Wednesday, September 8, 2021

‘Success means I get to do it again tomorrow’

Steve Albini

     One reason I let almost 40 years go by without reaching out to Steve Albini is that our last conversation was so engrained in my mind. It was the summer of 1982. I bumped into him at Norris Center, Northwestern's student hangout, and he showed me this little electronic drum machine he had just gotten. I told him that I was leaving soon for my first job in Los Angeles. "Well, don't die," he said tersely, and walked away. Coming from Steve Albini, that remark was the equivalent of a teary hug from anyone else, and I doubted I'd do any better than that. But perhaps driven mad by COVID isolation, I leapt across the chasm, and was glad I did.  A smart man, and there aren't enough of those around. I only wish I could have printed more of our conversation. 

     “Do you feel successful?” I asked Steve Albini, at a taco place near his Belmont Avenue recording studio, which readers visited Monday.
     Albini is successful, by any measure. A legendary sound engineer — known for producing Nirvana’s last album. Notorious lead man of Big Black, “some of the nastiest noisemakers in rock” according to Rolling Stone, and, more recently, Shellac of North America. They tour the world.
     But those tough on others, as Albini certainly is, are often hardest on themselves. So I was curious. Does he consider himself a success?
     “To the extent that I could care about that, I would say yes,” he replied. “I’ve lived my whole life without having goals, and I think that’s very valuable, because then I never am in a state of anxiety or dissatisfaction. I never feel I haven’t achieved something. I never feel there is something yet to be accomplished. I feel like goals are quite counterproductive. They give you a target, and until the moment you reach that target, you are stressed and unsatisfied, and at the moment you reach that specific target you are aimless and have lost the lodestar of your existence. I’ve always tried to see everything as a process. I want to do things in a certain way that I can be proud of that is sustainable and is fair and equitable to everybody that I interact with. If I can do that, then that’s a success, and success means that I get to do it again tomorrow.”
     COVID-19 has turned many friendships into slag heaps of cold ash. It seemed perverse to seek out Albini, whom I hadn’t seen in decades, who doesn’t suffer fools and can summarize your failings with a precision that’ll haunt you to your grave. Driving to lunch, I wondered if I was ready for his notorious scrutiny, conjuring a potential headline: “Steve Albini explains why I suck.”
     I told him I have a hard time sharing his perspective.
     “I can’t conceive of somebody who’s done what he’s wanted to do every day for four decades, published books and still writes a daily column and have that person think of himself as anything other than a success,” he said.
     That was unexpected.
     “You’re mellower than when we were in school,” I said.

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  1. Love this! This man has man much great work right here in Our Town & he's an old schoolmate of yours?! Neil, I'm afraid you might, in the end, be (and don't this the wrong way) hip. Don't worry, I won't tell anyone.

  2. "I only wish I could have printed more of our conversation."
    how about posting more of it here? i'd be interested.

  3. Albini did great, spiky illustrations for some columns I wrote for the Daily Northwestern back in the day. I was always a little intimidated by him. My brief connection to Albini is one of the few cool things in my otherwise deeply uncool life.

  4. And true: "COVID-19 has turned many friendships into slag heaps of cold ash."

  5. The photo caption in the paper reads: "Despite his notoriety as a musician and sound engineer, he figures not one Chicagoan in a thousand would recognize his name."

    In my case, that's close. I recognized his name, and in a multiple-choice quiz might have been able to select "prickly guy involved in music somehow," but that would have been about it. Thus, I was not particularly intrigued when I saw that he would be the focus of multiple columns. (More than one column for a topic, as regular Steinberg readers know, being somewhat of a rarity.)

    As often happens with NS, though, the columns were compelling, despite my original lack of enthusiasm. An interesting guy in conversation with an interesting guy is interesting. Who could have guessed?

  6. I first heard about Steve Albini when I bought the Nirvana album he produced, I liked it. As someone with depression the fourth paragraph in the story jumped out at me. His statements about not having goals and therefore no anxiety in trying to reach goals and no dissatisfaction if they are not met. In a nutshell, in my program we differentiate between goals and expectations. It's ok to have goals, but realistic goals and to be flexible with those goals. And since expectations that the goals must be met leads to anxiety and feelings of failure if not achieved, I don't have expectations, but flexibility to change the goals. This way of thinking is not for everyone, but since I have been working my program for 11 years I do have goals, but no expectations, no anxiety, a healthier outlook on life and better relationships with family and friends.

  7. All successful people have goals. Albini won’t acknowledge it but they are there at some level of consciousness. Even Pollack had goals as he flung paint onto canvas. He just didn’t know it.
    Goals are healthy. Satisfaction should come not from whether they were achieved but if one can say they gave their best effort.

  8. Only thing I would add here is that I'm glad you posted a photo of Steve Albini sans-mask. The photo accompanying the first column was just irritating to me, leaving me wondering whether we're trying to document the person or the mask. I thought, "What, he can't take the mask off for five freaking seconds, just for a photo?" From what you've written about Steve, I suspect he may have felt the same way. Anyway, the second photo is the winner.


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