R.I.P. Steve Albini

It’s strange to be at the age where someone dies at 61 and … it doesn’t sound that old. 61 would have sounded really old to me in the 90s, when Steve Albini and the music he produced was such a massive part of my life. Hell, it was THE soundtrack for my life. Albini is (was) a legend, known for his anti-establishment attitudes – which weren’t just “attitudes”. He lived it. His work was powered by it, a rarity in music producers. He was known in real time for the tireless dogged support of the artists he produced, shielding them from “the suits” and their stupid “commercial” bullshit. He was known for this. You wonder why Gen X is … cranky sometimes? lol It’s because we spent our youth trying to avoid “selling out”. It was basically a fetish for us. See: Reality Bites which … not only does not age well but it’s super depressing because … the Ben Stiller character has really won. We live in his world now. But that’s maybe just the Gen X in me talking. There was beauty in this belief in “purity” – and I am grateful for the accident of time and circumstances – but suspicion of success to the degree we experienced it can also be dangerous or at least counter-productive. Kurt Cobain was tormented by it. A lot of us were. But Steve Albini insisted artists knew more about their art than marketing teams and record labels. The stories are legendary. Just Google around. People are sharing all of these clips, letters to the editor he dashed off, interviews … he had so much integrity. A Gen X role model.

If you were a Nirvana fan, then you will remember 2013, when In Utero was re-released in a deluxe edition to celebrate the 20th anniversary of that incendiary follow-up to the band’s cataclysmic Nevermind. (If you were of a certain age you will also remember the disconnect of being like “…. it’s been 20 years? wtf”). I came across this 2013 article on Spin about the event and the special features included in the deluxe edition.

The most attention-getting was Albini’s now-famous 4 page typewritten letter to the three band members of Nirvana, proposing a plan for the upcoming recording sessions. The pressure was on them big-time. If you were there, you remember. The world is different now, the music industry is completely different. Hell, the public is different, because they of course respond to reality in their expectations. But back in 1992, the mono-culture was a real thing – for better or worse – and it’s impossible to over-state Nevermind‘s place in that culture – the passion of the fans – what Nirvana unleashed – and how their follow-up was already greeted with a mixture of suspicion and fear. They were global superstars but still there was a fear they would “sell out”, that their album would somehow be swallowed up by a marketing team trying to capitalize on the success. Like, these were real discussions we had on the ground. So Albini wrote this letter. He would be producing the album but he positioned himself as an employee, pitching himself and his plan to them. He stated he would refuse to take any “points” for the sessions:

I would like to be paid like a plumber. The record company will expect me to ask for a point or a point and a half. If we assume three million sales, that works out to 400,000 dollars or so. There’s no fucking way I would ever take that much money. I wouldn’t be able to sleep… I consider the band the most important thing. I think the very best thing you could do at this point is exactly what you are talking about doing: bang out a record in a couple of days, with high quality but minimal ‘production’ and no interference from the front office bulletheads. If that is indeed what you want to do, I would love to be involved.

Again, Albini was notorious for this kind of thing and beloved for it. Came across this great tribute piece about the albums he was involved in – it’s an insane list.

In a 2013 interview, as the furor over In Utero was swirling, Albini was asked about this typewritten letter. He answered, describing the whole vibe around the band at that time:

All of the people that were carping at the band from the outside about what a mistake they’d made with this record, that pretty accurately represented what they wanted to do with their music… all of those people [are] parasites. They weren’t involved in making the record. They want, somehow or another, to claim authorship of the creative output of these other people who are actually doing the heavy lifting for their career. I can’t have any respect for somebody like that, who’s not involved in the creative process but then decides that they wanna snipe at it from the outside and manipulate people into doing things to suit them. Fuck every one of those people.

They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Or, not even “anymore”. They don’t make ‘em like that period.

Rest in peace, and thank you. You embodied what we cared about as kids and young adults. Puritanical in its own way – not sexually, but morally/ethically – rigid in its value system, not only what it embraced, but what it rejected. And you were an example, someone we could point to and say, “Look. It can be done. Resist the system. The system sucks. You can say No to it. Say No.” To quote Albini: Fuck every one of those people.

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6 Responses to R.I.P. Steve Albini

  1. Scott Abraham says:

    As I was explaining to my friend yesterday (a country music guy), Albini had STANDARDS – technical, artistic, business – and stood by them and lived them. And it looks like he passed in his custom studio, wearing those overalls, doing what he did best.

    It was interesting following him the last couple of decades. He seemed to find a certain grace with himself and other people. But it was also hilarious when he reverted to form and ripped on Steely Dan (…jazz dorks…). Don Rickles couldn’t a done it better.

    • sheila says:

      lol Yes, someone on Facebook mentioned the Steely Dan diss …

      I guess you don’t get to where he got without having STRONG taste, and STRONG standards about what you wanted to align yourself with. Everyone might not agree but that’s what happens when you are iconoclastic to the degree he was.

      I admire that integrity – to have standards and to actually be able to hold the line on them in such a rapacious business as music!

      He so embodied his time, almost an avatar of the value system and ethical system so prevalent in the 80s underground and the 90s.

    • sheila says:

      I just tracked down his Steely Dan tweet-storm and it’s so funny. “He says it’s bluesy … really bluesy … and then he sits down at an electric piano”

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