In early 1997, when I’d been at the Reader just a few months, I learned about a piece of workplace history already treasured by the other music nerds on staff: that time in ’94 when Steve Albini wrote in to tear Reader music critic Bill Wyman a new orifice because Wyman had dismissed the “rear guard from the underground” as “bullshit” in his year-end column while praising the Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, and Urge Overkill.
Albini’s magisterially cranky letter ran in the issue of January 28, 1994, headlined “Three Pandering Sluts and Their Music-Press Stooge.” (The headline was ours, but the language was all his—it ought to give you a pretty good idea of his tone throughout.) Replies flooded in over the next two months, some pro and some con, including a letter from Weasel Walter of the Flying Luttenbachers so sarcastic that not even light could escape. One person who didn’t respond, though, was Wyman himself—at least not before the end of March (that’s as far as I searched in our bound volumes of back issues).
“Clip your year-end column and put it away for ten years,” Albini admonished in closing. “See if you don’t feel like an idiot when you reread it.” It’s been 22 years since then, and in case you’re wondering why I bring this up now, Monday the Smashing Pumpkins announced a spring tour with none other than Liz Phair. (They play the Civic Opera House on Thursday, April 14, and tickets go on sale Friday at 11 AM.)
Of course, neither artist has turned out to be a flash in the pan. In 2003 Rolling Stone ranked Phair’s 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, at 327 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (though it’s fair to say she never equaled it), and the Smashing Pumpkins have sold more than 20 million albums in the U.S. alone (though it’s equally fair to say, as Albini surely would, that album sales do not necessarily correlate with merit).
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Albini remains revered as an engineer and as a musician—his band Shellac, though basically a hobbyists’ project at this point, curated an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in 2012 and can take its pick of gigs on several continents. And his own taste—which Wyman indicted with the phrase “the harshness, contrariness, and machismo of the underground”—has been vindicated by time as well. The Jesus Lizard, with whom Albini had a long and productive relationship, played Pitchfork in 2009 in the middle of what can only be characterized as a hugely successful reunion run.
Albini’s letter is archived on the Reader‘s website (you should really click that link and read the whole thing), but for reasons obscure to me the Wyman column that provoked it, titled “Not From the Underground: 1993 in Review,” has vanished into the Internet memory hole. I excavated the issue of January 7, 1994, and transcribed the opening paragraph.
The line on Chicago’s 1993 contributions to the national pop firmament—Liz Phair, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Urge Overkill—is that they’ve in effect agreed to disagree on musical approaches, making for a fractured “scene” with little cohesion. This is true, but their stylistic differences mask the philosophical ground that unites them and seems likely to influence a second wave of bands from Chicago in 1994: an explicit rejection of much of the insularity that increasingly characterizes underground music and the fringes of alternative music in America. Few would question what I guess would be called the artistic integrity of any of these acts: yet they’ve avoided (Phair), criticized (Pumpkins), or loudly abandoned (Urge) the harshness, contrariness, and machismo of the underground in favor of a professed desire to sell records. Hence the reaction of certain fans, smaller record labels, college-radio DJs, and other scenesters: scathing attacks on Urge, gleeful, sexist whispers about Phair, the contemptuous dismissal of the Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan. Of course, the players have to varying degrees brought a lot of their problems on themselves, and at any rate they’re beginning to see the sort of bank balances that tend to put such problems into perspective. Yet each artist had to grapple with what’s supposed to be a dichotomy of being popular and being “alternative.” Once it became apparent that the line between the two was blurring, the rear guard from the underground—which I would define as deliberately nonpop, whereas I guess alternative would be relatively personal music that doesn’t necessarily exclude pop—tried not only to keep them clear, but to make a big deal out of which side of the line you were on. This, of course, is bullshit, and these artists took a stand and the resulting heat to prove it.
It’s instructive to remember that just two decades ago, music critics still used the word “alternative” as though it meant something—though Wyman’s tortured definition makes it clear that even then nobody was sure exactly what that was. And it’s helpful to consider, when reading Albini’s reaction, that less than two months before Wyman had devoted a column almost exclusively to the “three pandering sluts” in question.
“These are not ‘alternative’ artists any more than their historical precursors,” Albini wrote. “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).”
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. (As Walter put it, rather more cynically: “With the advent of all this Coke Is It!/Alternative Rock bullshit it is popular for mainstream rock critics to feign knowledge of the Harsh, Contrary, and Macho Underground Music Scenes in order to remain ‘credible and groovy.'”) Like many music writers, Wyman clearly considered the size of his potential audience when deciding which artists to cover. That’s not a terrible metric to use, and the Internet has only made it more common—how many readers will you have if you only talk about shit nobody has heard of?
My sympathies lie with Albini, though, and not just because every band I’ve ever played in has been thoroughly, even obnoxiously uncommercial. For my nearly 12 years as music editor of the Reader, I’ve stayed committed to the strange, obscure, and underappreciated, and I’ve stood behind writers whose proclivities bend in those directions. As far as I’m concerned, free weeklies ought to serve the same needs for music lovers that undersupervised college radio stations still can—even though all the world’s music is theoretically a click away, it’s still hard to search for something you don’t know exists. A knowledgeable obsessive with a public platform can surprise you with a sound you never knew you’d been waiting your whole life to hear.
In other words, sometimes people don’t decline to cheer on the anointed stars of the age out of resentment, snobbery, or territorialism. Sometimes they’re legitimately more excited about something else—even if it won’t sell any records.
The Smashing Pumpkins are calling their concerts on this tour “In Plainsong: An Acoustic-Electro Evening,” and the press materials promise “acoustic based music and electronic soundscapes.” To me this doesn’t sound like an approach that will play to the group’s strengths, but I’ve never considered them anything but a rock band—I haven’t bought a record of theirs since Gish, which came out in 1991. Corgan even had long hair then.
The road lineup will include Corgan (of course) and Jeff Schroeder, who’s played guitar and keyboard with the band since 2007. Also aboard is original drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, whose playing I love—plus his presence mitigates the “Billy Corgan and whoever feels like showing up” aspect of other recent Pumpkins incarnations. After this tour, they’ll record a follow-up to 2014’s Monuments to an Elegy.