Confessions of a reformed asshole

JULY 22 1962 - MAY 7 2024

Confessions of a reformed asshole

The punk rock icon Steve Albini, who died this month, once went out of his way to offend people. Late in life, he apologised — but he never compromised on his punk principles, writes FRED DE VRIES.


FOR underground fiends he was the ultimate hero of the 1980s, a purveyor of independence who tirelessly championed authenticity, autonomy and an alternative to the mainstream. More casual rock fans will know him as the producer of Nirvana’s In Utero, the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s Walking Into Clarksdale, and perhaps The Breeders’ Pod. Steve Albini, who passed away this month at the age of 61, gave those records their abrasive yet undeniably human sound. Next time, I’ll talk about producers. This column will be about Albini as an underground icon and provocateur.

Let’s get one thing straight: Steve Albini was first and foremost an artist. And for him, art stretched far beyond playing your guitar. An artist in the 1980s — remember, this was the age of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, ruthless capitalism, MTV, coke-snorting record executives with ponytails; the proper death knell of the Sixties — you had to provoke, shake things up. Things were still possible, if you tried hard enough.

There were tons of emerging young bands with names such as R.E.M., Replacements, Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Meat Puppets, Violent Femmes. They released their records through independent outlets. College radio played the songs and fanzines spread the word that this was fabulous music. Independence was something to be proud of. This fell by the wayside in the new millennium when greed and indifference took over. Albini’s idea was to be as far away as possible from the toxic world of MTV and men with ponytails.

Steve Albini.
Steve Albini.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

With people like Greg Ginn (Black Flag) and Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat), Albini was a crucial cog in this scene, as a musician and a mouthpiece. He embodied the independent “I don’t give a fuck" attitude. He did away with niceties, pleasantries and politeness. If that would cost him fans, so be it. He fronted a number of bands, including Big Black, Rapeman and Shellac, whose music oscillated between grinding post-punk and proto-industrial. A critic described it as “a saw blade tearing through metal". The Nestor of American music criticism, Robert Christgau, described the sound of Big Black’s debut album, Atomizer, as: “The brutal guitar machine thousands of lonely adolescent cowards have heard in their heads." It was the kind of music that would send your girlfriend (it’s very much boys' music) run screaming for the door. And that would be before she had even noticed the subject matter of Albini’s lyrics: mass murderers, child abusers, crackheads, perverts, contract killers, violent alcoholics, sadists, arsonists.

One of Big Black’s EPs was called Headache, with a cover picture of someone whose head had been cleaved. Because this photograph was too upsetting for record shoppers, the vinyl was then packed in black plastic — plastic from a body bag, that is. Another early EP had “gifts" from the band in its paper sleeve, including razor blades, hair, Bazooka Joe comics, pictures of dead people and bloodied tissues. Deliberately ugly is a phrase that captures Albini and his various bands.

So why is he important? Why do you have to read about him? Because he was a true icon. He embodied everything punk stood for, which was more than playing loud guitars and railing against the system. He stuck to what punk once promised: to provide a vibrant alternative to the mainstream. And he stuck to this principles until the day he died. The liner notes of the Big Black live album Pigpile sum up his attitude: “Treat everyone with as much respect as he deserves (and no more). Avoid people who appeal to our vanity or ambition … Operate as much as possible apart from the ‘music scene' … Take no shit from anyone in the process."

Steven Frank Albini was born in 1962 in Pasadena, California. He spent his formative years in small-town Montana before landing in Chicago, where as a smart outsider he fell in with an accepting punk crowd. “There I didn’t have to be embarrassed about my perverse side," he said in a Vinyl Guide podcast. As a teenager, Albini was a typical nerd, way too intelligent and witty for his own good, and bullied by jocks and rednecks who delighted in his pain after he broke his leg in a traffic accident. Albini saw that the world was a screwed-up place inhabited by hypocrites, liars and other assorted horrible people. His musical career was one long attempt to bring this to light, preferably in the most obnoxious way possible. He “seemed like a giant asshole", wrote Jeremy Gordon in a long profile for The Guardian last year.

Albini didn’t take the easy route, like annoying people who you consider your adversaries, or what the French call épater le bourgeois, shocking the bourgeoisie. No, he went out of his way to upset people who would be buying his records, attending his gigs and sharing similar ideas. He offended his peers. He wanted to call the second Big Black EP “Hey, Nigger". His reasoning was that “an offensive term used by an offensive person is only offensive if you allow that person’s commentary to have some weight or value". Eventually his friends and band mates dissuaded him from using this title. There were pickets at Rapeman gigs. He thought them stupid, because obviously he was not a misogynist or racist. After all, he came from a radical, extremely open-minded punk scene that allowed every deviant and loser to be part of it. Later he would admit: “The really annoying thing was that the majority of the people on the picket line were precisely the kind of people that we would have liked at the gig — people that politically basically think like we do."

So he backed down, a bit, not a lot. Naming your second album Songs About Fucking can hardly be seen as great marketing, while calling your second band Rapeman (after a Japanese black-comedy manga) would definitely ruffle some feathers. The nadir of his career was the song Pray I Don’t Kill You Faggot, which he recorded under the equally offensive name Run Nigger Run. Contrarian?

No, Rian Malan is a contrarian, always looking for a different angle and an alternative explanation. Albini was different. In his book Our Band Could Be Your Life (Little Brown, 2001), Michael Azerrad describes him as “irascible, outspoken, intelligent, and relentlessly ethical". I would add obnoxious and irreverent to that list, someone who slotted right into a rock universe that includes Jerry Lee Lewis, Lou Reed, John Lydon (Sex Pistols), Mark E Smith (The Fall), Blixa Bargeld (Einstürzende Neubauten) and Billy Childish — staunch outsiders who refused to sell their soul (ie. art) to the shallow world of entertainment, and were quite happy to let it be known. “These are people who forged a way in the music industry that may seem obvious in retrospect, but literally didn’t exist before they did it. Originals all and very much against what was considered the norm in the music industry," says Pretoria artist Mark Kannemeyer, who used to contribute to Bitterkomix, an occasionally shocking underground comic started by his brother Anton and his pal Conrad Botes.

Lou Reed.
Lou Reed.

Mark left Bitterkomix many years ago and found his own idiosyncratic way of surviving as an artist while sticking to laudable beliefs about freedom of expression, not selling out and tirelessly promoting good music, art and literature. Albini was definitely a role model, he says. They even look alike: glasses, tall, skinny, the anti-rugger bugger. “I discovered him many years ago in a record store in Berlin called Mr Dead and Mrs Free. I was fresh from South Africa, where punk was almost unobtainable. And there was me, hungry with open ears. I asked the record store guy to recommend something ‘punk', at which he played me Wire’s Pink Flag. I signalled that I would definitely be taking that one. Then he took out Rapeman and handed me the cover. The clean line artwork appealed, but when I heard that brazen metallic guitar screech being chopped in fast succession, I was sold. It was a short route to buying all the Big Black stuff, and later, Shellac."

Big Black was Albini’s first band, formed in 1981. Initially, it was just him and a drum machine. Soon, he added two musicians, one on bass guitar and one on guitar — the drum machine christened Roland remained to give the music its relentless, pummelling drive. Big Black was, in Albini’s words, “a reduction of the concept of a large, scary, ominous figure". But it wasn’t just music that made an impression. As a gifted writer and an eager interviewee, he would be cutting and scathing. Holy cows were there to be slaughtered. So he laid in on alternative celebrities Public Image Ltd (Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols outfit), indie favourites Hüsker Dü, British punks The Stranglers and the much-lauded Joy Division producer Martin Hannett, whom he called “a miserable little junkie". About the Pixies, whose debut album he produced, he wrote: “Never have I seen four cows more anxious to be led around by their nose rings."

Jerry Lee Lewis.
Jerry Lee Lewis.
Mark E Smith.
Mark E Smith.

But it wasn’t all bile and blood, there was also something gregarious, generous and even gracious about him. Not selling out meant he actively helped other artists and people who wanted his advice. He was always available over the phone or by e-mail. As a producer, he didn’t rip people off. Even when he was at the top of his fame, he charged affordable fees.

And most importantly, he didn’t mind admitting he had been an asshole. He didn’t mind making amends for some of the statements he had made which had hurt people. He realised that the times had changed, that those little punk anarchic scenes where you could get away with just about anything had ceased to exist. The success of bands such as Nirvana and Sonic Youth, who had signed to major labels, and later Green Day and blink-182, had turned punk into something else, something much more mainstream. And politics had changed. Whereas in the Eighties the loony right was exactly that, it had now grown into a big and violent force that didn’t hesitate to attack Capitol Hill if it didn’t like the election outcome. And you sure as hell didn’t want to be associated with them. Or as Albini put it in The Guardian, “when you realise that the dumbest person in the argument is on your side, that means you’re on the wrong side".

So in late 2021 he did a complete turnaround. “A lot of things I said and did from an ignorant position of comfort and privilege are clearly awful and I regret them," he wrote on Twitter. He was fully aware of his privileged position when he stated: “Life is hard on everybody and there’s no excuse for making it harder. I’ve got the easiest job on earth, I’m a straight white dude, fuck me if I can’t make space for everybody else." In The Guardian he explained: “It’s not about being liked. It’s me owning up to my role in a shift in culture that directly caused harm to people I’m sympathetic with, and people I want to be a comrade to. The one thing I don’t want to do is say, ‘The culture shifted — excuse my behaviour.' It provides a context for why I was wrong at the time, but I was wrong at the time."

Kannemeyer understands this volte face. “Well, it was punk, it wasn’t about bottling things up — rather the opposite. But what seemed like a good idea at the time may come back to haunt you later in life. The reason for calling your band Rapeman may not be self-explanatory to some people. And insulting people probably would not come across as constructive criticism. So at some stage you probably have to make amends for having been an asshole."

Asked about Albini's legacy in The New York Times Popcast, Jeremy Gordon, author of The Guardian profile, said: “His ultimate legacy is about ideas, about the moral teachings that you can take from punk rock music."


♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.