Just a Bad Penny: RIP Steve Albini

Published: May 09, 2024

Photo credit: Ben Stas via BrooklynVegan – full article/gallery here.

It was sometime in 2003 or 2004 when I was spending a lot of time holed up in my house, self isolating with as many books on music scenes and history as I could find, when I came across Michael Azzerad’s (now seminal) Our Band Could Be Your Life.This was a period of my life where I was fairly lost (one of many) and I was searching for something. I just didn’t know what it was. I was already obsessing over Black Flag, Mudhoney, and Sonic Youth and had passing familiarity with a few of the other bands but one that was completely unknown to me was Big Black. Their chapter was a painting of antagonistic and caustic behavior, seemingly at moral and ethical odds with their contemporaries in the 1980’s punk/indie scene. But my biggest impression was that their singer was a complete asshole, which spoke to me, and so I gave their music a shot, starting with “L Dopa” from the aptly named Songs About Fucking and I found a piece of what I was looking for and began the decades-long personal importance of Steve Albini. 

On the night of April 7th, Albini died of a heart attack. He was 61. We could talk about the legacy he left behind, of who he worked with, of his inability to remain quiet. We could talk about fucking Nirvana. But that’s going to be penned elsewhere, by people who were there, who are able to express their loss of a friend, colleague etc. That’s not my role, my job is to talk about Albini’s impact on my life and maybe yours too. This job is self appointed and, yes dear internet, everything does have to be about me.

The early 2000s was a weird time for a lot of reasons and in a lot of ways, but it was also a time before record collecting became something your aunt is into because she bought the Wal-Mart exclusive vinyl of the new Taylor Swift and thinks it’ll be a solid financial investment down the line. After hearing a small sample of Big Black I got into my car and drove to Vintage Vinyl in Fords, NJ with certainty they would have the Big Black catalog in stock, which they did, and from there I began studying each record. They were one of the most confrontational bands I had ever heard, on par with Black Flag’s later records, with a minimalistic yet commanding sound. It was fucking spiteful, and, at the center of it, was Albini’s very antagonistic, brutally honest attitude. I was very much into the Rollins era of Black Flag as well as his writing but he also seemed like he was crafting a persona. Albini just seemed like a sarcastic jerk-off who was grounded in reality but also shared a love of language and its potential as a weapon. There was a sheen of degeneration to his work, like a sonic Bukowski. The deeper I dug, the dirtier it got.

It was obvious to me that Albini used every opportunity he was given to speak as caustically and sincerely as possible, regardless of the morality (or accuracy) or what he was railing against. I found it to be inspiring, maybe not for the right reasons, and by 2006 when I was planning my first “post-Krieg” recording project I decided to cover “Bad Houses” as a way to draw a line between the ethos and mindset of black metal and that of bands like Big Black and of personalities like Albini. And shortly thereafter I would wake up after a botched suicide attempt and dive headfirst into some of the darkest times of my life. And Albini was there with me, only this time it was with Shellac.

Shellac weren’t as dark as Big Black. They weren’t as obscene or perverse. But they were every bit as confrontational, just in a different way. Conceptually (and musically) far more abstract than Albini’s previous projects, I hate to use the cliche that Shellac is a more “mature” vehicle driven by Albini, but the shoe fucking fits here. And then there’s “Prayer to God,” which, if you’ve ever been in the situation described in the lyrics, can be one of the most poignant expressions of your experience possible. I read somewhere in passing it’s satire, but that might have been some Reddit bullshit I passed by while looking up articles for this piece. Either way, it hit the mark in a lot of people’s lives. 

And that’s where I’m going to stop talking about his music. “Where’s Rapeman?” you wonder, mouth slightly agape with desire, hopeful I’d skip the most “problematic” band he was in? Besides this mention, yes. Not because of the name or the history but just because I’ve never felt that record was anything more to me than a curiosity, sort of like Pailhead. But it does segue into talking about Steve Albini, the growth that (should) occur during our lives, and our culture at large.

Throughout his multi-decade career Albini always seemed to be the loudest voice in the room, and at times that voice was incendiary and provocative while at others it was repugnant. It’s very easy to use the “well it was the time” excuse, especially when you look at the punk/indie subculture being a reaction to the puritanical nature of both mainstream culture and American/Western “values” (occurring during the Reagen and Thatcher years, especially) or when you look at the age of the people involved. These are all factors to consider. But does it make it right? Albini spent the last few years answering that. 

He seemed to understand that his explanation wouldn’t satisfy everyone, but that it was vital  to approach the subject with transparency and sincerity. In the current climate where we’re drowning in Reddit/X fueled attempts to destroy people based on stupid shit they said when they were younger and many of those targets doing their best to bob and fucking weave through it, it was more important than ever for someone like Albini to publicly address his past offenses, own up to them, and attempt to make things right and to show growth in his mindset. As human beings we have an incredible capacity for fucking up but we also have that same capacity to learn from our mistakes and move forward. Does everyone use the latter to their benefit? Absolutely not, because people can be morons. Or they could try to learn and grow and subsets of people clustered on the internet will do whatever they can to become an obstacle. As overused and exhausting of an idea that “cancel culture” has become, bottom feeders on both sides of the issue continue to thrive on it and second chances are looked at in the same way adults look at the concept of Santa Claus or productive government. Albini knew the power of telling those people to fuck off and to openly work on himself.

He was also a tireless advocate for artist control and freedom. If you read his piece “The Problem with Music” from 1993 you’ll see someone who had educated themselves on the numerous and deceitful ways in which the music industry preyed on the musicians themselves sending out a sermon to those not yet poisoned on what to do to avoid those pitfalls. Over thirty years later you can see very little has changed on the industry side, outside of record labels being bought out by the majors until a monopoly exists with two or three corporations owning the majority of the labels you swore were independent and ethical. You can see it in Spotify and other streaming platforms. You’re even starting to see it with Bandcamp. Albini never stopped speaking out on behalf of artists and how the industry works to drain them of all life then spit them out, only to move on to the next.

This could go on and on speaking about the man’s achievements and failures, of his personality that continued until the end to strive to be the loudest voice in the room, still antagonistic and provocative, just in a different way than where he began. But, like I said, those stories will be written by others, so I’ll make this about myself again. Albini has been an inspiration over the years to me for many different reasons, be it musical or philosophical or ethical, but the crux of it all is that fight for the independent artists and to speak your mind freely and not shy away from the consequences. The spirit of questioning industry and authority, of finding your own voice and way of doing things. That is what I’ll keep with me.

Steve Albini died just days before the first Shellac album in a decade, To All Trains, was to be released. They were just starting to hit the promotional cycle and touring was planned. It may sound cliche at this point but it’s a sad reminder that we can’t plan for the end of our lives and the excuse of “there’s still time” isn’t really an excuse. 

The only time I ever interacted with him was at a Shellac show at the First Unitarian Church in Philly. This had to have been in 2008 or 2009, and I stuck around after the show to stand around with a bunch of other assholes, hoping to have just a quick moment with him. I knew that he was cultivating an interest in black metal and I wanted to be “that guy” and tell him about the cover I did, fully expecting him to shit on me. I watched him dispatch a few of the crowd in the most polite way of telling someone their question was stupid that I’d seen up to that point. But when I had my chance he actually took the time to really talk to me for a bit. We talked about music, black metal and just general bullshit. I told him I’d send him a copy of the cover (which I never did because, well, it’s me) and we parted. I found him to be one of the nicest musicians I’d ever spoken to, a genuinely funny guy who obviously still had a lot of passion for what he did. And that’s the story I’ve gotten from people who knew him well. And for those who were close to him, I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry for all of our loss. Rest well, Steve, and from someone who didn’t know you, thank you.

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