Steve Krakow unveils the secret history of Chicago music
For decades now, Steven Krakow, better known to many under his nom de rock Plastic Crimewave, has been an invaluable contributor to Chicago’s rich musical underground: as the leader of the bands Plastic Crimewave Sound and Vision Celestial Guitarkestra; as editor of the fanzine Galactic Zoo Dossier; as the indie-label entrepreneur behind Galactic Zoo Disk; as curator of the Million Tongues Festival and, of course, as the author and illustrator of The Secret History of Chicago Music, a regular feature in The Chicago Reader that turns a consistently welcome and fascinating spotlight on the greats of our town’s musical past—most often avoiding the regulars that make the history books in favor of those unjustly confined to dustbin of time.
Now Krakow has published a book rounding up those many worthy columns, collected and published in fine style by the celebrated local press Curbside Splendor. And he will celebrate the release of My Kind of Sound: The Secret History of Chicago Music with a book signing and a conversation with Philp Montoro of the Reader starting at 7 tonight at the always wondrous and welcoming Quimby’s Bookstore (1854 W. North Ave.).
The book is a brilliant contribution to the canon of Chicago music lit, though I will admit to some bias in saying that: Krakow and I are acquaintances, though by no means close friends, and it was as a fan that I proudly accepted the offer to write the book’s introduction. I stand by every word, and I offer it again here to laud the author’s accomplishments, along with encouraging fans of local music from every era to check it out and to drop by Quimby’s tonight.
“Rock ’n’ roll comes down to myth. There are no ‘facts.’”—Lester Bangs
Ah, Lester! He always gave great quote, and I opened my 2000 biography of him with that one. But as I noted in the sentences that followed, sometimes the legendary rock critic was full of s---. Of course there are facts in rock ’n’ roll, and they are valuable tools for deflating the myths, thereby making heroic deeds seem possible for us lowly humans, as well as championing the overlooked geniuses who lack the power of the hype machine by assaulting the monolithic take on musical history forwarded by the likes of Rolling Stone, MTV/Vh1, and that wretched Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum on the banks of Lake Erie.
Both of these are things that Steve Krakow does very, very well in this book, and I daresay that it is a tome that Lester would have loved. (Let us remember that the first steps on his path toward escaping the rigid and joyless Jehovah’s Witness upbringing with which he was cursed were Classics Illustrated and Scrooge McDuck comic books, long before he discovered Charlie Mingus and the Rolling Stones.)
In writing that book about St. Lester, I by necessity became something of a scholar of the history of rock criticism, which is one reason I suppose I was tapped to write this introduction. The other is that I have long been a fan of the oddly mustachioed Mr. Krakow, one of those too-often unsung heroes of any city’s underground music scene, with myriad creative endeavors that provide its life blood: the bands Plastic Crimewave Sound and Vision Celestial Guitarkestra; the fanzine Galactic Zoo Dossier; Galactic Zoo Disk; the Million Tongues Festival… and, of course, The Secret History of Chicago Music, the worth of which we can examine through several prisms.
The first is as rock literature. Krakow may not be a stylist in the celebrated tradition of first-wave giants like Lester and his compadres Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches; his prose is streamlined and no-nonsense, but elegant nonetheless. The value of his words is in the way they focus with laser-like intensity on the merits of artists who’d often be otherwise forgotten, and here he follows in the footsteps of Tosches, whose column for Creem magazine in the ’70s spawned an incredible book, Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll, and Lenny Kaye, whose similar historical treasure hunts and subsequent scribblings before he picked up a guitar and joined Patti Smith were just as valuable, leading to the granddaddy of all archival rock collections, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era.
And yeah, I do believe this work deserves to be mentioned in such grand company. In a way, it’s even more ambitious, given the visual element, which is the next lens with which to focus upon it.
Here, I feel a little bit out of my depth. I appreciate the art of the graphic novel, or whatever kids these days call comic books, but I am no expert. I do know that while there have been scattered bursts of music-related genius in this field through the years—Matt Groening’s early comics pulsed with punk-rock rhythms, for example, and his “How to Be a Feisty Rock Critic” is immortal—it has never produced its musical Maus (I don’t think). Maybe Krakow’s finally done it; that is for others to say. I just know I love his art, which, again, may not be super-distinctive—paging Mr. Ripley (Believe It or Not!)—but, like his prose, is absolutely perfect for his chosen endeavor.
Finally, there is the meat and potatoes of that pursuit, for which the city of Chicago should erect a statue of our boy, though hopefully one less ugly than those of Harry Carey outside Wrigley Field or Michael Jordan by the United Center.
Born and raised in New York/New Jersey and a then-recent denizen of Minneapolis, when I arrived in Chicago in the early ’90s to work beside Roger Ebert as the pop music critic at The Chicago Sun-Times, I thought the Windy City’s musical history was, for the most part, far inferior to either of those locales. I mean, yeah, sure, we had the blues, and a trio of post-punk bands in the indie-rock ’80s that I worshipped: Big Black, Naked Raygun, and the Effigies. But the list started to drop off precipitously then and there.
Now I believe there is no greater musical city in the world, though the best of its canon is not often celebrated. As I write this, I am prepping a class for 250 students at Columbia College called “Music & Media in Chicago,” consisting of 15 two-hour lectures charting not only the musical legacy of Our Town, but its rich journalistic tradition (my other passion, running from Sinclair, Algren, and Terkel, to my other critical hero Ebert—all of whom, come to think of it, echo at certain times in Krakow’s work).
Anyway, with heartbreaking frequency, the vision of the wellspring of all modern music is reduced to “Sweet Home Chicago,” The Blues Brothers, and maybe a little Buddy Guy. We hear a narrow version of the story of Chess Records, but nothing about other regional labels, and rock in the Windy City from its inception through the indie-rock heyday and the alternative era that followed focuses on punters such as the Buckinghams and the Cryan’ Shames, who were still cooing about sugar and spice and everything nice as tensions in this city built to explosive riots on the West Side and in front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue in 1968. And let’s not even mention the bands Chicago or Styx, the unheralded history of house, gospel beyond the Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey, or R&B/soul deeper than R. Kelly, etc., etc., gag, choke, wretch.
Krakow is rewriting history, and not in the Pravda way, but in the tradition of the timeless truths at long last revealed by Howard Zinn. The scholarship and fandom of the unjustly slighted run deep and wide in these pages, in rock (Algebra Suicide to Yezda Urfa), the blues (Big Moose, Homesick James, Tampa Red), doo-wop (the Shells), soul (Syl Johnson), country (the Sundowners), singer-songwriters (June Shellene, Sally Fingerett), and far, far beyond, as you soon will discover.
Krakow has done a service the worth of which cannot be overstated. The now-sadly unambitious and pedestrian field of rock journalism and criticism should thank him, as should the city of Chicago, letting a few of those scam red-light and parking-meter tickets slide, if not buying him an over-decorated hot dog or slice of the coma-inducing deep-dish. But if the fundamental message of this book holds fast, it probably will not. F--- it! Those of us who care about the good stuff know what he’s done, and we love him for it.