck you guys.”) All that said, I know from personal experience he’s open and friendly to strangers.
Over time I got into a sort of range war with him, too. He’d rag on me on Chugchanga, the early Internet listserv he contributed to, and occasionally I’d do something to piss him off, like publicize or review the “secret show” in which he debuted a new band, dubbed Shellac, or needle him in passing on “Sound Opinions.” (“What Steve Albini doesn’t understand is that he’s a much better writer than he is a producer.”)
Albini the producer gets talked about a lot, but few take the time to examine the actual quality of it all. His studio work can be appropriate and even ageless, like that first Pixies album. But I think in other contexts his work gets old fast, and most of the high-profile clients from his salad days didn’t come back. The second PJ Harvey album, which was called “Rid of Me” and was produced—I’m sorry, “recorded”—by Albini, is the worst of her formative period; it’s unsubtle and almost cartoony. The producer Flood elicited better songs from her, and worked to create a more realistic setting for them on the followup, “To Bring You My Love,” one of the most sensational albums of the era.
Albini’s work with Nirvana is erratic, too. Too many of the songs on “In Utero,” the follow-up to “Nevermind,” are unvaried—and inferior—noise.
If you will recall, there was a contretemps at the time; Nirvana didn’t like the sound of certain tracks. Albini ran around saying Geffen had forced the band to lighten the sound on the album, and the band eventually took out an ad in Billboard defending itself. This was a first-class dickish move on Albini’s part, and a perfect example of the attacks from the left that came out of Albini’s overly romanticized underground from time to time. I came to Chicago from Berkeley, so I knew a bit about internecine leftist warfare, and it can be pretty sad.
Here, I think, is a revealing take on Steve Albini’s work, from the “In Utero” sessions, in a Chicago magazine profile from 1994:
Kurt would say, ‘I want to do a guitar overdub,’ and Steve would explain to him for a half-hour why it wasn’t a good idea, using all these weird technical terms. And Kurt would say, ‘Well, that may be so, but I still want to do a guitar overdub.’ And Steve would explain to him again why he shouldn’t do it. The last line of any of these lectures is always, ‘But you’re paying me, so I’ll do what you want. I have to put in my two cents because you’re paying me.’ But his two cents turns out to be, you know, five hundred dollars.
And that’s from one of his friends, second engineer on the recording and Shellac bandmate Bob Weston.
The band insisted on remixing a few of the songs, which all ended up sounding great. On the other hand, Albini’s original recording of the song “Dumb” remains, and that’s a song—and a production—that sounded great then and does so today.
I’d like to get to the heart of Albini’s note, which goes like this:
We harbor a notion of music as a thing of value, and methodology as an equal, if not supreme component of an artist’s aesthetic. You don’t “get” it because you’re supported by an industry that gains nothing when artists exist happily outside it, or when people buy records they like rather than the ones they’re told to.
My primary issue with this passage is the quotation marks around the word “get.” In poker terms, this is a tell.
But let’s move beyond that.
Two points: The idea that methodology is “an equal, if not supreme component” of what artists do is portentously wrongheaded, sophomorically reductive and slightly deranged, as I’m sure Cobain thought it was when Albini tried to lecture him about guitar solos.
I don’t care if Maroon 5 worked in orphanages, and I don’t care if Radiohead clubbed baby seals during the making of “OK Computer.” Rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t like walls, limits or humorless fundamentalists. The whole idea of rock ‘n’ roll is to break those sorts of bonds. The notion that operating in the clotted political bubble that is Steve Albini’s studio by itself is an aesthetic criterion at all, much less a supreme one, is difficult for me to engage with.
This lumpen romanticism has been paraded ever since by Albini’s amen corner, and I always wonder if those who quote it have ever taken the time to consider its implications, particularly when it comes to criticism.
I respect the approach, sure—I’d listen to a record recorded under that philosophy and give it the same attention I would an album not recorded by a fanatic. But I wouldn’t give it a few extra methodological happy faces in a review without saying so.
Because I’m a shill for major labels? No; because readers don’t want writers to be giving boneheads brownie points for posturing.
In the recent Reader piece, Philip Montoro’s version of this line of thinking went like this: “To my ears, Wyman fails to grasp that some musicians exist outside the industry by choice. He sees the division between ‘alternative’ and ‘underground’ as primarily aesthetic and social, and doesn’t acknowledge the economic and structural reasons for the latter to exist.”
Montoro is using a lot of words that don’t have much relevance here. You can be a sociologist and chronicle the behaviors of an underground group. Or you can be a feature writer and write a nice article letting other folks know about it. But both of those roles are different from those of a critic. It reminds me of how, a few years ago, everyone was talking about Paul McCartney’s new CD being sold in Starbucks. If you’re talking about extramusical stuff like that, it’s a good bet the record sucks.
Since I wrote about people who lived outside their various industries by choice, and since I myself worked on the margins of my own industry by choice, it was a phenomenon of which I had a tangential appreciation. What Montoro fails to grasp is that a reluctance to give an artist pats on the head for something isn’t the same as a lack of apprehension that that something exists.
Montoro doesn’t see that his far-fetched appreciation of this nonexistent dichotomy is at odds with Albini’s own peculiar wrongheadedness. Montoro’s saying I view the division between alternative and underground as primarily aesthetic, when I don’t see that at all, didn’t work under that assumption and never said I did. Being “deliberately nonpop” is a species of political decision. (And for the record, the “economic and structural reasons” the underground exists aren’t that much different from myriad other deliberately insular artistic enclaves, albeit with more slumming by guys from Northwestern.) I was simply asserting, based on reporting and my own observations that went way beyond the anecdotal, that some of the people who existed in that underground were harshing on people who weren’t in it, which is impolite and stupid. Albini, by contrast, was arguing that the aesthetics are inherent in the underground, which is adorable but isn’t true.
Since Albini’s attempts at argumentation are sometimes let down by his alternately acerbic and soapboxy verbiage, let me draw out what I think he and Montoro were really getting at, which has to do with commerciality.
They were saying that these three “pandering sluts” were deliberately creating music that was commercially minded—that they were trying to sell records—and that I was the stooge beating the drums to help major labels unload them.
Commerciality was a difficult philosophical issue for the bands at the time. A few years ago, in Salon, I wrote a long piece on the alternative years. I don’t want to repeat myself so let me just quote part of it here:
Which brings us to the poignant conundrum at the heart of the indie-rock way of life: How could they demonstrate this outsiderness, this authenticity, in a commercial environment? It was never quite articulated in quite so crude a fashion, but it was a given in that world at the time that there was a special group of true fans of any given band, surrounded by a much larger group of people who weren’t quite so worthy.
Indie rock was in effect a series of concentric circles, with each successively larger circle representing an inevitable dilution of the select. Whichever one you stood in, you scowled at the bigger ones. Were you a true indie rock fan, really? At the time, you could hear scenesters disparage Matador, the coolest and contrariest label of the era, as being hopelessly compromised.
What most bands did was draw imaginary lines in their minds: We’ll put handbills up, but not posters. We’ll do interviews, but never say anything serious. We’ll show up for the concert, but go on late to make clear we’re not eager beavers. We’ll do some college-radio interviews—and act bored to be there—but not mainstream ones, and if we do do mainstream radio, we’ll act even more bored! And we’ll talk to major-label people, if they insist, but get drunk and act like the fuck-ups we are when we meet, the better to have tales with which to regale our fans from the stage that night. And sometimes, to reward our really cool fans, we’ll have secret shows, so the uncool people can’t get in.
All this line-drawing affected real artists. Cobain wondered another thing as well. When pressed about it, he wasn’t exactly sure why it wasn’t cool to be played on the radio in the first place. Didn’t all the bands he liked growing up get played on the radio? When bands like Nirvana played live, they weren’t trying to endorse a lifestyle of social asceticism. They were presiding over a public event of joy and validation.
Why was that bad? Why was it worse if it got bigger?
You can say they were greedy, call them sellouts, think they were misguided. But the thing that drove Kurt Cobain, and the other indie bands, was a dream about pop. Money entered into the equation, of course, and why not? But something else was going on as well. As the 1980s went on, you could feel an interest building in something. It wasn’t interest in a new type of music, exactly. But there was an odd sense of a thirst for something… different. If you were one of these musicians, you could smell that need, and suddenly visualize yourself in a different world, one where kids everywhere jammed to your music, their hearts feeling that they would burst.
The most honest of these musicians admitted that they felt that way as a kid, and that it was a feeling that had driven them to the point they were at. The artists who went to the major labels could feel something hungry, almost animalistic, out in the wilderness, something alive that wanted their music.
You could look at things that way—or look at them Albini’s way. Let’s look at the next sentence again: “You don’t ‘get’ it because you’re supported by an industry that gains nothing when artists exist happily outside it, or when people buy records they like rather than the ones they’re told to.”
What he’s getting at is echoed by Montoro in the Reader from February 2: “Like many music writers, Wyman clearly considered the size of his potential audience when deciding which artists to cover.”
That was me: supported by the industry… sucking on the corporate teat… shilling for the major labels… and covering only popular artists. As I explained earlier, I didn’t “cover” things in the first place. I was blandly interested in what the majors put out in exactly the same way I was blandly interested in what Touch and Go put out. The majors had put out Ramones, the Clash, X, Prince, Talking Heads… Who wouldn’t be interested in them? Did I have to ignore things I wanted to write about just because they were released on a major label?
In Albini’s worldview, I was telling people to buy certain records because the industry told me to.
I wasn’t, but let’s say I was. What was I supposed to do then—stop telling people to buy those records and start telling them to buy his records?
I thought about this once back then and followed two trains of thought. The first was that, as I understood it, the idea was that I was supposed to take the fact that a band wasn’t trying to be popular and tell people to buy it based on what in Albini’s view was this “supreme” aesthetic consideration.
But if all critics did that, those bands then might become popular.
In theory you could end up with a remarkable commercial movement of artists—led by Steve Albini, their talents trumpeted by an enthusiastic and complaisant media—that disliked the mass audience and whose preference would have been to be disliked in turn by it… being paradoxically forced to accept its money and acclaim.
A fine kettle of fish that would have been!
The second train of thought was that, in the past, the utopian visions heralded by certain folks enforcing the idea of a supreme methodological aesthetic turned out to be not so good in the long run for artists on both sides of that particular cultural debate.
Besides all the reporting-based stuff I did on music-industry scumbagginess, I did something else, too, that bears upon some of the things Albini was writing about. There’s a dirty little secret in rock journalism, and that is that negative reviews barely exist. (Take a look at the music ratings on Metacritic sometime; they are almost always all green.) When Jon Pareles dismissed Coldplay in the Times a few years back, the reverberations went on for months.
With the caveat, again, that I’m explaining something now that I think my readers at the time already knew, let me note that, in the Reader alone, I wrote highly negative reviews of Pearl Jam, Neil Young, Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Guns N’ Roses, Ice Cube, Dylan, the Eagles, Stone Temple Pilots, Lenny Kravitz, Eazy-E, the band Chicago, Pink Floyd, Michelle Shocked, Madonna, Pavement and 2 Live Crew, with the (pre-DeRogatis) rock critic at the Sun-Times and Strunk & White thrown in for good measure, some of these more than once and often at a length of three-, four- and five-thousand words—and those are merely the highly negative ones that come to mind immediately. Beyond that, there was not a quote-unquote powerful music figure in town, starting at Jam Productions and the guy who ran Soldier Field to radio-station program directors and running to club owners and bookers, including Metro and Lounge Ax, who did not at one time or another, and in some cases more regularly, call to express their supreme displeasure at something I’d written. (No email back then!)
Before Phair, the local artist I’d written the most about was Paul Caporino, who had a band called M.O.T.O., put out his songs on cassette, and was so low-fi he recorded his drums through a pair of headphones. I wrote two back-to-back columns on a singer-songwriter named Jo Carol Pierce, who was in her fifties and working the overnight shift at a suicide hotline and didn’t sell a tenth as many records as the few the Jesus Lizard did. When I first wrote about Urge they were nobodies, and when I wrote about Liz Phair she was just a weird woman in a bar.
The dismal fact is, all of these things I’ve been describing combined together to ensure that the support Albini said I was getting from the industry was thin gruel indeed.
I felt okay not responding to Steve’s missive then, and still don’t feel I have to now, but if someone asked I would say, in the end—aside from the fact that it was exactly the sort of thing that catalyzed the subject of my essay in the first place, that it was directed at a straw man, that it was entirely wrong on the facts, that it was done mostly for the benefit of his campfire kids and that, finally, it stunk of a gassy intellectual dishonesty borrowed and perpetuated, in turn, over two decades, by a loyal troupe of nitwit myrmidons—aside from all that, well, it was a pretty entertaining letter.
In the years since, Urge hasn’t produced a lot of stellar work, though there are powerful songs indeed on “Saturation”’s follow-up, “Enter the Dragon.” (“The Break,” “Tin Foil,” “The Mistake.”) Memories of the band remain strong in the minds of some—witness their opening gig for the Foo Fighters at Wrigley last summer. As for Phair, her ineffable talent only intermittently displayed itself in the other albums from her classic period. (I’m thinking of “Perfect World,” from her third album, “Whitechocolatespaceegg.”) She too was caught up in the indie-cred thing. Everyone had advice for Phair, as I said. Me, I think she should have been a little more commercially pliant at the time—letting someone else direct her videos, rather than insisting on doing them herself, and investing more time in touring, for example. She might have learned something, might have had a more consistent career. She never quite got control of her image, despite even blatantly trying to sell out for a few pop albums in the last decade or so. Her personal web page—in which she stands, mincing, in skimpy underwear—remains an embarrassing testament to this. She became, in a sense, an unreliable narrator, not because she was lying, but because her efforts to maintain or deflect an image sometimes consumed her. A documentary she made on herself—thesis: here are some cool people who think I’m cool, including Ira Glass and John Cusack—is a good example. Her fan base has waned so much that the doc, entitled “Exile Redux,” in contrast to just about every other piece of film made in the last fifty years, can’t be found online.
As for Billy Pumpkin, he was a genuine star for a long enough time to have decisively foiled all his naysayers. I’m sure he’s seen and done things the rest of us can’t even conceive of, and, aside from a few bouts of weirdness, he seems to have handled himself well.
To some, ressentiment remains. In the “Exile Redux” film, for example, Phair lets Albini go off on me one last time: “There was this guy Bill Wyman! He was a gatekeeper! He was, uh, keeping the gates…”
Or something like that.
This debate—underground versus commerciality, integrity versus being a dick, have faded somewhat now. All the groups that want to associate can find their own level on the Internet, and good luck trying to keep something secret. This whole discussion, indeed, will seem jejune, passé, to some.
As for rock—it could be dead. But if it isn’t, those with perspective will note that, every twenty years or so, something comes along. These artists will hear something in their head we haven’t heard before, and undoubtedly feel very lonely and very isolated as they work to make the sounds a reality, but will draw strength from a dream that someone out there wants to hear their music.
Along the way they’ll get called careerists. Or they’ll have some acquaintances, who, vicariously seeing their future through a new hope, will say, “You know what you should do? You should… ”
…and be disgruntled when they are left behind.
By which I mean to say this, an echo of something I once wrote in another article, long ago and right around the time Kurt Cobain decided he wanted to be a rock star: That outside in the dark there are some new rough beasts slouching around, and not even Steve Albini is going to stop them from coming.
After leaving Chicago, Bill Wyman was arts editor of Salon.com and later assistant managing editor at National Public Radio in Washington. He is currently a cultural contributor at Al Jazeera America and has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine and the New Yorker.