a drawing of Steve Krakow
Secret History creator Plastic Crimewave, aka Steve Krakow, as drawn by his own (apparently magical) hand Credit: Steve Krakow

Shortly after I took over as the Reader‘s music editor in April 2004, I started working with Plastic Crimewave—aka Chicago musician, label head, promoter, illustrator, and zine author Steve Krakow—to debut the Secret History of Chicago Music, a hand-drawn and hand-lettered single-frame comic devoted to “pivotal Chicago musicians that somehow have not gotten their just dues,” in the words of Krakow’s tagline.

At first he delivered each strip to the paper’s offices by hand, tucked into a manila envelope, and he often made fixes with correction fluid during editing and fact checking. Given the obscurity of the artists Krakow profiles—especially in the early days, his comic sometimes became the only source of online information about them—the task of fact checking could be daunting. If he hadn’t proved so good at tracking down those long-forgotten musicians, it would’ve been nearly impossible. Krakow made fun of his own recondite tastes last year by pulling an April Fool’s prank, writing a strip about a band called Everlasting that had in fact never existed.

Eventually Krakow graduated to using a scanner and e-mail to send me the strip, and here at the office we began making any last-minute fixes to his handwritten text using Photoshop. In spring 2010 a monthlong Secret History exhibit opened at the MCA, and by now it’s safe to say that Krakow’s hundreds of strips constitute a unique and irreplaceable resource, a pool of knowledge that can lead fellow obsessives down thousands of fascinating rabbit holes.

Last month local publisher Curbside Splendor released a compendium of more than 200 Secret History strips called My Kind of Sound, rescuing many of the originals from oblivion—the Reader doesn’t have them all in its online archives, and needless to say people don’t tend to hang onto copies of free weekly newspapers. The strips also appear significantly larger in the book than they ever did in the Reader, which makes Krakow’s handwriting much easier on the eyes. If you find yourself tempted to imagine that the present day has seen a special explosion of musical activity, then spend some time with My Kind of Sound—you’ll soon realize that the world of music has always been incomprehensibly vast, rich, and well populated, and that we’ve been persuaded otherwise only because the automated archiving functions of the Internet privilege the recent and the already famous.

The cover of the Secret History book
The cover of the Secret History bookCredit: Courtesy of Curbside Splendor

Tonight at the Empty Bottle, Krakow will sign copies of My Kind of Sound at a release party that also features a full lineup of music: glam-pop weirdo Bobby Conn presenting a multimedia show called “My Chicago,” long-running avant-garde collective Ono, 70s psychedelic proto-power pop group Athanor, and early-80s synth collective VCSR. (Everybody but Conn has been a subject of a Secret History strip over the years.)

Krakow says he’s urged Conn to do some Chicago-centric cover songs, but he doesn’t know what to expect. This is only the second VCSR show in 35 years, and Athanor are playing their first full-band set ever—till now they’ve only played publicly as a duo, and even that was a rare occasion. Core members Greg Herriges and Rick Vittenson will be joined by John Belpedio, Chris Drehobl, and guest lead guitarist Harry Reinhart. Athanor have a new album mastered, and it should be released soon.

Below you can listen to a few tracks from Ono’s new Spooks LP, a 1975 demo by Athanor, and an excerpt from VCSR’s recent archival release on Permanent Records.

YouTube video

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. You can also follow him on Twitter.