Remembering Chicago’s Alt-Rock Explosion Circa 1993
Don’t ask me why—it’s only 22 years on, not a big anniversary like a quarter-century, and nobody key to the story has just died—but something’s in the air this Spring that has many folks getting all misty-eyed nostalgic about the Chicago music scene circa 1993, the year Billboard, then the Bible of the old-school music industry searching for the next trend to hype after grunge and Seattle, ran a front-page story proclaiming Our Town “the New Capital of the Cutting Edge.”
First, we have Pitchfork TV serving up a short and pretty superficial mini-documentary entitled Yearbook Chicago: 1993 Alternative and Indie Rock, breezing through the big success stories of that year—Liz Phair, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Urge Overkill—in addition to even briefer mentions of other local doings about to make national news, along with the requisite denunciation of it all from the self-appointed arbiter of underground authenticity, Steve Albini (“As a consumer of music, as a fan, when a band is sort of thrust at me and wiggled in front of me like a severed head, it makes me hate them”).
If anyone at Pitchfork realized the irony of preceding this with a can’t-click-past-it commercial for Vans “Off the Wall,” they didn’t bother to point that out. But then that old “selling out” argument that was so controversial and all-consuming of everyone’s energy back in the day can’t even be comprehended by most of the music fans who weren’t there, much less prompting a spirited debate anymore. (Commodify Your Dissent indeed, as The Baffler once bemoaned.)
Albini and the nature of commercialism in the alternative era also are at the heart of this week’s cover story in New City, which is anything but short (11,000 words!) or superficial, written by my old pal, former Chicago Reader rock critic, and original Sound Opinions sparring partner Bill Wyman.
Entitled “Liz Phair, Steve Albini & Me: The True Story of 1993, the Greatest Goddamn Year in Chicago Rock History,” this epic missive was prompted by the recent resurrection in the Reader of a classic Albini letter to the editor that ran under the headline “Three Pandering Sluts and their Music Press Stooge.” (The members of Urge were the sluts and Wyman the stooge, doncha know.)
Of course, I remember that old contretemps well: I thought it was silly entertainment and totally irrelevant to whether or not the music was any good back then, and I still think the same now. Wyman says pretty much the same, though at much, much, much greater length—which isn’t to say it’s not worth your time reading what he calls his “mem-wah” of the era. Ol’ Bill always could craft some pithy one-liners, as well as flexing an impressive vocabulary; not for nothing did Sue Miller and Julia Adams keep a running tally of “Big Words Bill Wyman Knows” tacked up behind the bar at Lounge Ax.
With so much on this topic flooding everyone’s bandwidth right now, I don’t feel compelled to add much more (and I already compiled my own thoughts on much of this in Milk It! Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the ’90s). But I will say I’d rather have root canal sans anesthesia than go to see Phair opening for the Pumpkins at the Civic Opera House two weeks hence.
On the other hand, despite the utter dreck of her last three albums, the best moments on the first three by La Liz do and probably always will hold up pretty darn well. And every time I came across any mention in any media of our fellow Chicagoan’s historic visit to Cuba last week, I’ll be damned if “Sister Havana” didn’t pop up again on automatic replay in my head. It still makes me smile and it may do the same for you, regardless of anything Albini says.