Bringing ‘Em Back Alive

This weekend Eric St. Clair and Christian Johnson, who for almost three years have run the live-music program on Northwestern University’s WNUR (89.3 FM), will present “Airplay: Best of 1998.” And as featured performers throughout the year have included Richard Buckner, DJ Spooky, Johnny Dowd, Alejandro Escovedo, Calexico, Uzeda, Freakwater, Buffalo Daughter, Kool Keith, Sue Garner, the Last Poets, Jack Logan, the Schramms, John Fahey with Jim O’Rourke, and Yo La Tengo’s James McNew with Jad Fair, this show can also be read as a sort of Cliffs Notes to the best concerts Chicago saw in 1998.

Airplay, heard every Saturday between 4 and 7 PM, started in 1981 as a showcase for local bands. Most college stations have similar programs, but when St. Clair and Johnson, with engineers Paul Dryer and Kevan Harris, took over the show in February 1996, a six-figure grant from NU alum Arthur McCoy’s foundation had recently provided the means to convert the station’s grungy, smoky basement digs into a clean, bright studio with a separate facility for broadcasting and recording live music. St. Clair and Johnson worked that angle to start recruiting national acts that were on tour. “Bands used to play into one crummy mike in the middle of a room,” says St. Clair. “There’s other local shows on [Northeastern’s] WZRD and [U. of C.’s] WHPK, and it seemed silly to pass up all these great bands that come through.”

St. Clair and Johnson, a 29-year-old UIC med student and a 30-year-old elementary school teacher, aren’t particularly dynamic on-air personalities, but they’ve got taste you can generally trust. In addition to the list of musical guests above, this year they invited in authors–including Martin Amis and T. Coraghessan Boyle–and filmmaker Iara Lee, who made the electronica documentary Modulations. The show hasn’t abandoned the local scene either: more than half the performers are still from Chicago and environs. Those scheduled in coming weeks include Devil in a Woodpile, Mr. Rudy Day, and Butterfly Child. If your receiver can’t pull in WNUR’s 7,200-watt signal but you have access to the Web, you may be able to listen to Airplay at

Christmas Cards

Speaking of college radio: Jon Solomon, who operates the local My Pal God Records and Conflict of Interest booking agency, headed home to New Jersey this week to present his tenth annual holiday radio show, a 24-hour marathon of unusual holiday music on Princeton University’s WPRB. Unfortunately the station doesn’t offer its music programming on-line, but Solomon’s playlist is bound to include selections from the new 20-song The My Pal God Holiday Record, which features indie rockers playing both originals and old faves. Among the highlights: the Goblins’ instant classic “Ha-Ha Hannukah,” Silkworm’s dolefully humorous “Merry Christmas,” and Sarge’s cover of Wham!’s “Last Christmas.”

Twisted History

Great Pop Things, the nine-year-old weekly comic strip by Colin B. Morton and Chuck Death (the nom de Sharpie of Mekon and Waco Brother Jon Langford) published in these parts by New City, has been anthologized into Great Pop Things: The Real History of Rock and Roll From Elvis to Oasis (Verse Chorus Press, $16.95). The 232-page paperback, covering the pair’s work since 1992 (when Penguin UK published their first anthology), actually delivers everything but real history, loading its vignettes about rock stars with sharply calculated inaccuracies and malapropisms. While I’ve never really been taken with any one of the individual strips, over the long run they take on a witty resonance: for instance, on page 29, Frank Zappa “tried to change the world with this sort of square beardy thing in the middle of his chin,” and on page 150, Tom Waits “tried to change the world by making that token weird album that normal people have in their record collections.”

Among the other refreshing refusals to take pop and pop artists seriously are a strip about Andy Warhol in heaven (“It’s, uh, pretty neat. I got to meet God an’ everything. I asked him about how he felt about making everything there is and not getting paid”), the rise of Bruce Springsteen (“His record company thought they had found the new Bobby Dylan, which was good news, ‘cos everyone had gotten fed up with the old one”), and the demise of the “Sexy Pistols” (“Syd Vicious fell in love with a girl called Nancy. This was causing trouble for the group, as it was making Syd all sappy and girlie. He wanted to start playing the acoustical guitar instead of chopping people’s heads off”). Too bad the authors hired the king-hell overanalyzer of them all, Greil Marcus, to write the introduction.

Banned, on the Run

The new issue of the bimonthly British journal Index on Censorship takes on the topic of banned music. The lion’s share of its pages are devoted to musicians who suffered under Soviet rule (from Shostakovich to rock bands like Kino and Nautilus Pompilius), an unfortunately dry assessment of how corporations will bend to censorship if it’s profitable, and a nauseating Q & A with Camille Paglia on the subject of Madonna and her naughty bits: “We dissidents now have the momentum in feminism, thanks to Madonna having changed the way millions of young women think about sexuality.” But the stories and testimonials about musicians in parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East–where censorship isn’t about the right to wear kinky lingerie or stick your balls in the mike stand but rather about getting arrested, tortured, or killed for simply singing a song–make it worth the $9.99 cover price. Plus, the magazine comes with an 11-song compilation CD of banned music; this must be the only collection in existence to make neighbors of British anarcho-punks Crass, Mauritanian singer Malouma Mint Maideh, and prog rockers Hawkwind.


What’s wrong with the music industry, part 1: recently at the Lincoln Park Dr. Wax, while the Marvin Gaye classic “Sexual Healing” was playing, an urban marketing rep for Sony’s independent-distribution arm RED was heard to ask, “Is this Jamiroquai?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Christian Johnson and Eric St. Clair photo by Dan Machnik; misc photos.